Krakow – a new foodie destination
Poland and gastronomy would barely have been mentioned in the same breath ten years ago. However, a flourishing restaurant scene with everything from food trucks to fine dining, and new thinking when it comes to sustainability and quality, international gastronomy circles are turning their gaze towards the country.
Warsaw has gained its first Michelin stars and Krakow has been named European Capital of Gastronomic Culture 2019 – a new award presented to a city offering culinary diversity and high quality and that promotes and further develops the gastronomic cultural heritage of Europe.
That Krakow was the winner is no coincidence. Here you can find everything that modern world cuisine has to offer, side by side with a culinary tradition that’s an amalgam of Austrian, German, Jewish, Russian and Italian food cultures. This regional cuisine renaissance has been facilitated by the emergency of sustainable raw materials, artisan methods and internationally-honed skills – and a yearning to create the good life through good food.
Szymon Gatlik, a local food guide and professional foodie, uses the label slow food when describing the essence of the Krakow food scene. “As people have more disposable income, they become more critical consumers. At the same time, plenty of producers have turned away from quick buck industrial products and now grow slow food instead. This means that they allow however long it takes for a commodity to develop taste and quality, without using pesticides and artificial fertilizers,” he says.
And when it comes to slow food, this goes hand in hand with slow living, because many of the best of these new producers have embarked on this journey as part of a career change, people with ordinary jobs who have made up their mind to have a complete change of life. They’ve quit the rat race and started to produce something that gives meaning to them and the word around them,” Gatlik adds.
Marcin Miszczak is a perfect example. A political scientist who grew up in Washington, he learned to tango and drink wine in Argentina and then came to Poland. For the last five years, he and his wife, a sommelier, have been growing vines at Winnica Jura, an organic vineyard in the Jura Mountains, and restarted the practice of wine making in Krakow.
“Having a vineyard in Poland sounds crazy. Having an organic vineyard in Poland, even crazier,” says a smiling Miszczak as he talks about their project. “However, new types of vines that are more robust and a milder micro-climate means we can now produce good wine at these latitudes,” says Miszczak, whose organic wines are served at many local restaurants.
Just as the vine roots have to battle to reach down to the minerals in the Jura limestone, juggling with mold, sun, rain and vine nurture is an eternal slog. But the reward for this labor of love is the crisp, award winning wine that Miszczak invites us to sample with bread. During the tasting, we discuss notes and nose, Pét nat, fermentation processes, the robustness of the grapes, storage, barrels and everything else that gives the wines their surprisingly different character.
For Miszczak, it’s the product and the perspective he gets from his vineyard, rather than profit, that drives him. “It gives you a real sense of humility to know that nature can work so well when we humans aren’t trying to destroy it. When you work with nature, you come to realize it’s not you that’s in control. That’s another good lesson learned.”
Magda Wegiel and Agnieszka Sendor meanwhile, give nature a bit of help along the way. Six years ago, the mother and daughter took over an abandoned trout farm, that dates back to 1935 in the spectacularly beautiful Ojcow National Park. They’ve managed in that time to transform Pstrag Ojcowski into an award-winning project, as the only aqua farm in Europe that rears brown trout naturally on a non-industrial scale. Brown trout are at risk in nature, where pollution makes it hard for the fish to reach full size.
The two farmers are involved in every stage of the lifecycle of the fish, from the egg to the adult. They keep them in large dams that are continuously refreshed with water from the mountains, and catch them using old-fashioned fishing nets. They actually keep so many, that they don’t even eat them, despite the fact that there’s a smokery and delicious fish grill attached to the farm, and that their products are highly sought after by Krakow restaurants.
Before taking up farming, Wegiel was a manager at IBM in Poland for 25 years. “I’d had enough of sales. Here, we’ve got something to thrive, and at the same time, indulge our passion for nature, ecology and animal welfare,” she says. “And this farm has always been run by women,” she adds. The farm had gone bankrupt when they took it over, but the two women took the bull by the horns, and in 2018 they won the EU Innovation Award for Women Farmers.
Another aspect of the new Krakow cuisine is to rediscover a food culture that could otherwise have been lost forever. Recipes, methods of preparing food and tastes do not pass from generation to generation to the same extent, and this is where young chefs are playing a key role in keeping them alive.
“The new generation of chefs in the 28-35 age group became head chefs at a young age and in many cases did their apprenticeships abroad. In parallel with this new inspiration, there’s been renewed interest in our culinary heritage and pride in using the best local suppliers,” says Gatlik.
Michal Kowalski, Head Chef at the Halicka Eatery&Bar, spent five years working in England, where an international brigade gave him the inspiration and determination to get better and better. His international cuisine at Halicka features plenty of local slow food, such as artisan cheeses and trout from the Ojcow National Park.
“It might be a cliché, but it was my grandmother who inspired me to become a chef. Every Saturday morning, she baked fresh bread and spread her home-made butter on it. In summer, she topped the bread with fresh sliced strawberries. She also made her own pierogi filled with onion, cheese and lashings of pepper. It’s this immediacy and childhood tastes that I long to recreate – except in a modern version,” Kowalski says.
Published: October 7, 2019