In Wojciech Nowicki's Kitchen
10 November 2022
Autumn and Winter in the Kitchen
If you think Poland goes hungry in the colder seasons, you couldn’t be more mistaken. We eat differently than in the summer, of course, but we also get to showcase our culinary inventiveness. I’d go as far as saying that you’ll find Poland’s greatest culinary delights in winter.
Text: Wojciech Nowicki
As I’m writing this message in a bottle, the sweltering July is coming to an end, the rains have come after weeks of drought and markets throughout the city abound with produce. It’s hard to believe it: fresh peas are finished, although we still have strawberries. Foragers are out in force, and a kilo of blueberries is as cheap as a slice of pizza. Cherries, raspberries, kohlrabi, five varieties of green beans alone, all manner of herbs – all tempting, all delicious, no cooking required. Not many restaurants will admit that, but it’s true. I was snacking on raw green beans earlier – they were so young and fresh! And it goes for young sweetcorn, too – just slide your knife down the cob for sweet, tender, delicate kernels. Even better than freshly-shelled peas!
I say this because this is a celebration of seasonality: when you read these words in the autumn, they will be long out of date. But it’s not that we starve to death in winter; we just eat differently. Restaurateurs tend to have two answers to the problem of summer’s end. The easy route is to pretend summer isn’t over at all. Let me quote the chant accompanying Polish sports fans at most events: when their team inevitably does badly, the supporters intone “Never mind, never mind, never mind, never mind!” as though nothing bad has happened. So the restaurateurs simply take summer produce and freeze it or convert into jams and jellies, and you, poor client, get to pretend it’s all fresh. Boom!
But there’s freezing and freezing: peas are absolutely fine, but fruit needs caution. Mushrooms tend to get slimy, carrots turn to mush. So no, you can’t really pretend everything is still the same now that the season has changed.
This doesn’t mean that you won’t eat as well, or that you should avoid Poland in autumn and winter. You’ll simply eat something else, unless you find yourself in those restaurants taking the easy path. You’ll find herbs, sure, but they’ll always be from Dutch or Polish hydroponic farms, and later from Israel, Morocco, Cyprus, Greece – as though you were following the arm of the clock – finishing in Sicily, Calabria and Spain. Once you start seeing Spanish fruit, it means that things will soon start sprouting from under your feet.
Tomatoes still grow in December (albeit hydroponic), all Dutch and Israeli farmers grow courgettes and aubergines, and all herbs – even coriander, a recent arrival in Poland – grow like weeds. Some local producers even keep growing raspberries and blueberries well into the autumn. You can lose your mind with the sheer abundance of it all!
Let’s be honest, though: autumn means autumn, winter means winter, so it’s not the time for any kinds of berries. Herbs don’t grow in winter. You can still eat just as seasonally (if you choose restaurants following the more difficult path), just differently. So, no more fresh fruit, goodbye, spring vegetables – it’s time for change. Turn your attention to meat: there’s goose, duck, rare breed pork – you don’t have to go all the way to Hungary to find mangalitsa, the fat pigs with delicious meat – and covered in wool like poodles! We have terrific beef breeds including angus; goat deserves to be more popular, and of course there’s lamb. Don’t eat meat? Let me tempt you with cheese: Poland’s hardly as well-known as France and Italy, it's true but you definitely should try some. We have plenty of fresh and mature cheeses, and let’s not forget how delicious simple curd cheese is!
It’s true we’re known for our love of booze (somewhat unfairly, because per capita the French beat us hands down) – perhaps strong booze, although that’s increasingly being produced in France and South Africa. We drink plenty of beer, and – another surprise – growing volumes of wine. We’re making our own, too – and none of your rotgut, thank you very much! There are vineyards in eastern, central and northern Poland; the largest, and perhaps best, vineyard is owned by the Turnau family. But if you fancy something a bit more unusual, stick to growers near Kraków.
Still thirsty? Why not try some pickle juice? Sure, it sounds like asking an Englishman to down a pint of malt vinegar, but trust me on this, I know all too well. Start with sauerkraut and gherkin water. You’re not disgusted by kimchi, are you? There you go. And if you ever get a chance, make sure you sample fermented saffron milk cap mushrooms – just make sure you rinse them first.
And while we’re on the subject of pickles, it’s time to mention Poland’s national winter dish: bigos. Sure, it’s heavy and fatty, but it’s worth it – often the case with the best food, alas. Bigos is a dish of cooked fresh cabbage, sauerkraut, prunes, dried mushrooms, plenty of meat and wine. We have learned long ago, even in our wild country, that vegetarians and vegans exist – just leave out the meat, and you’ll still have a feast. Try it! It might sound a bit odd, but it serves as a panacea for any wintertime ailment, including hangovers – curiously enough, those mainly affect foreign tourists…
Don’t forget that Poland also has great fish. I don’t mean Norwegian salmon – I’m talking about excellent farmed trout, and even Polish sturgeon. Did you know that Polish caviar is served in some of the finest restaurants in the world? Now you do!
So feast upon cabbage, salsify, stem lettuce if you can find it; fill yourselves with soups – Poland is famous for them! In short, visit out of season and I sincerely hope you’ll be well fed!
There’s something we’d all do well to remember: food follows fashions just as clothes do. We’ve all been wearing bright colours, thin cotton and wool light as air, but their time is over. It’s the turn of earthy tones, heavy fabrics, perhaps even leather. Gone are your flipflops and plimsolls – it’s the season for knee-high boots. That’s just the way it is. Eat your fill! Autumn and winter in Poland can be great – you just have to get used to them.
Writer, culinary critic, curator of photography exhibitions and author of albums. He lives in Kraków with his wife and daughter. He cooks in his spare time, and at all other times. He loves fish. He believes that cooking is the best way to escape writing.
Illustration / Zofia Różycka
The Article was published in the 3/2022 issue of "Kraków Culture" quarterly.
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