St. Martin’s Day | The Festival, the Flavours, the Fellow

more than a year ago
Visit Poznań in November and you’ll find the city turned into croissant-land, with local bakeries rolling out huge trays of calorie-dense rogale świętomarcińskie (ENG: St. Martin’s croissants) topped with a healthy pile of sugary glaze. To someone unfamiliar with regional traditions, this is likely to raise an eyebrow and several questions: Why are these pricey pastries so popular? Why are they named after a Catholic saint? Are Poznaners immune to type 2 diabetes?
Nom nom nom: St. Martin's Rogale (PL: rogale świętomarcińskie)

The FACTS: The History of St. Martin & Poznań

Well, the regional treat you can’t seem to get away from is an indispensable part of St. Martin’s Day festivities taking place on and around November 11th. While the rest of Poland (including Poz) is dutifully celebrating Polish Independence Day (a national bank holiday), Poznań also puts a lot of extra energy into observing St. Martin's official feast day on November 11. Also known as 'Martinmas,' the holiday is not a Polish invention; in fact, celebrations of St. Martin's feast day have been been around since the Middle Ages, spreading from France outward, and are still observed in some regions of Europe (though perhaps not with the same zeal as here in Poznań).

Poznań's unique focus on the figure of St. Martin is due to the city’s long-standing association with the fine chap, which dates back to at least the 12th century. Documents from 1132 reveal that the Church of St. Martin (the exact erection date of which is unknown) was the only parish on the left bank of the Warta River at that time. A settlement soon grew around the premises, becoming known simply as St. Martin, and was absorbed into Poznań in the late 18th century; today this area is in the very centre of modern Poznań, making St. Martin's Church the most historic church not located on Poznań's Ostrów Tumski.
Bas-relief of St. Martin cutting his cloak in half for a freezing beggar; St. Martin's Church in Poznań.

A reminder of downtown Poznań's days of being known as the settlement of 'St. Martin' is St. Martin Street (ul. Święty Marcin), which today stretches from the Hipolit Cegielski Monument just minutes south from the market square, all the way to Rondo Kaponiera in the west. It's along this approximately eight-block urban stretch that you'll find - aptly enough - today's iteration of St. Martin's Church still standing proudly despite a turbulent history of invasions and fires, the Imperial Castle, Poznań Philharmonic and the Adam Mickiewicz University.
A Saint Martin's Day procession down St. Martin Street in Poznań.

The FESTIVAL: St. Martin's Day in Poznań

It is this street that sees a colourful annual parade celebrating Martin’s big day. Resurrected in 1994 by the Zamek Cultural Centre and officially named ‘St. Martin Street Name Day,’ the festival starts with a high mass in the aforementioned St. Martin’s Church. Afterwards, St. Martin himself, dressed in a Roman legionnaire’s costume and mounted on a horse, heads a colourful procession up ul. Św. Marcin to the square in front of the Zamek/Imperial Castle. There, the mayor of Poznań hands Marty the keys to the city, marking the start of the celebrations involving a street market with variable levels of kitsch (and critically high levels of croissants), special exhibitions, concerts, and performances inside the Zamek.
St. Martin's Day festivities in Poznań; fotoportal.poznan.pl

The FLAVOURS: St. Martin's Croissants

It ain't the real deal if it ain't got the seal.
A holiday as special as St. Martin's Day calls for its own special sweet confection, and that's rogale świętomarcińskie (ENG: St. Martin’s croissants) - a crescent-shaped pastry filled with a rich white poppy seed paste, glazed with sugar and sprinkled with nuts. The tradition of this treat dates back centuries and is so specific to Poznań that since 2008 it has been registered on the EU's prestigious ‘Protected Geographical Indication’ list - a special designation for protecting regional culinary traditions and food products. As such, only specially licensed and certified bakeries can offer official rogale świętomarcińskie, and they more or less have to stick to the traditional recipe of a flaky crescent-shaped pastry filled with a paste made primarily out of white poppy seeds, plus sugar, butter, eggs, almonds, walnuts, crumbled biscuits, dried fruit (raisins, dates or figs), and candied orange peel. Another strict requirement of PGI designation is that the croissants must be baked in Poznań or one of a few other designated counties in Wielkopolska, so if you want the real deal - you can only get it here.

