On my last visit to Poland, I learned how to make Rose Petal Jam. I was holidaying with my husband’s family on the edge of a lake close to the Lithuanian and Russian borders, not far from the tiny village of Lajs.
This is me sitting outside on a warm July morning, sorting rose petals for jam. Big Marysia and Little Marysia (older and younger but the reverse in size), were at the table with me, along with Iza, Basia and Elzbieta, all of us laughing and talking and sorting fresh petals before crushing them with sugar to make a deep red, perfumed paste.
The flowers of Rosa Cantina are best picked before their fragrance is released into the sun so that morning I left early to follow a forest track to the outskirts of Lajs where the wild rose grows in profusion.
Returning through the forest with my basket of petals, I stopped often to gather wild strawberries and blueberries, taking care to tread softly in case I disturbed deer grazing between the trees or found mushrooms poking their yellow heads through the forest floor. Chopped into scrambled eggs with parsley and cream, the mushrooms made a yummy breakfast.
When I was divorced and single, a tarot reader flashed an Emperor card before me and predicted I would soon meet my very own Emperor, apparently less Napoleon than a likely new love. She told me my Emperor was originally from a European country which I would visit often, and he would have something to do with contracts.
I was a little obsessed with France at the time so I prepared myself for a French lawyer. As you would…
A year or so later when I moved in with my new partner, I saw his desk covered with real estate contracts and remembered the tarot reader’s predictions. Not quite the French emperor. But then I’m no Josephine, and who wants to be ruled anyway…
When I met my husband’s family–in Warsaw, Krakow and Wroclaw–Poland was still under Communist rule and although we visited in summer, Warsaw was one shade of bleak with red Marlboro signage on trams the only colour to be seen anywhere.
Poland was not a happy place. Old Lada cars. Food shortages. Queues. Rude shop assistants. But things were not what they seemed on the surface: my husband’s nephew gave me a Solidarity badge. Everything was about to change.
In its primacy, Poland’s borders stretched almost from Moscow to Berlin, and from the Baltic in the north to Ukraine and the Red Sea in the south. Invaded by Mongols and Tatars, even Swedes, and more recently by Russia, Germany and Austria, it was wiped off the map and divided between all three for over one hundred years.
But the Poles are a brave and stubborn lot. Prior to the Russian Revolution, they fought endless rebellions against the invaders. After the first world war, they regained their country and then fought the new Red Army to retain it, only to lose it again to the Germans barely twenty years later. And after the second world war, deserted by their Allies, they were forced to live under the yoke of Soviet Communism for another fifty years.
Likening Russia to the Babushka Dolls or Nesting Dolls, Churchill described Poland’s neighbor as ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’.
I liken Poland to Rosa Cantina, hardy, tenacious and wilfully blooming despite efforts to control and eradicate. My husband is more pragmatic: he thinks of his country as a wounded bear surrounded by wolves. Perhaps we’re both right.
Poles also believe in miracles. In the late eighties, the Solidarity movement took on the Russian bear and communism collapsed, first in Poland and then throughout Europe. Did a weakened and beleaguered country ever accomplish so much?
This is my husband and me sitting on top of the world shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Tatra Mountains and Czechoslovakia—as it was then—are behind us.
Over the years, I’ve visited Poland many times and watched it transform into the independent and colourful country it is today. From the beginning, I’ve been welcomed and embraced by my husband’s family as my own.
In the mid-nineties, rellies from France and Australia joined with the Polish family for a week-long reunion at a former communist holiday resort in the beautiful Mazurian district of northern Poland. That’s me in the middle with the bad hair.
I don’t have a lot of close family in Australia so to be welcomed and embraced by my husband’s Polish and French families has been one of his greatest gifts to me.
He has also gifted me his father’s story which has inspired my second novel.
I hope I can do it justice. It will be my gift to him.
Big Marysia’s Recipe for Rose Petal Jam
Collect a few handfuls of rose petals from Rosa Cantina, the wild pink rose bush found in most parts of the world. Pick off any green or white ends and be careful to discard any insects or leaves. Place the petals in a stone mortar or bowl with about half a kilo of granulated sugar, more or less to taste. Using a pestle or wooden spoon, crush the petals and sugar together until they break down and blend together. Store in sterilized jars for up to two years. Delicious as a filling in Polish doughnuts. Also great with scones and a dollop of cream.