Frank Muir was a raconteur, comedy writer and former Head of Comedy at the BBC. In a TV interview, when asked as to his faith he replied “I’m a lapsed agnostic”. His tongue-in-cheek proclamations always managed to leave the synopsis hanging…

Mr Muir’s dilemma percolated through my thoughts whilst spending a week in Kraków in the spring of 2005, as we searched for my late father-in-law’s early footsteps. My wife’s father was Polish, strictly Catholic and had joined the fight against the Nazi’s in the late thirties. Although de-mobbed in London, he remained loyal to his country, his church and his language. This in part was evidenced by his choice of a traditional name for his daughter, Ksynia, unpronounceable unless you’ve undertaken extensive contact with Poles and Russians, or tried in vain to relieve yourself of unaccommodating letters in the traditional family game of Scrabble every Christmas.

Woefully, it was the same week that saw the passing of Poland’s beloved papal poster boy, John Paul II. As Catholics go he was beyond earthly criticism in his own country, no less with the citizens of his very own parish, and the fevered atmosphere wherever we turned centered on unconditional prayers for his everlasting wellbeing (unanswered it appears) and candles placed at the doors of every church, monument, shrine and sacred site you could name. It was and remains disturbingly impressive. Even some of his flock in the guise of blanket-clad mendicants, were sacrificing their precious night-lights in his name.

The force of people’s faith along the streets was palpable. I was moved by the pervading catechisms but not transformed. Lapsed I remained, and as someone who feels that God was born of man’s imagination rather than divine creation and that empirical faith should be saved for an understanding and respect for tradition, redemption would have to call another day. If anything were to re-enforce doubts as to the divine and its fabled intervention, our visit to Auschwitz later that week sealed the deal.

On a more traditional and secular note, but cognisant that most religions offer elements of divine access by way of food – Catholics symbolically consume both the blood and flesh of Christ, although with their growing clamour, I’m not sure where vegetarians stand on this one – I felt we needed to fit in our own sustenance during these challenging hours.

We had booked a table in a tiny neighbourhood restaurant in the Jewish quarter, but all kosher restaurants and concert halls had respectfully closed their doors that day, an act which clearly moved the catholic parishioners of Kraków to further tears. We had therefore to seek our meal amongst the back-street Polish eateries whose incumbent waiters and chefs were constantly slipping back and forth from quiet restaurant to packed church, whilst a form of service was successfully maintained in both establishments. A welcoming restaurant, with a large oven range, provided us with some delicious  pierogi, first boiled, then, crucially, baked.

Some time later, after he had visited Warsaw, Nigel Slater conveniently published this Sauerkraut and Mushroom Pierogi recipe in The Observer Magazine, it’s the closest I have found to that evening’s repast.

For the pastry:

500g plain flour

200g butter

Ice-cold water

1 egg, lightly beaten

For the filling

2 medium onions

30g butter

300g small mushrooms

2 cloves garlic

350g sauerkraut

Make the pastry by sifting the flour into a bowl, add the butter cut in small dice and rub into the flour until you have a course breadcrumb texture

Add enough cold water to bring the dough to a firm but soft ball

Knead very gently for a couple of minutes, then wrap in greaseproof paper and refrigerate for 30 minutes

Peel and cut the onions in half then slice them finely

Melt the butter in a large pan and add the onions, letting them soften

Chop the mushrooms finely, peel and slice the garlic and add both to the onions and continue cooking for 5 minutes

Drain and rinse the sauerkraut in a colander under cold running water, then pat dry

Add the sauerkraut to the onion and mushroom mixture mix well and season

Set the oven at 200°C/gas mark 6

Roll out the pastry thinly

Using a round cookie cutter cut 16 discs of pastry approximately 10 cms diameter

Place a generous spoonful of the cabbage mixture on to each pastry disc

Brush the edge of the pastry with a little beaten egg then fold each one in half and press firmly to seal the edges

Place the dumplings on a baking sheet, not quite touching one another, then brush each one with more egg

Place a tiny slit or two in the top of each and bake for 20 minutes Serve with a sour cream sauce

Wine thoughts

A wise choice that evening, given the earthy (and earthly) flavours of the pierogi, was a Pinot Gris from Alsace. Generally it’s an exciting aperitif wine on its own, and so much fuller than its close cousin Pinot Grigio, offering raw strength from a degree or so extra in alcohol and a spicy, vegetal flavour that works well with matters fungi. Dishes that include truffles, white or black depending on the season and your overdraft facilities, sit well with Pinot Gris too.