Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The legend of Besiekiery Castle

Castles. There are a lot of them in Poland, some ruined, some perfectly preserved, and all interesting. At times, we will travel the country and stop in a seemingly insignificant village- there to find ruins or foundations which reveal that the tiny settlement was once home to a great lord, or even a king.

I am rather fond of castles, so you will be hearing more about them soon. Today, I want to tell you about my favourite one.

151/365: The castle ruins in Besiekiery
The castle ruins of Besiekiery

The castle ruins in Besiekiery are not a very well known attraction, overshadowed by the nearby king's town and castle of Łęczyca. Their popularity is further diminished by their location in a very small village with no other tourist attractions. A few houses, a small school; Besiekiery is tiny, but it dates back to the 13th century.

Here's where it gets interesting. The name suggests that its original settlers were Scandinavian- viking mercenaries in the service of our first dynasty of kings, the Piasts. 'Besiekr' is a nordic word meaning 'man wearing a bear skin', and king Mieszko I did indeed purchase the services of a number of Scandinavian mercenaries. Not unusual, considering the strong hypothesis that his daughter married Swedish King Eric the Victorious, and later Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard. The princess eventually ended up in Norse mythology as Sigrid Storrada.

Such is the most probable history of Besiekiery; archaelogical findings of scandinavian remains in Poland support the theory. But in Polish, 'siekiera' means axe, and so there is also a legend about the devil Boruta (who also dipped his claws in the history of the nearby Royal Castle in Łęczyca) striking a deal with a local noble. Diabolical tricks are a common theme in Polish folklore, and such stories usually feature one of the lesser minions of Hell being outwitted and humiliated by the clever landsmen.

Look closely, at the top. That's a stork's nest.

Not so in this case. Boruta is an eminent character in the region's legends, appearing way back in slavic paganism as a forest and swamp demon. His name is an old Polish term for 'pine tree'. He would not be so easy to outsmart!

In the Besiekiery legend, a noble knight made a bet with Boruta. Perhaps the devil had disguised himself, or perhaps the knight was just that foolish, but he bet the demon that he could build a whole castle without using a single axe. In polish: 'bez siekiery'!

Presumably, the knight was promised riches and immortality if he won; upon losing, he would have to surrender his soul. And he would have won…except the poor man didn't know that one of the labourers working on the construction of his castle was named 'Siekierka'. The castle was built, but the bet and the soul was lost, and the Devil Boruta still haunts the area on his days off from guarding the castle in Łęczyca.

But that's only a legend. The castle is neither demonic nor Norse in origin, being somewhat younger than the settlement. It was built around the year 1500 by a court official named Sokołowski, and used to have a large tower which held the main gate and a chapel, an open courtyard and a three storey house in the back. It was modified several times over the years, but has been abandoned since the mid-19th century.

Currently, the municipality is gathering funds to revitalise the ruins and make them a safe and welcoming tourist attraction. So far they've strengthened the remainders of the main house and rebuilt the moat. There's a little beach, but swimming isn't a good idea as there is a lot of duckweed and leeches. Yuck!

Oh, another interesting thing about this castle is that it's home to a pair of storks. They come every year to build their nests on top of the ruins. Storks are very popular in Poland, we consider them to be one of our national symbols.

The stork is a bird that brings luck, and it's very good to have one on your property- they say lightning will not strike where a stork has his nest. And because storks like high places, many landowners will set up a special post or build a platform on top of the barn roof, or in the branches of a dead tree, to encourage storks to make their nest there. No wonder they appreciate the ruins of Besiekiery!

Meta information:

Location of Besiekiery on Google Maps:

A page with drawings of the castle's original layout and shape:

Information about scandinavian presence in Poland (in Polish):

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Święconka, or the blessing of the food

Easter 2012

Święconka (rough pronounciation: shi'ven-tson-kah) is a Polish Easter tradition first recorded in writing in the 13th century, but which is definitely several hundred years older.

On Good Saturday, Catholic Poles will take a basket of food to church for a blessing. The most common traditional basket contains eggs, meat, cake, bread, salt and pepper, horseradish and beetrot sauce, and a  small lamb, made of cake, bread, butter, or sugar.

They represent all the food which will be eaten on Easter Morning, after the Resurrection, as well as all the food that will be put on the table that year. It's like saying grace before a meal, but with a long-term warranty.

The foodstuffs have their own particular symbolism. The eggs represent new life (adopted as they were from Slavic Pagan rituals). The bread, strongly symbolic in the Christian faith, stands for the body of Christ and the community which comes together like so many grains of wheat.

Children in particular like Święconka as they are usually the ones to carry a little basket. :) It's also a lot of fun to decorate- with boxwood leaves, lace, ribbons, little toy chicks...

