Not all “-aises” are created equal. While beárnaise sauce is the crown prince of haute cuisine, and hollandaise is more a local than global celebrity, mayonnaise is the Britney Spears of condiments – in terms of worldwide fame, not limited access to the public, of course.
Good ol’ mayo is the kitchen pantry’s version of the Swiss army knife, dignifying sandwiches, turning a box of French fries into a decent meal, and desecrating holiday dishes. But if it were ever banned from tables worldwide, it could surely seek refuge in one country: Poland.
A 19th-century delicacy
First mentioned, and possibly introduced in 1806, French Alexander Vlard’s cookbook, it was a revelation, delicate both in flavor and texture, as the recipe called for raw egg yolk and lemon juice, spiced and turned into a delicate emulsion.
But even by the 1920s, Polish cookbooks noted the unpractical and expensive nature of the recipe – giving two directions next to each other. One 1929 article published in the famous lifestyle monthly “Bluszcz” gives precise instructions on how to emulsify egg yolk with the finest olive oil to make “Provencal” mayonnaise and then presents a budget version based on roux, bouillion, and egg yolks. “The taste is hardly different than the first, but it’s half as expensive and much more effective,” concludes the author.
Needless to say, we live in a time where the cheap and effective reigns supreme, so jarred mayo, first introduced in Poland in the 1950s and now available at every grocery store, is bought in bulk. As far as the condiment priorities of countries differ, Polish fridges are traditionally mayo-first, followed by mustard, while ketchup is relegated to use on sausage or pizza and is a guilty pleasure at best.
A million-dollar business
In fact, gourmands sometimes turn their noses up at the omnipresence of mayo in Poland (and sometimes literally, too, as some of the concoctions use too much harsh spirit vinegar instead of the lemon juice or wine vinegar in the original recipe.) But these stuffy gourmands usually get shut down quickly, as in Poland, mayo is king, full stop.
Or, perhaps, a deity – a Christian one to that, as mayo, along with the Resurrection of the Christ, is the most celebrated phenomenon of Polish Easter. Just think: Easter is all about eggs, and how do you serve eggs? With mayo, of course! Then, there is another unsung hero of Easter tables: vegetable salad made mostly from leftover veggies used to flavor broth, diced finely, and held together by none other than mayonnaise.
Look at the numbers. In 2019, as estimated by market research agency GfK, 90% of households planned to feature mayonnaise in their Easter menu, making Friday and Saturday before The Day the peak in the condiment’s jars sales. Vegan mayo, a rising trend in the last pre-pandemic year, held one percent of the market.
Another estimate, from 2022 by Euromonitor, claimed that the average Pole uses 1.5 kg of mayonnaise per year, spending PLN 18.9 ($4.39) for the pleasure, and the whole market is estimated at some PLN 650 million – over a quarter of the whole Polish book industry. Who rules the market?
Mayonnaise in Poland: Decorative and Napoleonic
Well, there is not one single king – but rather a set of rivaling princes, each holding strong to their own domain while trying to subjugate their neighbors. Last year, the senior prince was, perhaps unsurprisingly, Dekoracyjny. Literally called Decorative Mayonnaise, it is produced by Winiary, a Western-Poland-based postcommunist food processing plant, sold in the 1990s to the Polish branch of the Swiss giant Nestlé. The company is still, to some extent, present in the Russian market. Still, a potential boycott is no threat to Dekoracyjny mayo, the brand being deeply rooted in consumers’ minds since its introduction in 1974.
But the competition doesn’t sleep: next in line is Kielecki (named after a city in central-southern Poland) and holding strong in its area. In the east, the competitor is Napoleoński (Napoleonic) – produced in the Warsaw suburb of Raszyn, a battlefield in a famous battle during the period of a famous French warlord. Northern Poland has its Kętrzyński – you can buy it in its birthplace after visiting the famous Wolfenstein, Hitler’s eastern HQ near Kętrzyn, northeastern Poland.
When leading Polish portal Wirtualna Polska first launched the map in 2018, its users engaged fiercely in the competition, trying to position one of perhaps dozens of brands in the list. But equally fierce the battle is elsewhere on the internet, with Twitter and Facebook users standing strong to their mayo of choice.
With migrations meddling with the results, a strong comfort food factor in play, and being a safe space to argue with a sense of irony, Polish mayonnaise is not only a king but also a praised celebrity.