The Baltic regions are on the rise. We explore the splendour of nearby Poland, still shedding the cloak of communism and forging a new identity. Poland – More Than Pierogi & Vodka for Food and Home Entertaining Magazine, March 2016.
Fall of the Iron Curtain
If it’s pierogi – the eponymous Polish dough pockets stuffed with everything from cabbage to duck, or saucy stewed pork knuckles and cold slugs of vodka that you’re after, you’ll find plenty across Poland. But, why would you just stick to the stodgy fare so many locals associate with the dank days of communism? In the three years between my visits to Warsaw, I’ve watched the food scene, albeit small, blossom to a level on par with many of its foreign counterparts. While Kraków’s main square restaurants remain suit-and-tie traditional – after all, this is the land of Chopin and Pope John Paul II, there are rapidly emerging spaces with street-food trucks, momo bars and raw food diners. It may be a surprise to some, but Poland is one of the world’s most prolific apple producers, and certainly the largest in Europe. It accounts for the presence of apples in soups, meaty dishes like duck and pork and numerous desserts.
In the years between my visits to chef Modest Amaro’s Atelier Amaro restaurant, he’s gained a Michelin star, the first one for Poland. “Polish gastronomy is going through the most exciting and dynamic spell in our history,” he says. He credits what he calls “a very wide movement involving food producers, suppliers and diners.” Amaro adds that Poles have “rediscovered our heritage, the richness of our land and waters. We’re bringing back our forgotten traditions.”
So, what was the state of food like before the fall of the Berlin Wall, 27 years ago? While many tell of the abundance of organic produce available during communism, if you just knew which farmer’s palm to cross with silver, consensus is that the regime crushed the depth and rich history of Polish cuisine, reducing it to the simplest of offerings. Like pierogi and bigos, a meat and cabbage stew still served popularly at the former state diners known as “milk bars”.
“To understand Polish food culture you must understand the circumstances after the war – during the communist era,” Magda Gendźwiłł writer at Crust and Dust blog, and guide with Eat Warsaw, tells me. “If you wanted meat to smoke or prepare, most likely you had to steal it. That’s how regulated food was then.” And when the regime collapsed, it was only the very rich or families who had benefited during the system or returned with wealth who could buy the best.
“Most Poles only ever ate industrially processed ham during communism,” Gendźwiłł says, elaborating on the subsequent generation of young people, with high-paying occupations and access to funding who started to plough money from their corporate jobs back into the land. “Conversations started about the food we remembered from the Christmases of our childhoods. We felt we deserved that regularly.”
Firewater and Herring
She tells me this with an instruction to eat a piece of fatty herring on a nugget of dark rye bread before knocking back a vodka (”fish like to swim”), which very few social excuses will get me out of drinking, I soon learn.
In fact, while vodka remains a source of pride for Poles, it took a topple during the communist era with large-scale low-grade plonk pumped out, and soon became associated with poverty and alcoholism. The Polish Vodka Association president Andrzej Szumowski tells me it’s doing its utmost to rectify that, maintaining strict controls, ultimately defending the purity of Polish vodka, a drink that is steeped in local tradition. A vodka museum is still under construction and no one you ask can, I find, yet point you to vodka bar that best represents this Polish pride.
New strides are being made though. Dom Wodki (House of Vodka), decked in charcoal with flecks of copper décor, is a stylish, sexy restaurant opened for a mere two weeks when I visit with Monica Kucia, journalist and food activist, who guides me through a modern meal based on traditional classics like sour-sweet barszcz, with tiny lamb dumplings and tender herring with boiled eggs, each paired with three immaculate shots of vodka. It takes some strength to get through it for the uninitiated, but I get the message. It may have taken 27 years, but here lies the best of Polish food and drink, under one roof.
Return to the Land
Agnieszka Kręglicka, restaurateur and a founder of the Slow Food movement in Poland is urging me to try a piece of fresh cheese at Targ Dobrego Jedzenia, the Good Food Market she runs in Forteca. “Our cottage cheese is perfection,” she grins. At Opałsy Tom, her slow food restaurant, the cuisine reflects the seasons and the unique Polish terroir. Classics are served with understated twists, born from the grace that is chef and musicologist, Agata Wojda’s hand.
At the market, one of a handful organic neighbourhood markets that have sprouted in the suburbs across Warsaw, the producers and farmers stand in front of their just-harvested vegetables, produce and handmade food, engaging with customers. Kręglicka believes that the future of how we eat depends on embracing what good, healthy and organic produce means, and the labour involved to make this a reality.
“There has been a change in the agricultural system from commercial to small, organic production,” she explains. “And it’s the city that’s driving the change, buying the land.”
“We cooked, we talked, we thought about a lot of things,” Kręglicka says of herself as a restaurateur. “The next step is for us to work the land.”
Magdalena Tomaszewska-Bolałek, a researcher and food studies lecturer at the Warsaw University of Social Science and Humanities says the “meat, potatoes and cabbage” stereotype has limited the worldview on Polish gastronomy. “We need to tell the world about our fish and vegetables, a big part of our diets.” The next step, she says, is for Polish food to be represented through meaningful stories.
It’s clear that those entrusted with the storytelling that will sculpt Poland’s culinary future, will be the new generation. Shepherding some of these voices, from a private cooking class studio that travels to state schools across Warsaw, is cook and former lawyer, Katia Roman-Trzaska of Little Chef. In her hands are the privileged palates of wealthy children who attend regular cooking classes, and those at the schools she gives sponsored classes to, who come from middle-income and poor families.
In teaching children, who are very open to tastes and flavours with the right encouragement, she says, the school hopes to establish a barometer in the child’s mind of what “good” food is.
Kucia also predicts a promising future for Polish cuisine. Much hinges, as others have said, on the incredible diversity this Baltic state enjoys, and how the story is packaged. “Want to go cod fishing in the Baltic Sea, pick wild greens in Kashubian forests, make traditional bread with a baker from the Masurian Lake District and modern versions of old dishes with young chefs?” she asks, explaining that she offers these unique culinary experiences to educate visitors. “I want to show people contemporary Polish gastronomy, while teaching them about our heritage.”
Eat Warsaw & Kraków Food Tours: www.eatwarsaw.com
Little Chef, cooking school for kids: www.littlechef.pl
Specialist tours with Monica Kucia at Polish Plate: email@example.com
Atelier Amaro – fine dining, 1 star Michelin: www.atelieramaro.pl
Opałsy Tom – slow food: www.kregliccy.pl/opaslytom
Dom Wodki – vodka and modern classics: www.domwodki.pl
Solec 44 – nose to tail and fermentation: www.solec.waw.pl
STOR – coffee shop: www.facebook.com/storcafe
Charlotte – brunch and patisserie: www.bistrocharlotte.pl
Klezmer Hois for Jewish Food (not officially kosher, though): www.klezmer.pl
Jama Michalika, open since 1895 – www.jamamichalika.pl