Monday, August 8, 2011

Borscht, Beast, & Booze: The Many Culinary Faces of Krakow, Poland (And the Wine Giveaway Winner)

A piping hot bowl of borscht from a bar mlezny (milk bar)
Wild boar tenderloins in forest sauce from Pod Baranem
Miodowka honey vodka at Wódka Cafe Bar
When it comes to food, most people tend to associate Poland with two main things: kielbasa and pierogies. There's a lot more to Polish cuisine, as I learned firsthand on my trip, but these two items are undoubtedly ubiquitous staples.  I've already talked about the many excellent sausages to be had in Krakow, and Poppa Trix and I feasted on (more than) our fair share of pierogies on our trip. My favorites came from a cute place called Pierożki u Vincenta. This bright spot had a Vincent Van Gogh theme:

They also have an incredible selection of  fillings. I loved the Russian pierogie with garlic, as well as the ones stuffed with Polish forest mushrooms:
Poppa quite liked the Polish beer, though after Prague I was on a bit of a beer hiatus, opting for wine and vodka instead:
You can certainly find higher-end cuisine in Krakow as well, like those wild boar medallions from Restaurantja Pod Baranem from the top of this post. Look at the cool boar sign:

 We started that meal with a nice pot of bacon fat to spread on bread. I wouldn't recommend a lot of this, but a little is shockingly (even disturbingly) good:
 Next up - soup. It is a Polish meal after all, and you know the saying, right? "The soup fills you up, and the dish plugs you up." I am not making that up, and I can tell you one thing  ... it's not an old saying for nothing, if you catch my drift.

Poppa and I shared garlic soup, and barley soup Krakow style:

Despite the fact that the bowls were volcanically hot - leading me to believe that the soup had been reheated in the microwave - the flavor was intense and deeply soul warming. Eastern Europeans really know how to make soup - I don't think I had a sub par one on my whole trip.

For our mains, along with the wild boar medallions, we had a saddle of venison:

In both of these dishes, the sauce was incredibly rich and complex, with notes of rosemary, juniper, and of course mushrooms.  I also quite liked the roasted potatoes:
No trip to Krakow would be complete without a visit to a milk bar, those cafeteria-style restaurants set up by the government during Communism to provide a cheap, nourishing meal to workers.
 I am glad we went to one, but am sad to report that I found the food (except for the soup of course!) rather bland. Looks pretty though:

However, I found another holdover - kompot - to be much more flavorful. This is a wee bit older than Communism, as its been a traditional drink in Eastern and Central Europe since about 1300:
This odd little beverage is basically a warm fruit juice. Poppa and I stepped into a cafe to take a load off and were intrigued to observe the obsessive attention the woman behind the counter paid to her incredibly well stocked trays of the stuff. We watched as each and every inexplicably thin  local who came in ordered an enormous meal of soup and meat and starch always made sure to take a glass of the stuff. Well, what else could we do?
Mmm, kompot!

I have never heard that Poland is renowned for its breakfast foods, but why not is beyond me. We had coffee ...
... and this luscious plate of what the menu called "eggs on butter" at Cafe Europejska on the square:
 The place was a bit touristy, but it had a nice atmosphere:
Besides, we needed the sustenance to get us through our emotionally draining trip to Auschwitz.  Upon our return that day, we found exactly the thing we needed to soothe our frazzled nerves - the Wódka Cafe Bar, where we sampled one (or two ...) glasses of honey vodka and hazlenut vodka.
 I don't eat fast food at home or on trips, but I just had to take a peek inside this Krakow McDonald's in Old Town. In the U.S., if an ancient cellar was discovered while building a chain restaurant, it would doubtless be demolished. Here, it was incorporated into the decor. Bet you've never seen a McDonalds basement like this!
You all know I'm not much of a sweets gal, but in Krakow I had not one, but two whole sweets! Well, actually I split each with Poppa Trix. First we visited the grandly decaying, shabby chic  Singer:
We had our coffee and cake at tables made from old Singer sewing machines:

My other sweet was a cheese Danish at a little pastry shop across the street from Stary Kleparz, a cool market that I'll write about in an upcoming post:

Get in my belly!
But if travel has taught me anything, it's that the best things often come when you least expect it. Take Kuchnia Polska.  We walked into this humble spot thinking we'd get just a beer, but as we watched people's plates coming to the table we knew we had to order something. Behold two of the best soups I have ever had in my life. Clear borscht with dumplings:
And this Polish sour rye soup with kielbasa, a flavor that has permanently imprinted on my taste memory:
Alas, we discovered this place on our last day in Krakow. Before we knew it, we were on the night train to Vienna, armed with bottles of Polish vodka to ease our journey:

And if you've made it all this way, it's time to reward your patience and and finally let you know who won the Dragon's Hollow wine giveaway. And the lucky oenophile is ... Tanantha!
Cheers! I will be in touch to get your mailing info.

And now, I leave you with this shot of the main square in rainy, moody, beautiful Krakow.


  1. Did you know I am a gravy freak! Omg looking at that brown gravy makes me want to dive into the pictures, then those potatoes, with the drink and then you go and get that cute little smirk with that cheesey danish thats to die for with all the buttery layered amazing taste... I am so jealous! And I thought we were friends... your just a temptress! lol nice post I loved every morsel!~

  2. Oh, you had such fun! Love hearing all the details of your trip...especially the food...and that DANISH! I'm so glad you tried a couple sweets :)

  3. I'm so envious!! This looks like so much fun! That McSwanky place looks just awesome. And I love the photo of you and the kompot hahaha. I can only imagine how wonderful everything tasted (except the portion with the bland food)!

  4. LOL! I love home-made lard on bread, with paprika, ground pepper, and thinly sliced onions:) My husband cringes, but in vain!
    Those soups look amazing! Have you tried to replicate them in the US? When I was in Poland back in 1987, the situation was much different, and we didn't get to experience all of these wonderful dishes that you two did. I guess I have to go again:)
    The "milk restaurants" in ex-YU are similar, cafeteria-style places, but they always served pastries and yogurt (thinner and liquidy, similar to Turkish ayran, or buttermilk, but less salty).
    I love reading about your trip - it seems that you really enjoyed Central Europe the right way:)
    My daughter spent 10 days last summer on the same itinerary like you, but her friend did not share her enthusiasm for the food and adventure, so she decided to go back one day.

  5. Polish cuisine has some similarities to Czech. But I wish fresh pierogies and borscht were to be found here. The only pierogies here are from the frozen and overpriced Russian shops, so I have to make them at home. Same for borscht. Anyways, it looks like you had a blast on your recent trip :)
    So much great food, drinks and sites in this part of the Europe.

  6. I want to know more about that boar!!!! Great trip recap... never been to Poland but you have made my mouth water!!!

  7. How awesome to sample all these wonderful Polish specialties! The wild boar and the venison sound especially good.

  8. love the way you guys travel, I want a bowl of soup and man the coffees look so good as well

  9. I love this! I'm Polish/Canadian, but I only went to visit Poland back when I was 10 years old. I'm 25 now, I hope I can go back some day and REALLY experience it! Awesome post!! <3

  10. Now I wanna go to Poland! Please take me with you....oh wait, honey vodka!? send it my way! I'm not familiar with Polish food but everything looks fantastic. The color red is common in Polish cuisine? just wonder because I see the juice and the soup are red. You look very happy in the pics!

    YAY! I won the giveaway! Thanks Tracey!

  11. Trix,

    Marvelous post. Well-written, clever and fabulously photographed.

    Love the wild boar tenderloin, Starry Night on my roof, and Trix attacking a poor unsuspecting danish.

  12. 1st thing I notice right off was the plates with the rich gravies, oh yeah baby... bacon butter, er I think you called it fat, HA!.. and I am so glad to see a pic of McSwanky, that made my day, oh, there are a couple of recipes you need to work on as you know (for me).... the eggs on butter, sour rye soup with sausage OMG!!!!... and we need to do better with that dang thingy

  13. You know I'm not much of a savory person (well I eat savories but don't make them often), but that shot of the Polish sour rye soup had my stomach doing a double flip. Yes, I really want a taste of that! I also enjoyed your food samplings and seeing those quirky restaurants - swanky McD, Singer and best of all that Starry Night place. I think the moodiness of eastern Europe would balance out my yang side very well :-).

  14. This looks fantastic! The food, the places...just beautiful! Your pajamas, by far, are my favorite!!

  15. Looks so awesome. I must make my way to Europe again.

  16. Saving the thoughts of that Polish Sour Rye Soup with Kielbasa for the cooler months ahead---looks amazing! Love your travel stories/adventures.

  17. What a fun trip and post! Polish cuisine is one I am not too familiar with, but with words like "eggs on butter"...I like :)
    Congrats to T~, boy she wins everything...we have to take her to Vegas ;)