‘Because we don’t like the taste of commercial food anymore’
Many Poles remember empty shelves in grocery stores of the 1980s, gigantic queues for meat, sour Cuban oranges, and unripe bananas. However, many people also hold that when Poland was under the communist regime, basic products such as ham, meat, fruit, vegetables, and dairy were of better quality than those sold in today’s supermarkets. After the fall of communism in 1989, grocery franchises surfaced on the Polish market, offering their anonymous food. But now a specific wave of foodies has risen, claiming: 'we don’t like this commercial food'! Not only do they want healthy products for a good price, but they also wish to buy food made in the spirit of fair trade, and to know where their food comes from. This way of thinking is a recent apparition, but nevertheless spreading speedily. As a result, various initiatives have become available for those looking for an alternative to traditional groceries. Nobody is surprised at people growing their own herbs or vegetables on their balconies. The younger generation goes back to relaxing at allotments – an activity that was earlier associated with pensioners.
Grocery co-ops – pure affordable produce straight from the farm
The concept of a modern and ecologically minded food cooperative has caught on in Poland over the past few years. The first initiative of this kind was created in Warsaw, and quie a few are operating in the capital today. Some opened up stores with fair trade food, produced locally by trusted farmers. There are also co-ops that function in Kraków, Poznań, Wrocław, Białystok, Lublin, and Katowice. They are created by people who choose not to buy food in stores due to their worldview. The main goal of the cooperatives is to provide access to healthy, seasonal, and locally produced food without the intermediary of business and commercial go-betweens. The co-op members buy the products together, directly from the producers. Thanks to this, they buy at a lower cost and put away some of the saved up money for a collective fund, which later finances either educational or social activities. People from food co-ops believe in fair trade – according to them, food trade should be based on a fair contract between the producer and the consumer, rather than on profit and abuse. They always strive to buy locally and are ecologically-minded. They emphasise the fact that most stores are oriented only at making as much money as possible, whereas the co-ops strive to create a community based on sharing values and a similar approach to consumptionism.
In several cities, there is also a group called RWS (short for Rolnictwo Wspierane przez Społeczność, which is Polish for Socially Supported Agriculture). People gather together at the start of the season and meet a local farmer to establish what foods they would like to eat in the upcoming season. After an estimate of costs and prices, RWS signs a contract with the farmer to have access to the foods that will grow in the season. They say that contrary to many modern forms of selling, RWS is not a commercial project, but an example of people engaging in direct cooperation with trusted farmers. RWS is to grant fair pay to the farmers and cheap, healthy products to the consumers.
Ecological food fairs and urban culinary festivals
Poles still like to do their groceries in traditional local markets. Some of them – like the Stary Kleparz in Kraków and the Hala Mirowska in Warsaw – have a history that goes a long way back (for example, Margaret Thatcher was taken to visit Hala Mirowska during her visit to Warsaw in 1988). Yet during recent years, it’s the new alternative market scene that is on the rise across Polish cities. These markets are usually the fruit of local initiatives, created by associations devoted to promoting local communities. Ecological products straight from the farm attract not only neighbours, but also those from farther districts – once you make a visit to one of these fairs, you usually become a regular.
Warsaw’s Forteca (Fortress) is hugely popular. It is a fair created by the famous restaurant manager Agnieszka Kręglicka, a Slow Food activist who promotes regional products. Pan Ziółko (Mr. Herb) offers an array of phenomenal vegetables there, and Pan Sandacz (Mr. Pike) offers the best freshwater fish. Apart from ecologically grown vegetables and meat, there are also cheeses, preserves, home made fruit and honey liquors, as well as dried mushrooms and various pickles. There are also products typical of old Polish cuisine, which recently enjoy a revived interest – capons, guinea fowl, and pheasant. After a few years of operating, Forteca grew to be a meeting place and a spot where the aforementioned food co-ops sell their products.
The Kraków district of Podgórze has been hosting the city’s first ecological market for a year now, running under the name Targ Pietruszkowy (Parsley Market). It’s now inscribed into the cityscape, with people coming from outside of Kraków for their cheeses, veggies, bread, trout, and oils cold-pressed on site. Karolina Jarmołowska, the organiser of the market says:
I have gotten myself engaged in the market out of pure egoism, simply because I wanted to have a place close by where I could get good quality food. Thanks to the fact that for a few years I have been an active participant of a local association, we were even able to apply for funding in order to organise the market. This year it is a lot easier, because the market is already known, we have double the amount of booths and sellers, we have a bigger offer, and so the market attracts more and more people – in spite of the fact that we only advertise in the closest area and on Facebook.
Ongoing annual city festivals and events, such as the Polish Breakfast Market and the Kraków Najedzeni (Overfed) Fest have a somewhat different philosophy.
Targ Śniadaniowy – The Breakfast Market – was started in Warsaw. Presently, every weekend it also has its installments in several other Polish towns – Tricity, Poznań and in Kraków. The organisers of the market write that it’s a little bit more than a set of booths with food. Their aim is to animate green spaces within cities. The breakfasts are an occasion to celebrate a time of leisure with family and friends, in the atmosphere of a picnic. Local editions of the Breakfast Market offer regional food, exotic dishes and original-authored recipes. There are often workshops for children and adults, which are meant to integrate the local community and cement bonds between neighbours.
