Kraków, a City Tasting Tour
One look at Agneiszka Kuś, historian and my translator, tells me that I should accept the offer for at least one course at upmarket Biala Róza restaurant in Kraków, one of the most ancient cities in Poland, during our meeting with elegant owner and restaurateur Urszula Kania. We’ve just had a hearty Polish breakfast at Jama Michalika, low-lit and evocative, dating back to 1895 (the interior and furnishing remains intact), significant for being the birthplace of the Polish Art Nouveau movement, where prominent artists and actors of the day came together to mingle. And we have lunch to think of in the next hour. But by now, I understand, to refuse would be considered rude by Polish standards, and so I choose the herring – a play on traditional pickled herring, served lightly crumbed and fried, with baby beetroot and a delicate potato salad with dill, horseradish, and tart red currants. Luckily, this time, no one expects me to throw back a vodka too – a product the Poles manufacture and consume with pride.
The ingredients on my plate are of the moment, typically Polish and the combinations playful. This is the food philosophy Urszula (60), dressed smartly in a black and white coat with a crisp white blouse tells me she has worked hard to maintain: local ingredients sourced from nearby, traditional recipes and strong relationships cultivated with small suppliers.
The Seasonal Plate
“All the produce we use is 100 percent Polish and the best quality,” she says. “Some ingredients like saffron are not strictly Polish, but you will see they were used in the old cuisine.” The restaurant has an enviable display of cookbooks, including the oldest in the Polish language: Compendium Ferculorum albo Zebranie Potraw by Stanislav Czerniecki, published in 1682. Urzula tells us about the communist period before the fall of the Berlin Wall: ”Polish cuisine was always diverse and beautiful but the lack of ingredients limited us. It was hard for my aunts who lived in the cities. Between 1944 and 1989 all you could get outside the home was pierogi, bread with lard and fatty pork chops.” Because they remember those shortages, people don’t always want to buy seasonally today, she says, but there has been great progress, especially with the Slow Food Movement’s education drives and multiplying organic produce markets. “People start to notice the difference in textures and taste when produce is in season, Urszula says.
Known to adhere to traditions, in much the same way as Kraków with its medieval architecture, palace and fort walls, Wierzynek is somewhat ambitiously credited to having opened in 1364 (when a feast was held for no less than five kings), and one of the oldest restaurants in Europe. Here you enjoy formal service in lavish grand rooms with the choicest view over the square as you sip sweet-sour barszcz, a thin beetroot soup with lamb dumplings and savour a saddle of venison with half a quail smothered in a clove sauce. Of course, if this or Wentzl next door (try the duck with beetroot dumplings and gingerbread filling), frequented by posh locals and tourists isn’t your cuppa or budget, you can still have an authentic taste of the old ways, at the square.
The sernik (cheesecake) and kremówka (similar to mille feuille) at Kawiarnia Noworolski adjacent to the Cloth Hall market, and served at most pastry shops is must. Lody (ice-cream) shops get block-long queues in summer. My favourite flavour? Wild strawberry, naturally.
Simit-shaped obawaranek, or “Krakówian bagel”, a chewy, slightly sweet dough ring sprinkled with poppy seeds has been sold in the main square for over 600 years – buy it from the numerous cart vendors around the square and across town. Obawaranek is recognised by the E.U. as a uniquely Krakówian product. For EU recognised area-specific local cheeses, in-season strawberries, honey mead, salted and smoked prunes and the kiełbasa lisiecka sausage, visit the covered Plac Nowy market or the organic Targ Pietruszkowy Farmers Market.
Locals are proud of the zapiekanka, an open-faced baguette typically smothered with mushrooms, cheese and ketchup, given the nickname “Polish pizza”. The finest ones, with creative fillings, are found at the kiosks at Plac Nowy, and locals swear by their anti-hangover properties.
Milk bars & Gefilte Fish
A trip to a milk bar, the former state-run diners, will see you enjoying a cheap and hearty meal for a few zloty – look out for the cabbage-and-meat stew, bigos, pork knuckle, ubiquitous pierogi, placki – potato pancakes and gołabaki - meat stuffed cabbage rolls. Try Bar Targowy. For more modern fare, Kraków’s street food trucks hang out conveniently at one venue, under a large street art mural: E-6 Skwer Judah, ul.n Św Wawrzyńca, 16.
And no trip to Kraków, however short, is complete without immersing in the city’s rich Jewish roots. After the historic sites and memorials, head to the former Jewish district, Kazimierz and start (or end) with drinks at dimly-lit Alchemia bar, and tuck into robust fare - gefilte fish, cholent stew, and stuffed goose necks at Klezmer Hois (not officially kosher, though).