A Weekend in Kraków | The traditions and innovations of Kraków’s food
Poland isn’t exactly known as one of the centres of European gastronomy. For years, that crown, once worn so complacently by the French has been shared intermittently between the likes of Spain, Denmark and the UK. The only Polish food I had really tried before my departure was a packet of shrivelled up long smoked sausages from our local tesco’s (catering for the not insignificant Polish population living down the road in Balham). So I didn’t exactly have high expectations for what I was going to find food-wise when I went to Kraków for the weekend. In fact, I didn’t really have any expectations at all.
But, as with so much about my weekend in the stunning little city of Kraków, I was pleasantly surprised by the array of high quality food on offer. First off, there was the traditional fare – I say that I went along to Poland without any expectations in respect of food, but that’s something of a lie. Because I was pretty determined to try at least a sausage in its native Polish environment, and of course it was only reasonable that such sausage (of which I found plenty in the bustling markets in and around the Rynek Główny) should be washed down with another export of the country – a glass of ice-cold Polish beer. Both objectives were achieved (the best sausages being the preserve of our hotel breakfast, while an ice cold beer proved to be the perfect accompaniment to watching the world go by in the Rynek Główny).
However, my explorations of Polish traditional cuisine went further. Only minutes into the trip, and I was already sampling another of the local specialities (spurred on by my Polish partner I should add). The first was oscypek, a super-salty waxy cheese from the nearby Tatra mountains – it reminded me of greek halloumi, albeit much smokier in flavour; the very taste of the flames licking the sides of the cheese dominating. The second – pierogi – are a kind of traditional dumpling. Rather like ravioli in appearance, they taste more doughy in flavour, and every bit as juicy and flavoursome as a dumpling should be. I’m not sure you’d necessary sample them looking quite so trendy as these all over Poland, but sitting by the side of the Rynek Główny in the café “Vintage”, we were served only food which was consistently well presented and full of flavour – a real surprise for a restaurant located so close to the tourist heart of the town.
But for all its traditions, Kraków is a city which remains young at heart (its large student population keeps it so); a city embracing innovation and cultural dynamism, and so it is perhaps unsurprising that Kraków’s food offerings are both extensive as they are varied, with numerous restaurants presenting food which is both modern in flavour and in presentation. Pretty much all of the food we had was of a consistently high standard (although a rather demented looking piano player supplying diners with “mood-music” somewhat put us off our food experience on the first night). But of all the places we visited, two really stood out.
The first of the two is Studio Qulinarne, located in a rather grotty backstreet of the Kazimierz (Jewish district) (I assumed my Partner had got us lost) but which, inside, is the height of sophistication, draped in flowing white sheets, complete with loaded bookshelves and a grand piano (happily being played by a less-demented looking pianist on this occasion). Being that the day was fine when we visited for lunch, we opted to sit outside on their back patio, which reflected the industrial mood of the area, but was made chic and cosy through low sofa seating and an abundance of plants.
The real star of the show at Studio Qulinarne however was the food. Dominik opted for a crayfish consommé which was as delicious as it was presentationally excellent. I had fettuccine ribbons with chanterelle mushrooms which were very much in season at that time (and consequently featuring on the specials menu of many a Krakóvian eatery). The pasta was perfectly cooked, the mushrooms earthy and salty, and that edible flower added just the class of touch that makes me swoon over my food. As for dessert, well we had a bit of a quandary there – unable to choose between a white chocolate semi-freddo, a lavender crème brûlée and an earl grey and mint panna cotta, we felt compelled to try them all (when I say “try” I naturally mean wolf down unapologetically…oh well).
Second of our restaurant favourites has to be Magda Gessler’s impressively quirky Wentzl restaurant; an elegant high-end affair situated directly above the Rynek Główny (and happily for us, also in our hotel). I have already raved about the richly embroidered, elegantly presented versaille-come-hunting-lodge look of this wonderfully lavish restaurant, since our hotel rather graciously serves its breakfast in the same place. But when I saw those brilliantly eccentric pheasant chandeliers and the completely over the top silk curtains, I just knew that we had to try this place by night. If breakfast had wowed, then dinner was like a firework display of superlatives. Perfect service and our already extolled elegant surroundings accompanied what was a night of consistently delicious food. It was my turn to opt for crayfish this time, which I did by way of a creamy Masurian crayfish stew with cognac, while Dominik opted for his favourite of fish: herring done two ways.
For mains, I had a smoked duck breast salad with raspberries and orange – the duck was cooked to perfection, and happily the orange based accompaniment in no way resembled the duck a l’orange disaster which was so popularly served up at dinner tables in the 70s and beyond (I know this from the beyond – I wasn’t around in the 70s myself). Dominik in the meantime went for a very Christmasy goose leg with cranberry “bow” – well, we may as well start getting into the spirit of things. Finally, for dessert I enjoyed a Delicacy of white chocolate with pear mousse favoured with rose – the white chocolate taste was altogether a little too delicate for me, but it was certainly a fragrant and pleasing end to the night which, for Dominik, concluded in a fruit of the forest jelly.
So the restaurants were ticked, some fine wine drunk (though warning for all visitors: wine is not cheap in Kraków – expect to pay at least £40 for a bottle), traditional fare sampled, and both a polish beer and vodka polished off. There was only one thing still to do in this hip arty town: why, head down into one of the dank little cellars for a live jazz show of course. We headed to the U Muniaka jazz club which was small, atmospheric and everything a jazz club should be, and there sat mesmerised by the inherent skill of those jazz musicians long into the night. Kraków, I love you.
- A weekend in Kraków | Day 1 – Jewellery box city (daily-norm.com)
- A weekend in Kraków | Day 2 – Kings, Communists and the Kazimierz Ghetto (daily-norm.com)
- A Weekend in Kraków | Mariacki Sunrise (daily-norm.com)