Travel: What to eat in Warsaw

Today I’m continuing my exploration of Poland by tasting the food of Warsaw. But first some history.

The area covered by modern Warsaw has been inhabited for at least 1,400 years. The city has had rather a tumultuous history from the Great Northern War of 1702 to occupation and uprising during World War II and a long period of communist rule.

After the Second World War, when the Nazis slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Warsaw Jews, they literally demolished the city. In 1945 most of Warsaw lay in ruins. The Soviets proclaimed the Polish People’s Republic and the city was rebuilt in a modern style.

All this means that Warsaw has an amazingly diverse architecture. From the charm and colour of the old town to the squareness and rather grand greyness of the Communist era – those communists certainly built things big!

Widespread anger and unrest hit Poland in the early 1980s with protests over food shortages and the prices of goods and the trade union Solidarity was established. By early 1989 an agreement was made to hold elections and an anti-communist government was established.

Poland entered the European Union in 2004 and is now in a period of prosperity. You can see this in Warsaw’s wide streets, bustling restaurant life and new, shiny financial district. It’s a great city to roam – with lots of green spaces, good shopping and a mind-boggling array of eateries in what is a relatively small area.

To help with the decision making, I decided to start my Polish culinary quest by joining Eat Polska for a food tour. A fabulous way to explore the city as well as tasting plenty of traditional dishes and learning their history. We visited four establishments and tasted a real variety of dishes. There was a good walk between most of the stops which was great as I really did discover more about the city while also walking off some of those calories.

Kaman Lwowska

Our first stop was a cosy, traditional Polish place – the sort of place I could see myself settling down for a lovely long lunch.

I’d seen this dish on several menus already in my short time in Warsaw but hadn’t had the courage to order it. It’s delicious! Bread served with lard and fermented gherkin and a chilled shot of local vodka which we were told to “scull”. This is a match made in heaven – nothing complicated but somehow sublimely tasty with a lovely mix of textures. My mouth’s actually watering remembering it.

Warsaw: lard

Lard and fermented gherkin

Warsaw: vodka

Perfectly chilled local vodka

Warsaw: lard

Spread and ready to eat

There’s a lot of soup enjoyed in Polish cuisine. We tasted the red borscht which is a clear, beautifully sweet beetroot soup served with uszko dumping. It’s traditionally served on Christmas Eve, its vibrant pinkness perfect for a celebration.

We also tasted the cucumber soup – made with grated sour pickled cucumbers and potato and served hot which was unexpected and also delicious.Warsaw: cucumber soup

Cucumber soup…and it’s served warm

Solec 44

Solec 44 is a trendy gastro-pub sort of place in an up-and-coming area of the city. I loved the modern, minimalist interior and the shelves containing huge bottles of pickled everything and a wide selection of board games.

We were there to sample a meat selection. Sausages are huge in Poland – actually, they’re normal size but there’s a massive range of them to try. And very good they all are too. Quality cheeses are more of a recent development and today we tucked into a great charcuterie board. We tried three types of sausage, smoked fatback and four types of cheese. All very tasty, especially the pieprzowka (black pepper sausage).

Warsaw: charcuterie

Gotta love a charcuterie board

Bibenda

Time for a meander back towards the centre of the city and Bibenda which serves a mix of traditional and modern polish dishes. Pork is very popular and served in many, many ways. Today’s tenderloin was cooked with a cinnamon mustard glaze, lemon fennel puree, carrot, coriander, orange zest, cinnamon popcorn and mint powder. The meat was so packed with flavour and all the elements perfectly complemented each other.

Warsaw: pork tenderloin

Exotically inventive pork tenderloin

And then there was this vegetarian dish made of broad beans, zucchini, tomato, onion, garlic, spicy mole sauce, avocado, Korycinski cheese and grilled spring onions. Sort of like an exotic kind of ratatouille topped with loads of creamy avo.

The place also has a fabulous cocktail list and serves a wide range of beers. You could certainly  linger.

Warsaw: vegetarian

An amazing vegetarian selection

Wedel

Wedel is a family business dating back to the 1890s and it sells chocolate in many shapes and forms. There’s literally chocolate in the air. And today we were sampling their legendary bittersweet drinking chocolate. Somewhere between milk chocolate and dark chocolate on the tasting scale, the luscious conception was thick, rich and sweet – one of the most indulgent drinks I’ve ever had. And what a beautiful shop – seriously, I challenge anyone to walk out without buying something.

