Poland’s capital city has just hosted the third edition of the European offspring of Canada’s prominent Terroir Symposium. A food forum designed to explore the complex identity of Polish food culture with the help of a crowd of top chefs, restaurateurs, historians, journalists and anthropologists.
This grassroots event, sponsored by S.Pellegrino, focused on the exploration of local food and kicked off with a three-day study tour and collaborative dinner, followed by the forum which tackled the less obvious food destinations using a multidisciplinary approach.
This time around its founder – Arlene Stein – along with local leaders Matylda Grzelak, Olga Badowska and Joanna Drzazga, decided to gather a diverse group of world-renowned chefs like Nicolai Ellitsgaard-Pedersen, JP McMahon, Mark Best and Amanda Cohen along with representatives from the local food scene to form hearty panel discussions, and research-driven workshops in Warsaw to reinvent a much more multifaceted image of Polish cuisine.
Food Identity Through history
Despite being one of the largest countries in Europe, Poland struggles to establish itself as a "food destination". Most of its traditional food is tied to milk bar menus, left from the post-war period. During the forum Aleksandra Kleśta-Nawrocka, food historian and ethnologist, introduced us to a history of Polish food, speaking about baroque-oriental spices and local herbs that marked distinctive Polish cuisine.
A historical approach to exploring the identity of local food culture was also presented by JP McMahon, Food on The Edge founder and promoter of Irish food, who referred to its historical roots, trade and migration. Through his charismatic sense of humour, he outlined the foreign origins of ingredients that have become central to the identity of the Irish diet.
During a discussion panel, hosted by the journalist Agata Michalak along with chef historian Maciej Nowicki, chef Robert Trzópek and medievalist Łukasz Kozak, they managed to extract a toolbox of research methods that could help us dig into the past through interviews, historical cookbooks, archives, and employees with their diverse backgrounds and origins.
The Future of Food Identity
What do you do if you don't have a century-old history of food culture? Connie DeSousa and John Jackson — the duo behind Canadian’s flesh-driven Charcut, come from countries built on migration, hence they don't recognise a predominant food culture. However, even if Canada is a mosaic of cultures with a relatively short history, they try to create a distinct sense of identity and pride and have mapped their area and created a new sense of food identity in Alberta.
In his opening speech, the Australian chef Mark Best encouraged us to think about our food culture today, with respect to our time and our place, calling us the custodians of the future. It is chefs' responsibility to treat cooking as a craft and not just a technical exercise, he commented. John and Connie too noted that time is our enemy and it rapidly takes away what we are doing, yet it takes time to hear.
The idea that the future of our food and its identity lies in the power of listening was also the argument raised by Wojciech Modest Amaro, owner of first restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star — Atelier Amaro, chef mentor of this year’s top finalist Marcin Popielarz in the S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2018 competition, who spoke about the importance of mentorship.
Seeking Food Experiences
The speakers were also moderators of workshops hosted with the forum guests. Asked to share different uses of particular products based on their memories and experiences, they revealed that locality comes with local condiments and that in order to share food culture it is more important to share recipes than products. While talking about plums, Laurel Kratochvila from Fine Bagels in Berlin said food products share links and commonalities and therefore we can’t claim something is truly “ours”.
A Polish descendant, Agatha Podgorski from Canadian Culinary Tourism Alliance, said that when creating a food tourism destination, we need to forget the cliché that our target market is foodies, and food industry related people. According to her “every travel experience can be a food tourism experience”, since every one of us, regardless of what we are doing, will have to eat somewhere. The ingredients for the recipe are to develop pride of place, invest in product development, identify industry leaders, and attract storytellers.
What is a truly local product? Agnieszka Kręglicka and Olga Kręglicka, restaurateurs and pioneers of Warsaw’s gastronomic reinvention, are torn between the economic factors and sustainable products. Running several restaurants in the capital and a catering company poses several problems in keeping quality consistent and staying true to using only local produce.
An animated discussion was held on ways to build a proud image of Polish cuisine led by Justyna Adamczyk of Gault et Millau Poland with Andrea Camastra from the capital’s second Michelin restaurant Senses, Adrian Klonowski—a young generation vibrant chef, who recently closed the well-established Metamorfoza in Gdansk, Tomasz Hartman, Polish Food Think Tank founder and Flavia Borawska, chef from Opasly Tom, revealing difficulties in collaboration within the chef environment.
Criticizing a lack of good practices and self-centered approaches, signifying a “copy-paste” attitude of many chefs appropriating foreign concepts instead of individually approaching their own food culture and raising the need to take time to educate first about their own terroir, it proved that the environment is in need of strong leadership and ways in which they can foster a collective approach to building a coherent depiction of their terroir.
Food Without Borders
Migrant influences upon Polish cuisine make it difficult for Polish chefs to distinguish staple dishes attributed to Polish pride. Personal “terroir” is different for every place but some classifications are harder to define than others. One of the highlights of this forum was the unusually wide perspective used to look at our food cultures. Visiting chefs and journalists, from different corners of the world, looked at the world map without borders all because of our migrating ancestry. Maksut Askar from Istanbul’s Neolokal pointed that geography is more important than ethical and cultural roots since migration is something we all share. Locality is built around a mix of heritage and culture in the territory we live in, not bound by borders.
Amanda Cohen of Dirt Candy in New York wrapped up the forum by saying that “food is complicated and is full of slang”. When defining terroir we should omit the trend to identifying national cuisines, as it is an attempt at simplifying food. She also put across the point that cuisines should have no borders as food is a common language we all share, hence “We are the Terroir, we are the cuisine”. This last notion was also greatly present during the final Terroir collaborative dinner between foreign and local chef pairs hosted in Zoni restaurant space of the new Museum of Polish Vodka.