Book Review | Compendium Ferculorum | Poland’s Culinary Masterpiece

Book Review | Compendium Ferculorum | Poland’s Culinary Masterpiece

A Collection of Dishes

Polish master cook Stansław Czerniecki’s Compendium Ferculorum albo Zebranie Potraw (Collection of Dishes) is a Polish culinary monument. Published in 1682 his ‘collection’ was the first Polish cookbook, not unusual for the time because Europe’s aristocratic courts boasted countless cookbooks compiled by master chefs amidst a period that established a new sensibility about food, its preparation and presentation. That it predated the second Polish cookbook Kucharz Doskonały by 101 years is astonishing, yet there was a very good reason. 

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Pork tenderloin
stuffed with
a cauliflower condiment, 
one of ten condiments 
featured in 
Compendium Ferculorum

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Czerniecki’s Compendium Ferculorum was a masterpiece at the time, and remains one of the greatest cookbooks ever produced. It stands tall alongside the great cookbooks of the past millennium. The decision by the Museum of King Jan III’s Place at Wilanów, Warsaw to reprint it only affirms this belief, as attested by Paweł Jaskanis, director of the museum, and by Jarosław Dumanowski, editor of the culinary monument series.

‘Relish the flavour of these pages,’ writes Jaskanis with gusto. ‘It teaches how to stimulate both taste and imagination, how to surprise banqueters, how to bedazzle them with the appearance of dishes and their presentation.’

‘It is an extraordinary work which describes that not only is completely different from the modern, but which also greatly departs from the popular perception of the Polish cuisine and history,’ writes Dumanowski, asserting the pride Czerniecki felt, ‘that thanks to him Poles had received a work describing their national cuisine’. 

‘The cuisine of Stansław Czerniecki is also the cuisine of the baroque, that is the cuisine reaching to contrast, illusion, and readily resorting to surprising concepts. Flavours selected on the principle of contrasts, astonishing differences between the appearance and flavour of dishes, fish pretending to be partridges, buckwheat prepared without a grain of buckwheat and riddle dishes all come together to create a culinary style which the master cook was a strict adherent.’

It was no wonder that the Medici in situ in Florence, Cosimo the third, ordered Czerniecki’s cookbook. Cosimo would have delighted in the work of a master cook who took great delight in a tradition, whether or not Czerniecki knew of it, that began in Florence in 1512. It was called Compagnia del Paiolo (‘Company of the Cauldron’). 

The Compendium Ferculorum can be
purchased directly from the museum

The motto of the company was l‘arte si fa a cena (the art of dining). It innocently sought culture and conviviality, good taste and simplicity, frankness and friendliness. Its first adherents included Giovan Francesco Rustici, a painter and sculptor, artists Andrea del Sarto and Leonardo de Vinci, and Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici (later Pope Clement). 

With Catherine de‘ Medici ensconced in Paris as crown consort then as regent, this new attitude to food became an aristocratic obsession. It spread through the same courts that had produced the recipe-collecting chefs of the era. The Castillian, Catalonian, Neopolitan, Sicilian, Tuscan and Venetian styles, among others from the Iberian and Italian regions, penetrated the French court with chefs, confectioners and pâtissiers trained in the emerging style, that would soon became known as the classical manner, then as haute cuisine. 

Maria de’ Medici, queen to Henri the fourth, is believed to have been the instigator, following the sentiments of Pope Clement. He would have luxuriated in the extravagances taken at the grand banquet for Maria‘s wedding, where the cornucopia of flavours and architectural displays of food epitomised the Tuscan attitude to food. Within five generations a dominant aristocratic paradigm had been created, the chefs of the courts bringing exquisite care and infinite attention to detail in the provision and preparation of food. 

Four generations later that ‘exquisite care and infinite attention to detail’ was practised by the master cook to the courts of the Lubomirski family at Krakow.

It might also be argued that the Polish cook surpassed the great works of the master cooks who worked for the Medicis. The ‘Company of the Cauldron’ celebrated its 500th anniversary in 2012, and two years later the Polish edition of ‘Collection of Dishes’ was published.

Such generational and culinary symmetry is sobering.

Czerniecki produced culinary art of the highest calibre, art that was not abstract or utopian, that was traditional Polish food made real, influenced by the cuisine of the Czechs and Lithuanians more than the food of the French and Italians. Like the work of the great artists of the early 1500s, who equated their art with the art of dining, Czerniecki produced culinary artworks that appealed to the senses, where flavour and taste had to become sublime to be real.

The recipe for the pork with cauliflower condiment is here.

Czerniecki’s cauliflower condiment is a piece of culinary genius.

Stanisław Czerniecki, Compendium ferculorum or collection of dishes, w opracowaniu J. Dumanowskiego we wspólpracy z M. Spychaj, Warszawa 2014, s. 196, il. 51, ISBN 978-83-63580-40-7.