Squash bread

Wilno’s Kashub Polish Food History

We could have easily driven past Wilno on Highway 60 that leads to Ottawa, Ontario. However, as the first Polish settlement in Canada, the small town of Wilno was my taste destination.

The Wilno Tavern is well known for serving excellent Polish food. And the town itself has a story of Canada’s history to tell.

The settlers, who arrived in the Wilno area in 1858, were from the Kashubian (Prussian) part of Poland and their ancestors living in the area celebrate their unique culture to this day. It is said that they loved this part of the country because it reminded them of their homeland. They joined the Irish and German settlers also making this area their new home.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Wilno rang with the sounds of Polish lumbermen on their way to enjoy hearty meals after weeks of work at the lumber camps, located in what is now Algonquin Park. A thriving railroad between Arnprior and Parry Sound moved lumber from the area as far west as the prairies.

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The Wilno Tavern Restaurant

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A diner enjoys his dinner under the old Exchange Hotel sign

What is now known as the Wilno Tavern has been serving food for over 100 years. Historically it was named the Exchange Hotel and was located across from the train station where as many as 20 trains a day passed through, creating a need to feed and accommodate travellers. Over the years, different owners have run the hotel and restaurant and the current owner Corinne Higgins has owned the tavern since 1981. She is very devoted to maintaining the Kashub/Polish roots of the community through the food served in her tavern. She explained that the food now served is different from the original Kashub diet of the settlers, who changed their eating habits with time to include different types of Polish food.

A true Kashubian feast is celebrated on Labour Day each year, when chicken dinners are served at St. Mary’s Church to over 2000 people. The meals consist of boiled chicken, potatoes and vegetables, reflecting the more traditional Kashub diet. Chicken, pork and pickled fish dishes were served in the homeland, as well as potato pancakes, dill pickles and dried apples. Eventually Polish food such as pierogi, cabbage rolls and sauerkraut became part of the diets of those living in the Wilno area.

Another Kashub celebration is held each year on Labour Day weekend at the recreated Kashub historic village in Wilno. Log buildings, adorned with painted trim, in the traditional style of painting, gives visitors a feeling of what is was like to live in the past. The traditions of dancing in the clothing of the past, and music provide entertainment for visitors to the annual festival. Across the road, at the Wilno Tavern, cooks are busy serving up Polish fare.

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Buildings at the Historic Village in Wilno

We were anxious to try some Polish fare at the Wilno Tavern and sat with the Corinne Higgins, the current owner who gave us a feel for the history and the food she serves.

“There was no time to be delicate,” Corinne explained when describing the unique appearance of the pierogi (also spelled perogi). She went on to explain that back in the day, cooks were making pierogi to serve to hungry lumberjacks and large families. They formed larger, rounded shaped pierogi to produce faster results in the kitchen, much different from the smaller, crescent shaped pierogi we are used to eating now. The filling was cheddar cheese, bacon and potatoes, adapted from what was available in Canada, rather than the sauerkraut, dried mushrooms and cottage cheese that may have been used as filling in the Kusab region of Poland.

Our hearty dinner began with a starter plate of Śledzie that included pickled fish, and rye bread with sour cream and tomatoes on the side. The pickled fish had a sharp and pleasing bite.

Our main course was a huge combo plate including a large cabbage roll, a round pierogi, mashed potatoes, a Polish sausage and sauerkraut. This was too much food for a man and woman who hadn’t chopped wood all day.

IMG_1098I was presented with a copy of the Canadian Kashub Cookbook, compiled as a project by the Wilno Heritage Society. This recipe book is full of traditional Kashub recipes as remembered by the community fondly recalling the dishes their grandmothers taught them to cook. To read this book is to get a true sense of the food history of the Kashubs.

I tried the Squash Bread, a 1908 recipe that was contributed anonymously.

From the Canadian Kashub Cookbook

  • 2 cups cooked squash
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 3 cups very warm milk
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 1 yeast cake
  • flour (enough to knead)

Mash the squash with a potato masher. Stir in the sugar, salt and butter into the hot milk.

When cool, put in the yeast and as much flour as will make a dough that can be handled. Put on to a baking board and knead for 15 minutes. Return to the bread board and let it double in its bulk. Knead again. Shape into loaves, raise and bake in a 350 F for 45 to 55 minutes.

Kashub Polish Canadian history lives on in the town of Wilno, Ontario. Don’t drive through without a taste.