One of my favourite ingredients to forage are the rosehips of the wild dog-rose bush. They grow in abundance all around where we are and they have an excellent flavour.
As with sloes, they say that rosehips should traditionally be harvested after the first frost but you never know when frost is going to hit, it’s either too early or too late. The best way to mimic frost is to pick your rosehips when they are nice, red and fat, even if they appear hard, then take them home and put them in your freezer for 24 hours. Then defrost and use in your rosehip recipes. This will allow for maximum flavour.
Let me tell you a few things about Polish liqueurs. They are known as nalewka (nah-LEF-kah) and there is a diverse range of traditions and recipes for this complex genre of drinks. They are usually made with fruit but also herbs and spices (ever had a black pepper or cardamom vodka?). They are also very special. Let me tell you why.
First of all, they are homemade — usually using a family recipe, or a recipe that has been developed over many years, often a closely guarded secret, passed down from generation to generation. Everything about their preparation is set out, from where the fruit you use comes from, to the alcohol used to macerate the fruit, to the particular story behind it.
Polish nalewka is perhaps more a family heirloom, a story meant to share, than just a liqueur or drink. It should be sipped slowly, not bolted down like a shot of vodka, so that its virtues can be appreciated. Allow it to linger on your tongue and then swirl around the mouth as you would with fine wine and let you senses light up like fireworks. If you are offered someone’s nalewka, they are putting effort into welcoming you as a guest, impressing you, cementing a friendship or just sharing a moment with you.
There is an interesting story behind the rosehip vodka. It was once very popular in eastern parts of Poland (Kresy Wschodnie) that are now part of Lithuania, Ukraine or Belarus. This is where both my parents and their families are from. My mum grew up just outside Vilnius which is now part of Lithuania, and my dad near Grodno – now part of Belarus. Sadly, as a result of the border changes after World War II, none of the Kresy lands remain in Poland today. The Kresy lands amounted to nearly half of the territory of pre-war Poland and from what I have heard from my mum, it used to be extensively multi-ethnic. Both my parents’ families had to move if they wanted to stay within the territory of Poland. My mum recently said that her family managed to get on the last train that was allowed back to Poland. I often wonder how different their lives would be had they not embarked on that train.
But coming back to the rosehip vodka…..it had a very important role to play, almost like a matrimonial ad these days. It was traditionally prepared by young women that were ready to marry. The bottle would be placed in the front window of the house as a sign that there was a girl in the house interested in marriage. When matured and ready, the liquor would then be offered to the suitor of the young woman’s choice. Hence the Polish name – ‘żenicha kresowa’. If I were to translate it into English, ‘żenicha’ refers to something that helps to cement the act of marriage, whereas ‘kresowa’ refers to the area of the Kresy lands.
I mentioned earlier that rosehips are one of my favourite ingredients to forage but they are not the easiest of fruits to use in the kitchen because of the hairy seeds nestling inside. They can be quite a serious irritant to the stomach. Fortunately, rosehip vodka avoids such perils, as the rosehips (and their seeds) are removed when the drink is strained.