Tradition elevated: the changing face of Polish gastronomy

Tradition elevated: the changing face of Polish gastronomy

by Henry Coldstream18 September 2023

After years of being overlooked in favour of other European cuisines, Polish food is finally being recognised by the likes of Michelin thanks to a new wave of restaurants and producers out to demonstrate the full potential of Polish gastronomy. We visited Poland with chef Kuba Winkowski to learn more.

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Tradition elevated: the changing face of Polish gastronomy

After years of being overlooked in favour of other European cuisines, Polish food is finally being recognised by the likes of Michelin thanks to a new wave of restaurants and producers out to demonstrate the full potential of Polish gastronomy. We visited Poland with chef Kuba Winkowski to learn more.

After years of being overlooked in favour of other European cuisines, Polish food is finally being recognised by the likes of Michelin thanks to a new wave of restaurants and producers out to demonstrate the full potential of Polish gastronomy. We visited Poland with chef Kuba Winkowski to learn more.

Henry is the features editor at Great British Chefs.

Henry is the features editor at Great British Chefs. Having previously written pieces for a variety of online food publications, he joined the team in 2021 and helps with all editorial aspects of the site. When not writing, Henry can usually be found eating and drinking his way through London's many restaurants and bars, or cooking in his kitchen at home.

There isn’t a single country out there whose cuisine hasn’t been shaped by its history in some form but there are few that illustrate this better than Poland. Ruled by a communist government for over forty years after World War II, the majority of Poland’s restaurants became nationalised whilst the scarcity of many ingredients led to rationing and simple, inexpensive meals like pierogi becoming the norm. By the time the regime fell in 1989, despite a handful of traditional dishes and combinations enduring, Polish food had lost much of its identity, leading to it often being overlooked in favour of other European cuisines. However, thirty years on, Polish cuisine has returned to its former glory and the country is beginning to turn a new corner when it comes to gastronomy. Chefs are cooking a progressive style of food that hasn’t been seen before in Poland, putting stunning seasonal Polish produce at the forefront of menus, whilst continuing to proudly champion the flavours and dishes that the country is best known for.

Two cities at the heart of this new wave of Polish gastronomy are Warsaw and Poznan, which were both awarded their first ever Michelin stars (at restaurants NUTA at Muga respectively) in the 2023 guide, signalling a new era for Polish food. Following this news, we decided to spend a few days in these two cities to witness first-hand the work going into shifting perceptions of the cuisine. Accompanying us on this trip was award-winning chef Kuba Winkowski, who grew up in Poland before relocating to the UK in 2004 to train. His refined style of cookery brings in plenty of Polish influences, so he was just as intrigued as us to dive further into Poland’s modern food scene.

Our trip began in Poland's capital of Warsaw
Throughout the trip, we were lucky enough to chat to a number different chefs, restaurateurs and producers, including farmer Ludwik Majlert

Our visit began just outside the capital of Warsaw at a farm owned and run by Ludwik Majlert. Ever since his great grandfather bought the land in 1878, Ludwik’s family have been cultivating the fields and more recently have been responsible for reintroducing a number of vegetables to the area that weren’t available under the communist government like asparagus and sweetcorn. Now, they grow all kinds of different produce, from well-known herbs to unusual varieties of vegetables. The farm has also become a favourite haunt amongst Warsaw’s chefs and foodies, and as we wander Ludwik’s fields and peruse the shelves of the family’s farm shop, it’s obvious to see why. All kinds of edible flowers from cornflowers to nasturtium run wild in the fields, fennel fronds peek out from poly tunnels and a whole host of different varieties of aubergines and beans line the shelves in the shop. Ludwik explains to us that his close relationship with top chefs allows honest feedback on his produce, which then dictates the varieties of herbs or vegetables he grows. It was an enlightening introduction for us both to the growing focus being placed on top-quality seasonal produce in Poland - something which, it quickly became clear, would be a running theme.

Ludwik shows us around his impressive farm on the outskirts of Warsaw
His family-run farm shop sells everything from herbs and edible flowers to vegetables, all grown on site

Walking through the bustling market halls and stalls of central Warsaw’s Hale Mirowskie the following day, where one can buy any and every type of ingredient you can imagine (including one stall selling over ten different types of egg), Kuba remarked that living away from Poland, it’s easy to sometimes forget the incredible array of produce now readily available. The chefs working in Poland however, are surrounded by it and therefore increasingly put it front-and-centre on their menus. At popular Warsaw bar and small-plates restaurant Źródło, where we enjoy a brilliantly varied meal of simple yet refined dishes, vegetables like yellow beans (sourced from Ludwik’s farm) are given a starring role with an accompaniment of just breadcrumbs and apricot harissa, a heapful of sliced tomatoes are served simply alongside a raisin purée and pickled onions, and a wonderful tartare is adorned with a paste made from broad beans and herring roe. Each dish is uncomplicated but executed brilliantly – it feels like Warsaw’s own take on the wine bar-cum-restaurants that have taken over London. Over at newly relocated fine-dining restaurant Dyletanci meanwhile, the likes of plump local courgette flowers and spears of white asparagus come exquisitely presented alongside wagyu beef, fish roe and more, proving that Polish produce can match up to the best ingredients in the world.

