A brief extract from Chapter 1...

Bonaparte, Bras and Bigos...

…The five year old who stood in the playground on his first day at school in 1951 knew straight away that he was different from his Glaswegian classmates!

He knew that their impenetrable Glasgow accents were very different to the proper ‘King’s English’ upon which his mother tried to insist. As far as he was concerned it was not a matter of ‘better’ or ‘worse’ it was simply that he knew that he sounded different from them.

I say “he” rather than “me” because like all adults I have long since lost contact with the little boy I used to be. I no longer understand him. Indeed I have only very vaguest recollection of him and so I no longer have the right to speak for him directly.

Funnily enough I think it may have completely escaped his attention that his own father’s English sounded very different again. He did not know what a ‘Polish accent’ was and to him his father was simply his father.

There were other differences.

At some stage during those first days at school the teacher, attempting to break the ice, got each child in turn to recite their individual little party piece. This they did with varying degrees of nerves, tears or confidence.

The ensuing performance included several renditions of wildly varying degrees of competence of ‘Baa, Baa Black Sheep’ and ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ as well as all the other poplar nursery rhymes of the period.

When it was his turn to perform he knew exactly what to do. Plucking up courage he marched to the front of the room turned squarely to face the class and in a loud voice, so as to hide his nerves, solemnly proclaimed “Augerau, Bernadotte, Berthier, Bessieres, Brune, Davout, Grouchy, Jourdan, Kellerman, Lannes, Lefebvre, Macdonald, Marmont, Massena, Moncey, Mortier, Murat, Ney, Oudinot, Poniatowski, Perigon, St.Cyr, Serurier, Suchet, Soult, Victor”. It was so obvious that he was reciting the names of Napoleon’s Marshals that he felt no need to announce what he was about to do! Before a bemused teacher could intervene he continued “Marshal Prince Jozef Poniatowski, created Marshal of France on October 17th 1813, drowned crossing the River Elster after the Battle of Leipzig.” He duly marched back to his seat apparently unconcerned by the total silence, which had contrasted with the enthusiastic applause and laughter which had greeted the more popular offerings of his classmates.

What his teacher, let alone his classmates, thought of this strange performance is unrecorded. If my teacher briefly hoped that I was the child prodigy which all teachers long to discover then she was very quickly disabused. Come to think of it she probably had not the slightest idea what I was talking about!

The explanation for my strange choice of material was in fact very simple. My father, with the strange accent which I had not yet noticed, evidently took parenting seriously but having no English nursery rhymes with which to send me to sleep had taken to reciting the names of Napoleon’s Marshals to me in alphabetical order encouraging me to recite them back until I eventually fell asleep. The list had been extended to include biographical snippets about the one non-French Marshal - the Pole Poniatowski.

This begs two questions. Firstly, why did I chose to recite all of this in class rather than the English nursery rhymes which of course I knew as well as anyone else having of course learnt them from my mother? I have no answer. Secondly, bereft of English nursery rhymes and tales why hadn’t my father simply translated some of the Polish children’s stories and legends for me? Why not the story of the Wawell dragon or the legends of Prince Lech or Prince Popiel? None of them ever reached me! I cannot say for certain what was going on in his head but on the basis of later experience I will chance a guess…

…Bigos is a peculiarly Polish dish. It can be a simple snack purchased for unthinking quick consumption in any Polish café or it can be the centrepiece of an elaborate meal. Essentially bigos or Hunters’ Stew is exactly that a stew of sauerkraut, white cabbage and Polish meats. At its finest it is a glorious dish of immense subtlety of flavour and a matter of family hour and pride. Every self-respecting Polish family has its own recipes for bigos that is to them self evidently the only correct, proper and perfect recipe for bigos regardless of what the rest of the Polish world chooses to believe! Because bigos is one of those rare dishes that positively thrives on repeated re-heating it never tastes exactly the same at any two servings, even if one was actually to employ exactly the same recipe on every occasion. It is a marvellously forgiving dish that, within reason, will allow you to adapt the recipe depending upon what exactly is to hand.

Bigos has a strong and all pervasive aroma, which Poles find magically magnetic, signalling as it does impending culinary delight and total sensory gratification. Inexplicably many non-Poles seem to feel that the delicate aroma of Bigos ranks with the aroma of badly blocked drains and un-emptied food waste bins in really hot weather, in the league table of preferred smells and aromas. My advice to any English friend who has not yet tried the dish is simple. Just ignore the smell and tuck in. Within seconds you will have forgotten the smell in the joy and revelation of the taste and amazingly the second time you come across the dish the aroma will have magically transformed itself into a total turn on!

Bigos even made it into the great 19th Century national epic poem ‘Pan Tadeusz’. Adam Mickiewicz tells us that:-

In the kettles they were cooking bigos. In words it is hard to express the wonderful taste and colour of bigos and its marvellous odour; in a description of it one hears only the clinking words and the regular rimes, but no city stomach can understand their content. In order to appreciate Lithuanian songs and dishes, one must have health, must live in the country, and must be returning from a hunting party.

However, even without these sauces, bigos is no ordinary dish, for it is artistically composed of good vegetables. The foundation of it is sliced, sour cabbage, which, as the saying is, goes into the mouth of itself; this, enclosed in a kettle, covers with its moist bosom the best parts of selected meat, and is parboiled, until the fine extracts from it all the living juices, and until the fluid boils over the edge of the pot, and the very air around is fragrant with the aroma.

The bigos was soon ready. The huntsmen with a thrice-repeated vivat, armed with spoons, ran up and assailed the kettle; the copper rang, the vapour burst forth, the bigos evaporated like camphor, it vanished and flew away; only in the jaws of the caldrons the steam still seethed, as in the craters of extinct volcanoes.

As we have said every good Polish family has its own - the one correct - recipe for bigos. Well here is ours or maybe it is not ours. Fran claims to have acquired the recipe from my mother Floss who learnt it from my father. However, according to Mum, we do it all wrong. Bigos is a dish that truly evolves!

You will need a large jar of sauerkraut, half a small white cabbage (shredded), a desert spoon of dried mushrooms previously soaked for two to three hours in warm water, at least one pound of Polish sausage (boiling ring), half a pound of diced raw pork, sugar, peppercorns, bay leaves, a tube of tomato puree, caraway seeds, vinegar, two decent size glasses of red wine and one small glass of brandy.

Rinse the sauerkraut thoroughly and drain. Place in a saucepan with the shredded cabbage. Drain and add the soaked mushrooms plus fifteen to twenty peppercorns, two or three bay leaves, a pinch of caraway seeds, the diced pork, and diced Polish sausage.

Cover with water, bring to the boil and simmer gently for between sixty and ninety minutes. Then add four tablespoons (at least) of tomato puree, two glasses of red wine, a glass of brandy, a tablespoon of sugar and a desert spoon of vinegar. Simmer gently for a further thirty to sixty minutes. Add more wine and or water, or indeed both, if it begins to look dry. Reheat before serving. This bigos is best cooked slowly and reheated for an hour or two a day over one or two days. Again add water or wine, or both, if it looks dry.

It can be served alone, with brown bread, or with boiled or mashed potatoes. It can be accompanied by wine or vodka but best of all a good bottle of Polish beer…


Bonaparte, Bras & Bigos
Damn Passive Sympathy
The Stairway To Heaven
Why Didn't You Tell Them About The Flagpole
If Freedom Then What Freedom?