By Raul Dias
St Mary’s Basilica in Kraków is an iconic landmark in Poland for good reason. The hejnal mariacki—the city’s famous bugle call—is played every hour from this Gothic edifice. One of Kraków’s most enduring traditions, the tune deliberately breaks off mid-melody in honour of the mythical trumpeter who was said to have been shot in the neck while warning the city of Mongol invaders. It also acts as a clarion call to come partake in the edible wonders that lay themselves out—smorgasbord style—for intrepid gourmands like myself.
As the second largest and one of the oldest cities in Poland, situated on the banks of the placid Vistula River, Kraków as a city dates back to the seventh century. Since then it's not only one of the leading centers of Polish academic, cultural and artistic life, but also a veritable foodie wonderland; one that comes alive during the Yuletide season, brimming with all sorts of special winter foods and drinks.
All ‘Polish’ed off
A few winters ago, I happened to be in Poland during what can truly be considered the most wonderful time of the year. Now, to the uninitiated, Polish food may seem like a close cousin of Russian cuisine. Sure, they also serve a blood red beetroot borscht—though a thinner, less creamy iteration of the soup is preferred here—and the ubiquitous potato blinis (pancakes) anointed with lashings of thick sour cream and chives. But to discount the unique winter dishes of Poland would be sacrilegious.
My very first meal in Kraków, and by default in Poland, was at the very cosy CK Dezerter restaurant just off the main town square in a lane perpendicular to the Cloth Hall Market. At this (now shuttered) restaurant, I was introduced to edible masterpieces like the lighter than air chicken vegetable and noodle soup called rosol.
Au contraire, the de facto national winter dish called bigos is a hearty stew of fermented cabbage (sauerkraut), meats and a plethora of smoked kiełbasa bits, as sausages are called in Polish. These are mopped up with the crisp-exterior-pillow-y soft-interior-bagels, that, I was told, were invented in Poland.
Dessert was a simple apple crumble with a blob of cherry ice-cream, never mind the snow outside! With no Polish meal complete without an alcoholic happy ending, my guide Emilia insisted on me downing shots of Polish vodka sweetened with a bit of honeyed mead and served with a few traditional pickles of gherkins and pearl onions.
My next stop on this Euro-style winter foodie safari, was to the Polish capital of Warsaw. Besides the most famous resident of Warsaw, Chopin, there is one more icon that you must pay obeisance to when visiting. Despite being hundreds of miles away from the nearest ocean, Warsaw’s city emblem features a mermaid. And it is her statue that forms the central focal point of its tiny and compact little cobblestoned town center. According to legend, Serena the mermaid was the sister of Amanda, the little mermaid of Copenhagen. Caught by a couple of fisherman to sell as food in the market, Serena managed to entrance a young lad—with her siren call—into cutting her imprisoning net and letting her go, promising to return to Warsaw to protect it whenever it needed her. And so, in the mermaid’s statue holds a shield in one hand and a sword in the other.
I was hungry after all that walking around in the cold, and couldn’t wait to tuck into a nice hot lunch and the surprise that was to follow, or so Emilia had me know. Housed in a former book shop, the Opasly Tom restaurant was a beautiful introduction to Warsaw’s modern Polish food scene, as I dined on a divine take on the traditional beetroot borscht soup that came to me in a huge wooden bowl. I chased that with a sublime, falling-off-the-bone rabbit stew with butter beans, all mopped up with warm rye bread slathered with fresh unsalted butter and washed down with a ginger-lemon hot drink.
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Paying heed to my post-prandial sweet cravings, I was ushered into what is regarded as Warsaw's best chocolaterie, E. Wedel aka. It was the ‘surprise’ Emilia mentioned. As the oldest chocolate brand in Poland with a legacy of over 160 years, Wedel borrows its name from Emil Wedel. He expanded the business after his pioneering father Karl Ernst Wedel established it in 1851. The father-son duo quickly won people’s hearts and their descendants have now perfected the art of making chocolate.
And art is exactly what I could call my tall glass of semi-sweet hot chocolate that was flecked with the almond-redolent marzipan bits and topped with a swirl of whipped cream and slivers of toasted almonds.
With the winter sun setting as early as 4.15pm every day, Warsaw is bathed in the ethereal glow of a zillion little lights as squares, gardens, streets and market places are lit up. Forming the perfect back drop to the light snowfall that transforms the city into a magical winter wonderland. Speaking of markets, the Christmas Market in Barbakan officially called the Jarmark Bożonarodzeniowy na Barbakanie, is set up in the area of the Barbican. It is a structure dating back to the sixteenth century and was built to protect the Old Town from invaders during that time.
The market is made up of about 60 wooden chalets selling everything from collectables, like intricately carved wooden figurines and Christmas baubles, to eatables like smoked goat cheese spindle-shaped cylinders called oszczypek and grilled pierogies. The latter is a semi-circular stuffed dumpling that is boiled and pan fried, holding within its plump belly various fillings like cheese and cabbage, meat and cabbage and mushroom and cabbage. Yes, cabbage in all its avatars forms an integral part of the Polish diet. All this is chased by mugs of clove- and cinnamon-spiced mulled wine, dispensed out of huge wooden pitchers.
A few yards from the market, the giant lit up Christmas tree is the Ground Zero of all things festive at this time of the year in Warsaw. It was here that I stopped and took final stock of this truly magical city. A place, that, like Kraków and the rest of Poland, celebrates the Christmas season to the fullest… -7˚C weather be damned.
Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.
- FIRST PUBLISHED06.12.2023 | 09:20 AM IST