My homeland is famous for bread, sausage and vodka. But those do not make for a cuisine of world renown.
A signature Polish food is (or more correctly, “are“) Gołąbki (go-WOHMB-kee). It literally means “little pigeons”. A good synopsis of the history of these little cabbage rolls is found here.
This sturdy farm food is both satisfying and very tasty. The variations are mostly in the stuffing but consist of a grain (typically barley, but also rice) and a meat or mushrooms. The sauces are either tomato- or mushroom based. In either case, the cabbage is a prominent component in the dish.
Poland, being considerably to the north of the 45th parallel is not wine country (with a few tiny exceptions). We grew grains and potatoes and found that those make a fine base for distilling liquor. And so, the culture of imbibing is very different. The average family (at least when I was growing up) would not have alcoholic beverages at the dinner table. Vodka is not part of every meal, but a bottle could liven up an evening when company was over, gathered around a nice spread on the coffee table. 50 ml shot glasses are raised in toast every so often – in between bites of cold cuts, bread, bigos, and pickled foods.
It has been said that a nation’s cuisine and beverages evolve together. While much of Poland’s distilleries produce rye and potato vodka (the only way to make it, as far I’m concerned – grapes are for wine and cognac), there is also Starka (an oak-aged liquor resembling whiskey) and malted vodkas like Siwucha or herb-infused vodkas like Żubrówka. In fact, these herbal vodkas go very well with some of the spices used in Polish foods – like the juniper berries in hunter sausage, for instance. They also go with the flavors in gołąbki.
My 80 year old grandmother prepared a few casseroles of gołąbki a few days ago. They are like lasagna, You can re-heat them when the craving hits you. The stuffing was made of rice and ground pork. The sauce was tomato-based. My wife, Irene, licked her chops as they finished baking while I scratched my head looking for a suitable beverage.
I’ve been on an absinthe kick of late, so I decided to try some Grande Absente (mixed half and half with ice water). Something about the licorice and herb aromas punctuated by a hint of lime and mint as well as a sage-like bitter note suggested itself to the cabbage leaves. Maybe it was that I knew the Argentine cabernet Irene wanted to try would just not work. Neither would any of the white wines in the wine bar – too clean and fruity for cabbage. Pinot grigio is too insipid for gołąbki and would not stand up to the flavors. Anything that had been heavily oaked, I expected, would make me give up on the meal altogether.
The pairing was successful. The herbs in the absinthe resonated with the spices and cabbage in the gołąbki. When I bring the glass of absinthe to my nose, with its delicate, pale honeydew-colored louche, there is a light, fresh sensation that reminds me of a herb garden after a rain. It’s very clean, green and feminine. It makes for a nice synergy of flavors without being overwhelming of distracting. The key is to dilute this 138 proof doozy. This makes it less of a licorice bomb and brings out the herbal nuances.
I also praised myself for skipping the sugar in the absinthe. I suspect that if had I done so, it may not have been as bad as pairing it with the plump cabernet but it may not have been so focused and powerful of a synergy of spices and herbs.
I suspect a retsina, a vin jaune or even a chardonnay that is on the decline (and maybe a tinge oxidized) would do splendidly with these wines. A dry white sparkling wine with good acidity (cava, champagne or crémant and Vinho Alvarinho) and restrained fruitiness would do as well. I tried a New Zealand sauvignon blanc (with that distinct methoxypyrazine character) a day later. It was unobtrusive and did not clash, but it just did not do the gołąbki any justice.
The Argentine cabernet was very ripe, with a bitter edge and it clashed with the dish. I would stay away from reds when pairing this dish. The problem with red wines these days is that they are too rich, sweet and syrupy. Even at their most elegant, reds offer a flavor spectrum that will most likely clash with ingredients in the gołąbki. But I bet that a Chinon, for instance, with more delicate tannins and a nice vegetal edge, might work.
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