Symbols of love, sin, fertility and immortality, apples have played a leading role in tales and myths since ancient times.
Nowhere have they held more significance than Poland, one of the most important apple producers in the world. Cistercian monks created the first orchards here in the 12th century, cultivating varieties only found in Poland and still grown and exported today.
The orchards dotting the countryside near Sandomierz are home to an abundance of sought-after cultivars: Costel’s apple, Roter Eiserapfel, White Calville, Antonovka, Reinette. Every Pole has a favourite variety and an equally steadfast opinion on the subject, while every greengrocer in the land must stock five different kinds of apple to keep up with demand.
The special sweetness of Polish apples is tied to the legend of the Jabłonki – the ‘apple sisters’. These three heavenly creatures, known for their abundance of generosity, intelligence and beauty, would kiss the apples grown in their orchard and imbue the fruit with the power of eternal youth.
In recent times, the Jabłonki have been celebrated with a festival of the same name, a months-long celebration of nature, feasting and music, with apples at its heart.
Jabłonki marks the escape from the winter weather and salutes the arrival of the sun. It’s a magical time that begins when the apple trees bloom in May and lasts until September, when their boughs sag under the weight of juicy, sun-ripened fruit.
It’s a period of Slavic revelry, of crunchy, succulent and sweet apples, and of all things made from them. Drop scones, preserves, pies and meat roasted with apples. It’s a hint of cinnamon and caramel; it’s a glass of cool, refreshing cider. It’s a time for riverside picnics and alfresco dining in apple orchards; it’s a time to relax on a beach chair or right on the grass.
If there’s one thing Poles know how to do, it’s feast. The lavishness of Polish hospitality is the stuff of legend. No Polish grandmother would let anyone leave without a refill of tea and another helping of jabłecznik cake or szarlotka apple pie. Gathering around the table is at the heart of Polish society.
Storing nature’s bounty
Jabłonki is a time of harvest — and not just of apples. It’s when the rays of the summer sun are captured in bottles and jars of succulent raspberries and sweet blackberries to stockpile their energy for the long, cold winter, when the sun hides behind the horizon and is little more than a hazy memory.
Some fruit even improves in the process. Old apple varieties such as the Roter Eiserapfel (known locally as the żeleźniak) are inedible when picked, but can be buried underground, where, come December, they develop a crispy, sweet texture.
The same is true of the tough and seemingly unpalatable quince. When boiled, the tart and unpleasant fruit turns from yellow to red, and its flesh becomes soft and pliant, offering up all the wealth it stores inside. And there’s plenty to draw on – quinces are rich in vitamins and antioxidants, and make great cold remedies.
Quinces are best enjoyed in the form of liqueurs in a tradition dating back to the 13th century, when Poles first started making fruit wines. While the local climate is too harsh for grapes, it’s perfect for growing the kinds of fruits and flowers used in winemaking: apples, of course, but also plums, gooseberries, raspberries, blackberries, sour cherries, strawberries, blackcurrants, dog rose and elderflower.
The hundred-year-old orchard in the village of Świętochów, near Tarczyn, is known for its harvest of Costels and Antonovkas, apple cultivars native to Poland. The fruit is pressed, and the juice is then fermented to make apple wine.
DIY wine-makers and professionals frequently employ a method known as coupage, which allows them to achieve a result that resembles well-known grape wine varieties such as Tokaji and Malaga. Some make homemade vermouth by mixing low-acidity fruit wines with herbal essences, such as wormwood.
The same process can be seen at home, by leaving apple juice out on the windowsill. Fermentation releases the solar power stored in the golden liquid. White apple wines are made using the same technique as traditional wines. Reds, meanwhile, are fortified with the colour and vitamins of chokeberries and cherries.
Monika Bierwagen, whose company makes Cider Inn, created the apple wine Grzejnik to, in her words, give her sisters and mother something to do in the colder months, when they didn’t need to tend to the orchard or make the cider. But it was also out of a desire to revive the tradition of brewing high-quality mulled wines. Spiked with cinnamon, cloves, and spices, Grzejnik wine wards off the winter chill for apple lovers
So if you’re wondering why the inhabitants of a country gripped by winter for nine months of the year like to talk about their hot Slavic blood, the answer lies in the sun-filled preserves, jams, jellies, and liqueurs whose sweetness fills the heart with warmth.