I visited Poland for the first time as travel resumed after lockdown. The path into the unknown is invigorating: Fresh air for the brain. That’s one reason we travel. And after being embalmed at home for months, I wanted to feel the joy of roaming city parks and trying my hand at food overseas again. Poland felt right – for its proximity, affordability and most importantly, at least for me, for its cuisine.
During lockdown I was fascinated by Polish food culture. I traveled with Polska: New Polish Cooking on behalf of Poland’s pine forests and Baltic Sea coast (Quadrille, 2016), a book by Zuza Zak, a “storyteller”. Born in the Mazowsze region of north-eastern Poland, she is brilliant at challenging misconceptions about the food of her homeland. Yes, it’s hearty, but it’s also fresh and complex, with cucumber, berries, cheese, game, fish and herbs. Through pages splattered with wine, I had learned to make donuts with rose petal jam, coleslaw, and mackerel baked with cherries.
Reading Pan Tadeusz also aroused curiosity, an epic poem by Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855). In the book he describes bigos, Poland’s ultimate winter stew, which used to be prepared in forest clearings where hunters would drop their game into a pot simmering with pickled fruit: “In the pots the bigos were warming; mere words cannot tell / Of its wonderful taste, color, and smell.”
I wanted to try these flavors on the spot during a short taster trip to three cities: Warsaw, Krakow and Gdansk. And I did. But before we get to that, I would like to say that I have just returned from Poland. In between fundraising for Ukraine, which I have been involved with since the beginning of the Russian invasion, I took a brief trip to Warsaw. And I’ve learned that besides the food, there’s another pressing reason to go. Poland is making enormous efforts to help Ukrainians, who still arrive by bus and train by the thousands every day (around 1.2 million have applied for temporary residence in Poland). Huge tent kitchens operate 24/7 at train stations, hotels take in refugees, cafes raise money, chefs deliver meals, and museums and galleries have donation boxes. There is an intense atmosphere of solidarity. For every Polish flag there is a Ukrainian one.
The question is, does it feel right to be a “tourist” at a time like this? I would say absolutely yes. By spending money in Poland, you directly support those helping Ukrainians – hotel owners offering free stays to refugees, restaurant chefs delivering free meals in refugee centers, and ordinary Poles, from shopkeepers and waiters to bartenders and taxi drivers. who have offered millions of refugees a place to sleep in their homes. Art galleries and museums have QR codes to scan to donate to charities and boxes to drop cash. Many cafes donate the price of your cappuccino to Ukrainian charities. The generosity here is heartfelt and moving.
On this first post-lockdown visit, I fell in love with Warsaw instantly and spent hours wandering the elegant grounds of Łazienki Park with its ornate follies, lakes and pavilions. At the park’s botanical gardens, Flora Caffé drew me in with its sun-drenched wicker chairs. Reject the waiter’s suggestion szarlotkaApple pie, I asked for a plate of seasonal fruit instead.
“Berry? We only have berries.”
“Perfect thank you.”
Under a thick disk of sun, I devoured this little mound of bare Polish blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries. They were the best I’ve ever eaten, every single one a bombshell taste, as great tasting as wine. I quickly looked for them in other ways, mainly in soups, which are excellent in Poland. I loved the unexpected tart sweetness of a hot tomato and raspberry soup in Pyszna i Próżna and the cool blueberry pierogi (dumplings) at the old-school Radio Café owned by Stanisław Prószyński, a journalist who – now well into his 80s – put up anti-Putin posters.
On my first day I also stopped at the large National Museum which is crammed with 800,000 items. One curiosity in particular stood out: a glittering 18th-century first-aid kit with writing implements made of ruby glass, silver and velvet. What a timely, if awkward, accessory for itinerant writers in the pandemic age, I thought.
The next day I bought a ticket at Warsaw Central Station to Kraków, where departure boards with Prague and Berlin pointed to future adventures. Sitting in the comfortable carriage, the landscape quickly transformed from high-rise buildings to Polish shepherds: deciduous fields intersected by fast-flowing streams. Time slowed down until we arrived in Krakow almost early three hours later. As I navigated narrow streets and mysterious corners, past pubs with charming names like Dog in the Fog, I came across the medieval main square and a towering statue of Adam Mickiewicz that reminded me of the Bigos I was yet to try.
I eagerly decided to split the dinner: savory in one place, sweet in another. Bistro Kielbasa I Sznurek, or Sausage and String, looked inviting, with a menu “helmed” by Magda Gessler, an authority on Polish gastronomy. I started with a dill-rich bowl of cold beetroot soup, Chłodnik, and since Poland’s famous sausages are also vegetarian, these days I tried the black lentils, buckwheat and flaxseed; then a plate of complex but not heavy bigos cooked with beef, wild mushrooms, smoked plums and red wine. Many of the ingredients come from the nearby Stary Kleparz, an 800-year-old market that smells of lavender in summer. For pudding I went to Jama Michalika, just a short walk away, where, beneath an Art Nouveau stained glass window depicting a peacock, I surprised myself by topping a gigantic sundae with eggnog.
A bugle woke me the next morning, and I followed shuffling nuns in gray habit and down narrow, cobbled streets through Kraków’s compact center that begged for aimless wandering. I soon found the dimly lit Massolit bookshop where I spent hours browsing through paperbacks before settling into their cafe, a place so appealing – with elegant wallpaper, armchairs and customers writing softly (with pens! On paper !) – that I thought I might stay forever. But it was time to move on. Getting to the Baltic port city of Gdansk required a quick stop in Warsaw, but the train north from there is easy – three hours or so.
In Gdansk, I went straight to the European Solidarity Center, a massive cultural institution that spans five floors and is packed with intense exhibitions — from old lockers and typewriters to 3D projections — all helping to tell the story of Poland’s struggle for freedom . From the observation deck I could see shipyard cranes and the former Lenin Shipyard, where dissent in the 1970s and 80s led to resistance and the Solidarność movement that eventually contributed to the collapse of communist rule in Poland and the entire Eastern bloc.
Undoubtedly the must-see place in Gdansk, there’s a lot to see too; So that evening I sat down with the cozy looking Fino to think it all over. Over a glass of crisp white wine from northwestern Poland, I ordered pickled red cabbage butter for sourdough bread, spicy fish soup, pike-perch from Poland’s northern lakes in caviar sauce, and almond ice cream with strawberry soup. It was all so good that the next day I took a small commuter train to nearby Gdynia on the Baltic Sea coast to try sister restaurant Osteria Fino for lunch (also very good but not how Well).
I left Gdańsk with a strong fascination for Poland and its rich culinary culture. And after my recent trip to Warsaw, I plan to return as soon as possible to spend my money where it can make a difference while I can, in Lublin, Poznań and Wrocław, on bakeries, berries and the best soups of the world.
For more ideas about things to do and eat in Poland, see inyourpocket.com