Eight Days of Gdansk, November 5: Meet the Kashubians.


Let’s return for a moment to The Tin Drum, the famous novel by Günter Grass, set in Danzig (now Gdansk). The protagonist is Oskar, who frequently references his Kashubian blood.

Oskar represents Danzig, which is and is not a German city, just as Oskar is and is not German. Anna Koljaiczek, his Kashubian grandmother, puts this into perspective, as she proclaims in East Prussian German vernacular: “and when someone is a Kashubian, then that’s not sufficient, neither for the Germans nor for the Polacks. They always want it just so” (547). Oskar, who is either half or fully Kashubian, is nevertheless considered German since both his official father and stepmother are German. Emotionally, however, Oskar is more Kashubian than German. His narration is replete with nostalgic references for his Kashubian grandparents, mother, and uncle/potential father. Although the Kashubes are ethnically and linguistically closely related to the Poles, they had lived under German/Prussian rule for centuries which caused many of them to become substantially Germanized. Oskar, just like Danzig, is a product of the very diverse and even tumultuous ethnic influences and often violent history of the southeastern coast of the Baltic Sea.

Here’s a bit of background.

The Kashubians are a true ethnic minority, distinct from the Poles in both language and culture. Originally western Slavs with ethnic links to the Poles, the Kashubians are believed to have settled in the area around 1,500 years ago, although the first records date from the 13th century when the Pomeranian Dukes included ‘Duke of Kashubia’ among their illustrious titles. Estimates as to just how many Kashubians and people of Kashubian descent live in Poland today vary wildly. In Poland’s 2011 census 232,547 people declared themselves to be Kashubian but just 16,377 declared Kashubian to be their sole nationality. Similarly while 108,100 people said they spoke Kashubian at home, only 13,800 declared Kashubian to be their native tongue. In both cases of language and nationality, Kashubians would also consider themselves Polish and speak Polish.

But more importantly, there is Kashubian cuisine.

Kashubian cuisine is relatively simple but makes great use of a wealth of natural ingredients all found within the Kashubian region, which is blessed with a sea coastline and a plethora of lakes, rivers, forests, meadows and orchards. Food has traditionally been prepared to make use of whatever is in season and its simplicity reflects the need for tasty, healthy, filling dishes of a hard-working people …

… The ingredients used are all found locally and it’s still typical, though less so than 10 or 20 years ago, to find cellars and garages filled with jars of pickles, marinades, compots and even nalewki which make use of fruit and vegetables grown throughout the year. Unsurprisingly, fish is a staple part of the typical Kashubian dish with such a variety available from the Baltic Sea, the Bay of Gdansk and the rivers and lakes of this picturesque region. A wide selection of fish is prepared in a variety of ways – cooked fresh using a variety of methods; salted in barrels and or pickled with oil or vinegar. You can find wonderful fish soups; pickled herring, whitebait covered in breadcrumbs and pan fried, smoked trout and lots of salmon among the many fish dishes available. Fish is not the only thing to be made into soup and other common soups include zurek, a sour rye soup, cabbage soup and even soup made from or containing fruit.

In a region divided by numerous working farms, farmyard animals also feature heavily. Pork, veal, chicken, duck and goose are common main components of a Kashubian dish, served with a wide choice of vegetables.

The potato (bùlwa in the Kashubian language as opposed to ziemniak in Polish) is a staple and still regularly referred to as kartoffel reflecting the German influence in the region. In fact, as noted elsewhere, the Kashubian people have been influenced by both Poles and Germans over the centuries, but have nonetheless maintained their own identity. That is true also of the cuisine, which is often similar to traditional cuisine but with a local twist. It is not unusual to find slices of sweet fruit used as decoration on an otherwise staple dish of meat, potatoes, vegetables and sauce. A quintessential Kashubian dish is potatoes covered in buttermilk and a sprinkle of sugar.

The Kashubians leave nothing to waste and use a variety of methods to cook or preserve the food at their disposal. Pigs are turned into joints and cutlets, sausages and offal. Meat and fish are both smoked to give wonderful tasting versions of common foods. Smalec or lard is another common sight and served with hunks of fresh, home-baked bread.

A final staple component of Kashubian cuisine are cereals – barley, rye, buckwheat and of course wheat are added to soups, pigs blood, sausages or boiled and served as an accompaniment.