Just how old is this rogale baking tradition? Well, the oldest advertisement for rogale świętomarcińskie has been found in an 1860 newspaper, but their history should perhaps be traced to pagan times, when oxen were sacrificed during the autumn holiday to please/appease the old Slavic deities; if cattle were lacking, enterprising worshippers used horn-shaped pastries as a substitute. Meanwhile, a popular legend places the start of rogale in 1891, when the parish priest of St. Martin’s Church urged the richer parishioners to help the poor as winter approached; a baker by the name of Józef Melzer prayed to St. Martin for ideas and turning to the street was inspired as the horse carrying the saint in the annual St. Martin's parade slipped a shoe – hence their crescent shape.
Poznań Essential Eats: St. Martin's Croissants

On St. Martin's Day, rogale are ubiquitous around town, but if you've missed his feast day, fret not. The pastry's marvellous popularity means that it can be found year-round in certified bakeries. Look for the prominently-displayed blue PGI symbol in the windows of local 'cukiernia' or 'piekarnia' shops, but don't be surprised if they are all sold out by early afternoon. Outside of November 11, St. Martin's croissants are typically sold by weight, and you might be a bit shocked by the prices as a single one of these hefty treats can cost 10-15zł. Once you've tasted one, however, you'll be hooked. This is ain't no pigeon food, but rather one of Poland's best baked delights, bar none.

For those craving a more in-depth experience (and the chance to bake their own rogal), year-round St. Martin’s cheer is available at the city’s Croissant Museum, which has recently made a home for itself right on the Main Square.
Poznań's Croissant Museum, where you can learn how to make St. Martin's Rogale on your own!

The FELLOW: St. Martin Himself

St. Martin handing out cloak scraps.
Now let’s take a look at this Martin (PL: Marcin) character, and why is he worthy of such sweets and fanfare (not to mention his sainted status). Also known as Martin of Tours, St. Martin was at one time among the very most popular Catholic saints, and a patron of damn near everyone: children, innkeepers, cavaliers, hat makers, blacksmiths, tailors, millers, weavers, travellers, prisoners, winemakers, beggars, soldiers, teetotallers, geese, and the entire country of France. Born in what is now Hungary in the 4th century, Martin was raised in Italy where he was conscripted as a member of the Imperial Horse Guard in the Roman army. As legend has it, he was stationed in wintry France at the age of 18 when he came across a shivering beggar and decided to cut his cloak in half to share it with the man. That very night Martin dreamt of Jesus wearing the half-cloak (or, according to some stories, woke to find his cloak fully restored) and decided to be baptised.

St. Martin and the army were not a good match; having a distaste for bloodshed and violence, the young soldier refused to fight in a key battle, even volunteering to go unarmed in front of the troops when his superiors charged him with cowardice. Luckily for the suicidal conscientious objector, the battle never took place, and a kick in the pants sending him right out of the army was the most severe consequence.

Freed of his duty, Martin made his way to Tours (then known as Caesarodunum) and became a disciple of Hilary of Poitiers, a proponent of Trinitarian Christianity that was at odds with the Arianism of the day. After adventures including confronting the devil, converting most of his family and the entirety of a random Alpine brigand to Christianity, and getting expelled from Milan by the Arian archbishop, Martin finally settled down to establish a hermitage that eventually became the Ligugé Abbey.
St. Martin, seen here a bit unassuredly riding down Poznań's ul. Św. Marcina.

Some years later, Martin was obligated to drop his largely hermit-like existence when the people of Tours positively insisted that he become their bishop and would not take no for an answer; according to the most probable account, the preacher was tricked into travelling to Tours to minister to a sick man, but instead was dragged into the church and consecrated. As bishop, Martin continued to sow Christianity among the Druidic heathens, destroy pagan temples, and promote the interests of the Church at the Imperial court in Trier until he passed on in 397, his grave becoming a pilgrimage site drawing throngs of devotees throughout the Middle Ages.

The FEAST: St. Martin's Goose

One particularly humourous and oft-repeated story about St. Martin tells of how he hid amongst some geese inside a barn in order to avoid those trying to press him into service as their bishop. The startled poultry betrayed him with their plucky honking and he was rather embarrassingly found out. With Christians traditionally beginning a 40-day period of fasting ahead of Christmas Eve on St. Martin’s Day, the night before - St. Martin's Eve / November 10th - sees excessive feasting, and the story of Saint Martin and the geese has been conveniently used to justify roasting the plump poultry at this time of year. Across the country you'll see 'St. Martin's goose' (Gęś św. Marcina) popping up on the menus of traditional Polish restaurants in November. Poznań does it best, of course, with their official ‘Goose for St. Martin’s Day’ food festival, during which participating restaurants serve goose dishes for an entire month beginning on the Friday before St. Martin's Day (Nov. 11th). Dig in.
St. Martin’s Goose (PL: Gęś św. Marcina)


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