You have to love these Poles. Every time they offer you a shot of something alcoholic, be it at breakfast time, lunch (which they typically call dinner — the main meal of the day, eaten mid to late afternoon) or after supper (not as big as “lunch” — but don’t worry, restaurants won’t restrict you), they tell you it’s for your health; or that it will warm you up. That it will whet the appetite (good apéritif) or settle your stomach (if you’ve overindulged). It’s a tonic. It’s restorative. It’s good for the constitution.
See Travel to Poland: Na zdrowie from Krakow.
My first morning in Krakow, thanks to Sarna Rose, president of Poland Culinary Vacations, who is based in Florida and who has put me in contact with Agnieszka Bratek of the Malopolska Tourist Organization in Krakow (who in turn has offered to steer me toward “places with traditional Polish cuisine”), I am met by Monika Mazanek, a local woman who will take me to Cafe Jama Michalika, which I discover is a gallery-like art-filled restaurant and bar that opened more than 100 years ago.
We stop in for an early coffee and a kremówka — a custardy cheese cake often called a papieska (papal) kremówka since the late Polish pope (John Paul II) said it was one of his favorite things to eat.
Cafe Jama Michalika is one of Krakow’s more famous bars and restaurants. Long a haven for writers and creatives, I learn that in its heyday, artists — often inebriated — swopped many of the the tongue-in-cheek, risqué, satirical art works that adorn the walls for food and drink. A cabaret and poetry venue to this day, it was also here that, at the turn of the last century, a legendary burlesque-type avante-garde cabaret Zielony Balonik — in English, the Green Balloon — was born.
Owner (since 1991) Stanisław Jerzy Kuliś — chef and writer — shares its history and stories through Mazanek, who is clearly too intrigued by what he has to say to translate more than the basics that I share here (supplemented by a bit from Google). They gab on. I look around and think I must learn Polish for next time.
After not too long Kuliś calls his pony-tailed manageress, Martina.
Poles drink in restaurants:
“He says that Poles drink at restaurants,” she tells me. “My boss says it’s a cold day and you must try this traditional drink.”
In this hallowed establishment where Poland’s legendary artist, the late Karol Frycz, designed most of the off-the-wall, decadent stained glass windows, I am introduced to nalewka. A traditional vodka-like drink infused with herbs, fruit, and/or spices, the tradition was almost lost, I am told, under Soviet rule.
But there’s been a strong revival with people making their own and small producers put it on the shelves. I learn that ingredients which lend their flavors to nalewkas include black current, cherries, walnut, sloe berries, strawberries; in the case of the one that I drink sometime later (that I can’t find a translation for), derén berries.
In Poland I find that infusions such as Kuliś’s nalewka typically come with the words “Good for you” — regardless of the time of day.
To find out more about eating your way around Poland, see Poland Culinary Vacations. See the Malopolska Tourist Organization website for what’s going on in and around Krakow. I paid three visits to Cafe Jama Michalika and would recommend their pastries, light meals and vodka over their larger dinner menu meals. That’s because I thought I tasted Maggi in my wild mushroom crepe, which made me wary of trying the more elaborate meals.
Although I must say I didn’t try the roast quail, the roast pheasant, the rabbit in a Polish herb-cream sauce with porcini mushrooms or the duck in blackcurrrant sauce. If you go there and do (try them), let me know what you think.
This is a tourist spot. On one lunchtime visit, a whole busload of Europeans had stopped off to eat, drink, make merry and take photos.
Google flights from SFO to Poland for good deals.
© Story and photos Wanda Hennig, 2015