Primer on Polish Food and Drink
Polish Food ... to the uninitiated, Polish fare at times seems bizarre, if not downright unappealing. Up in Warsaw, if current trends persist, sushi bars will soon outnumber Polish restaurants. Kraków though remains true to its roots, and your choice of traditional restaurants knows no limit. Let’s take a quick foxtrot through the world of the Polish kitchen:
Smalec: Fried lard, often served complimentary before a meal with hunks of homemade bread. It sounds evil, but it works like a miracle any day, especially an arctic one. Ideally partnered with a mug of local beer.
Soup: Keep your eyes peeled for Poland’s two signature soups; zurek (sour rye soup with sausages and potatoes floating in it) and barszcz (beetroot, occasionally with dumplings thrown in). Table manners go out of the window when eating these two, so feel free to dunk bread rolls in them.
Bigos: You’ll either love it or vomit. Bigos, a.k.a hunter’s stew, is made using meat, cabbage, onion and sauerkraut before being left to simmer for a few days. If you have second helpings then consider yourself a Pole by default.
Pierogi: Pockets of dough traditionally filled with meat, cabbage or cheese, though you will also occasionally find maverick fillings such as chocolate, plums, or strawberries.
Nalesniki: A pan-fried crepe filled with either cheese-raisin combination, mashed potatoes with fried onions and a dab of farmers cheese, or any fruit in season. Usually served topped with sour cream. Best eaten when a leftover and refried in butter. Yum!
Dessert: Few things in life get a Pole more animated than a good dessert. Krakow’s cafés are famous for their sernik (cheesecake) and lody (ice cream), though if you want to try something more traditional then order makowiec - poppy seed cake.
Zapiekanki: Also known as Polish pizza. Take a stale baguette, pour melted cheese on it and then cover it with mushrooms and ketchup from a squeeze bottle. Best eaten when absolutely plastered. Where to buy it: various fast food cabins dotted around the city centre.
Bagels: According to history books the bagel was invented by a Viennese Jew in 1683, as a commemorative gesture in honor of King Sobieksi III - the Polish monarch credited with saving Western Europe from the Turkish hordes. Krakow, with its strong Jewish community, grew to become something of a bagel haven. Today look for the women crouched on street corners vending fresh bagels and pretzels.
Vodka: There is no better way to end a good meal than with a few shots of vodka. Some might be accustomed to drinking vodka in cocktail form. In Poland this is a crime on a par with sleeping with your sister. Drink it neat and chilled (the glass as well). If you do insist on tampering with the drink then look for vodkas that come with slices of lemon, orange or strawberries inside the bottle. Particularly popular with foreigners is Zubrowka. Each bottle contains a blade of bison grass, and it’s socially acceptable to drink it with a dash of apple juice. My favorite!
Polish Beer ... Poland may not be one of the first countries to spring to mind when thinking of beer, but it does have much in this sphere to warrant attention. It combines elements of the Czech, German and British traditions and even has a unique style of its own, the intriguing and obscure grodziskie beer.
The practice of brewing stretches well back into the Middle Ages, but it was in the 19th century when large-scale brewing began. At this time, as elsewhere in continental Europe, ideas, techniques and machines were borrowed from the industrial breweries which were beginning to develop in Britain. The first beers produced in these new Polish breweries also originated in Britain; porter. As in many countries around the Baltic, this style gained popularity through exports from Britain in the late 19th century. The economic crisis between the wars slowed the growth of the industry. On the eve of the German invasion in 1939 there were 137 breweries in operation. German occupation and war damage sent it into serious decline. It was more than a decade after the end of the occupation that output was able to equal pre-war levels. Production increased from 3.33 million hectoliters in 1950 to 14.2 million hl in 1992.
The Polish Brewing Industry ... beer consumption has increased greatly from 26 liters per person in 1984 and is now around 40 liters. This is well below the level reached in most western European countries, but given another 10 years or so they should have caught up. On the other hand, consumption of spirits has lost a lot of its popularity ... and a good thing too. Polish pubs could be a very depressing sight. Customers sitting by themselves with only a pair of 10cl glasses for company didn't make for a very cheerful atmosphere.
Currently, there are around 80 breweries active, including three micros founded in the 1990's. Beers are produced at a wide range of strengths, from 2.5% to 9.5% alcohol. Those at the higher end are more common that you might expect, but it's perhaps not quite so surprising when you consider the vodka-drinking tradition. In type, these are mostly pale lagers, though there are some dark lagers, too. Porters, in the strong Baltic style, are produced by a large number of breweries. These are around 22% balling or 9% alcohol, very dark brown to black in color and with a sweet, rich flavor. A majority of these breweries still operate on a small scale and have an annual production of fewer than 100,000 hectoliters. At the other end of the scale, there are a handful of large breweries producing over 1 million hl. This group includes most of the better-known names such as Zywiec and Okocim. These companies seem to have been able to use their economic power to elbow their smaller rivals off the pub bars.
Polish Pubs ... Many things have changed in Poland since the late 1980's, not all of which have been improvements. With regard to pubs, the changes have most definitely been for the better.
Once it was difficult enough to find a pub of any kind, but finding one with draught beer was almost impossible. Fortunately, a large number of new pubs have appeared, with their trade based on the sale of draught beer. It's now no problem to find somewhere with five or six draught beers and a dozen bottled.
The inspiration for these new drinking establishments often appears to have been the British pub, though the accuracy of the interpretation varies widely. Others are more on the lines of Czech boozers, which would seem a more sensible starting point, given the premises available for use.
One distinctive Polish trait is emerging and, while it may seem strange to us, it should be encouraged. This feature is the almost total darkness found inside. Sometimes, this is born of necessity or convenience in bars buried in deep cellars or hidden in obscure outbuildings. In other cases, it is voluntary, where, in buildings with a perfectly good frontage on a street, the windows are carefully blacked out.
Something else worth noting about Polish pub culture is the unusual age profile of the customers. In most countries, one of the largest groups of pub-users is always the under-30, but the middle-aged, especially middle-aged men, are always well represented. In Poland it's rare to see anyone over 25 in a pub. I can only assume that, because of the lack of anywhere to go in years gone by, older Poles have never got into the habit of going out drinking. It does lead to some odd experiences. Like entering a pub and finding that 80% of the customers are well-dressed, middle-class girls of 20 or less. That mainstay of pub life, the middle-aged male worker slurping down a few beers after his shift, barely gets a look in.
Into the night ... If you believe urban legend, Kraków has the highest density of bars in the world. Simply hundreds of bars can be found in cellars and courtyards stretching from the Old Town to Kazimierz. In spite of high tourism, prices remain low. Expect to pay around 5zl ($2) for a large beer. The opening hours in most bars are flexible; basically if people are drinking, the barman is pouring.
Be warned: Polish beer and vodka are rocket fuel, and have been the ruin of more than a few good men. If you plan on making an ass of yourself make sure it is not in front of a policeman. A trip to Krakow’s premier drunk tank (ul. Rozrywka 1) will set you back 250zl ($100) and you will be detained for approximately 12 hours while you sober up. Credit cards not accepted. In return for your cash expect a set of blue pajamas, a full strip search, coffee mugs that stink of urine and the company of mad vagrants. As tempting as it may seem, do not resist arrest. Those doing so will find themselves strapped to a bed in the style of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, sedated and in some cases beaten with truncheons. Accept you have been a naughty person and behave.