A corner of Paris that is forever Poland

April 21, 2015 § Leave a comment

Bibliothèque Polonaise de Paris

Bibliothèque Polonaise de Paris

I’ve now been to Paris so many times that I’ve stopped counting (please, no sympathy), and one of the less desirable effects of this familiarity is that I have a tendency to fall into a bit of a rut. It’s so tempting to keep returning to my favourite places, which in itself isn’t a bad thing but means that I risk missing out on what I’ve yet to discover (and despite my feeling that I know Paris like the back of my hand, I know there’s a lot more). So for the last several years, every time I go to Paris I make a point of doing or seeing one thing I’ve never done or seen before.

Years ago, when I was a Paris neophyte, I remember reading the Rough Guide’s description of the Ile Saint-Louis as (I’m paraphrasing here) ‘the only corner of Paris without a museum, unless you count a very small museum devoted to the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz which is rarely ever open.’ I wasn’t remotely tempted at the time (although I was mildly intrigued as to why the museum existed in the first place, and in that particular location), but last month, three months before my first ever trip to Poland (of which more in June!), I got to thinking about it again and thought well, why not?

It turns out that the Musée Adam Mickiewicz is one of three miniature museums housed in the Bibliothèque Polonaise de Paris. The other two are devoted to Frédéric Chopin (unsurprisingly) and the painter and sculptor Bolesław Biegas (whom I knew only from a single sculpture in the Musée d’Orsay). And the Rough Guide hadn’t been kidding about the opening hours (or the lack thereof) – it is, annoyingly, only open afternoons, Tuesday-Friday.

Whether because of the obscurity of the subject or the location or the abbreviated hours, I found myself in an unheard-of position one Friday several weeks ago – I was the only visitor. To all three museums. The young woman who sold me a ticket looked so discomfited to see an actual visitor that I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. (We had a very stilted exchange in French until I figured out that she was Canadian and she realised I was American and a bit of awkwardness was averted.)

Salon Chopin

Salon Chopin

The first of the three museums I visited was the one dedicated to Chopin. It’s a single room filled with prints, photographs, medals and sculptures of the man himself (plus his death mask and, more intriguing to me, a life cast of his hands – I was surprised to discover that they were scarcely larger than mine)… and the Pleyel piano given to him by a generous patron which he used for much of his time in Paris. There was a stereo in the corner playing (what else?) one of his nocturnes. I could very happily have stayed there with his piano and his music and not seen anything else, but I knew I had two more museums ahead.

Musée Adam Mickiewicz

Musée Adam Mickiewicz

I must admit that before I set foot in the museum, my knowledge of Adam Mickiewicz was minuscule. It could be summed up as follows:

1. He was Poland’s leading Romantic poet.

2. His masterpiece was Pan Tadeusz, an epic poem that is required reading in Polish schools and which starts with the words ‘O Lithuania!’ (which tells you all you need to know about how many times Poland’s boundaries got redrawn and/or erased over the 123 years during which it technically ceased to exist).

3. There is a big monument to him on the Rynek in Krakow.

4. He had quite possibly the best hair of any Romantic poet. Ever. (Lord Byron, eat your heart out.)

Adam Mickiewicz

I’m glad I visited the museum because I found out what a fascinating and complex character he was – poet, literature professor (at the Collège de France), librarian (at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal where I spent so many hours as a PhD student, with no idea whatsoever of his presence), political agitator (hence more than 20 years as an exile in Paris, along with many other Polish intellectuals), diplomat… I came out of it wanting to know more about him, but more to the point, wanting to read some of his poetry. (If anyone can recommend a good translation, please do!) The only caveat – the wall texts were in Polish and French, no English… so if you have neither language, enlightenment will elude you.

