I first visited Poland when travel resumed after lockdown. Going to an unfamiliar place is invigorating: fresh air for the brain. It’s one of the reasons we travel. And after balmy months at home, I wanted to experience the joy of roaming city parks and tasting food abroad again. Poland felt good – for its proximity, affordability, and most importantly, for me at least, its cuisine.
During the lockdown, I became fascinated by Polish culinary culture. I had traveled vicariously through Polish pine forests and the Baltic coast with Polska: New Polish Cooking (Quadrille, 2016), a book by Zuza Zak, a “cook storyteller”. Born in the Mazowsze region of northeastern Poland, she’s brilliant at challenging misconceptions about her homeland’s food. Yes, it’s hearty, but it’s also fresh and complex, with pickles, berries, cheeses, game, fish and herbs. Through pages splattered with wine, I had learned to make beignets with rose petal jam, sauerkraut salads, and baked mackerel with cherries.
Curiosity had also been aroused by the reading of Pan Tadeusz, an epic poem by Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855). In the book, he describes bigos, the ultimate Polish winter stew, traditionally prepared in glades where hunters dropped their game into a simmering pot with pickled fruit: “In the pots warmed the bigos; mere words cannot say / Of its wondrous taste, wondrous color and smell.
I wanted to taste these flavors in situ during a small tasting tour in three cities: Warsaw, Krakow and Gdańsk. And I did. But before we get to that, I want to say that I have just returned from Poland once again. I made a short trip to Warsaw during a gap between fundraising events for Ukraine, which I have attended since the start of the Russian invasion. And I learned that food aside, there is now another compelling reason to go. Poland is making huge efforts to help Ukrainians, who still arrive by the thousands by bus and train every day (about 1.2 million have applied for temporary residence in Poland). Giant tent kitchens operate 24 hours a day at train stations, hotels welcome refugees, cafes raise funds, chefs deliver meals and museums and galleries all have donation boxes. There is an intense atmosphere of solidarity. For every Polish flag that flies, there is a Ukrainian one.
The question is, does it feel good to be a “tourist” at a time like this? I would say absolutely, yes. By spending money in Poland, you directly support those who help Ukrainians – hotel owners who offer free stays to those who have fled, restaurant chefs who deliver free meals to refugee centers and Polish ordinary people, from shopkeepers and waiters to bartenders and taxi drivers, who have offered millions of refugees a place to sleep in their homes. In art galleries and museums, there are QR codes to scan to donate to charity and boxes to deposit money. In many cafes, the price of your cappuccino is donated to Ukrainian charities. The generosity here is heartfelt and moving.
On this first post-lockdown visit, I immediately fell in love with Warsaw, walking for hours through the elegant parkland of Łazienki Park, with its ornate follies, lakes and pavilions. Through the park’s botanical gardens, Flora Cafe drew me in with its sun-drenched wicker chairs. Deny server suggestion szarlotkaapple cake, I asked for a plate of seasonal fruit instead.
” Berries ? We only have berries.
“Perfect thank you.”
Under a thick slice of sunshine, I devoured this little mound of naked Polish blueberries, raspberries and strawberries. They were the best I have ever eaten, each a pomegranate of flavor, as superior as wine. I quickly sought them out in other ways, mainly in soups, where Poland excels. I loved the unexpected sweet and sour sweetness of a hot tomato and raspberry soup at Pyszna and Próżna and the refreshing blueberry pierogi (dumplings) eaten old-school radio cafeowned by Stanisław Prószyński, a journalist who — now well into his 80s — has pinned anti-Putin posters.
The first day, I too stopped at the big national museum, stuffed with 800,000 items. One curiosity in particular stood out: a glittering 18th century travel pharmacy with writing accessories, in ruby glass, silver and velvet. What a welcome, if cumbersome, accessory for wandering pandemic-era writers, I thought.
The next day, I bought a ticket to Krakow at Warsaw Central Station, where departure signs, showing Prague and Berlin, sparked ideas for future adventures. Sitting in the comfortable car, the landscape quickly changed from towers to Polish pastoral: green summer fields, bisected by fast-flowing streams. Time slowed down until three hours later, almost too soon, we arrived in Krakow. Navigating narrow lanes and secret corners, past charmingly named pubs such as Dog in the Fog, I came across the medieval main square and a towering statue of Adam Mickiewicz, which reminded me of the bigos I never knew. hadn’t tried yet.
Impatient, I decided to share dinner: salty in one place, sweet in another. The pub Kielbasa I Sznurek, or Sausage and String, looked inviting, with a menu “led” by Magda Gessler, an authority on Polish gastronomy. I started with a bowl of cold beet soup with dill, chłodnik, and since Poland’s famous sausages are also vegetarian, these days I’ve tried those with black lentils, buckwheat and flaxseed ; then a plate of complex but not heavy bigos cooked with beef, wild mushrooms, smoked plums and red wine. Most of the ingredients had been gathered near Stary Kleparz, an 800-year-old market that smells of lavender in the summer. For the pudding, I headed to Jama Michalika, a stone’s throw away, where under an art nouveau stained glass window depicting a peacock, I found myself demolishing a gigantic ice cream sundae, topped with advocaat.
A bugle awoke me the next morning and, following gray-robed nuns, I walked down narrow, cobbled streets through the compact center of Krakow, which encourages aimless wandering. I soon found the dimly lit Massolit bookstore, where inside I wasted hours browsing through paperbacks before settling into their café, such an attractive space – with sleek wallpaper, armchairs and customers writing quietly (with pens on paper!) – that I thought I could stay forever. But it was time to move on. Getting to the Baltic port city of Gdańsk involved a quick stop in Warsaw, but the train north from there is easy – around three hours.
In Gdańsk, I headed straight for the European Solidarity Center, a towering cultural institution, spread over five floors, brimming with intense exhibits – using everything from old lockers and typewriters to 3D projections – while helping to tell the story of Poland’s struggle for freedom. From the observation deck I could see shipyard cranes and Lenin’s former shipyard, where dissent in the 1970s and 80s led to resistance and the Solidarity movement which contributed to the eventual collapse of the communist regime in Poland and throughout the Eastern bloc.
Undoubtedly the must-see place in Gdańsk, it’s also a lot to take in; so that night i sat down to think about it all looks comfortable end. With a glass of crisp white wine from northwest Poland, I ordered pickled red cabbage butter for sourdough bread, spicy fish soup, zander from northern Polish lakes in a caviar and almond ice cream with strawberry soup. Everything was so good that the next day I took a small commuter train to Gdynia on the Baltic coast to try their sister restaurant, Osteria Finolunch (very good too, but not as good).
I left Gdańsk harboring a strong fascination for Poland and its long culinary culture. And, after my recent trip to Warsaw, I intend to return, as soon as possible, to spend my money where it can make a difference while I can, in Lublin, Poznań and Wrocław, for bakeries, berries and the best soups in the world.
For more ideas on what to do and where to eat in Poland, see inyourpocket.com