Café Culture in 18th Century Poland
small, Café Culture in 18th Century Poland, Spread from the book Coffee and Cookies at Any Time of the Day: History of Kraków Cafés and Pastry Shops with a map of the cafés around the main squa, krk_open_photo.jpg
The European tradition of quaint cafés serving elaborate pastries to dandified patrons was perhaps born in Vienna, but it also has distinctly Polish roots. Have a seat, order an espresso and a meringue, and dig into the centuries of café and pastry shop lore in Central Europe.
On a recent visit to Krakow I made a wonderful discovery. I found a book called Coffee and Cookies at Any Time of the Day: the History of Krakow's Cafés and Pastry Shops. Instead of traditional sightseeing, I've always preferred café tourism. Instead of queuing for crowded buses, for the price of a couple of Euros, I comfortably settle in and observe the locals. Whether in Rome, Vienna, Krakow or Warsaw, cafés and their history reflect the customs, habits, and the pace of life of a people. What are those of Krakow and Warsaw?
The pre-Starbucks era
Cafés once played a much more important role in the life of society than they do now. They were more than places of meeting, gossip and consumption, they created their own social and cultural lives. In a more local and less anonymous world, people went to cafés to read the latest newspapers and books, to celebrate anniversaries, and to discuss politics and literature, not with their friends but with groups of anyone interested. It's where coups and uprisings were plotted, and where actors were chosen for theatrical roles by directors from nearby theatres. No single café and pastry shop was identical. There were establishments only frequented by actors, others by writers, students or professors, and so on.
The first cafés
Let us start off with a few historical anecdotes. The Polish spy, diplomat and soldier Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki, who went to Vienna with King Jan III Sobieski in 1683, opened the first café there, using coffee beans left by the retreating Ottoman Turks. Kolschitzky is the patron of all Viennese café owners, and there is a street named in his honour, as well as a statue of him. The first café in Poland, on the other hand, opened in Warsaw in 1724. It was run by one of the courtiers of King Augustus II and located within the perimeter of the king's prized Saxon Axis. The Axis, destroyed in the war, was composed of the Saxon Palace, a building "worthy of a monarch with absolute power", a garden and the Iron Gate. It wasn't until 1772 that the first lanterns lit the dark and unpaved streets of Warsaw, and so the café was mainly attended by men from the King's court.
1724 is remembered as the date of the opening of the first café in Poland but it was in 1727 that someone earned the moniker of "Godfather of Warsaw's confectionery", and that man was Italian.
Godfather of Warsaw's confectionery
This pioneer's name was Lessel, and he made his name on the opening day of the Saxon Opera House. The dessert that he made for the occasion is still talked about almost 300 years later: a layered cake in the shape of a decorated pyramid, and a baumkuchen. His culinary prowess earned him special rights from the king, and in 1727, in a part of the Saxon Garden open to the public, he ran a pastry shop in a gazebo among the flower beds and tree-lined lanes. His best sellers were his caramels and ice-cream. Lessel opened his own pastry shop on Krolewska street, which locals called the Saxon pastry shop. One of the more significant details of its long existence is that it was the first place in Warsaw to have a telephone connection (in 1878). After Lessel's death, the pastry shop passed from the hands of one pastry chef to the next until it ceased to exist in the inter-war period.
Honey instead of sugar
Lessel was not the only Italian to settle in Warsaw and kick-start the coffee and pastry business. For almost one hundred years, most cafés and pastry shops in Warsaw were opened and ran by Italians, Swiss, French and Germans. One of them was Baldi from Switzerland, who opened a pastry shop on Dluga Street in 1789. Many pastry shops, which differed from cafés in that they offered food to take away as well as in-house, were opened on Dluga street and the adjacent Przeczna street. In stories about old Warsaw, Witkor Gomulicki writes that Przeczna was the city's oldest street, with records of it from 1427. In the 16th century, it was inhabited by bakers who only used honey for cakes because sugar was a luxury from abroad. Przeczna is therefore now called Miodowa, from the word miod (Polish for honey).
Baldi's pastry shop looked like many others – a sales counter behind a glass window in the front, and long wooden tables with benches for clients in the back or in a separate room. Today, common tables have been reinstated in many trendy hipster places in modern Warsaw, but interior design evolved over the centuries because of the role of women in society.
No women allowed
When cafés first opened, they were only visited by men and served only by male waiters. The arrival of women spelled not only a transition in interior design but also an expansion of the menu. Benches gave way to comfortable armchairs, napkins and flowers appeared on tables and mirrors on the walls. Pastry chefs began to make more cakes and cookies and gave them female names: Helena cake, stefanka, warszawianka. Cafés and pastry shops were thrust into a new era with the appearance of gas lighting in the 19th century. Up to then, they were lit by oil lamps, then candles and kerosene lamps. Perhaps it was the dim light or the hustle and bustle of cafés and pastry shops that made them ideal venues for business meetings.
Cafés serving alcohol
Deals were made over punch. Baldi's pastry shop on Dluga street was famous for its punch. It was served in large glasses and made with a generous quantity of araq. While in Italy, Great Britain, Spain and France, coffee began to be drank in the 17th century, before it settled in Poland for good, the morning drink was wine broth (wine, water, almonds, raisins, powdered sugar and yolks) or beer broth. Other typically masculine drinks included a drink made of ground almonds boiled with milk (orszada), strong coffee with sugar syrup and a spoonful of rum or spirit and ice cubes (mazagran), or pomegranate juice with sugar syrup (grenadino). Coffee lemonade and oranżada (a fizzy drink with water, sugar and orange juice) appeared on the menu with the arrival of women. In order to please his female clients, Baldi kept a dozen canaries in his shop. They were trained to sing Italian arias.