Musée Boleslaw Biegas

Musée Boleslaw Biegas

As for the Musée Bolesław Biegas… the only thing I can reasonably say is that entering this small and overcrowded room full of sphinxes, vampires, crucified Christs and multicoloured femmes fatales is like entering the Twilight Zone. Only weirder. He is easily one of the most bizarre artists I’ve ever encountered (Surrealist seems too mild a label) – bizarre and… well… not very good. I was astonished to learn that at one time his sculptures commanded higher prices than those of Rodin (!) although I assume that was for a brief moment only. I was also rather saddened by the thought that anyone without prior knowledge of 19th-century Polish art who visits the museum might emerge with a very skewed view of it – which is such a shame when you consider how much more talented so many of his contemporaries were (Mehoffer, Wyspiański, Pankiewicz, Malczewski… yes, I realise they’re not exactly household names but all the same!). That said, if my lonely experience was at all typical, perhaps not very many people ever discover Biegas in the first place.

And so I eventually emerged from the Bibliothèque Polonaise feeling happily melancholy (Chopin), enlightened (Mickiewicz) and a bit freaked out (Biegas). I can’t honestly say it’s a must-see for a first-time visitor to Paris (or someone without a decent reading knowledge of French or Polish), but for a repeat visitor, it was an interesting discovery – and for me, a nice prelude to my trip to Krakow. On which, more later…

Spring blossom

April 19, 2015 § Leave a comment

Cherry blossom 1

This weekend was the first in six (!) that I spent in London, so naturally I went to Kew to see the spring blossom. The cherries were at their best (thanks Fran!) and I spent some happy hours enjoying them with my eyes and camera.

Cherry blossom 2

Cherry blossom 3Cherry blossom 4

However, I must confess I am not a wholehearted fan of cherry blossom. For one simple reason: they have a serious flaw.

No scent.

So as much as I love the way they look – the big fluffy pink ones like the petticoats of ladies in a painting by Fragonard, the white ones like banks of cloud – there’s another spring blossom that holds first place in my heart…

apple blossom

Apple blossom.

They might not be as showy, but the scent is quite possibly my favourite on the face of the earth – sweet and gentle, fragile and elusive, only present for a few short weeks every spring. Also, less obviously, the subject of a passage of Anne of Avonlea that has stuck in my mind ever since I read it more than twenty years ago:

‘I read somewhere once that souls were like flowers,’ said Priscilla.

‘Then your soul is a golden narcissus,’ said Anne, ‘and Diana’s is like a red, red rose. Jane’s is an apple blossom, pink and wholesome and sweet.’

‘And your own is a white violet, with purple streaks in its heart,’ finished Priscilla.

I was always a bit disappointed that it was plain, unimaginative Jane who got assigned the apple blossom. I always felt it would have better suited Anne.

Or me.

Le plat pays qui (n’)est (pas) le mien

March 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

Victor Hugo, Souvenir de Belgique (c. 1852-55) (seen at Talabardon & Gautier's stand, TEFAF, Maastricht and the Salon du Dessin, Paris)

Victor Hugo, Souvenir de Belgique (c. 1852-55) (seen at Talabardon & Gautier’s stand, TEFAF, Maastricht and the Salon du Dessin, Paris)

Another March, another trip to TEFAF and the Salon du Dessin (with a trip to Brussels to visit friends in the middle)… which goes some way to explaining why I’ve been rather silent here of late. So I’ll break the silence with one of my favourite works from both fairs, this extraordinary drawing by Victor Hugo.

Victor Hugo? Yes, he might be better known as the author of Les Misérables and Notre Dame de Paris, but there’s another side to his work, which he kept fairly private during his lifetime – darkly visionary drawings, mostly of mysterious buildings or crumbling ruins looming out of pools of wash and tangled webs of inky lines. Souvenir de Belgique is thought to date from between 1852-55, when he was living in exile on Guernsey, his sojourn in Belgium in the recent but rapidly receding past – a drawing not from life, but from memory and imagination. I’ve spent enough time on trains crossing Belgium over the last few weeks to feel that Hugo innately understood the flatness and bleakness of the landscape, as well as the melancholy and mystery: I have no idea whether Fernand Khnopff knew about this drawing (I’d guess not) but it looks and feels like a precursor to his own weird, misty visions of the Ardennes and of a dead Bruges.