Warsaw: hot chocolate

Lusciously rich hot chocolate

The Eat Polska Food Tour was a wonderful way to learn more about Polish food – something I had limited knowledge of – and find my bearings in the country’s capital. Our guide Eliza was so knowledgeable – not only about the food but also the complicated history of her country. A really fun and educational way to spend an afternoon. Oh, and tasty, too.

Where else to eat

I loved Warsaw’s Old Town with its colourful ancient buildings, cobbled streets and opportunities for al fresco drinking and dining. The beautiful main square has a couple of restaurants so on our first lunch we went in to Krolewski. I’m guessing this is one of the places all the tourists eat – something of an obvious choice. But we didn’t regret it, the food was lovely and the service great. And I did love sitting in the mains square.

The menu offers all those traditional Polish dishes that you’ve read about including a range of classic soups, duck, pork and beef dishes and those little Polish bundles – pierogi (dumplings). You can even get all of the meats on one plate called a Royal Platter – literally a tower of chops, steaks and sausages. The Poles are certainly somewhat carnivorous.

My first taste of pierogi were these Russian-style dumplings stuffed with cheese, potato and fried onion. Amazingly tasty little bundles. I’m going to have to find somewhere in London to get my pierogi fix.

Warsaw: pierogi

Satisfying pierogi stuffed with potato, onion and cheese

Duck is also a staple and we tucked into the Polish-style roasted duck with apples served in cherry sauce with potatoes and beetroot. I love beetroot but even if you don’t, a trip to Poland will convert you – they know how to do beetroot here. The duck was flavoursome and moist, and the cherry sauce surprisingly zesty, served with perfectly cooked potatoes. A hearty dish for sure. Like a lot of Polish cuisine – you’re not going to go hungry that’s for sure.

Warsaw: duck

Flavoursome duck with cherry sauce and beetroot

Warsaw: steak tartare

Design your own steak tartare

Just across the road from our hotel was a lovely little spot called Bohemia. The perfect choice for a late dinner after our evening tour of the city. Steak tartare crops up on many a Polish menu and as it’s one of my favourite dishes I had to go for it. Love the presentation and the addition of a fresh garlic clove and enjoyed mixing it up to create the right flavour just for me.

There’s plenty of beer to savour and Poland has a flourishing craft beer scene – there are around a hundred breweries in Poland. The three most popular local beers are Zywiec, Okoum and Tyskie. I became partial to a chilled Zywiec. There are plenty of options for beer tasting in the beautiful streets of the Old Town.

Warsaw: beer

Cheers from the Old Town

There are lemonade carts dotted around the city and fresh lemonade is sold all over. They look cute but the lemonade we tried from the cart was a little insipid with the juice of half a lemon, water and a spoonful of sugar. Shop-bought lemonade seemed to have more flavour with extra juice and fresh herbs added. All very refreshing either way.

Lemonade in the park

We also enjoyed coffee and a light breakfast at to Lubie cafe, again in the Old Town. My Local Breakfast included smoked cold meat, cheese, a tasty bowl of ham and egg spread and tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers served with bread rolls. They also had an extensive tea menu and lovely coffee.

A fresh and tasty breakfast with all my favourites

Where to stay

We stayed at the Westin Warsaw. It was situated about a 20-minute walk from the main sights but I do like a bit of a meander, so that suited me. The rooms were spacious and comfortable with good mini bar and tea and coffee facilities. And the service was fantastic with plenty of help organising tours and recommending the best options.

You can find out more about food tours in Warsaw at www.eatpolskacom

Copernicus in Krakow for Polish royal cuisine

Today I’m taking you to Poland. To Krakow to be specific. Krakow is the second largest and one of the oldest cities in Poland, dating back to the 7th century. It sits on the Vistula River and  has a well-preserved Jewish Quarter and a stunning Old Town centred around the grand Rynek Glowny (market square).

After the invasion of Poland at the start of World War II Krakow became the capital of Germany’s General Government. In 1941 the Jewish population were forced into a walled area which became known as the Krakow Ghetto and from there they were mainly sent to German extermination camps like nearby Auschwitz (more of which later, yes, I went there and it will always stay with me – an experience I think everyone should have).

There were around 60,000 Jews in Krakow at the start of the war and only 2,000 survived it. Now there are around 1,000 Jewish inhabitants of the city, with about 200 identifying themselves as members of the Jewish community. The Jewish Quarter is charming and there are still seven synagogues there that you can visit.

Across the river is Oskar Schindler’s enamelware plant where he selected employees from the ghetto to work – saving them from the camps. Steven Spielberg told this amazing story in his film Schindler’s List. Roman Polanski is a survivor of the Krakow ghetto, which he luckily escaped from as a small boy.

