In the winter of 1988, when I first moved to Poland, there were two sorts of restaurant in Warsaw. The first sort was formal, empty, state-owned and dusty, with a long menu from which one could select things which might or might not actually appear. The waiters were bored, or rude. The lighting was poor.
The second sort was private – sometimes very private. “Restaurants” were set up in apartments, and in the back rooms of houses. Unlike their state-owned counterparts, these restaurants were full of good cheer. They didn’t even pretend to offer long menus – how could they? The communist political system barely functioned by then, and the communist food distribution system barely functioned either. The state shops sold vinegar, canned meat and dry crackers. Every once in a while a queue would form for a shipment of sausage.
See also: our article on Polish sausage and kiełbasa
But even back then, the first signs of what would become the free market were visible, if not in the entire economy then certainly in the economy of food. Excellent fresh vegetables – naturally organic because the farmers couldn’t afford pesticides – were available at private markets, many of which supplied the private restaurants. Alongside them, Russian traders sold jars of Beluga caviar for the equivalent of a few dollars. That caviar appeared in the restaurants too, atop reasonably priced blinis, at the time a common first course. One of my friends knew a “veal lady” who could deliver black market meat as if it were contraband. There were good free range eggs to be found, if you knew who to ask.
Even before the fall of communism, in other words, the foundations of capitalism in Poland had been laid by those who grew, packaged, bought and sold food. It was no accident that when Margaret Thatcher arrived in Warsaw in the autumn of 1988 - dressed in a full-length fur coat and a fur hat – she went grocery shopping. One of her former advisers recently told me that she’d wanted to visit a place in Poland where “the free market” was working, and the ambassador pointed her to food. And so she showed up at Hala Mirowska, a pre-war covered market which was then filled with country farmers selling their wares at “free prices.” As startled shoppers stopped and stared, she swept through the fruit stalls, a crowd of television cameras behind her. The British ambassador scurried behind her, paying for her purchases and jars of pickles broken in the fray.
Very soon after that, communism collapsed. In its wake Polish food, and Polish food culture, began to change rapidly too. In fact, the food culture probably changed even faster than the politics, because the transformation was already underway: the economic collapse of the 1980s had already produced a generation of food entrepreneurs who, by 1990, were delighted to come out of the shadows.
Just as in politics, the first phase of the transformation was chaotic. Bad, cardboard pizza became available very quickly, as did bad (and overpriced) “French” restaurants, most of which served overcooked meat in heavy sauces. But as the economy grew, food culture changed too. Restaurants multiplied; producers of good quality food multiplied too. Amateur makers of Polish jams, preserves and relishes became professionals, acquiring marketing finesse and better packaging. Small farms and factories producing organic pork or game sausages began to flourish as well. Some began to travel to summer festivals, where they can now be found selling beets preserved with horseradish alongside very thin, dried sausages and honey flavored by a wide range of flowers.
As the institutions and legal framework of civil society became well established, both producers and consumers began to organize themselves. The Slow Food association – a movement founded in Italy in 1986, and designed to promote traditional ways of eating and preparing food - acquired a Polish branch, and now allows qualified Polish restaurants to sport its trademark, a small snail. Last summer I ate smoked eel at a Slow Food-approved restaurant on the Baltic Coast. The food might have been “slow,” but the service was excellent. Nothing about that meal, in fact, resembled the experience of dining in communist Poland.
With political stability came national self-confidence, and with self-confidence came a revival of Polish cooking on a national scale. The most fashionable Warsaw and Krakow restaurants no longer serve bad foreign food with fancy names. Instead, they make robust pork and duck dishes, red cabbage and wild mushrooms. They serve szmalec, an old-fashioned peasant spread made of pork fat, instead of butter. They offer black bread to spread it on, instead of baguettes. Trout, venison and wild boar, all historically a part of Polish cuisine, have reappeared on menus too. Creative chefs have also begun to experiment with Polish ingredients, producing new versions of traditional dishes, from herring tartare to tiny, elegant cabbage rolls. Pierogarnia – dumpling restaurants – make pierogi in every conceivable flavour, from spinach and feta cheese to the traditional cheese and potatoes.
The opening of borders and the arrival of international trade has accelerated this process. Once-exotic ingredients – balsamic vinegar, truffle oil – are now used to spice up traditional dishes. Once-exotic fruits and vegetables, from the kiwi to the cantaloupe, are now available everywhere. It turns out that arugula, unknown in Poland until the 1990s, grows beautifully in July and August, and is an ubiquitous ingredient on summer menus.
For more on traditional Polish dishes, click here
But this should not be misleading: critics of the Polish transformation like to speak of winners and losers, of social groups which have done better or worse since 1990, and to speak of truffle oil and cantaloupe makes it sound as if only the winners now eat well. But in the case of food, the improvement has really affected everyone. In fact, the biggest changes are often found at the lower end of the price scale. When one of my children was younger, his favorite meal was “gas station soup” – chicken broth, that is, served plain with noodles, available at a roadside café which was indeed next to a gas station. Even now, one of my family’s favorite restaurants in Poland is a roadside “karczma,” an inn, which serves only a handful of dishes. One of them is żurek, a soup based on a stock made from sour bread, filled with white sausage and vegetables, served in a bowl made from bread too. Another is grilled pork fillets with onions, served on a skewer like a kebab, but eaten with pickles and grated beet salad.
Everything is very plain and very fresh, just what roadside food usually isn’t. No wonder the trucks and tourists’ cars cram the parking lot outside all summer – and no wonder the state-owned restaurants have now disappeared altogether.
Anne Applebaum, Polish American Pulitzer-prize winning author and columnist, has written about several social and political aspects of the recent history of Eastern and Central Europe. She has also co-authored a cook book, From a Polish Country House Kitchen.
Written by Anne Applebaum, February 2014