Time to Relish the Poland Culinary Renaissance Starting in Krakow

If the holidays are a time to celebrate traditions of a culinary nature (and who could argue that?), then any time is party time in Krakow, Poland’s culinary travel ground zero and this must-visit central European country’s favorite city to eat, drink and make merry.

The entire country of Poland has seen a culinary renaissance. It goes far beyond the legendary soups, sauces, venison, ubiquitous pierogi (dumplings) and seasonal dishes, especially those made with forest-foraged mushrooms and wild and cultivated berries. It’s all been happening, chefs you meet will tell you, since the restrictive post-World War II Soviet/communist regime with its prohibitions ended a short 25 years ago.

No place or space for Poland World War II history lessons here but if you’re interested, start with this Polish culture during World War II link.

“When I came here 18 years ago the Polish traditions had all but died out,” says Aziz Seck, erstwhile basketball player (it’s what brought him to Poland), acclaimed cocktail mixer, a transplant from Africa via France and owner of Café Baobab, a Senegalese bar and restaurant in Poland’s capital Warsaw, about three hours by train from Krakow.

While Seck is intent of promoting the best of his African roots in Poland, he acknowledges that Poles are doing the same with their culture. “This country was closed for a long time under communism. Now the scene is vibrant. People are cooking. The markets are filled with local produce. A generation of new young Polish chefs are reviving and promoting traditions.

“Poland is now open for the world. The people are enthusiastic, hard working, entrepreneurial. The country is moving forward. The Poles want to showcase their culinary traditions. There’s a positive atmosphere. Many changes and all for the better.” 

I recently spent three weeks in Poland, a large chunk of that time in Krakow. So what would I say is the reason it’s the country’s top tourist city? Well, it has the largest Medieval market square in Europe. This expansive pedestrian area is filled with glorious architecture and throbs with life day and night. It’s crammed with restaurants, cafes, pubs, clubs with music, vodka bars and in the summertime, al fresco food markets and entertainers. Churches too that are awe-inspiring, whatever your faith — and sometimes music-filled. I went to a chamber music concert in one. Oh, and a fabulous Chopin piano recital upstairs in an old palace right on the square.

Poland is now part of the European Union. That it still uses the Polish złoty currency (not the Euro) means prices are excellent for U.S. travelers.

As a holiday gift, dear readers, I share seven of my most delicious Krakow holiday highlights.

1. Nice to Meat You

Adam Chrząstowski is a delight. He is the chef at Ed Red, one of the many great restaurants in old-town Krakow close to the market square. It’s a meat restaurant, he says. They’ve only been open six months and were the first restaurant in Poland to dry-age their beef.

He talks about how culinary traditions are reviving in the post-Soviet era. “People are becoming interested in food again,” he says.

I say I’d like to try something local; traditional.

Be careful what you wish for comes to mind when the waitress puts down a plate and chef tells me the five items I’m about to eat are all from a young calf (veal):

  • brain made the Polish way, cleaned in water and vinegar then roasted with egg and parsley.   “It was a classic bar snack before World War II that we’re reviving,” he says.
  • cheek with grated horseradish on pumpernickel
  • sweetbread (thymus)
  • tongue, with radish and chives on rye bread
  • and liver — with pear — on brioche. “We like to respect the whole animal,” he explains.

Verdict? Well, the idea of the brains threw me. But surprisingly, I’d eat his brains again.

2. Lunch in the Salt Mines

The Wieliczka Salt Mine is about half an hour by car from Krakow. You go underground to where there is a labyrinth — 200 miles of tunnels and 3,000 chambers. Everything is carved from salt including a 12 Apostles scene, a larger than life size replica of the late Polish Pope and even the “diamonds” in the chandeliers in a cavernous underground church where not only tourists go in droves, but mass is held on Sundays.

We ate well in the salt mine at Wieliczka’s underground restaurant.

3. Carping on it

Something they’re promoting about one hour by car west of Krakow in and around a small town called Zator is Carp Valley and carp fishing. (Zator carp are famous — they’ve have been farmed in this area since the 14th century, would you believe.) The president of the Association of Royal Carp, Franciszek Sałaciak, has won awards for his breaded carp and his smoked carp. He catches a carp before we get there to show us how to fillet a carp for cooking and smoking. He serves us his carp, smoked on beech wood. It’s rich, succulent, juicy and delicious. Tourists are invited to go catch carp themselves. 

4. Lovely Lanckorona

I think of myself as a city girl. So what was it about Lanckorona, about 45 minutes by car from Krakow, a country hamlet high on a hill, that instantly grabbed me?

