Welcome to Krakow, the European Capital of Gastronomic Culture 2019
Warsaw may have the “Michelin” stars but Poland’s royal city now has the status. It is the European Capital of Gastronomic Culture 2019, beating off Lisbon for the honour conferred by the Paris-based European Academy of Gastronomy.
Says Michal Sobieszuk, founder of “Eat Polska” which offers a four-hour, 1.5 mile, 10-stops escorted food tour as well as vodka crawls around the UNESCO World Heritage city:
“Krakow is great for bar and restaurant hopping. It’s relatively compact, very walkable and boasts one of the strongest street food scenes in Poland.”
The vomitorium was not on our itinerary. And braised bear claws were no longer on the menu. But a former Jewish prayerhouse (“Hevre”), Jewish caviar and gourmet bull’s testes were.
Food tours are becoming popular in Poland, catering not only to tourists but Polish “jedling”- foodies. All over Krakow a new generation of foodies is Instagramming their goose blood soup and proudly Facebooking Charznice cabbage heads.
The latest brains are being posted and unforgettable regional sausages uploaded. Stale bread soup and cutlets are no longer Poland’s culinary celebrities.
After years of unrelieved fermented cabbage and pickled cucumbers, a wind of change is blowing through Polish haute cuisine -“wykwintna kuchnia”.
And everyone is wishing each other “Smacznego!” – Wishing you tastiness.”
“The past is back. But it’s not bad. Hospitality is in our blood. We need to feed people,” says Karolina Milezanowska of haveabite.com – the city’s gastro portal which publishes a foodies’ map. “Palates are getting more educated. More demanding and more curious.”
In 2013, Warsaw’s Wojceich Modest Amaro became the first Polish chef to be accorded a “Michelin” star. Now Krakow’s chefs de cuisines at luxury hotels are leading the fine dining experience with “degustacja” menus which represent the best value for haute cuisine anywhere in the world.
Once it was only the nobility who ate well. Now the people do. As well as tourists.
Michelin-recommended Marcin Filipkiewicz of the “Copernicus Hotel” has cooked for “rulers, bishops, artists and actors”. His heroes include Alain Ducasse and culinary revolutionists, Peter Gilmore and Grant Achatz.
He offers a 12-course taster menu (R1500) including “duck with chicory boiled in red-orange and hibiscus.”
“While appreciating our cooking traditions, I’m trying to get away from stereotypes,” says the author of his country’s best-selling fine dining cookery book. “People don’t associate Poland with fine dining. That’s so wrong.”
“The chef to Prince Alexander, Stanislaw Czerniecki produced our first cookbook in 1682. We have a rich gastronomic heritage and we are rediscovering it. And re-interpreting it.”
Events are planned throughout 2019. Adds Filipkiewicz: “It’s not just the tourists we must cater to. We must focus on Poles. Polish Chefs are hungry for success.”
The 29-room boutique “Copernicus” with its en-suite Romanesque murals is the former Polish capital’s first “Relais & Chateaux” property. Past guests include Prince Charles and ex-President George W. Bush.
Sister “Hotel Stary” is the only place in Krakow where you can breathe sea air. Its cellar spa has a Dead Sea salt wall. Its restaurant offers fillet of rosefish and deer with pumpkin, passion fruit smoked chocolate and port wine chilli sauce.
“Pod Roza” (Under The Roses) has played host to Russian Tzars. Chef Milosz Grabowski trained under Michelin 2 chef, Arnauld Bignon. Krakow has twenty-five Michelin-recommended restaurants.
Historic spaces are now restaurants. With its original leather and silver flake golden cordovans, coffered ceilings and ornate walls, the “Wierzynek” boasts an “attribute exceptional atmosphere”.
Scene of a 20-day feast thrown in 1364 by King Casimir the Great for other monarchs, chef Michal Hajdus’s seasonal menu includes dumplings with hare (R220) and venison saddle.
Also in Europe’s largest market square, the thirteenth century Rynek Glowny, is “Szar Ges” (Grey Goose) with chef Michal Stezalski’s signature dessert, a milk chocolate goose egg with a mango mousse yolk. Goose is a speciality in November throughout Krakow.
Starters include a creamy foie gras, baked apple and cider emulsion as well as beef tartare with lovage mayonnaise and spicy pickles.
Mains include glazed goose leg and prunes (R220) and “poledwiazka z czarnej swinki, golabek z bialej, kielbasy, wedzona Mangalica (black pig tenderloin, stuffed cabbage with white sage and smoked blonde Hungarian pig).
