Wanted to pitch you an idea about El Preferido, an emblematic yet fading bodegón in Palermo, Buenos Aires, that’s having new life breathed into it by Pablo Rivero, the restaurateur behind LatAm 50 Bester Don Julio, and chef Guido Tassi. It opened yesterday, I’m heading there now for lunch where it will focus on classic yet updated Argentine dishes. Do let me know if you’d like an interview with review on this!
Long gone is the era when fine dining restaurants were pairing food strictly with wine – the Nordic food revolution brought, among others, also the taste for fruit and vegetable ferments, kombucha and – ciders. Hip edgy natural producers are leading the way, but there are more all over Europe, popping up and experimenting with what the local environment offers.
“Welcome to Polish Tuscany”, says Malgorzata Minta, our guide to Polish food and wine scene as we are driving down the beautiful narrow and hilly countryside roads, surrounded with huge old chestnut trees, shimmering ponds and gorgeous villas, abandoned after the 2nd World War, together with entire estates, orchards included.
This region, up in the north of Poland, 3 and a half hour drive from Warsaw, used to be German. What was known for the longest time as Prussia is now called Warmia. After the war, the Germans had to pick up their essentials and leave in a hurry, leaving behind magnificent countryside mansions, barns, fields with crops and orchards filled with apple and pear trees of ancient varieties now scattered all around the region.
THE PRUSSIAN LEGACY
Like a lot of the nations living in colder climate where vineyards don’t do well, but apples do, Prussians were known for their apple ciders, they were producing it in large quantities and had already pretty sophisticated methods. Post-war socialism of Soviet era eradicated all that, together with German past and instead of continuing the cider production and bringing the area to the forefront of cider production, together with Asturias, Basque country and some other European regions now renowned for their exceptional cider, Jabol was born.
Jabol was a cheap “wine” of some sorts, if you can call it that, the most affordable alcohol available mixed with apple juice and sugar and with a lot of added Sulphur. On Friday nights jabol was the go-to drink for young people who were drinking it with one, and one purpose only – to get drunk, fast, cost efficient.
Later on the producers just added CO2 to the blend and, voila, that’s how first Polish cider was born. Sparkling jabol is also the reason why cider has such a bad reputation in Poland and why Polish are so averse to these new dry cider styles with native yeasts that really have nothing in common with store-bought commercial, artificially flavored and super sweet ciders.
The modern Poland has no cider making tradition whatsoever and not only were the methods forgotten, they also turned to international apple varieties, leaving the old sorts to almost die out and formerly well-kept Prussian orchards to grow over.
POLAND, NUMBER 1 APPLE PRODUCER IN EUROPE
With 4,15 million tons a year Poland is number one apple producer in Europe and world’s second, after China. So why is there not more cider producers in the country? Marcin and Ewa Wiechowski from Kwasne Jablko, young couple who moved from Warsaw to the countryside to produce organic ciders from apples collected in the abandoned orchards explain.
Enter Marcin and Ewa, well-travelled couple from Warsaw who, in the spur of the moment, growing more and more tired of city life, decided after the birth of their first-born to leave their regular jobs and move to the countryside to become farmers. “People told us we were crazy,” laughs Marcin. By the time he decided to venture into cider business he already had a pretty big knowledge in wine, having worked both as a sommelier in Warsaw and learning the art of making wine in the wine cellars of Italy and Austria. Him having Italian roots the young couple often travelled to Italy, to indulge in good food, good wine and good produce.
Moving there was always one option, but in the end they decided to stay in Poland and for them the only possible location for their new home, where they could raise a family, was Warmia. But since they couldn’t grow vines here they come up with the idea to produce cider. Marcin began studying about it, buried himself in online literature and attended courses in Great Britain. But what they were teaching in England was a very commercial and conventional way of cider production, together with heavy spraying, adding Sulphur for stabilization and such. So he turned to his instinct and started experimenting.
The Wiechowskis bought one of those run-down, abandoned estates and rebuilt it, turned it into a cidery, together with a house that they now live in and a larger complex turned into sleek, modern looking B&B catering to families, loved-up couples, artists, yoga retreat attendees and industry professionals alike. They do wooden oven sourdough pizza once a week in a communal pavilion with Marcin topping it with top level Italian produce like burrata and prosciutto he gets from mongers in Warsaw or with splendid goat cheese and salami supplied by neighbouring farms.
BRING POLISH CIDER TO THE NEXT LEVEL
But the focal point of Kwasne Jablko remains cider and bringing Polish cider to the next level, revolutionizing the conservative, easy drinking scene and showcasing Polish number 1 crop, apple in all its (old) glory. Marcin owns several orchards in the area, he planted some himself, but mostly, he’s working with hundred years old apple trees in abandoned orchards on no-man’s land, trees so tall and overgrown you couldn’t spray them even if you wanted to.
Marcin and his team are trying to revive these forgotten orchards and if that’s not possible, they take grafts. “You won’t believe this but we often pick just 3 or 4 apples from one tree because these old trees simply don’t produce more, but I really think it’s worth it,” explains Marcin enthusiastically. That’s one of the reasons they can’t really maintain these orchards like the classic ones, all they really can do is remove the omnipresent mistletoe. “Picking fruits takes a lot of time and money,” acknowledges.
He now works with whooping 160 varieties of apples and he also tries to look for Northern European sorts that could grow here. Kwasne Jablko ciders are fermented under a layer of wild yeasts, with no added sulphites, most of them are unfiltered, for one, fresher type, Marcin is adding elderflowers to the mix, for the other raspberries picked at his organic farm, for the third one he uses infusion of wild herbs Ewa is foraging in the meadows around the house. The beginnings weren’t easy and Marcin had to fight a lot with the notorious Polish red tape because he wanted to age the ciders in used barrels. Something unheard of. “To be honest, I can’t sell my ciders in Poland. They also cost more than commercial ciders and the problem is Polish still compare cider to beer, when they should be comparing it with let’s say natural wine,” explains Marcin.
“Most of our bottles are shipped to Denmark. Scandinavia is much more prepared for these kind of ciders, because these are the countries that don’t have wine tradition. Plus they are used to fermenting weird stuff, so they are more willing to accept wet socks and veggie aromas in their ciders,” laughs.
So, which are the ultimate bottles to try and what is the food to pair with cider?
- Pasłęka This sparkling cider is made with ancestral method, it has been fermented on wild yeast for one year, and is a mix of 20 old apple varieties. It's the only semi-dry of the bunch with ripe yellow fruis aroma and perfect for summer days aperitivo or with a plate of cheese.
- Tropikalny Tropikalny is a blend of Gravensteiner, Jonathan and Spartan apples, unfiltrered and no carbonation. It's fresh, crisp, dry with medium acidity and baked apples-banana-pineapple finish in the aftertaste. It has a 7% alcohol and goes well with autumn vegetables, brie and charcuterie.
- Funk This brand new summer edition of Kwasne Jablko brings you cider refermented on raspberries from their own organic farm. It's light in alcohol content and has a nice fruity aroma to it. Recommended as an aperitivo or with some summer salad with burrata.
- Stare Sady Really well balanced, but quite powerful. It's produced from old orchards from a particular cru and aged in wooden barrels. Perfect for sourdough pizza topped with chorizo or sardines.
- Beczka 4 A blend of around 15 old apple varieties, Antonowka, Belle de Boskop, Grey Reinette, Topaz, Golden Delicious and Jonathan including. Light carbonation, pretty complex, rich in colour and aromas, with notes of honey and vanilla. Pair it with apple pie or cinnamon buns.