Yes, the place is picture-postcard perfect. But so are a lot of other Polish towns, yet they did not have this effect.

Sure, almost every one of the 19th century wooden houses close to Lanckorona’s  medieval “market” square makes you want to reach for your camera. And the view across the rooftops to rolling green hills and distant forests from the grounds ofthe church is stunning.

There is a single coffee shop. Eccentric in its details, Cafe Arka was built by a local ceramic artist who focused on the integrity of the village in every element of design and construction.

Now local gal Renata Bukowska is attempting to focus the world’s attention on the culinary traditions of the Lanckorona district and local and regional specialty products. She introduces me to two young women whose mission is to capture traditional recipes before the old people, who are privy to them, die with them. Worthy project, no?

She also takes me to a farm belonging to two women. The farm is called W Aroniach and they offer room rentals. (Yes, I would stay there.) The women cook traditional Polish food. They also make — most romantically, rose-infused vodka and jam. 

5. Benedictine Abbey Road

Abbot Zygmunt Galoch is guest manager at the oldest monastery in Poland, the Benedictine Abbey in Tyniec, about half an hour by car from Krakow. Abbot Galoch tells us that lunch in Poland is the main meal. They call it dinner. And for lunch (dinner!) you have to have a soup, a meat or fish dish and dessert. “It’s obligatory,” he says with a wry smile, many times.

The abbey has a guest house with 50 rooms and 80 beds. You don’t have to be Catholic to stay there. He reminds us that Benedictine liquor (with 21 herbs) was invented by Benedictine monks.

We take breakfast with him, which includes a platter of breads, salamis, gherkins, pates, cheeses and more. All the products (and many more) are sold in the large shop (there’s also a restaurant and cafe) on the property where everything is sold under the Benedictine label.

6. Pod Baranem Na zdrowie!

It’s blustery and raining in Krakow for my lunch date at Pod Baranem, reputedly the most popular restaurant among locals who want to indulge in upscale seasonally inspired traditional Polish fare in the city’s vast medieval Old Town marketplace area. It’s run by father and son and you sit among paintings by Polish contemporary artist Edward Dwurnik.

I’ve barely had time to settle in when waiter Mariusz Scetlak brings me a what he tells me is “quince-infused vodka — made by the owner; to warm you up”. It accompanies a small platter that includes a tapas-size serving of steak tartare.

The tartare, prepped by Pod Baranem owner and chef Jan Baran’s “number-two chef” son, Patrick, is prepared with gherkin and marinated foraged mushrooms, both made in-house.

“We have to constantly plan around the seasons,” Chef Patrick tells me. “In mushroom season we buy foraged mushrooms and freeze them. We use 2,000 kg of fresh foraged mushrooms a year and 300 to 400kg of dried mushrooms. 

“At the moment we’re making plum jams. The plums are in season. We freeze fresh berries to use all year and make jams which we can then reconstitute year-round in sauces, hot or cold.” 

The berry mousse cheesecake I end my meal with is made from fresh berries. The intense berry drizzle in the velvety garnish that accompanies it is made from one of their berry jams, he says. It means they can keen this favorite on the menu all year.

Scetlak pours me what he says is Chef Jan’s special 14-year-old barrel-aged prunus padus-infused (bird cherry) vodka to accompany my cheesecake and coffee.

I was offered the option of wine. It would have been French. Why, when the option was to sip on infused local vodkas made in-house? 

7. Wine time in Polska

Poland doesn’t have a wine industry to speak of — yet.

But it does have eccentrics — and entrepreneurship.

Winemaker Marek Górscy, who grows French and Polish grapes against what might call “the winter odds” at his vineyard, Krokoszówka Górska, near Krakow, refused to tell his neighbors what he was planting when he started 10 years ago. “I knew they’d laugh at me,” he said.

They did laugh when spring came and they saw for themselves.

They’re not laughing now that 10 people in the area have followed suit and weekenders travel regularly from Krakow to taste and buy his wine.

He’s winning awards. He’s beating the odds.

Beat the odds — and the crowds. Go visit Poland soon before everyone discovers it.

Check out this link: Sarna Rose is President of Poland Culinary Vacations, based in Florida. Chat with her or explore her website if you’re interested in a culinary vacation or in Poland. A big plus: the site is in English!

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Long-time Cuisine Noir contributor Wanda Hennig is an award-winning food and travel writer, an author, a blogger and a life coach. A native South African, she believes we are what (and how) we eat (and drink). Thus, she says (only a little tongue-in-cheek), the best way to truly understand a country, a city, a culture—and a people—is via your taste buds and your stomach.