Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A glutton's tour of Warsaw

It's probably a testament to my disagreeable nature, but in the last few years I've become obsessed with Eastern European food. When I lived in Dublin and London I was only interested in Asian food, but after almost seven years in Cambodia, nothing seems more exotic to me than stuffed cabbage leaves, hearty meat soups, fermented dairy products, and potatoes, boiled, mashed, or fried.



So on a trip abroad late last year, I managed to wedge a weekend trip to Warsaw in. I'd never been to Poland before, and I was excited to explore an entirely new (to me) food scene. I attacked the trip with my typical obsessive research. I bought a Polish cookbook, found an adorable attic apartment in Warsaw, booked a food tour, made a list of restaurants to try, museums to visit, and places where I might find culinary souvenirs to bring back to Cambodia. Perhaps most fortuitously of all, I got in touch with Mervyn, a foodie friend of a friend who has been living in Warsaw for a few years and who seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the food scene there.

As soon as we arrived from the airport we dropped our bags and headed straight to Gessler Resturant U Kucharzy, a restaurant near our flat that Mervyn suggested, owned by Poland’s own celebrity chef, Magda Gessler. We had assumed it was a casual lunch spot, but when we walked in, dripping wet because we had forgotten to bring an umbrella, we were confronted with the site of white tablecloths, gleaming silver, and well-heeled Warsawians.



As it turns out, both Steven and are willing to endure no end of humiliation to get a good meal (case in point: learning Khmer), so despite our casual dress, we sat down and ordered a three-course meal. Gessler serves high-end traditional Polish fare—we started with herring in linseed oil with boiled potatoes and blinis with sour cream and wild salmon roe, followed by a rich broth with small dumplings and incredibly rich pierogis filled with duck confit and topped with fried onions, served by hand at the table, silver service-style. Finally, for dessert we had a raspberry pavlova.

That morning in London when I was rousing myself out of bed, I had worried that I had made a terrible mistake in booking a weekend jaunt to Poland. I was already visiting five countries in three weeks on this trip, and when I was waiting in the dark at 4 a.m. for a airport taxi I questioned my own sanity in squeezing in yet another country just for the sake of trying a new cuisine. But after just a few bites at Gessler, all doubts had vanished and I was convinced that any sleep I had lost that morning was well worth it.



The next three days were a dizzying ode to gluttony. That night we went to Zapiecek, a popular Polish restaurant that is cheesy in every sense of the word. The waitresses were dressed in traditional Polish garb, and the pierogis, which are advertised as being stuffed with feelings, were also filled with, and drenched in, cheese. I can't deny our meal was delicious, in a guilt-inducing, gut-busting sort of way.

As luck would have it, the place we were staying was next to Hala Mirowska, a local market housed in a beautiful old building. We saw what appeared to be a fresh food and produce food market, the cynosure of all foodies' city tours.



And Hala Mirowska delivered—the market was packed with gorgeous produce and fruits, wild mushrooms and forest fruits, fresh honey, smoked fish, and pickles, so many pickles. We went there every morning and selected several things and brought it back to our adorable little AirBnb attic apartment and pretended that we lived in Warsaw, an appealing thought as we gorged ourselves on these previously unexplored treats.

Our next order of business, was, of course, a food tour. We went on a tour with EatPolska, a company that operates in Warsaw, Krakow, and Gdansk. We had a very nice guide who was a student majoring in English studies. Like many young Polish women that I know, she spoke English, perfectly, quickly, and almost without pause, spending several hours telling us about Poland and Polish food.



We went to four restaurants, one of which, Kamanda Lwowska, appealed to our need to get as firmly stuck into traditional Polish fare as possible. Housed in a building that's more than 100 years old, the place had an ancient pub vibe. The menu featured dishes that were popular in the interwar period. We sampled pork lard with bread and gherkins, barszcz czerwony, a type of clear fermented beetroot borscht with sauerkraut dumplings that's traditionally served on Christmas Eve, and a hearty wild mushroom soup served with brown bread.


Our next stop was Solec 44, a modern Polish gastropub where the focus is nose-to-tail eating and fermentation. We tried an array of local cheeses and meats, and I marveled at the rows of murky-but-colorful jars filled with various fermenting fruits and vegetables. The weather was crisp and autumnal, the perfect temperature to ferment (at least so am I convinced—my fermentation projects in the tropics take days instead of weeks but never get the same depth of flavor). This is sort of where our tour took a slight hipster detour.

I suspect that the guides were desperate to prove that Polish food isn’t stodgy and boring and wanted to show us some cool young people pioneering farm-to-table eating. They succeeded, at our next stop, Bibenda, a slick little restaurant with edison lights and a Facebook page with Instagram-filtered photos. We ate a beautifully plated, colorful dish of sweet potato and duck with some sort of local berries, and but in all honestly, we were more interested in eating pierogies and sauerkraut.



Mervyn knew exactly what we were after, and took us to a ‘bar mlcezny,’ literally, ‘milk bar,’ a Polish cafeteria-style restaurant that are all over the country. Although this type of restaurant existed before communism, it was in the Soviet era that they truly blossomed, and their history is evident in the complete lack warmth and ambiance, and inexpensive, hearty, and somewhat bland fare. Acting more bourgeoise than proletariat, we ordered far more than we actually needed, including pierogis, goulash, beetroot salad, blood sausage, a fermented beet drink and fruit kompot.



This was traditional Polish food, not tarted up, served for the masses, and I was impressed. Probably not the sort of thing I would have wanted to eat ten years ago when I was still in the heady thrall of anything Asian, but now the complete foreignness of it was intoxicating.

There was more, of course, but since I’ve already spent six months trying to finish this blog post and am quickly coming up on my next visit to Poland (yes, I liked it that much), I’ll stop here and hope to be better with my next installment.

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