In his poem Pan Tadeusz, the Romantic writer and Polish nationalist Adam Mickiewicz dedicates some verses to bigos: “The bigos is heated in the pot, simple words that cannot describe its marvellous flavour, colour and fantastic aroma.”
The context in which the author remembers the Polish national dish is nothing less than an epic poem that evokes the turbulent beginning of the 19th century, when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was wiped off the map and its territories divided among its powerful neighbours: Russia, Prussia and Austria.
The symbolic importance of bigos should not surprise us, since its origin is in some of the food consumed in Polish territories since the Middle Ages, and which had its equivalents in other parts of Europe, such as Italy or north-eastern France. In all of them, the different ingredients were cut up and placed in layers in the pot, where they were stewed over a low fire, cooking in their own juices.
It wasn’t until the 17th century that the term bigos began to appear in the recipe books of the aristocracy, with its characteristic preparation in different layers and with very different varieties depending on the essential ingredients: game, partridge, carp or oysters, among others. They all shared a certain acidic touch due to the lemon or vinegar.
In today’s bigos the basic ingredient is sauerkraut which, along with other vegetables and a number of different spices, accompanies the meat, or different kinds of meats, and the sausages. According to the culinary historian María Dembiska in Eating and Drinking in Medieval Poland, in the beginning this meat came from hunting, for which reason bigos was called hunters’ stew and was consumed by the wealthier classes. Later the recipe developed toward “a more egalitarian preparation”, in other words replacing the game with other less choice meats and with sausages. Something that must be taken in context: this work was written by an aristocrat in the Communist Poland of 1963 (before then, María Dembiska was Countess Goluchowska).
Bigos has been eaten as a main dish, as a meal during travels, and even as breakfast. It often follows a glass of vodka, with the result that the dish neutralises the effects of the alcohol.