93/365: Blessing the food

After the short blessing, families will go pray at the grave in the church. Easter is also the usual time to refill the household holy water supply; churches sell bottles of it, or allow you to fill your own from a special vessel.

Holy water

With this, I wish a peaceful and meaningful Easter to my Christian friends, a lovely Passover to my Jewish friends (the dates coincide this year!) and to everyone else, a sunny spring weekend :)

How to make a Mazurek Easter Pie

91/365: Mazurek

Mazurek- a traditional Polish Easter pie

The mazurek cake  is said to be a variation on a Turkish recipe, and has been a firm element of Polish Easter tradition since the 17th century. 'Mazurek' is also the name of a traditional dance, and Mazury (Mazuria in English) is a region in the North-East of Poland, green with forests and blue with lakes.

As usual, the pluralisation gets tricky when translated. Mazurek is one cake, mazurki are many.

Here is how to make some mazurki:

500 grams of flour
250 grams of butter
150 grams of powder sugar
3 egg yolks

Mix the flour and butter until it has the consistency of breadcrumbs.
Mix in the sugar and egg yolks until you have a dough. If it is too dry, add a little cream.
You can use an electric blender.
Wrap up in cellophane, refrigerate for about an hour.

This is your pie and cookie dough. Roll it out thin, tuck it into a pie pan, and be careful that it doesn't burn in the oven. And let the crusts cool before you take them out of the pans and pour in the filling.

The filling can be jam, caramel, kaymak... our family standard is chocolate, and you're on your own there- it's a matter of preference. The general rule is to sit a pot inside a saucepan of simmering water, and melt down a combination of dark and milk chocolate. You can add nutella, you can add fudge spread- just be careful that it doesn't get too hot and start clumping.

Pour it into the pie crusts, shake them gently to spread it evenly. And then start decorating.

Done? Congratulations! But you can't eat any of it until after the Resurrection!

Since the mazurek was supposed to be the crown of the feast which the family would wait for all through Lent, the idea is to make it as pretty as possible. As a child I used to play with cookies and that horrific coloured icing which comes in little tubes and requires samsonic force to be squeezed out...until somewhere around 2007 I discovered seeds.


81/366: Mazurek

Seeds look classy. They look sophisticated. They look rustic, quaint, traditional.


They taste better than the icing...though they are a mite less colourful!


So, for your appreciation and inspiration, here are all the Easter treats baked at my house in the last few years:

100/365: Ready for Easter

Mazurki 2010

112/365: Mazurki

Easter 2012

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

How to make pisanki

Making Pisanki

Poles didn't invent the celebratory decoration of eggs, but there's a lot to be said for how the tradition developed on the Slavic territory. The oldest decorated egg specimens found around here come from the 10th century, and they were made by painting a pattern of wax on the shell, then dipping the egg in a dye.

At the end of the post there's a tutorial that shows you how to make Easter eggs using that very technique. But first, let's talk semantics.

There are several types of decorated eggs in our tradition, and they all have their particular names.

Kraszanka (crash-an-kah) is an egg which has simply been dipped in dye.

Pisanka (pee-san-kah) is an egg which has been painted on with wax, and THEN dipped in dye.

Drapanka (drah-pan-kah) is an egg which has been dipped in dye, and then had a pattern scratched out on it.

Oklejanka (oh-clay-an-kah) is an egg which has been covered in a pattern made from pieces of plants, fabric, and wool.

Rysowanka (ree-so-van-kah) is an egg which has been drawn on.

If this is too much to take in, don't worry. Nowadays, you can get away with calling all of these eggs 'pisanki'. Why does it end with i? Because that's the plural of pisanka. Yes, Polish is hard.

Making Pisanki

The symbolism of the egg varies from culture to culture, but it is always powerful. For Slavic Pagans, the egg was generally a portent of new life and good luck. It is said that a meal of eggs was shared as part of one spring ritual, and the crumbled shells were sprinkled on tilled ground to guarantee a good crop. (modern composters will know that this is actually a very good way to nourish the soil)

With the arrival of Christianity, attempts were made to eradicate belief in the egg's magical properties. Well, a two hundred year ban on eating eggs during Easter didn't help much- the Church had to give in and repurpose them as a symbol of the Resurrection.

In Poland, to this day, the custom of sharing eggs at Easter persists. On Easter Monday, before any other food is consumed, a plate of egg slices is passed around. As we eat the eggs, we also exchange kind words and well wishes- much like we do at Christmas with blessed wafers.

114/365: Eggs for Easter

I shot this tutorial with the help of my friendly neighbourhood folklorist Mariza Nawrocka-Teodorczyk (dziękuję!). Decorating eggs using wax and dye is actually quite easy! Have a look for yourselves: