Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Magda Gessler’

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).

Oscypek cheese

Oscypek cheese

Pierogi dumplings

Pierogi dumplings

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.

Studio Qulinarne

DSC07431 DSC07425

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.

DSC07417 DSC07419 DSC07428

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).

Wentzl Restauracja

DSC07642 DSC07643 DSC07635 DSC07667 DSC07666 DSC07646

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.

IMG_4641 DSC07629 DSC07632

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.

DSC07634 DSC07633

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.

IMG_4655 IMG_4648

A weekend in Kraków | Day 2 – Kings, Communists and the Kazimierz Ghetto

Having awoken to the sweet serenade of the hejnalista to the accompaniment of the most glorious of peachy pink sunrises (see my post yesterday) I thought I could barely be reawoken to anything more beautiful. Yet when, having gone back to bed at 6am, I arose two hours later to the now sundrenched view of the Rynek Główny, I soon realised that in the beauty stakes, Kraków is the city that just keeps on giving. And not just the city – in our hotel,  the Hotel Wentzl we started our day in the lap of luxury: an espresso machine installed in the room pumping out coffee-rich espressos with which to enjoy the unbeatable view, and breakfast in Polish TV personality Magda Gessler’s Wentzl restaurant, conveniently located in our hotel, serving up the perfect of Polish continental breakfasts in the opulent surroundings of her lavishly and quirky interior decors. I particularly loved the pastoral quality to the design – the huge pheasant chandeliers and heavily embroidered bucolic curtains being particular favourites.

Our view by morning

DSC07196 DSC07200 DSC07207 DSC07206

Pondering the quirky interiors of Magda Gessler’s restaurant…

IMG_4553 DSC07660 DSC07644 DSC07652

So after a doubly-good beginning to our second day in Kraków, we were well slept, well fed and full of energy to explore all the city had to offer. And just as well. For the city’s old town in itself takes some exploring, and as we made our way to the Wawel Hill, upon which sits the city’s former royal residence as well as its stunning main cathedral, we soon found that other tourists too had discovered the attraction, resulting in an hour’s queue for tickets. The length of the queue was perhaps augmented by a particular attraction which is currently in residence at the museum: Leonardo Da Vinci’s sensational Lady with an Ermine, with whom I became acquainted when she was on display in London’s superb Da Vinci exhibition, but who usually hangs in Kraków’s Princes Czartoryski museum, currently closed for major renovations.

While a visit to see Da Vinci’s masterpiece was undoubtedly a must of my Kraków experience, the ticket queues certainly took the sparkle out of this reconnaissance, although happily for me, my self-sacrificing partner took on much of the sting of the queue, waiting in line for the full hour while releasing me to look around the vast Wawel complex. And how glad I was to have time to experience the palatial compound to the full, starting with the lavish Wawel Cathedral, whose outside is covered with so many complex cupolas in devastatingly extravagant gold and elegantly crafted copper, that upon my first sight of the building, I literally had to gasp for air. Owing to the ban on inside photography, I cannot demonstrate to you the interior ravishment which more than matched the splendour of the outside, but rest assured, this Cathedral is awe-inspiring on the inside and out.

Wawel Cathedral

DSC07273 DSC07303 DSC07281DSC07261 DSC07241 DSC07332 DSC07269 DSC07245DSC07306 DSC07266

Rejoined by my partner, we made our way to see Da Vinci’s portait of Cecilia Gallerani, tranquil as ever caught in the midsts of a far off gaze, the perfection of her skin remarkable considering the age of the painting. Then, sadly finding no further works from the Czartoryski museum to enjoy, we headed off to Sandomierska Tower, one of various towers built into the Wawel’s vast ramparts, and which reminded me of an oversized Moomin House. From up there we had the benefit of unbeatable views across the Vistula River and the whole of the Wawel complex, while descending back to ground level, we made our way deeper into the Wawel Hill, where a series of creepy caves are said to have once housed the legendary Wawel Dragon.

Wawel Castle

IMG_4598 DSC07360 DSC07353 DSC07356DSC07355 IMG_4595

Back out into the sunlight, we wandered off in search of lunch and a rest, out to the East of the City where the Jewish district (the Kazimierz) now stands. It’s strange to think of the district as being truly Jewish, being as the city lays claim to only a paltry Jewish population compared to what it once contained in the decades before the horrors of the holocaust, although the evidence of both Jewish culture, and the scars of the former Jewish Ghetto which stood on the site are still prominent today. But rather than dwelling in the horrors of the past, Kraków actively celebrates its Jewish heritage, playing host to a Jewish Cultural Festival every year, and in the Kazimierz area offering rich pickings of Jewish culture, from Jewish restaurants and interminable book shops, to ancient synagogues and both an old and new Jewish cemetery.

The Kazimierz

DSC07452 DSC07476 DSC07469 DSC07473DSC07472 DSC07463 DSC07461 DSC07475 DSC07453 DSC07464

We visited the oldest of the two, being struck as we did so by the distinct differences between this and the typical Catholic cemetery for example, filled not with angels, elaborate crosses and flowers aplenty, but a more austere selection of headstones, each covered with what appeared to be a little hat upon which families of the dead have placed stones, said to symbolise the permanence of memory.

The Jewish Cemetery

DSC07496 DSC07497DSC07485 DSC07491

From the Ghetto and its connotations of war-torn Poland, to the next phase of Poland’s traumatic recent history – Communism. Marking this stretch of Poland’s occupational history, we visited a Communist Propaganda Bar – something of a send up on the Communist world which once controlled Poland with such an iron fist – a dirty den of a place, covered from floor to ceiling with old adverts plastered with Communist slogans and platitudes. It was here that, getting into the spirit of the old harsh realities of iron-curtain Poland, we knocked back a shot of Polish vodka – a drink so harsh that I felt my throat enflame like an inferno, and my mind haze over.

DSC07508 DSC07517 DSC07524 DSC07522

The haze was not so strong as to preclude our continued adventures through Kraków however, and we ended our day with a stroll around the beautiful Planty greenbelt – an arch of parks and playgrounds which was once the moat of the old fortressed city and which today makes for the most pleasant of strolls around the outskirts of the city.

And so there, watching the sun sparkle across ponds and through fountains, we sat and watched and mused over the day – a day in which we had sampled Kraków through the ages – from the splendour of its days of monarchy, to the horrors of the German occupation, and the desolation of the communist regime which followed, suppressing all joy and life out of the city. It was a period which stained so much of the Poland which exists today – concrete tower blocks and dour grey industrial suburbs pepper so much of the country, but Kraków, mercifully, was preserved in all its medieval glory. Why? Well , apparently Stalin himself so enjoyed the view of the Rynek Główny when he sipped his coffee at the Cloth Hall which extends across the square’s centre that he decided to keep the city preserved for that very purpose. A vain monster he may have been, but he had good taste when it came to cities. And you have to give thanks for small mercies.

DSC07551 DSC07578 DSC07565 DSC07570 DSC07568

All photos and written content are strictly the copyright of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown © 2013 and The Daily Norm. All rights are reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.