Ren Behan – Food Journalist & Author on Embracing Polish Cuisine

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In this interview, Ren Behan, author of Wild Honey and Rye, talks about how Polish food has evolved to become a trendy and healthy market industry in the UK.

In the current multicultural demographic of the UK, the most common non-British nationality has been Polish year and year again. There are an estimated one million Polish people living in the UK according to the Office of National Statistics, supporting their culture through an increasing number of Polish Saturday schools, supermarkets and general stores.

I spoke with Ren Behan recently about her journey in bringing Polish cooking to the British market, and how the food isn’t at all what you may think it is.

Kerri L Watt: Ren, hello! Let’s discuss the dominance of the Polish food market here in the UK, does this surprise you?

Ren Behan: As a second generation pole- meaning I was born here in the UK- it’s definitely interesting to see the ripple effect of post-World War Two immigration. In 2004 the Polish market boomed with a new wave of Poles in the UK as they joined the European Union, so it’s been incredible to grow up in one country while still being able to fully immerse myself in my mother country’s cuisine. It made culture extraction between both Poland and the UK far more accessible and encouraged.

My mother and father, who had fought with the Polish Armed Forces in the West during WWII ensured that we identified with our Polish heritage throughout our upbringing: speaking Polish at home, Polish food in the kitchen with Polish smells and sounds serenading our youth.

It’s so encouraging to live in a society now whereby these foreign ingredients are so readily accessible and explored by natives and curious palettes alike- in turn meaning I too can introduce others to the wonders of modern Polish cuisine.

Kerri L Watt: How do the supermarket aisles of Polish food grade against your traditional background of Polish cooking?

Ren Behan: Although I understand why supermarkets offer these world food aisles, for Poland at least the selection you’ll commonly see aren’t representative of authentic Polish food at all. We pride our foods on being fresh and recipes are pulled together from scratch, this pride in our menu feels contradicted by the frequent tins and foods which simply offer a longer shelf life. You have to find a specific Polish authentic store to experience the comprehensive breadth of flavour which creates the Polish palette.

Each country has its own flavour profile. The Polish one is somewhat more smokey, accentuated by ingredients such as caraway seeds. Our breads and desserts are to die for, they truly are. There’s rose petal jam, lovely pruned jam. An abundance of possibility. The standard British supermarket doesn’t really offer the authentic Polish food offering.

Polish restaurants are becoming increasingly prominent in the UK, which offer the best non-Polish experience for the tongue.

Poles love fermented foods such as sauerkraut, which has become increasingly trendy. Organic sauerkraut and dairy such as kefir is on the rise here, but we Poles have been acting on that flavour pang for centuries. Same happened with organic coffee- it was our normal go to before the UK market adopted it as a trend. A lot of trendy food fads have Eastern European roots if you research them.

Kerri L Watt  Would you regard this is a UK phenomenon of adopting Eastern European trends as a fad?

Ren Behan: There are pockets of Poles all over the world following the second world war and earlier bursts of migration. Although the generic Polish food offerings are available globally as an international ingredient offering, the UK’s residence density for Poles has certainly seen a significant shift in market dominance for Polish food. There’s a few recipes, such as Polish dumplings pierogi, which are incredibly popular in America. It’s fascinating to see each major country take on Polish cuisine in a variety of ways.

Kerri L Watt It’s definitely an interesting subject to delve into. Could you tell us a little more about your background, and how you evolved into being a modern Polish food writer and blogger?

Ren Behan: I have always engaged in eastern European history, politics and economics such as the Soviet foreign policy. That was part of my undergraduate degree, and paved the way to becoming a qualified solicitor and then a criminal lawyer here in the UK. After maternity leave, I sought a vocation which would ignite my passions more- and saw the ability to bring my love of food and heritage to my (and my family’s) benefit.

I asked myself: why not? I had the resources, it made logical sense. I began with solo digital journalism, and this passion project flourished into publications via UKTV Food and other significant media outlets. Being a new mother led me to reassess my own knowledge of Polish food, as I vowed to offer my children the same culinary experience I had the pleasure of as a child.

It was enjoyable to explore what I could create in my kitchen, researching through my already large collection of recipe books. The fact others identified and appreciated my own food blog was only fuelling the fire to learn more and commit to Polish food.

Kerri L Watt: That is fascinating. And this new found love after becoming a parent has now led to a book, hasn’t it- Wild Honey and Rye?

Ren Behan: Yes, and it’s an opportunity I’m so grateful for. There were plenty of avenues I could have explored for the theme, but it felt right to hone in on the Polish cook inside me. That’s my origin, after all. It was somewhat difficult to convince people that Polish food would be a marketable angle for my book, but I knew in my heart it was the right thing to do. Looking back, we’re all glad I trusted my gut instinct!

I took several trips to Poland to research how the culinary scene was evolving, and was startled to see how much it had changed since my childhood. A restaurant in Warsaw even got a Michelin Star (with a second restaurant gaining the same accolade now) which shows how seriously Polish society is addressing food now. My pursuit of a modern interpretation of  my Polish roots felt so exhilarating.

Kerri L Watt

Kerri L Watt is an award-winning Media Strategist, host of Business Innovators Radio and contributor to Small Business Trendsetters and Business Innovators Magazine covering business growth, entrepreneurship, marketing and business trends.