Pod Aniolami” (Under The Angels), also close to the thirteenth century main square, is in a thirteenth century cellar and former goldsmith’s workshop. Its menu tempts you with wild boar steak in juniper marmalade.
Polish cuisine has come a long way from stale bread soup, dry crackers, jellied pork knuckle, CCCP inspired 100% fat “Smalec” lard spread, huge slabs of black rye “chleb” bread, watery broths, limp plastic sausages and indigestible dumplings.
Traditional dishes like “globaki” (cabbage rolls), “bigos” (big mess hunters’ stew), “barszcz” (Polish borsht), “pierogi” (small ear ravioli dumplings from Ukraine) and “sernik” cheesecake are still popular. But the end of austerity has brought elegant dining at relatively austere prices.
A budget destination now offers a hearty, haute cuisine which undercuts all others. Some of the Soviet era egalitarian diners – “mclezny” milk bars – are still there and state-subsidized offering two courses for R55.
The “Solem” (together) mugs may have gone but the canteens are “must try locales” for the growing numbers of foodies who walk, cycle and Segway around the city in search of its culinary heritage.
Polish cuisine’s early influences were Eastern. From the sixteenth century, Asian spices were used. Partitions and assimilation into the Russian, Prussian and Austrian empires have left their marks on tablecloths.
French and Indian restaurants appeared in 1990. But the post-Communist culinary revolution started with hamburgers at the now no more “Love Krowe” (“Love A Cow”). Then came Vietnamese immigrants. Swiss and Italian confectionaries returned and “decadent” pastry shops reappeared.
Damian Suraweic opened “Euskadi” over the Vistula river in Podgorze. Amongst many tapas dishes, he offers prawns from Venice, Basque tapas and a Campari sorbet. He believes food is a cultural force, providing identity. He is targeting locals.
“We are trying to build new eating behaviour. Quality over quantity. But Polish food is still simple and uncomplicated.”
There are now cookery school and pierogi power workshops. And even a bagel museum where you can roll (“Sulka”) and braid (“warcocz”) your own Kracovian bagel.
Says curator Maria Krzyzek-Siudah: “The obwarzanek symbolizes the city. To “obwarzac” means to “parboil”. This stops yeast from growing and so obwarzanek can keep its shape and be soft inside and crispy on the outside.”
“In 1257 Boleslaw the Chaste granted “jatkiepiekanski” (bagel makers) their own guild. And a tower to defend. Now 150000 are made and sold every day in Krakow.”
Near Wawel Castle, seat of Polish kings for five hundred years, Pod Barinem’s owner/chef Jan Barinem offers home cooking out. “Our Sirloin a la Barbican harks back to medieval Poland.
The bacon wrap defends the delicacy of the meat. We also have zurky sour rye soup with egg and sausage as well as spare ribs wrapped in braised cabbage with cep sauce.”
At the 800-year-old Stary Klepatz farmer’s market, stalls sell dried forest mushrooms, rustic sausages and farmhouse cheeses like oscypek and “Sledz” (herrings) to accompany “Chopin” – vodka. The young potato “Mlody Ziemniak” is considered the premium luxury vodka.
Just outside the city, the 28 hectare 2008 Srebrna Góra vineyard under the Camaldolese Hermit Monastery in Bielany is reviving tenth century monastic viticulture.
Góra produces 120,000 bottles annually. It makes a Polish Beaujolais to commemorate St Martin – the patron saint of winemakers.
Because it is a cottage industry, domestic wines are nearly double the price of imported wines. There is also an embryonic cider culture. Thanks to the apple export embargo to Ukraine. The new “jedling” tours end in Kazimierz with shots. Of vodka.
Survivors of the all-day Auschwitz/Wielicza salt mine tours, the Gestapo cells and Jewish ghetto tours and ejecta from miscellaneous clubs like the Soviet “Forum Hotel” now the “Przestrzenie” and those in the former tobacco factory “Tytano”, assemble at Plac Nowy’s “okraglaz” ex-poultry slaughterhouse for a foot-long, open-faced halved sub “zapiekanka” or pulled pork “maczanka” with chocolate mousse.
The queues at the hatches for “drugie sniadanie” (second breakfast) also comprise the swaying remnants of the craft beer taphouse tours smelling of the “Three Brothers “ brewery and Pracownie Piwa “Crack” made in Cracow American Stout.
As one half-cut modern Polish gourmand and connoisseur of heavy drinking observed: “Some things never change. For the best restaurants look at the waiters’ shoes.”
Story by By Kevin Pillay