There’s so much history to absorb as you roam the streets of Krakow. A lot of tragedy, a lot of terrible tales and I could feel it. It’s a sombre experience hearing about mans inhumanity to man.

Having said that it’s a great city to walk around with myriad bars and restaurants to eat at and the locals are some of the most welcoming people I’ve met. So once we’d absorbed as  much history as we could and taken in the sights it was time for dinner.

We headed for the fabulous Copernicus restaurant which is in the Copernicus Hotel – close to the beautiful Wawel Castle. The food is based on Polish royal cuisine, with traditional recipes being taken a creative step into the 21st century.

The restaurant is cosy and intimate and the whole evening was an absolutely wonderful experience. We picked the five-course chef’s tasting menu which we were guided through by our delightful waiter – who even helped me choose some lovely Polish wine. We could have gone seven or even 12 courses – for 12 he advised allowing at least four hours and we weren’t sure we were prepared for that much of a banquet.

Two of the dishes were standard and we had to choose the other three which made it all very manageable. To start this delightful beetroot tartar served with pumpkin and blackberries. They know what to do with their beetroot in Poland – even my brother Frank who admitted to hating the beets before his visit there soon became a fan. A beautifully colourful plate that was bursting with flavour.

Copernicus: beetroot

Beetroot tartar with pumpkin and blackberries

For the second course there was a choice of four. First up this salad of grilled tuna served with avocado, zucchini and pomegranates. A real tasty work of art.

Copernicus: salad

The luscious and colourful tuna salad

The roasted bacon – which was kind of like a belly of pork – came with pear and spring onion mustard. What a wonderful combination – and who’d have thought of using pears to make mustard. Genius.

Copernicus: bacon

Bacon paired with pear mustard

Pierogi (dumplings) can be found everywhere on Polish menus – and very nice they are too. But these were in a league of their own stuffed with tomatoes onion and cider marmalade and served with dry-cured neck.

Copernicus: dumplings

Truly superior Polish dumplings

Copernicus: Sorrel soup

Exotic sorrel soup with caviar

The next communal course was the deliciously exotic sorrel cream soup. Served with a new potato in pride of place in the centre, topped with sturgeon caviar. Can’t say I’ve ever eaten sorrel cream soup, but I definitely plan to again.

The main course also offered four choices. The duck was served with a foie gras terrine, quince jam and kohlrabi. Duck is big in Polish cuisine and I ate it several times on this trip – with great satisfaction.

Copernicus: duck

Duck and foie gras terrine

Copernicus: trout

Brown trout on the creamiest of risotto

The brown trout was served atop a creamy lemon-spiced risotto. Perfectly cooked fish and a melt-in-the-mouth risotto.

I chose the veal dish which was a real masterpiece. Served with sweetbreads, green peas and marinated nasturtiums, this is one of the most luscious dishes I’ve eaten in some time. The perfect balance of flavours and textures and richness. Yum!

Copernicus: veal

Perfectly cooked veal with the richness of sweetbreads

Okay, so when you’ve committed to five courses you simply have to do it. It wasn’t a struggle to be honest – the restaurant got the portion size just right – even though some little added extras were included along the way. There’s was still a little room for something sweet. Apricots were served with cardamom chocolate and lemon meringue. Delicate and tangy.

Copernicus: apricot pudding

The flavours of apricots and cardamoms

Or there was cottage cheese served with mirabelle plums and sea buckthorn sorbet. It tasted as good as it looks!

Copernicus: plum dessert

Plum flavours and sea buckthorn sorbet

I went for the cheese plate and it’s one of the best I’ve had for some time (again!) – the selection from hard, goats and properly stinky (in a very good way!) were served with the most amazing onion and pear mustard.

Copernicus: Cheese

A truly fabulous cheese plate

After such a fabulous dinner we felt we simply had to finish the evening with a vodka! Well, when in Poland… Our waiter recommended which one (it’s a complicated thing choosing vodka here) and served it up chilled in these beautifully dainty little glasses. We were so happy!

Copernicus: vodka

When in Poland…drink vodka

Today’s price point

Our five-course chef’s tasting menu cost 180PLN (approximately £38.50) – drinks not included.

The Winnica Turnau Solaris ’15 (white wine) cost 139PLN (approx £29).

The Winnica Turnau Cabernet ’15 (red wine) cost 149PLN (approx £31).

Copernicus is on Kanonicza Street – Krakow’s oldest street – which winds up to the Castle.