Most of Hugo’s drawings are on a fairly modest scale, but Souvenir de Belgique is more ambitious, nearly a metre across including the frame. And you can’t not include the frame – it’s integral to the drawing. Hugo inscribed the title on it, signed it, and continued the drawing on it in the form of a strange red flower (hard to identify, but I think a poppy is likely, and would tie in nicely with the dreamlike quality of the drawing). But the most extraordinary thing about the frame sadly doesn’t come through in my less-than-wonderful photo.

The frame is made of pine, and it’s beaded with droplets of resin. They are of course long dried and hardened but under the lights on the stand, both in Maastricht and Paris, they still look wet, as if the planks are freshly cut and oozing resin, almost like – dare I say it – blood, or sweat, or tears.

Yes, it sounds a bit grisly, but I don’t imagine Hugo’s choice of wood can have been accidental. It makes the drawing seem alive (and grieving, or wounded, perhaps mortally) in a way no more conventional frame possibly could.

Them bones (St Dunstan in the East, Part 1)

February 28, 2015 § 4 Comments

St Dunstan's 1

I can’t remember where or when I first became aware of St Dunstan in the East, but I must have filed it away in my mind as a place to which I would have to make a pilgrimage with my camera. (After all, anyone with even a passing familiarity with this blog knows how much I love a good ruin.) I knew I wanted to photograph it in winter, when it had lost its lush but temporary mantle of summer greenery and its old bones would be exposed to light and weather.

On a sunny Sunday three weeks ago, I finally made it – and to my dismay, so had about half of camera-toting London. Still, with patience and a bit of cleverness, I managed to capture it empty and quiet, still surprisingly heaped with skeins of vines. And despite the brilliant sunshine, in black and white it emerges surprisingly eerie and melancholy, the skeleton of a lost church adrift in its own dreams.

St Dunstan 2

St Dunstan 3

St Dunstan 4

St Dunstan 5

St Dunstan 6

St Dunstan 7

St Dunstan 8

St Dunstan 9

St Dunstan 10

St Dunstan 11

St Dunstan 12

And why Part 1? I’m planning to go back in high summer – with a roll of colour film, for a completely different side of the place.

(Technical specs: Diana F+ camera, Lady Grey 400 black and white film, standard lens)


January 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

One of the downsides of doing photography the old-fashioned way (film rather than digital) is that not all accidents are happy. Case in point – the other roll I shot over the holidays in California turned out… not quite so well.

On the way back to Sacramento from Sonoma, my mom and I stopped at Di Rosa, an extraordinary contemporary art collection displayed in a corner of the Napa Valley. I was all excited about the photographic possibilities (strange sculptures in a spectacular natural setting – that’s a bit of a no-brainer) but as I shot, and tried to advance the film, I could feel something going badly wrong. It wouldn’t move except under extreme duress. When I finally finished the roll and extracted it from my camera, it wasn’t nearly as tightly wound as it should have been. I crossed my fingers and got it developed anyway.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, only the first few shots didn’t fall victim to over-exposure. I found it wonderfully ironic that the two best shots I salvaged both depicted sculptures made from ruined objects (that most Californian of subjects, a wrecked car, and a pile of broken funerary statues):

Car wreck

Broken statues

Salvage twice over, I guess…

(Technical specs: Diana F+ camera, colour negative 100 film [defective roll], standard lens)

16 Views of the Golden Gate Bridge

January 27, 2015 § 1 Comment

Golden Gate 1

I admit it – multiple views of the same landmark isn’t exactly an original idea. After all, Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (1826-33) only stood on its own for a mere quarter-century before Hiroshige decided to go him one better. And then, in 1902, Henri Rivière put his own spin on the idea, creating a series of 36 lithographs, not of a mountain but a piece of architecture: 36 Views of the Eiffel Tower.

