The Polish Apple:
From Seed to Cider
Can a fruit be considered culture? Indeed, it can – if that fruit is an apple and you happen to be Polish!
Most Poles have fond memories of their grandparents’ gardens and the fresh apples ready to be picked off the trees. Polish apple cake (szarlotka) is probably the cake most associated with Poland, while apple juices, compotes (kompot), and apple pancakes (racuchy) are very popular in the country, and, most recently, cider.
In the autumn, apples are everywhere in Poland. Poland is the leading European grower and exporter of apples and the fourth largest in the world. Poland exports over 4 million tons of apples yearly, with at least 71 varieties grown in the country. Some of the most popular are Idared, Jonagold, Gala, and Champion varieties. Apples have a 900-year history in Poland and Poles have had a long time to study up on the best varieties for desserts (sour apples), juices (hard and sweet apples), and alcohol (sweet and sour apples). With over 300 apple orchards taking up a combined 600-700 hectares (1500-1700 acres), it’s not surprising that Poles have found many uses for this popular fruit.
But first, a short history of how apples arrived and flourished in Poland.
Apples: A Condensed History
During the Middle Ages, the largest landowner after the nobility in Poland, and Europe generally, was the Catholic Church. Catholic religious orders build monasteries that influenced not only religious life but daily life for common people: monastic orders were places where education, technology, and farming advancements took root.
More than 900 years ago in Poland, the Order of Cistercians, which sought reform and broke off from the Benedictines, was focused on returning to monastic life in the way they thought Saint Benedictine would have lived. They called for a return to manual labor, especially agricultural labor which they became known for. Despite their call to manual labor, the Cistercians did modernize aspects of the agricultural work and production, most notably through advancements in hydraulic engineering to support a greater crop yield.
Their work in agriculture in the 11th and 12th centuries jump-started the domestication of the wild apple fruit. In the 16th century, Queen Bona Sforza married King Sigismund I and brought her great love of apples to the palace. And so, the cultivation of apples in Poland became a major agricultural and economic opportunity with the country’s rich soil and just-right weather conditions.
With all the apples in Poland, fermenting them to keep through multiple winters seems like a sensible thing to do. Yet counterintuitively, the Polish palette never really developed a taste for cider. Ciders were and are most popular in once Celtic and Roman territories like England, France, and Spain. But recently, Poles have taken a liking to the sweet and bubbly taste – Poland has seen a steady increase in cider popularity, fueling its steady increase in production.
Cider in Poland has been around since the Middle Ages but it never took off in popularity probably because of how ubiquitous apples were in Poland; cider was seen as an alcohol for the lower-classes. What changed that perception was a Russian embargo on Polish apples in 2014. During this time, a popular slogan began appearing in the media: “Postaw się Putinowi – jedz jabłka i pij cydr” (Stand against Putin – eat apples and drink cider). This one seemingly small directive spurred a wave of cider production in a country that hadn’t appreciated the product before.
Since then, cider production has taken off with large-scale, as well as craft, manufacturing. Although Poles still overwhelmingly prefer beer to cider – and cider has not been the economic cure-all analyst had once predicted – the spotlight on cider in Poland has given the drink some of the prestige it has historically lacked.
Interested in trying some Polish ciders?
Below are a few to start: