In the cycle of farming and preparing for the coming of winter, the harvest of grains was completed in Poland by the middle of September but it certainly did not mean that all was in readiness for the harsh winter months ahead. Before the onset of the first frosts, it was imperative to bring in the last of the fruits and vegetables. There were cabbages in the fields ready to be cut and prepared into barrels as sauerkraut. Apples and root vegetables still needed to be picked and stored. Among the most important crop that needing gathering from the fields was the all-important potato.
A staple in Poland for over 400 years, potatoes made an appearance in Poland for the first time during the reign of King Jan Sobieski III(1674-1696). Jan III sent them home to Poland from Vienna, where he had won a smashing victory over the Turks and told his gardener to plant them at his palace in Warsaw. Initially looked at with disdain, the potato began to replace parsnips, turnips and rutabaga, which had, up until that inconspicuous tuber made its appearance, been primary foodstuffs for the peasants. By the reign of August the II (1733-1763) all of Poland and Lithuania were eating potatoes every day. Its versatility, in that it could be made into soups, noodles, dumplings, pancakes and often added to flour to make bread, made it the single most important food item to keep the poorest peasant from starvation. If the harvest was plentiful, potatoes could also be sold in order to purchase other items such as kerosene for lamps to light the long, dark days of winter.
There were different names for the potato in different parts of Poland. Many 19th century books use the term kartofel, from the German kartoffel. For instance, author Łukasz Gołębiowski in his book Domy i Dwory (Homes and Manors) from the 1830’s refers to them as kartofle. In the Lwów regions it was called barabola; in the language of the Lemki it was komпepa or kompera; the Kaszub’s called it bulwa; in the Poznań region it was pyra; in Orawa, the southern part of the Tatra range of the Carpathian mountains, the potato was called rzepa which is the word for turnip in the Polish language but seeing as how the potato replaced the widespread use of turnips as a foodstuff, one can see the connection. The current word for potatoes, ziemniaki, did not get established until the 20th century.
Potato harvesting, called wykopki, from the word wykopać, meaning to dig out, began in September but continued on throughout the fall. The work of digging was usually the role of women although the men helped with more difficult tasks such as carrying the heavy baskets, and transporting the potatoes by wagon. Entire families would go to the fields to bring in the potato harvest as it was something done manually by hand from beginning to end. Oftentimes entire families, men, women and children were out in the fields as were neighbors helping neighbors, creating a sense of solidarity and community.
The potatoes were dug by hand using a motyka, a long-handled hoe, which required the individual to be bent over the entire time. The unearthed potatoes had to be picked up manually, sorted and poured into sacks, collected into baskets or wicker bushels and then onto a wagon to be taken to the barn cellar or specially created root cellars for storage.
The advent of the potato harvester, a horse drawn mechanism (and later, a tractor) with prongs called a kopaczka, unearthed the potatoes rather quickly and made things easier, but all the potatoes still had to be sorted and collected by hand. It was a hard day of work.
One of the treats and highlights after a long day of arduous labor was roasting the freshly unearthed potatoes over an open fire, a real treat for children and adults alike. The fire was started by collecting and lighting the dried potato stalks and fed with additional twigs. The beautiful autumn evenings, the smell of the newly turned earth and the drifting smoke from the fire created a pleasant opportunity to rest, talk, recount legends, sing and, of course, eat. Oftentimes, the women brought a pitcher of beet soup or sorrel soup to pour over the potatoes. In the Leżajsk region in south eastern Poland, the roasted potatoes were eaten with a bit of cheese, cream, chopped onion, chives or dill, even garlic. Sometimes they were eaten simply with a bit of salt.
My potato basket bought in Kraków in 1980. It must have been the blood of my forefathers calling out to me or maybe it's because I love a potato in any way, shape or form but I couldn’t resist buying it. I walked through the museums and shops of that sophisticated city carrying the large potato basket until we got back to the bus. It garnered a few looks of amazement from people but I was very gratified when I was stopped on the street by a few elderly Polish women who admired my purchase and wanted to look it over, telling me it was “silny” (strong) and “dobrze zbudowany” (well built). The handle is reinforced with wire to withstand the heaviness of the potatoes. I brought it home on my lap on the plane. I have it hanging in my kitchen and is queen among the various baskets I’ve purchased over the decades.
It's time to make potato soup!
Photographs from Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe except for photo of root cellars taken from Polish Country Kitchen Cookbook.
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.