It was 1984 , I’d just turned 5. I was a West German girl living in Cologne. The most important things in my life were Carebears, my eraser collection, my turtles Trollie and Mollie and Haribo cola bottles –in that order.
My life was kind of neat. Loving parents, a safe, sanitised home in a modern high-rise apartment with a porter. My family was the model1980s West German bourgeois family; career minded parents with a kitchen packed full of flash domestic time saving appliances, they never used because they had no time. I ate Knorr ‘miracle-fix’ pre-packaged spaghetti with tomato sauce every day. In Germany during the 80s, you could get Mango flavoured Fanta. Sucking it through my twirly pink Micky Mouse straw after a meal of Knorr ‘miracle-fix’, was about as close to heaven as I could get, especially if they were followed by a desert of Haribo coke bottles.
Haribo coke bottles were so important to me that they became my currency. I would even calculate the value of things in coke bottles. A new Funshine Carebear would cost me 500 coke bottles. It was a difficult choice.
In short, my culinary life was thriving, my taste buds well developed and a-tuned to sour strawberry laces and coke flavored sherbet.
But one thing was missing from my life. I had never meet my Grandmother. She was a fictional character milking cows somewhere in the Carpathian mountains just behind the seven dwarfs, and two villages further then Rumpelstiltskin.
Let me quickly take you back 16 years.
The summer of 1968. A forest somewhere in Yugoslavia shrouded in night time mist. An enemy of the Polish State hunted by guard dogs is running over the border. He doesn’t stop running until he sees the car and the beautiful young West German woman stood waiting beside it. That was my dad. The woman my mum.
16 years later my father was still “enemy of Sate” and not allowed to visit Poland. It was hard for those branded political dissidents to return, they might have been imprisoned. If they were going to go back, they needed some sort of insurance policy. So he took me.
I can’t remember when my parents first broke the news to me but there is a high chance it was over a meal of Knorr ‘miracle-fix’. My dad was going to visit his family in Poland for the first time in 16 years, and I was going with him. By car . The whole one thousand three hundred and sixty eight km journey – mostly on roads that haven’t seen a vehicle that is not pulled along by horses.
Now I obviously heard about Poland, that place hiding behind a huge iron curtain. I‘d seen it in books and on photographs. It was all black and white. And you could not call them because almost no one had a telephone. At Christmas we sent food-parcels .
As the car was being loaded up, I remember the sense of excitement. I was going to meet my grandmother, a woman I’d heard little about, but in my mind this farm-woman from the mountains had attained mythical status .My parents squeezed me into the back seat between huge boxes of Ariel detergent, tubs and tubs of ‘Kaba Fix’ chocolate powder, and loads of tins of Fanta Mango, Chewy Sweets, Sticky Sweets, Chocolate covered Sweets, Coffee, Coffee flavored chocolate Sweets. And even a few packets of Haribo cola bottles.
As I kissed my mother goodbye and we pulled onto the autobahn, where we stayed for the remaining 10 hours-I realised that this stuff I was squeezed between was not just snacks for the journey. Babcia Antonina must like sweets a lot. And washing clothes. Could these people not go to the supermarket themselves?
By the time we reached the border with East Germany, boredom was setting in. After waiting hours, the sullen guards went through every inch of our car. I saw my dad deftly slip one of them a packet of cola-bottles. Which speeded up our passage. I noted the currency of Cola bottles transcended borders.
Dawn was breaking as the cracked East German roads gave way to Silesian Flats. I was bent double among western goodies, with no chance of comfort or sleep. Who was this woman who I was about to meet? The only connection I’d had with her was a few teddy bears she’d sent me. They were an odd grey colour and smelt funny.
Gradually the landscape changed and the all grey concrete gave way to lush green mountains. I saw the houses of the mountain villages as we approached our destination; the village of Snietnica.
Moments after we arrived, our car was surrounded by kids. 50, maybe 60. I didn’t know it yet, but most of these children were my cousins. Catholicism is still the main and only religion in Poland.
My memories are like faded super 8 film. A small track up to a farm house; tears in my father’s eyes; my dad running up the track towards a plump elderly woman – Antonina Lisowicz, my grandmother…
Before I knew it, I was stuck in her strong wobbly arms, overwhelmed and confused by the experience.
She let us into her Kitchen. No dishwasher, sink or fridge. No Blender, Juicer or electric tin opener. Not even a telly. Other than a big Aga there was no indication whatsoever that this was a place of food preparation and consumption. Just jars and jars of dried stuff. With no proper labels on other than some handscibble.
Swiftly she added some logs into the fire. And put a copper pan on with a gianormous dollop of butter. She smiled at me encouragingly. I smiled back. Communication was reduced to a minimum. She added 3 large handfuls of freshly picked chanterelle mushrooms to the pan. And fried 2 slices of homemade sourdough bread in the same buttery pan. It smelled sour. My dad pointed out that she made the butter herself. It didn’t make the sour smell go away.
She plated up her Butter smothered Chanterelles on homemade bread and I took a polite bite.
My taste buds where knocked over. Nothing had prepared these receptor cells for this sensation. No food colouring, taste enhancer or space-dust here, just pure homemade un-industrialised food. Butter hand churned in a wooden plunger from hand-milked cows, bread baked with flour harvested from their own fields and mushrooms picked from the forest this morning…………………….. I HATED IT!
There is nothing more horrible than lovingly prepared food being pushed away, my grandmother had served up a gesture of affection and I’d thrown it back in her face. Only looking back now do I understand how horrible this must have been for her. But she was a tough woman; she didn’t give up.
The next day at 5am she took me to milk the cows. We carefully carried the warm steaming fatty milk to the dairy, skimmed the cream off and put it into her home made wooden butter churner. This was fun! For two hours I churned with all my strength, until my hands were blistered. By this time I was starving. All my sweets had been given away as gifts. She took a crust of bread and we dipped it into the butter. Then as she opened a jar, the early morning sun lit the golden honeycomb inside, she took the piece of waxy comb out and let honey drip onto the bread. Ravenous, I opened my mouth to bite. The rest is history. Miracle fix did never taste the same again.
I owe my love of food to Antonina Lisowicz.
In October 2010 I took my own daughter, Emilia to visit her on the same farm, she ate fresh honey on butter she’d made herself. Antonia died a month later.