Edible flowers and other sweets
Tiny singing creatures were not the only way owners would attract clients. Advertisements would tout the health benefits of coffee: "drinking coffee deters apoplexy" or "drinking tea adds shine to your eyes" and shop windows would lure clients. Warsaw's most famous shop window was that of Kacper Semadeni, an immigrant from Switzerland. It would always be hidden behind a crowd of gawking school kids. There were caramelised fruits on big platters - pears halves, apples, plums, apricots, edible chestnuts, pineapple pieces cooked in syrup and covered with a thin layer of icing; cornucopias with gold coins, small coloured vases, mazurki, baumkuchen and other cakes and cookies, and, finally, edible art: baskets with edible flowers and a layered cake, often in the shape of a pyramid, a tower or palace with chocolate, caramel, marzipan or tragacanth decoration. The sophistication of the ornaments confirms that confectionery manufacturers were craftsmen with a sense of the fine arts. Legend has it that when the Romanian royal couple came to Warsaw in 1923, they and other dinner guests were asked to distinguish real elderflowers from their sugar imitation without touching them. In an atmosphere of laughs and cheers, they failed miserably.
Well-groomed pastry chefs
Semadeni had seven sons and trained all of them to be pastry chefs. There was a strict hierarchy in the profession and the apprenticeship period under a master chef lasted ten years: five years in Poland and five abroad. In the days before the invention of motors and electric machines, a long stick with an egg beater was used to prepare the dough. Nuts and cocao beans were ground in massive quern-stones. The profession was not only physically demanding but also varied – there was no division of labour. Pastry chefs would work in the back kitchen and serve customers at the counter, and had to be short-haired and immaculately dressed in a white shirt with a clean collar. To make sure the apprentices were well-groomed, Semadeni had a hairdresser come to his establishment every fortnight to cut the youngsters' hair.
Cut diamonds at the theatre
Semadeni and his sons managed a number of establishments (pastry shops and theatre buffets) in Poland and Ukraine. His most famous business was in the building of the Grand Theatre. Picture a big room, with sturdy dark furniture covered in plush fabric, dark drapes tied by ropes on both sides of the door, marble tabletops, an antique clock, a big mirror in a black frame on the wall, and the owner – Laurent Lourse – not long before his death. It was gloomy but always lively. A passage from the theatre to the shop made it possible for gentlemen to buy boxes of chocolate for their dates during the intermission. A theatre show and a box of chocolates from a man? I truly regret that that custom didn't stick. The most luxurious chocolates were called "cut diamonds" – brylanty in Polish.
Confectioners, their pastry shops and products were intricately linked with then-current political events. When Poland regained independence after World War I, Semadeni made a cake to commemorate the event. It was far superior to today's personalised commemorative cakes – it was a full-blown work of art. Set against chocolate Carpathian mountains, white eagles (the symbol of Poland) made of tragacanth with authentic white bird feathers chained to caramel border checkpoints are breaking free from cuffs of imprisonment. The sculpture brought people to tears. Teachers would bring their students to see it. Semadeni's pastry shop and the Grand Theatre (Pod Filarami) burned down in World War II. When the theatre was rebuilt in 1965, there was no room for a pastry shop inside.
Plotting an uprising over a coffee
Cafés were places of meeting in the aftermath of as well as the run-up to big historical events. At poorly lit tables, Poles plotted national uprisings. Despite permanent vigilance by police and infiltration by spies, the November Uprising (1830-31) against the Russian Empire was planned in a café. The uprising began when young Polish officers from the local Army of Congress Poland's military academy, led by Lieutenant Piotr Wysocki, revolted against the Russian Empire's occupation. They were soon joined by large segments of Polish society.
Despite some local successes, the uprising was eventually crushed by the numerically superior Imperial Russian Army. In the run-up to the insurgence, cafés were public places open to everyone at every time of the day. This is where like-minded students, teachers, civil servants, and journalists would meet to discuss politics and literature. Warsaw had a couple of "pre-Uprising" cafés. Among them were Baldi's café on Dluga street and a café on Kozia street owned by Mrs Brzezinska. The small café on Kozia street had a wide selection of newspapers and good coffee. There was an atmosphere of respect for those who came here to read. This is also where Frederic Chopin said goodbye to his compatriots before leaving for France. In his book Literary Cafe in Warsaw, Wladyslaw Wojcicki writes, "On the eve of his departure he went for a coffee at Brzezinska's, and in the evening he attended the National Theatre on Krasinski square, that is when I saw him last".
Thankfully, the memory of Chopin is preserved in his music because his belongings, kept safe by his younger sister Izabela Barcinska in the Zamoyski Palace on Nowy Swiat, were destroyed by Russian soldiers in 1863. The raid took place after a bomb aimed at Count Teodor Berg, the viceroy of the Tsar in the Kingdom of Poland, was thrown from the palace's window. Soldiers entered the premises and destroyed everything inside, including a portrait of Chopin, his coffee set, correspondence, couch, carpets and the most significantly - his piano. Everything was stacked and burned. On a side note, the Zamoyski Palace was once home to a café owned by one of the apprentices of Lessel mentioned earlier.
Many cafés were destroyed during the war, others were made exclusive to Germans, and some were homes to the underground resistance movement. Post-war outfits helped rebuild ties between a shattered people. Today, Warsaw and Krakow have a vibrant cultural life. There are places which offer themselves up for political debates and support political parties.
cafes in cracow
cafes in warsaw
Written by MJ, 10 Oct 2014