Tomatoes with raisin purée and pickled onion at Źródło
Tempura stuffed courgette flowers with aged cheese and fava beans at Dyletanci

This championing of seasonal produces stretches beyond the restaurant world too. At the time of our visit, it was the depths of bilberry season, meaning they were being used all over the place, most notably in jagodzianki (traditional bilberry buns), a Polish speciality which practically every bakery and breakfast spot has its own version of. We were lucky enough to visit renowned baker Monika Walecka’s Warsaw shop, Cała w Mące to try her version of the buns, fresh out of the oven. Whilst there she explained to us the huge amount of work that goes into all of the breads and pastries made at the bakery, where she employs an almost entirely female team and focuses in on wholegrain bakes, bringing in different seasonal produce throughout the year. It’s clear from talking to Monika that she lives and breathes baking and that shines through in the quality of her breads and pastries; in particular her soft, crumble-topped jagodzianki packed full of sweetened bilberries, an ode to one Poland’s favourite summertime fruits.

A selection of the breads freshly made at Cała w Mące
Monika's jagodzianki rival the best in the city

It wasn’t, however, just the outstanding produce that we noticed many of the places we visited had in common as we continued to eat our way around Warsaw and then Poznan. Polish wines – something that neither we nor Kuba had tried a huge amount of – are increasingly appearing on restaurants’ drink lists and have fast become a point of pride rather than a novelty. With over 400 wineries in the country now, spread throughout different regions (in contrast to the densely packed wineries of Southern England), Poland isn’t just producing increasing amounts of wine but also more and more varieties.

This championing of home-grown wine became more apparent every time we were presented with a list at the likes of Źródło and Dyletanci, but it was a meal at Concordia Taste in Poznan, which has the largest collection of Polish wines in the country (from over 100 different producers) where it really began to hit home how much work had gone into raising its profile in recent years. Every course of the modern Polish menu came thoughtfully paired with a different Polish wine, ranging from a fantastic sparkling number from Jean Thierry Smolis (a small-scale producer based in Central Poland) to an organic Souvignier gris from sibling-run winery Kojder found in the west of the country. As we enjoyed our meal, Kuba commented that Polish wines seem to be getting better and better every time he visits, and we both felt that we’d only continue to see them more often on menus, both in Poland and ultimately abroad.

We were both impressed with both the quality and variety of Polish wines we were served throughout the trip
Kuba samples a Polish vodka during our tasting

That’s not to say that there isn’t still a place for Poland’s more traditional tipples of local beer and, of course vodka. We were treated to a tasting at Warsaw’s 3/4 Koneser Bar, where our guide, vodka master Maciek Starosolski demonstrated through pairings that high-quality Polish vodka can actually be sipped alongside food like a wine, to bring out flavours, while a number of our meals at restaurants concluded with a digestif of flavoured vodka (including a divisive pickled herring-flavoured shot at Concordia Taste!). A tour around Warsaw Brewery meanwhile, which recently reopened in its original location after being out of production for almost twenty years, provided further evidence that even when it comes to drinks, Poland is still continuing to turn new corners. Over twenty different styles of craft beer are brewed in house and that’s purely for the brewery’s tap room, where the likes of lagers, IPA’s and experimental, limited edition batches are on offer.

Although there does seem to be a general attitude of looking forward rather than back, and trying to push boundaries gastronomically, there’s still a distinct respect and pride of traditional flavours and dishes in restaurants of every level; Poland wouldn’t be Poland after all, without the option of a pierogi or ten a lunchtime. Yet increasingly restaurants are bringing these dishes into the modern age. Modern bistro Syrena Irena in Warsaw, where we enjoy lunch one day, is a must-try for any pierogi fan, with a menu centred around the freshly-made stuffed dumplings. Instead of sticking to the classic fillings, it’s opted to offer more unusual combinations including duck and plum sauce and white sausage. This, we’re told by the owner, is partly a case of needing to stand out from the crowd, but is also them wanting to try something a bit different, giving a classic dish a new lease of life.

An array of both traditional and less conventional pierogi at Syrena Irena
Michael Kuter's exceptional soups at his restaurant A Nóż Widelec

Nowhere, however, was this blend of progressive cookery and tradition more apparent than during one of our final meals of the trip at chef Michal Kuter's lauded Poznan restaurant A Nóż Widelec. Deservedly recommended by the Michelin Guide, Michael’s menu is grounded in tradition but his dishes are elevated through modern interpretations and local seasonal produce. His take on classic Polish soups are perhaps the best example of this. A brilliantly verdant sorrel soup came poured on top of a puddle of chive oil, a quenelle of the smoothest mashed potato and shards of crisp bacon, while his take on chłodnik (a cold beetroot soup) was adorned with charred campfire potatoes and packed to the brim with flavour and colour. Other dishes that followed include Michael’s simple yet strikingly presented version of kotlet schabowy (Polish breaded pork chop) and a plateful of his mother’s very own pierogi, which she comes into the restaurant and makes in huge batches once a month. It’s this willingness to combine modernised interpretations with homely classics that makes A Nóż Widelec such a stand-out restaurant and Michael explains to us that being faithful to the traditional flavours that he grew up eating is just as important to him as demonstrating how they can be given a modern update.

We left Poland distinctly fuller than when we had arrived four days earlier, but with a new-found appreciation for the country’s cuisine and a resounding excitement for the future of its food scene. For Kuba, meanwhile, it proved both a nostalgic reminder of the food he grew up eating and a source of further inspiration for dishes going forward. Whether it’s the championing of seasonal produce, the excitement around Polish wine or the fine dining restaurants beginning to make waves across the country, there’s no question that things are progressing rapidly when it comes to gastronomy in Poland, but they’re doing so without leaving tradition behind and there’s something incredibly refreshing about that.

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