One of the most enjoyable aspects to travelling is experiencing the differences between cultures to gain a better understanding of the world around you. If I was multilingual I could sit down and ask a series of well thought out questions that discuss history, sport and the impact of the family unit on how it shaped people’s lives. But because I can hardly string two words together I am left with Plan B – share and experience food and drink. Prior to my arrival I trawled the internet for Polish foods and there was a handful that kept popping up which formed the foundation of what was going to be my Polish diet. There is the usual Western chains of McDonalds, Subway & KFC but I was in search of a different KFC – Krakow Fine Cuisine.
You’ve heard me rabbit on about the addictive quality of perogies and the rumble inducing properties of bigos but I have ingested a few more dishes of traditional Polish fare which are worth sharing. The zapiekanka is an open sandwich, which is probably more targeted towards the tourists than the locals – their thinking, why get a piece of bread with cheese and other flotsam when you can have something substantial? I tried the most traditional version with cheese, onion and mushroom. A lost in translation moment meant I somehow agreed to ketchup. You may as well have dunked it in a vat of the red stuff because that’s the only thing that registered on the palate.
Needing to make amends I decided to order one, changing it up to something with meat on it. This time the peri peri sauce got a working over. Would have been nicer if the bacon was crispy but I put it down to cultural differences, then proceeded to find a side street to curl up in as a loaf of bread in your belly makes one slightly sleepy.
Standing proudly on many a street corner are elderly ladies rugged up in their finest beanies and scarves selling obwarzanki (I can’t pronounce it either). Plain, cheese or poppy seeds are the possible options. Thankfully my patented point and smile technique served me well again. Poland’s bagel which I think precedes the American version. Chewy, bready sustenance. This is how I would spend my last handful of change in Poland – must remember that as I head to the airport in a couple of days. I chose the cheese version with pigeon in the middle.
On the subject of our feathered friends I got caught in the crossfire of gang war, I was just strolling alongside the river minding my business when things got ugly. To the left of me the pigeons were guarding their turf and to my right, on the riverbank, the seagulls were getting ready for deployment. Then in something resembling the Crips and the Bloods the feathers starting flying and shit was being dropped from every vantage point. Somehow I managed to escape unscathed, largely due to me hurling my uneaten bagel near the river in a textbook distraction technique. Close call.
Have been fortunate to experience some warm Polish hospitality. The inviting smiles and chequered tablecloths are the backdrop to dishes that have been unchanged for generations. Potato pancakes (placki ziemniaczane) with a beef stew was one of those occasions where a smile would appear everytime my jaw stopped.
The homemade cherry vodka may have played a role as well, I was so enamoured by the meal I didn’t realise the vodka had ripped the lining off the back of my throat. I had to polish the vodka off quickly because it was near an open flame.
A trip to Krakow requires at least one face to face meeting with borscht, the Polish beetroot soup. This one was served with mashed potato and was a show stopper. Because I had finished off the vodka quickly and had ordered more than most off the menu I was given another vodka which removed what remained of my esophagus.
No tourists, just locals. Just what I was after.
I had had another run in with borscht over the last couple of days. Not as good and as homely as my first tasting but coming from a 24hr perogi joint I wasn’t expecting too much. Don’t mistake the dumpling in the soup for a lopped off finger, because I did. Had to call the waiter over and ask a bullshit question, giving me just enough time to make sure his fingers were intact.
Soup is popular in Polish Milk Bars. These eateries hark from yesteryear when you had to eat something substantial as fuel for the hard, long day of physical work that lay ahead. Unfortunately only a handful of these remain so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to experience this style of dining. It’s quick, no nonsense food that will remain with you, harder to shake than a severed fist. As I knew there was no manual labour in my diary I went for something “lighter”, chicken and ham sandwich and a cream of lentil soup. It was that cold inside the cheese refused to melt.
The two remaining “must haves” were ticked off in a single visit to another traditional cosy three table place. Golabki (rice, meat and spices wrapped in cabbage leaves and steamed). The menu should have a disclaimer about the size of these monsters.
If I knew the golabki were going to be the size of an inflated human lung I would have returned another day for the krokiet (croquette). This was wall to wall meat in a thin crumbed crust.
I didn’t frequent Poland’s confectionery because there didn’t seem to be anything that I hadn’t come across in my other travels. However I had to try sernik, traditional Polish cheesecake.
It was nice but my favourite was ziemniaki, an oversized rumball. Fairly self explanatory.
The only downside other than my lack of language skills has been the beggars. I was having a coffee in a little back alley cafe when an old lady came in and started saying something, I had no idea. It wasn’t until she put her arthritic fingers to her mouth and gave her best impression of a squirrel did I realise that she was after some change. I gave her the benefit of the doubt and was more than generous, handing over enough money that could buy a decent feed. Rather than spend my contribution in this nice cafe she walked back outside. I felt slightly aggrieved. The next day in the same part of town I was in a speakeasy with a morass of hidden rooms and corridors, hold up in a room enjoying a beer against candlelight punching out a blog entry. Somehow like a lab experiment mouse trying to navigate a maze for cheese this same lady tracks me down and runs through the same now familiar routine. This time I said no and pulled out the pockets of my cardigan to show I had no change. She had more than enough from yesterday, unless she eats like me. Let the morale of the story be, if you are going to ask for change inside a place of business, spend the charity inside those same four walls.
My time in Poland is disappearing quicker than a bottle of vodka in the hands of an alcoholic. Tomorrow I will be doing a day trip out to the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau. Until then I will continue flying the flag over here, partaking in my alternate KFC. Mine doesn’t have a Colonel Sanders, all the elderly men have an uncanny resemblance to Ernest Borgnine (while the women take their cues from Estelle Harris).