Henri Rivière, La Tour en construction (Plate 32, 36 Vues de la Tour Eiffel, 1902)

Henri Rivière, La Tour en construction (Plate 32, 36 Vues de la Tour Eiffel, 1902)

One of the first exhibitions I ever curated was on Rivière’s prints (including a couple of plates from the Eiffel Tower series), and while I was working on it I happened to visit San Francisco. I wondered whether anyone had ever attempted 36 Views of the Golden Gate Bridge. It took four years to realise, but a few weeks ago I finally walked across the bridge for the first time, camera in hand.

I knew I was only going to get 16 views (the maximum number of shots on a roll of 120 film) but a surprise was waiting for me when I collected my prints. I’m not entirely sure how it happened, but the images had bled and overlapped each other so that each shot becomes a sort of triptych. As I leafed through the photos, my dismay quickly turned to surprised pleasure. Another happy accident – another reason I’ll always love working with film.

Golden Gate 2

Golden Gate 3

Golden Gate 4

Golden Gate 5

Golden Gate 6

Golden Gate 7

Golden Gate 8

Golden Gate 9

Golden Gate 10

Golden Gate 11

Golden Gate 12

Golden Gate 13

Golden Gate 14

Golden Gate 15

Golden Gate 16

(Technical specs: Diana F+ camera, 100 colour negative film, 38mm super-wide angle lens)

Eastern (pastry) promises

January 20, 2015 § Leave a comment

Makowiec (not mine. Read on to find out why.)

Makowiec (not mine. Read on to find out why.)

Hello, my name is Mademoiselle Rêves and I have a confession to make:

I am addicted to poppy seeds.

No, this isn’t a veiled way of saying I have a drug problem. When I say I have a poppy seed problem, I mean the seeds themselves, not any sort of derivative thereof. Or, to be more specific (and honest), cakes containing poppy seeds.

It’s normally a manageable craving and I can sate it whenever I go to Paris: every bakery in the rue des Rosiers has its own version of poppy seed strudel (I’ve tried all of them, and for my money the best is found at Korcarz) and I always end up there at least once. However, I can’t always get to Paris and when the craving hit me a few months ago, I got a bit desperate.

The only place in London I could think of that offers poppy seed strudel (or something more like the Parisian version, pavé au pavot) is Louis Patisserie in Hampstead, and I avoid Louis for two reasons: 1. It’s a pain to get from Crystal Palace to Hampstead and 2. The vile ex-boyfriend of one of my dear friends lives round the corner and I know he’s a regular patron, and if I ever encountered him there is a very real risk of me throwing a teapot at his head. (The fact that my friend split up with him seven years ago and it would still be teapots at dawn if I met him should give you some idea of the bad feeling he engenders…)

By coincidence, around the time of the insatiable poppy seed craving, I was also doing a bit of research on my ancestry and the most interesting and surprising thing I discovered is that I am 1/8 Polish. Well, to be precise, my dad’s paternal grandfather came from Radom, a city about halfway between Warsaw and Krakow, which is now in Poland but was in the part of Poland that belonged to Russia when he emigrated. I don’t know if that technically makes him Russian or Polish, but thinking about it too long makes my brain hurt.

One other side benefit to my research – I discovered that every country from which my family hails has its own version of poppy seed roll: in Russia, it’s bulochki s makom; in Poland, makowiec; Latvia, magonmaizite; and Romania, ruladă cu mac (my inner language nerd is delighted and intrigued that the word for poppy seed is virtually the same in a Romance and a Baltic language as it is in most Slavic languages, but I digress). So that probably goes some way to explaining the craving: it’s in my blood! (As for its addictiveness, I was amused to learn that apparently makowiec means both ‘poppy seed roll’ and ‘opium’ in Polish… at least, according to Google Translate. That said, I’ve not seen that in any Polish dictionary, and given the havoc I’ve seen Google Translate wreak on French, I’m not much inclined to trust it in any other language.)

