Boozy brunch: Reviewing “Wild Honey & Rye” by Ren Behan7 min read
If you love Eastern European cooking and have social media, you’ve probably seen the iconic images of bubbly wine, perfect charcuterie boards, beloved brunch items upon a cast iron skillet, and the most buttery cakes of Ren Behan grace your Instagram feed. Ren Behan is a British lawyer and food writer with Polish ancestry and a diploma in Food Journalism. Now, she is the author of the wildly popular Wild Honey and Rye: Modern Polish Recipes, one of the newest cookbooks out by Interlink Books.
Wild Honey and Rye is “an evocative, mouth-watering collection of recipes, and truly celebrates all the food things Poland has to offer.” Behan doesn’t just include recipes for pickles and pierogi. Within the pages of Wild Honey and Rye are foods of the Polish diaspora, often influenced by cool pop-up restaurants hosted by Behan herself all over the United Kingdom or the reinvented fare served at urban-cool gastronomy festivals in up-and-coming areas of Poland. This is the new Poland that Behan wants to share with the world through Wild Honey and Rye.
Behan is inspired by the recent explosion of online food tourism stemmed heavily by Instagram, but also her family history. Behan’s grandparents were deported to the far reaches of Arkhangelsk Oblast and an Austrian labor camp, and luckily found their way to the UK after years of trauma. Behan reflects on the fact that “there’s no doubt that being forced to leave a country torn apart by war sharpened my parents’ nostalgia. Their desire to preserve their memories of Poland was a driving force, perhaps even the key to their survival in a new land, far away from everything that they had previously known and loved.”
Given that Behan grew up in Britain, she acknowledges that her act of documenting and enjoying Polish food has always been by choice. Post-war emigres shaped her and brought up the new generation of British-Poles. Behan contends with this every time she visits her homeland, studies Polish language, or writes about Polish culture.
In 2015, Behan revisited Poland, one of the many trips she had taken during her life. This time, Poland was different. “Poland had changed. She had moved on and there was a completely new air of hope. There were city-center food markets and breakfast markets and food tours and vodka tours. Warsaw was exciting, modern, cosmopolitan.” This is the Poland that Behan captures in her newest book.
Brunch, the international meal
One of the most common questions Behan gets asked as a Polish gastronomy expert is what a typical Polish breakfast entails. While this answer has changed over time, she loves recommending that all tourists catch a meal at Targ Śniadaniowy, a “breakfast market in Warsaw, where families and friends father on weekends to sit communally and enjoy an open-air breakfast or brunch. The concept of local producers getting together to share their offerings isn’t new. But what I did find interesting was that this is how Varsovians, old and young, start their weekends – and in high numbers.”
Brunch in any country is a joyous celebration of all cultures and seemingly the newest trend. Fly to any cool city and you can wake up from your city-center digs to waffles, eggs, mimosas, and more. Why should readers be surprised that Poland is no different?
One breakfast recipe from the book that really intrigued me was Jajka zapiekane z kabanosem, pomidorami szpinakiem. Kabanos is a smoked and dry Polish pork sausage flavored with caraway seeds. Behan uses kabanos in any recipe that calls for chorizo or pancetta to make a Polish version of popular Spanish or Italian dishes. Jajka zapiekane z kabanosem, pomidorami szpinakiem uses kabanos with eggs, cherry tomatoes, spanish, and rye to make the perfect over easy egg bowl that’s healthy, paleo, and ready to be Instagrammed.
The first dish I tried to recreate from Wild Honey and Rye was Omlet souffle z owocami. Ripe berries are plentiful in Poland in the summer, making this french-inspired brunch skillet-topper a wonderful weekend treat. While omelettes don’t seem very “Polish”, Behan cites that King John III Sovieski and his French-born queen, Marysieńka, adored omelettes at their palace.
This omelet requires separating egg whites from yolks, whisking yolks in milk and honey, and beating the egg whites stiff. The mixture is fried on low heat, creating a rich texture that pairs nicely with confectioners’ sugar and fruit. I created this meal at home with Behan’s instructions and couldn’t be any more pleased with the picture-perfect result. The mixture of both frying and setting the mixture in the broiler is a great tip that I’ll be sure to share with other egg-based breakfast fanatics. I had never created an egg dish with that much attention to detail.
What about dinner?
So many dishes in Behan’s book speak to me that I can’t wait to make them all. Her recipe for Piers kaczki sosem sliwkowym, miodem i czerwonym winem, or duck breasts with plum, honey, and red wine sauce looks incredible. Duck breasts seared to perfection in a cold pan coupled with preparing the mouth-watering plum, wine, stock, and honey sauce sounds amazing. Her recipe for Dorsz z porem i smetana, or pan-roasted cod with leeks and cream looks like a hearty way to end a perfect summer day.
I loved Behan’s anecdote about serving Bigos mamy. Bigos was traditionally made in manor houses with many types of leftover meat – pork, beef, lamb, game, Polish sausage, and cabbage. Bigos was given to men to take with them on a hunt, which is also why it is frequently referred to as hunter’s stew. Some Polish cooks spend over three days cooking bigos and once, Behan fed 150 food bloggers at an event based on her mama’s recipe. Behan’s bigos contains porcini, sauerkraut, pork belly, kabanos, kielbasa, Polish plum butter, and chicken stock. I haven’t made it yet nor eaten bigos in any other setting, but the smell of all the rich meats and mushroom juices coming together in one exuberant bowl sounds so delightful. That plum jelly sounds like it puts this entire dish on the edge. I might need to travel to Poland or somehow land myself on a guest list for Began’s next foodie influencer event to try Behan’s bigos mamy.
Vodka vs. Nalewka
No Polish cookbook review is complete without a review of a recipe for nalewka – liqueur made by macerating fruit, herbs, and spices, straining, and adding copious amounts of sugar. Nalewka is “defined by the aging and clarifying process, which happens over at least six months”. Although creating authentic nalewka remains a cherished tradition among the Polish diaspora, Behan’s book has many recipes for flavored vodkas that do not require aging and are made with soft fruits.
I tried my hand at Rabarbarowka z wanilia, or rhubarb and vanilla vodka. It steeps for two weeks and after that, there are two options. For traditional fruit liqueur, you strain your concoction, add sugar, seal and leave in a cool place. By the time the sugar has dissolved, typically after three weeks, the fruit is strained yet again, and the syrup is poured back into the original vodka to make a traditional fruit liqueur.
The second option is using the strained out rhubarb to flavor cocktails. Or spooned over ice cream or added to a cake. Regardless of what you choose, nalewka-making will absolutely yield something guilt-ridden and completely worth the boozy calories.
Wild Honey and Rye – a must-have for every foodie
Everything in this book looks absolutely rich and made with the most carefully prepared and thoughtful ingredients. If you’re still on the old-school train when it comes to Eastern European fare, then your mind will absolutely be changed by the end of this book.
Book details: Behan, Ren, Wild Honey and Rye: Modern Polish Recipes, 2017, Interlink Books. Available to buy here.