Polish Food 101 ‒ Iconic Sweets
Crispy Prince Polo, chewy caramels…what other sweets gained popularity in Poland under communism and are still bought today? Here is our subjective and probably incomplete guide to iconic Polish candies. We encourage you to complete the list in the comments below.
Who isn’t fond of this light, milky, vanilla fluff dipped in chocolate? These marshmallows (translated literally, 'bird’s milk') have survived a number of changes in Poland’s political system. Today, looking back, few remember that before 1989 they were a highly sought after product and not always available. The history of these marshmallows dates back to the interwar period. Where does the name come from? It was coined by Jan Wedel – the owner of the largest chocolate factory in pre-war Poland, founded in the mid-nineteenth century by Charles Wedel. Even before 1939, 'Ptasie Mleczko' was a registered trademark for the company E. Wedel. However, recipes for the dessert’s characteristic foamy filling – called 'milk' of various flavours – can be found in old Polish cookbooks, including Maria Ochorowicz-Monatowa’s The Universal Cookbook from the early twentieth century. When the trademark on 'Ptasie Mleczko' expired in the 1950s, a number of confectionary plants began to produce sweets under the name. The trademark has since been renewed by Wedel and while other manufacturers can produce similar sweets, they cannot do so with the iconic name 'Ptasie Mleczko'.
Prince Polo and Princessa
These chocolate wafers are said to be 'impulse buys' because Poles so often buy them at the spur of the moment. Research suggests Poland pioneered these wafer sweets. Why are they so popular? Some of it has to do with the era of Poland under communism when wafers were produced by many small private establishments. They were thus readily available and used to prepare homemade desserts – including the very popular 'Tort a la Pischinger.'
Several generations of Poles grew up on the familiar taste of Prince Polo’s chocolate wafers. Interestingly, not only Poles. Produced since the 1950s, the wafers were exported to many countries in Central and Eastern Europe, but gained their greatest popularity in Iceland. While Poles imported Icelandic herring, Icelanders could not get enough Prince Polo. Forty years ago, the average Icelander consumed at least a kilogram of Prince Polos every year! Several years ago, the Icelandic Prime Minister suggested that a whole generation of Icelanders grew up on them. These wafers are still doing well today. Besides the classic chocolate, new flavours continue to be introduced – including milk, peanut, and coconut. Prince Polo’s leading competitor is the candy bar Princessa – a leading product of Poznań’s chocolatier, Goplana.
This very popular Polish candy is made from a creamy caramel mix of milk, butter, and sugar. These simple ingredients are stirred and boiled, then poured on a table and cooled. After the mixture has set, it is sliced and packaged in papers that feature the image of a cow – hence the name ('krowa' means 'cow' in Polish). When very fresh, the caramel is entirely chewy, but over time, the sugar crystalizes and the candy develops a crumbly exterior.
The history of these caramels dates back to the early twentieth century. Feliks Pomorski learned to make them from his uncle in Żytomierz. By the 1920s, he began production of the sweets on an industrial scale in Poznań. Despite great difficulties during and after World War II, production of the candies was resumed in Milanówek near Warsaw. Even after nationalization, Pomorski did not give up – he moved all manufacturing to a backyard garden. The company exists to this day. Of course the treats are produced on an industrial scale in many different plants, but the best krówki are made by hand. The mixture can also be purchased in cans from many shops.
These iconic toffee candies ('Irysy' means 'irises') are featured in a poem by Wanda Chotomska, one of the most popular Polish authors for children – 'If tigers ate Irysy, the world would not be so bad, for if every tiger bit toffee, they wouldn’t bite meat.' It is not too surprising that Irys candies became the hero of this famous poem – like krówki, they have been around since the interwar period. Their distinctive taste and colour are produced by boiling milk solids. During the communist regime, the candies were produced in the famous Jutrzenka ('morning star') facility. When new machines were purchased for their production in the 1970s, the candy factory became a popular destination for school trips. Irysy are exported to Germany, Hungary, France, and even Canada and Saudi Arabia. To this day they have a lot of fans.
Bambino, Penguin, and Calypso Ice Cream
The days when Polish ice cream shops offered only a few flavours are gone forever. Yet Bambino ice cream on a stick – remembered from childhood as the best ice cream in the world, yet on the other hand a symbol of communist mediocrity – is still produced. However, unlike Ptasie Mleczko marshmallows and krówki caramels, the frozen treat has dropped out of 'mainstream' circulation and is now a niche product. The production of the ice cream bars began in the 1960s in reginal dairy cooperatives and is to this day located in a cooperative in Łódź. Similarly, other communist era ice cream treats – Penguin and Calypso – are still available today.
Warm Ice Cream
And if real ice cream wasn’t available, it remained warm. This delightful delicacy – served in a waffle cone with sweet cream and chocolate sauce – can still be found in shops and patisseries all over the country.
Eat it politely or perhaps start with the soft biscuit and leave the jelly and chocolate to the end? Anyone who received these famous 'dainty' cakes as a child experienced a similar dilemma. They also then experienced the disappointment of seeing the last delicious bits of the sweet treat disappear. These round biscuits with fruit jelly covered in chocolate have been available in Poland since the 1970s. Initially orange-flavoured, they are today available in several additional flavours: cherry, raspberry, blueberry, and apricot.
Danusia, Kasztanki, Michałki Candy Bars...
A Danusia candy bar? Along with 'Kasztanki', 'Michałki', and 'Malaga' it is a common component of a popular mix of sweets. Everyone in Poland knows these candies are produced by the Wawel confectionary, but not everyone knows their history. The story of Danusia, a candy bar with a chocolate-nut filling, begins in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Its production started around 1913 in Adam Piasecki’s Krakow Factory of Sweets and Chocolates (founded in the late nineteenth century).
The name Danusia comes from one of the staff, who was much admired by Piasecki. Apparently it was her likeness that has been immortalized on the package. The chocolate 'Malaga', with its semi-liquid filing, which has nothing to do with sweet wine or with Spain, has been produced since the end of the 1960s. And the cocoa filling and crispy wafers of 'Kasztanki' will be familiar to adults born in the 1970s.
You Want Candy, Go to Gierek
‘You want candy, go to Gierek/Gierek has it , and will give it to you’ – was a popular refrain among kids growing up when Edward Gierek was First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party. And the candy they were seeking might well have been the cult favourite “Michałek” chocolates, which are still produced by many plants. Michałek chocolates have been at the centre of many disputes, including court cases. Although there are a number of similar products with the same name, the original michałek chocolates have roots in Silesia – where they were created in the 1920s in the Hanka factory. Michałek chocolates from this manufacturer are still available today.
Looking for a culinary gift for a foreigner in the 1980s? Maybe kabanos or vodka? Or perhaps this famous treat from Wedel – a hand-decorated wafer cake with hazelnut cream and chocolate. The history of these small cakes dates back to the 1930s, when Wedel – famous for the production of chocolates, candy, halvah, biscuits, wafers, and pralines – was already distributing them not only across Poland, but also internationally. They are still exported to dozens of countries. Today these small cakes are still decorated by hand and enjoy unflagging popularity. They are available with special messages for holidays and personal celebrations.
trans. AA, 11 July 2016