So my quest for poppy seed roll began in earnest. In theory, it should have ended not far from my doorstep, because there’s a Polish delicatessen just down the street from my flat, yet inexplicably and infuriatingly, they never seem to have any in stock – instead, the windows are piled to the ceiling with panettone. (I’ve never understood the point of panettone, anyway – a lot of labour and expensive ingredients to obtain a result that looks and tastes like a sweet dish sponge. Why on earth would anyone prefer that to a cake that’s dark as night, sweet as sin and beautiful as well?) I’m stumped as to why a Polish deli would advertise itself with three-metre-high walls of panettone, but I guess it will have to remain one of the mysteries of the universe, up there with why whichever District Line train you want is inevitably last to appear, or why so many women find Benedict Cumberbatch attractive.*

My trip to Pitzhanger Manor yielded the best poppy seed roll I’d ever tasted (one which made me realise that most of the ones I’d eaten as a child at countless synagogue functions were frankly pretty grim), and then a few weeks after that I secured a courier trip to Krakow – for June. But Ealing is only a slightly more convenient journey than Hampstead (although with the distinct advantage of no friend’s vile ex lurking around Caffé Magnolia) and June is a long time to wait for my next fix – and I’d also spent far too much time watching The Great British Bake Off and itching for a challenge – so I decided to take matters into my own hands. I could satisfy my cravings and honour my heritage by making my own.

It quickly became obvious that I’d be going for the Polish version, namely because finding recipes for the Russian/Latvian/Romanian iterations (in English, at least) was about as easy as solving the mystery of the Mary Celeste. The only Romanian cookbook I managed to find was actually a Romanian and Bulgarian cookbook, and every recipe that looked remotely appealing started with the words, ‘This Bulgarian recipe…’ I felt a little hard done by.

So makowiec it was. But did that simplify things? Not a whit! It turns out that there are approximately as many makowiec recipes as there are Poles – and when I say that, I don’t mean the current population of Poland, I mean every Pole that ever lived from the dawn of time. (Okay, maybe not. But it felt that way.) I was able to narrow it down a little by throwing out any recipes that called for tinned poppy seed filling (because what on earth is the point? Besides, I’m a bit of a control freak when it comes to baking). Even so, there were myriad other considerations:

  • The all-important ratio of filling to dough (most of the mediocre makowiec of my childhood erred on the side of too much dough, but how much filling is too much?)
  • Boiling the poppy seeds versus merely soaking them in hot water (or milk)
  • The nature of the dough – bready or brioche-y
  • The atmospheric pressure
  • The phase of the moon in which the poppy seeds were harvested
  • The direction of the wind, and its force (after all, you can’t very well use the same method to make makowiec in flat calm as you would in a violent storm, 11 on the Beaufort scale)

There is also the fact that makowiec is made with yeasted dough, and yeast and I have a somewhat chequered history. I consider myself a competent baker as long as the leavening involved is egg white or baking powder, but yeast… well, let’s just say it’s very hit or miss. A few times a year I get out The Bread Baker’s Apprentice in a fit of misplaced hope and arrogance, but the odd successful loaf or pizza crust is far outnumbered by collapsed, bricklike fiascos that just slump sulkily in the tin and refuse to rise – they have all the get-up-and-go of a character in a John Hughes film.

Between all of these pitfalls, I was starting to think that I might have bitten off more than I could chew – quite literally. If you saw someone lurking in the cookbook section of Foyles over several weekends in November, by the small and unloved ‘other European’ shelf (where Polish, Russian, Romanian/Bulgarian, Belgian, Dutch, Austrian and Slovenian cookbooks are wedged into a tiny space between entire bookcases of French and Italian tomes), brow furrowed in consternation, that was probably me.

Finally I manage to narrow the candidates down to two – one in a cookbook, one on a food blog written by a young Polish woman who lives in Dublin. What tips the balance in favour of the cookbook recipe** is the filling – it calls for a grand, crazy, possibly excessive 500 grams of poppy seeds, and in the present instance I am very much an adherent of the ‘more is more’ school of baking. Oh, and just to raise the stakes a little more, the audience for my first makowiec will be… my colleagues. (The museum where I work is small enough that we all get together for tea every Wednesday afternoon, with a rota for supplying cake.)

