Book Review of Rose Petal Jam: Recipes and Stories From a Summer in Poland

rose jam

I’m going to start this review by cutting right to the chase: Rose Petal Jam:Recipes and Stories From a Summer in Poland is possibly the most beautiful book I’ve ever seen.

No kidding.

My aunt Karen gave me this book earlier this year, for my fortieth birthday (appropriately enough, she gave it to me during our family’s annual Polish dinner).  I had never heard of the book before, but it took me about two minutes of turning the pages to realize that it was something very, very special indeed.

First of all, Rose Petal Jam is more than just a cookbook. It’s also a memoir, a travelogue, and a masterpiece of photography.  It’s large, and looks great on a living room end table, which is where I have it (it hasn’t yet made it to my kitchen — give it time!).

What it is, too, is a book about returning home.  Author Beata Zatorska was born in southwestern Poland and lived there for her early years, relocating to  Australia as a young adult.  There she married, had kids, became a doctor — and returned to Poland years later, as an adult, revisiting the farmhouse where she grew up with her family, most notably her beloved grandmother.

That visit led to another one, a leisurely summer spent driving around the country and visiting the big cities (Warsaw, Krakow, Poznan) as well as coastal resorts, mountain towns, tiny villages, and landmarks like Chopin’s birthplace.  The first part of the book tells the story of her childhood; the second part tells the story of her return as an adult.  Throughout, there are recipes for pierogi and potato pancakes and liquers and cucumber soup and cookies and all kinds of mouthwatering things that she remembers from her past (including rose petal jam, which sounds heavenly).

The book is a gorgeous marriage of beautiful writing and stunning photography. Simon Target, Beata’s husband, did the photos, and they are jaw-droppingly beautiful.  Willow trees, pastel-colored baroque buildings, roadside shrines, fresh produce, the foods shown in the recipes themselves — each page is more beautiful than the last.  The layouts are works of art, too.  Some of the two-page spreads in the book are collections of images sharing a common theme, like details of vividly colored Polish textiles and embroidery, or two pages of photographs of things that are all varying shades of red.  It’s clear that a great amount of time, care, and love went into the making of this book.  I also enjoyed  the old black-and-white photos of Beata’s family; between the pictures and her vivid descriptions of her family members, I felt as though I knew them by the time the book was over.

My dad is half-Polish, and I’ve always wanted to see the country.  Somehow, when I was living in Europe, it was always just a little too far away to get there.  But Rose Petal Jam has redoubled my desire to go.  And there are many evenings when take a few minutes to sit in my armchair, drinking tea and slowly turning the pages, and feeling myself slip out of California and into a world of cucumber seasons and beautiful cathedrals and wild roses and rural farmhouses, and it is armchair travel of the most glorious kind.

And I know it sounds crazy, but when my aunt gave me the package and I tore off the wrapping paper, I could have sworn I smelled roses.   It really is that magical a book.

Check out the book’s website for more information, including recipes.  You can also find out more about the author’s next book, Sugared Orange: Recipes and Stories From a Winter in Poland, which will be available in the fall.  (Guess what will be on my Christmas list?)

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