If you love food, you love trying new things. So where better to try a different cuisine than when you’re visiting the country itself? That’s my logic anyway, so whenever I go somewhere new I try to have at least a few local dishes. My visit to a Krakow was no different. I can confess to never really having tried traditional Polish food before. There’s plenty of Polish people who live in Rugby, and so plenty of Polish shops, but I’ve never really had a proper look around them, or learned about what kind of food they stock and what meals they make those products into. Before Kraków I did a bit of reading and it turns out there’s plenty of Polish cuisine to try, from Pierogi (dumplings) and breadcrumbed fried pork chops to sheep’s cheese or local apple pancakes. Rather than write up each different meal and restaurant, I thought I’d just pick a few highlights for you guys.
So, after an abortive foodie start to the trip, thanks to a late flight, lack of open restaurants, a Bank Holiday weekend, and general tiredness, my first proper local food experience came on our first proper evening (not counting the one where we arrived late and had to resort to a ham baguette in our room!). After a long day visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, we were after sustenance pure and simple, and it so happens that traditional Polish fare fits securely into this bracket.
We hit one of the restaurants in the city’s impressive main square where I was tempted by a Royal venison goulash, having been assured by the waiter that it counted as local. It came served in a mini metal cauldron, complete with mini ladle, and suspended over a tea light to keep it warm. The generous cubes of venison were tender, the sauce thick and it had obviously been cooked for a long old time. It had a faint fragrant, almost curry-like taste to it that made it more than just a bog-standard stew.
It came served with plain boiled potatoes – not new potatoes as we tend to have a lot of now, but old potatoes, simply boiled until nice and tender then scattered with a few herbs. I don’t know about you, but this kinda reminds me of my childhood. We always used to have boiled potatoes with meals, but it’s not something I’ve continued in my adult life. I only tend to use old potatoes for mashing or roasting. Maybe I’ll make a trip back in time and change my ways.
So while I was munching on this, mother dear was tucking into veal sirloin with traditional potato pancakes and a mushroom sauce. Potato pancakes are definitely a Polish dish – shallow-fried pancakes of grated potato, an egg, and often flavoured with grated onion or garlic and seasoning.
There were three of them, perhaps slightly too much, but if it’s carbs you’re after, these are your friends. The veal was tender and tasty, and the sauce rich and packed with mushrooms. The dish came with a salad garnish which seemed slightly out of place, but then again, maybe it was just a nod to the need for something green, which other than the salad was a notable absence the plate.
Other traditional dishes on the menu included lambs knuckle, roast wild boar, a fried pork chop, and a ‘peasant’ grilled pork neck, along with a whole menu of traditional Polish dumplings, or ‘Pierogi’. I didn’t manage to snaffle these here, but definitely got my chance later one.
For pudding, we sought the waiter’s advice, who suggested a traditional cheesecake as well as a piece of apple cake. According to the rough guide to Polish food I had been given by the hotel, traditional Kraków cheesecake, or Sernik, is pretty similar to UK cheesecake – a topping of soft, fresh cheese on a base made from biscuit, pastry or sponge. And just as good as UK cheesecake too, I can testify to that.
So, I’ve mentioned dumplings and I was certainly not going to leave Kraków without trying these. For any Masterchef fans out there, you’ll remember in the latest series when one contestant impressed Torode and Wallace in the reinvention test by turning what appeared to be a boring combination of potatoes and peas into Pierogi, so I was keen to see what these things really were.
The venue was a little restaurant in Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter of Kraków. This has got massive historical significance, but also boasts a wealth of restaurants, cafes and bars. A real foodie heaven. So, presented with about five different Pierogi to choose from, I opted for the waitress’s favourite, filled with potato, cottage cheese and bacon. Mum ordered ‘meat’ pierogi which were apparently stuffed with pork, and we got a side order of fried cabbage just to be adventurous.
Pierogi are boiled or baked dumplings of unleavened dough stuffed with various ingredients. For me, they’re somewhere between Italian-style filled pasta like tortellini, and steamed Dim Sum. The outer shell was soft and chewable, but still with enough bite that you didn’t end up with a soggy load of wet dough in your mouth. The filling was substantial (as it would be with potato), with the saltiness of the bacon coming through. They were served just on a plate, with some oil drizzled over, and the 10 we were given each proved to be plenty. I’m not sure what I would’ve done if I’d ordered some that came with a cheese sauce too! The fried cabbage was a great accompaniment, a bright addition to the muted colours of the Pierogi and with a slightly spicy curry taste that contrasted with the richness of the dumplings.
For dessert, we could have opted for a sweet version of Pierogi, filled with blueberries, but decided instead to opt for Polish apple pancakes. These were deeeee-licious – slices of apple encased in batter that was light and fluffy in parts, with a slight crunch in others. The apples still had a slight bitter tang, but the pancakes were coated in icing sugar to sweeten them up. The result – a well-balanced, not too sweet, not too sour dessert of which there was plenty, even after we shared.
We left Poland having ticked quite a few dishes off our list, but far from all of them. I steered clear of Obwarzanek – basically Pretzels – as I’ve never been a fan, but also missed out on Oscypek, smoked cheese made of salted sheep’s milk in the Tatra mountains. We also missed Zurek, a Polish soup made of soured rye flour and meat, as well as the traditional beetroot soup Borscht (although my mum, who had a lot of it as a child thanks to her Czech mum, was firmly of the view that we weren’t missing much). But what I will definitely have if I return to Poland, and am a bit sad I didn’t get to try, is Zapiekanka. This great-looking street food is halved baguette, topped mainly with mushrooms and cheese, but available in a whole variety of toppings, a bit like pizza. From Hawaiian, with pineapple, to Greek, with olives and feta, you can pretty much get any topping you’d like. They looked delicious – anything from 25-50cm long, and were cheap as chips too. Definitely on the list.
Do you have any ‘must-try’ traditional Polish recommendations? I’d love to hear them so I can add them to the list if there’s a return trip.