Fat Thursday is one of the most beloved (and probably the tastiest) traditions in Poland. in Polish called Tłusty Czwartek (which would literally translate as ‘Fatty Thursday’), marks the last Thursday before Ash Wednesday, which is the traditional beginning of Lent. Fat Thursday means that the period of carnival and long-lasting joyful atmosphere of celebration is almost over, and the mournful and melancholic period of Lent (when the fun should be surpassed and the music should quiet down), is fast approaching. Poles seem to have found their own unique way of celebrating the end of the period of fun, and it’s done by devouring crazy amounts of pączki, doughnuts filled with rosehip jam, or faworki, fried pieces of shortcrust pastry sprinkled with icing sugar.
everyone in Poland seems to be eating pączki: bakeries, patisseries and supermarkets stock up on this highly-calorific treat, pączki are eaten on the street, at schools, in the offices, at home, on the bus, on the train; people seem to forget about all the dietary recommendations and indulge in the national devouring of delicious, luscious pączki. refusing to eat at least one on Fat Thursday is considered not only rude, but also unlucky, as eating at least one pączek on Fat Thursday is supposed to guarantee prosperity and luck for the coming months. no wonder that, statistically, an average Polish person eats two and a half pączki, which adds up to whopping 100 million pączki eaten by the entire nation on one day.
According to Barbara Ogrodowska, Polish ethnographer and specialist on Polish traditions, customs and folklore, the tradition of Fat Thursday was more elaborate in the past, and devouring and feasting used to extend to many more foodstuffs and dishes than just pączki and other fried pastries. A text from 17th century mentions one of such celebrations, describing tables which could hardly carry the weight of the treats laid out on them, amongst them various meats (mostly game), hams, poultry, all served with thick and heavy sauces, raisins, almonds and other accompaniments. Peasant households also celebrated with style (even though without all the game), preparing special meals for this occasion: kasha, cabbage with bacon, lard, and in more affluent households: garlicky sausages and meat cooked in soup. There was a saying stating that one should eat fatty foods (lard, bacon, kasha with lard, sausage, etc.) just as many times during the day, as the amount of times the cat moves its tail. Which (probably) meant a lot.
Apart from meats and lard, all sorts of fried pastries were a staple at many households. 17th and 18th century patisseries of Warsaw were said to produce the best pączki in the country. They were even delivered to the king Stanisław August Poniatowski’s residence on Fat Thursday. I wonder if it was due to the king’s liking for the sweet doughnuts or to his belief in superstitions. Some secrets remain unsolved, I suppose.
Kurier Warszawski (Warsaw’s Courier), a local newspaper, published an article on pączki in 1829, stating that Warsaw’s patisseries baked and sold 45 thousand pączki that year on Fat Thursday, and private households produced three times more than that for in home consumption. Impressive much!
Fat Thursday is one of the traditions which survived almost unchanged to our times. Poland’s love for pączki seems to be everlasting: every year people queue up for pączki at the best bakeries and patisseries in town. Not many people decide to make them at home, due to pączki’s rather wayward character: only seasoned and experienced cooks often feel confident enough to prepare them. The pączki preparation is not only a time-consuming task (about 4h to make them), but also a patience-trying one, as pączki dough doesn’t like cold, drafty kitchens, and requires 20 minutes of hand kneading. It should count as a workout session, really, this pączki making endeavour.
Nowadays, many patisseries in Poland cater to all kinds of diets, creating gluten-free, vegan, dairy free and many different kinds of paczki, making it possible for everyone, regardless of their dietary habits or restrictions, to have a pączek for good luck on Fat Thursday. And don’t think it’s such an easy thing to make a vegan or gluten free pączek, as traditional pączek recipe calls for fresh yeast, wheat flour, butter, loads of sugar, a lot of egg yolks, and if that wasn’t sinful enough – it should be fried in lard. I am filled with admiration for those who transform the pączek into a more egalitarian treat. I myself am far less experienced to experiment yet, and so my pączki are high-sugar, high-fat, highly unhealthy treats. But hey, once a year one can sin! And I only had two (so far!).
Have you had your Fat Thursday pączek yet? If you’re curious of how they taste or suddenly grew worried about being unlucky if you won’t have one today, head for your local Polish shop, I’m sure there are stacks of boxes with pączki waiting to be devoured. But hurry! Polish appetite on Fat Thursday seems to have no end!
Happy eating, people!