Let it never be said that I don’t rush in where angels fear to tread.


And so I found myself, two evenings before tea, with all the ingredients for the filling marshalled on the kitchen worktop like a miniature army, staring at more poppy seeds than I have ever seen in one place in my life. (I bought them from the grain and seed stall at my farmer’s market. The expression on the owner’s face when I asked for half a kilo of poppy seeds was priceless. I think he thought he’d misheard me. He probably still believes I was planning to do something not quite legal with them.)

The filling alone is going to take five hours to make, hence the early start. However, it’s not five hours’ hard work: three hours involve nothing more than letting the poppy seeds soak in boiling water. So I pour my half-kilo of seeds into a strainer, rinse them, scrape them into the biggest bowl I own (wincing at the few that stick in the strainer that I can’t dislodge, much as I imagine prospectors during the Gold Rush mourned every single grain of dust that escaped them) and tip a kettleful of boiling water over them.

It’s like alchemy – a heap of tiny, scentless blue-grey beads instantly turns into a mass of rich black with that unmistakable earthy, bittersweet perfume. I close my eyes as I stand over the bowl and I could be in a Jewish patisserie in the Marais, in a Polish café in Ealing or – why stop there – Krakow, or… I find myself imagining my great-great-grandmothers, their names mostly lost to time, in Poland and Russia, Romania and Latvia, performing the same magic in their kitchens.

However, I have three hours to wait, and one can get a lot done in three hours. For instance:

  1. listen to Quadrophenia twice, back to back
  2. watch Jane Eyre once (three hours isn’t quite enough to watch it twice unless you fast-forward through all the bits that Michael Fassbender isn’t in)
  3. sweep the floors
  4. solve several major world problems
  5. write a very overdue blog post

I end up going for a combination of 3 and 5. (Not very ambitious, I know.)

The three hours are finally up, so I drain the seeds (a few more inevitably make a run for it down the drain), dump them into the food processor and start trying to grind them. I soon realise that I should have done this in batches, as it takes a good twenty minutes of constantly popping the lid off to scrape down the sides to get them all ground. Ah well, at least I don’t have to do it by hand. Small mercies.

Now comes the hard work. Into my Dutch oven go the ground seeds, along with probably injudicious amounts of butter and sugar, chestnut honey (I hesitate slightly over this as chestnut honey has a bitter edge – will it be too much in combination with the poppy seeds?), chopped almonds, sultanas, mixed peel and vanilla… and forty-five minutes of stirring over a low heat.

Forty-five minutes later I have very tired arms, a head spinning from the mind-altering fumes wafting up from the pan, and a kitchen that smells like a Central European bakery. I sneak a spoonful as I wait for it to cool.

The chestnut honey turns out to have been a good idea. It tastes exactly comme il faut (or however you say that in Polish). It is quite possibly the most decadent thing I have ever made. Who needs chocolate?

I fall into bed feeling exhausted, happy and more than a little smug.

They do say pride goeth before a fall…


Tonight is Makowiec Making, Part 2. The scary part. The part where I have to conquer my fear of yeast.

This is quite possibly the worst recipe imaginable for conquering that fear. The dough is going to be the stickiest I’ve ever worked with – it contains not only melted butter and eggs but also sour cream. How on earth is it going to hold together?

It does – just. Kneading it is another matter entirely. It sticks to my hands. It sticks to the pastry mat. I can all but see Paul Hollywood standing over me with his ice-blue glare, watching me flounder and flail.

Ironically, it’s Paul Hollywood (or his spectre) that saves me. Every time I’m tempted to try adding more flour, I can hear him berating some hapless Great British Bake Off contestant for over-flouring their dough and drying it out. I keep grimly at it, flinging and folding and pummelling the dough, and gradually something miraculous happens, without the aid of flour – it starts to feel like proper dough. Soft and sticky, yes, but workable – so much so that I even manage to roll it out to the proper dimensions without tearing it.

Now for the moment of truth. I spread the filling over the dough. My heart nearly stops when I see how much there is. How will I ever be able to roll it without the filling bursting out?

There’s nothing for it but to try. Holding my breath, I start gently coaxing the far edge of the dough toward me. One turn. Two. It’s holding together. Breathe, just breathe… Three, four. Five. Ends tucked under. Hurrah!

Then I look at the size of it, compared to the size of my baking sheet, and turn three shades of white.

I have, quite literally, created a monster.

The makowiec will only fit on the baking sheet diagonally, and only just. And it still has to prove. I throw a tea towel over it and start praying that everything I’ve ever heard about sweet dough (namely, that all the rich stuff inhibits rising) is doubly true in this case. And it is, more or less, although to this day I’m still not sure how I managed to get the makowiec into the oven. The only explanation I can come up with is that my oven must actually be a TARDIS.

Nevertheless, into the TARDIS oven it goes. An hour later the kitchen smells even more divine than it did the night before. I open the oven door to find…


You might notice a distinct lack of photos here. This is because, on the basis that a picture is worth a thousand words, words are slightly less wounding to my pride at this moment.

The makowiec has collapsed and spread across about three-quarters of the surface of the baking sheet. (I knew it was supposed to flatten out a bit, but surely not this much?) The recipe said it would ‘serve six’. Which six was it referring to – six giants? Six Tour de France cyclists who’d just conquered Mont Ventoux?

But that’s not the worst of it. It’s exploded.

Well, perhaps exploded is an exaggeration. What’s actually happened is that there are several large cracks in the sides (although, weirdly, not at the seam) through which molten black filling is leaking like so much lava. I’m torn between wanting to burst into tears and thinking that Exploding Makowiec would be a good name for a band, perhaps the Polish answer to Einsturzende Neubauten.

I gently, gingerly manoeuvre the monster onto a cooling rack, patching up the leaks as best I can, lay a tea towel over it and go to bed with death in my soul. By this time tomorrow, my reputation among my colleagues as a baker will be in ruins.


By morning the cooled makowiec is no longer a poppy seed volcano, but there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s too large to transport. After tossing out several wishful-thinking options (telekinesis, teleportation… what can I say, I’ve watched too many X-Men films for my own good) I bow to the inevitable. I saw it in half with a bread knife, wrap each piece in several layers of foil, and pop each one into a loaf tin for extra protection. I also fill a jar with icing sugar, because, as everyone knows, icing sugar hides a multitude of sins.

Teatime arrives. I unwrap one of the halves (the whole makowiec, in the end, serves twenty-four (!!), not six), arrange it on a platter and pour a snowdrift of sugar over it. ‘Sorry,’ I apologise to my colleagues as I set it on the table, ‘it kind of exploded, but it should still taste good…’

My words fall on deaf ears. ‘What are you talking about? It looks amazing!’ ‘It tastes amazing!’ ‘Could I have another piece?’

I’m stunned, and relieved beyond all measure. It does taste delicious. I still think it looks like a wreck (although there’s something gloriously excessive about the filling tumbling out of the spirals of dough), but icing sugar obviously has uncanny powers of deception. Interestingly enough, the people most enthusiastic about it are those who are either of Central or Eastern European extraction (my German boss; a colleague who is, like me, of Ashkenazi Jewish descent) or have spent a lot of time there (an English colleague who spent a large chunk of her childhood in Vienna). And if they like it, I guess I must have done something right.

So my adventures in makowiec ended happily, rather than tragically. At least, so far. I intend to attempt it again – probably with Magda’s recipe, which makes what I have learned the hard way is a more sane and realistic amount of filling.

After all, as William Blake (who probably never tasted makowiec – poor, deprived man) once said, you never know what is enough…

…until you know what is more than enough.


*I don’t dispute that he’s an excellent actor, but there is no getting round the fact that HE LOOKS LIKE AN ALIEN.

**If you too want to make your own ridiculously gigantic, explosion-prone, yet delicious makowiec, the recipe I used comes from Classic Recipes of Poland by Ewa Michalik. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


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