Once every three months, Kraków hosts the Najedzeni Fest, created by passionate activists. The event is located in the halls of the old Forum hotel, and it aims at showing off the culinary trends within Kraków, as well as creating a social get-together focused on food. The organisers acquaint people with the newest culinary initiatives, restaurants, bars, and talented chefs who conduct workshops and run successful blogs. Each edition of the festival runs under a different theme, either evocative of the seasons or a certain idea. The festival attracts of thousands of visitors each year.
Similar events are also organised in other cities.
Dumpster divers, urban foragers, and herb-eaters
Urban foragers and dumpster divers see free food everywhere. Some go through garbage containers by supermarkets in search of food thrown out by stores right after the 'best before' date runs out. Others practice ‘looting’, as they call it themselves, rummaging through deserted city gardens and parks. They know where the wild apple trees grow, which ones supply the best fruit till the late days of autumn, and where one can pick up grapes, plums, apricots, raspberries, elderberry and nuts. They collect wild rose and jasmine petals, ground-ivy, goosefoot, wild carrot, horseradish, and even the trendy Jerusalem artichoke and ground elder. In deserted orchards, one can hunt a number of forgotten apple species, which are not easy to find in normal markets. The collected fruit is used to bake cakes and make chutneys, juices, jams, and syrups that can last a whole winter. Urban foragers describe their expeditions and hunts on blogs and social media. They are unapologetic – they say they get tasty things for free. They also create endeavours, such as Jadalnia Warszawa (The Warsaw Diner), which aims to popularise using the city’s plant resources, by drawing out maps of edible plants.
Herb-eaters gather and propagate eating wild plants, tubers, and weeds – frequently ones that are somewhat forgotten nowadays. Recipes for wild greenery appeared in cookbooks hundreds years ago. They’ve always been a part of people’s diet, more crucially during times of war, hardship, and hunger. During the so-called hungry gap goosefoots, sorrel, nettle, and dead-nettles served as complementation or replacement of other products. It was especially the poor that would eat leaves, sprouts, and unripe fruit – cooked, fried, or raw. Today, the herb-eaters eagerly educate and teach city-slickers break food taboos by organising workshops or writing books on the matter. They show how to turn ground elder, a plant that gardeners usually weed, into a tasty soup or a kind of pesto that would be called gąszcz in old Polish. Lesser celandine is perfect for a salad with vinaigrette dressing made with Polish cold-pressed oil and chickweed tastes great with krokiety – baked, stuffed pancakes, a Polish variation of croquettes. Some acknowledged chefs also engage in gathering. Even Wojciech Amaro of the five-star Atelier Amaro goes off into Mazovian woods for some of his ingredients. In order to get his sorrel leaves, he roams through the Konstancin forests.
Passionates of fermentation
Now it’s not only pickled cabbage, cucumbers, or borscht, but a lot of other foods, too: pumpkin pickled in buttermilk, pickled lemons, Polish kimchi, fermented hummus or home-made vinegars and yoghurts. There’s definitely an on-going fashion for fermentation in Poland. The proponents of this method claim that nearly everything can be fermented and that pickling can give well-known dishes a surprising twist and expand the variety of tastes. It is not only chefs who use this old technique, but also a growing number of people who want to take care of their health on their own. How do they justify this passion? They emphasise that by pickling a product at home you take control over what you eat: you can be sure that the food has no artificial aromas or preservatives. Interesting books on the topic for sure make the experiments easier. In Kiszonki i fermentacje [Pickling and fermentation] chef Aleksander Baron encourages the readers to pickle a wide variety of vegetables (pumpkin or kale can be fermented in buttermilk; mushrooms, cabbages, leaf vegetables, and green stems can also be pickled), produce their own leavens (based on, for example, buckwheat), or home-made vinegars (for instance cherry one). According to Baron, fermentation is becoming more and more popular and is a way to live healthily and creatively.
Amateurs of the so-called 'partisan gardening' do not agree to an ugly and anonymous city scape. The movement is spread across thirty different countries, and has recently kicked off in a dozen Polish cities. ‘Illegal’ vegetable gardens have been created in Barcelona, among other places, during harsh recession times. The partisans would set up wild gardens because they were not able to obtain permission from city authorities to utilise deserted and derelict terrains. In most cities, such as Warsaw and Kraków, the partisans organise social and artistic plantings of flowers, trees, and vegetables. They do so without the knowledge or permission of city authorities, usually acting at dusk or dawn. Then, they care for the forsaken patches of land and tend to the forgotten gardens. The Kraków-based ethno-botanologist, Dr. Piotr Klepacki, is a promulgator of the action. He has created the Pies Ogrodnika (The Dog in the Manger) project for gardening education. Last year, he planted cucumbers, leeks, zucchini and tomatoes in the Podgórze area in Kraków.
Food trucks– an urban alternative to restaurants
The street food trend has also made its way to Poland, with the idea of creating an alternative to traditional restaurants. Food trucks have inscribed themselves into the cityscape. They offer much more than just hamburgers, with many local dishes (such as a specialty truck offering Cracovian maszanka, the local version of a sloppy joe) and other exotic specialties. Food truck owners organise gatherings where one can taste the best of their cuisine. In Warsaw, there is a food truck which specialises in offal, and Kraków’s most recent viral finding is a diner in a London two-story bus, serving British fish and chips. Skwer Judah (Judah Square, a name taken from a city mural piece) located in Kraków’s Kazimierz district is the most popular street food place in the city. The owners of food trucks that park there are often former corporate company workers who have decided it’s time to make something of their own.