It was miserable in Warsaw when I fell in love with a soup. That is, admittedly, the best weather to fall in love with a soup: drizzly and windy, the kind of weather where you know if you go outside you’ll spend the rest of the day just a little bit damp, even inside your shoes and your raincoat. The sad kind of weather you feel like you can’t escape. Then there was zurek.
For those of you not yet in love, zurek is a traditional Polish soup made with zur, a fermented rye mixture made by leaving rye flour and water — along with a garlic clove if you’re feeling fancy — in a jar on the counter for several days and then pouring it into your broth. I explain it, right before I force people to eat it, as “sourdough soup,” which normally earns a raised eyebrow. I don’t want to oversell it, but eating zurek not only makes you feel better when you’re sick, it also makes you feel like you’ll never be sick again.
The important part is the zur — that’s what makes you feel invincible, revitalized.
“Traditionally, [zurek] is eaten during Easter, but in some places they eat it for breakfast with sausage or egg,” says Zuza Zak, author of Polska: New Polish Cooking, who emigrated from Poland to Britain with her family at the age of 8. “It’s known to be very healthy and nutritious.” Zak is experimenting with adding zur to other traditional Polish soups like wild mushroom, on the advice of a technician at a Polish TV station who told her that’s how his mother used to make it.
Once I fell in love with zurek, I became obsessed; I had to make it. While many recipes call for rye flour, others demand sourdough starter — which isn’t sold over the counter in Paris, where I live. So I went to the source: the bakery across the street from my apartment, where I asked the proprietor where one could buy levain. Once he’d confirmed that I wasn’t planning to stop buying bread from him every day, he handed me some of his own stash in a plastic bag and dubiously wished me luck on my “bread soup,” while declining my offer to bring him some when I’d finished.
Zur traditionally goes into soup that involves broth, vegetables, bacon and sausage, but Zak says the soup itself is a bit more free-form. The important part is the zur — that’s what makes you feel invincible, revitalized, able to go out into the drizzle with an invisible force field around your heart.
Charles Joughin, the chief baker on the Titanic, was the last man to leave the ship: He rode it down into the freezing water and always credited the half-tumbler of alcohol he’d consumed for keeping him warm through the hours before he was pulled into a lifeboat. This is not backed up by science — do not battle hypothermia with alcohol, any doctor will tell you — but sometimes you need a shield from the day, whether that’s surviving history’s most famous shipwreck or just having to go out into the Warsaw rain.
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