In Poland, All Saints' Day is a public holiday. Otherwise known as the Feast of All Saints, it's a time to remember saints, martyrs, and loved ones by taking a trip to the cemetery. In the capital Warsaw, it's also an opportunity to gorge on the most delicious sweets: pańska skórka.
Sold in small rectangles, pańska skórka's main ingredients are icing sugar, egg whites, gelatin, and strawberry syrup. Originally named "maiden's skin" because of its whitish-pink colour, the taffy-like sweet first appeared in the Polish dictionary in 1908. Back then, it was sold by pharmacies as a cough sweet, but soon evolved into the go-to confectionery of Warsaw's predominantly Catholic All Saints' Day celebrations, sold in cemeteries across the city as parishioners visited to pay their respects to the departed. In 2008, it was added to Poland's official list of traditional products by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.
When I arrive at Bródno, Warsaw's biggest cemetery, on All Saints' Day, the place is heaving with people. Rows upon rows of vendors are selling flowers, candles, hot food, and pańska skórka. I quickly get talking to 11-year-old Wawrzyniec, who tells me he's trading alongside his mum, auntie, and uncle, who are around the corner selling candles.
"We buy about 2,000 pieces of pańska skórka for half a zloty [around 10p] and sell them on for double that, but I give half the profit to my grandma," Wawrzyniec cheerily informs me in-between sales. I buy five pieces and ask him to introduce me to his mum, who tells me that trading at the cemetery isn't her day job—she also works at the airport—but this is welcome additional income.
Inside Bródno, I discover that the traditional white and pink pańska skórka isn't the only confectionary on offer. Most traders are also selling sweet puffed rice balls about the size of a grapefruit and chewy dough rings called obwarzanki. Several stalls have many other flavours of pańska skórka for sale; from lemon, apple, and cherry through to Coca-Cola and Nutella, but no one selling admits to making the stuff. This is perhaps due to the fact that the exact method for making pańska skórka is one of Warsaw's best-kept secrets, as well documented by the annual recipe hunts conducted by local reporters.
Izabella gets her pańska skórka from a neighbour in her block of flats in the district of Praga—previously Warsaw's poorest neighbourhood and now the capital's prime hipster quarter.
"I buy it in blocks, cut it up, wrap it in greaseproof paper, and come here to sell," she says. Now in her 18th year of trading at Bródno, she tells me that she buys eight kilograms of ten different flavours just to shift on All Saints' Day.
"Pańska skórka can keep for months," she explains, "but I never buy more than I think I'll sell as the sweets have to be kept at 15 degrees not to change in consistency, and I don't have the facilities for that in my home."
But grave sweeper Halina, who works on commission for families with loved ones buried at the cemetery, says that there are at least six vendors selling pańska skórka all year round, setting up outside the gates as the authorities would move them on should they be caught trading inside. It's only on All Saints' Day that there's opportunity to trade amongst the graves, with all strata of people taking advantage, from uninterested looking teenagers to seasoned market traders expertly grabbing people's attention. I ask what she thinks of the sweets.
"I don't eat them," she admits. "They'd wreak havoc with my dentures."
Buying over 30 pieces from several different vendors, I soon discover what she means by chipping a filling trying to bite into one. It's much better to put the whole sweet in your mouth and let the flavour envelop your taste buds. Once it starts to melt, pańska skórka is satisfyingly chewy like a toffee. As I start to munch through the rest of my haul, I discover the absence of uniform flavour, even among the same variety—some sweets are comfortingly milky and others indulgently sweet, while flavours such as bubblegum remind me of my childhood obsession with Hubba Bubba. More refined flavours such as rum and Amaretto are equally strong, proving that contrary to its name, pańska skórka is a robust sweet with plenty of character.
On my way out of the cemetery, I check in with Wawrzyniec, who's busy counting his cash. In the three hours that have gone by, he's sold half of his stock. When his auntie arrives with a hot dog, I ask if he's clocking off for the day. He shakes his head.
"People will keep coming until after nightfall," he says, reminding me he's not only grinding for himself but also his grandma. Whether it's his God-given nature, or the effect of the occasion, I can't tell, but out of all the pańska skórka traders I meet, Wawrzyniec is the saintliness I come across. I buy a few more pańska skórka from him for good luck.