Post-Communism, Poland's Food & Wine Scene Blossoms
At the risk of sounding like a national self-deprecator—quite a common trait for Poles—I can safely state that Poland’s history has been unusually turbulent. Its geographic positioning between two ferociously aggressive and greedy empires, Germany and Russia, combined with internal dysfunction often caused by innate provincialism and political pettiness, has turned Poland into a nation of schizophrenic political instability. Most recently, the post-communist era has been yet another tumultuous trial. After nearly half a century of the Soviet Union’s merciless oppression and human rights violation, Poland, like all other ex-communist countries, was thrown into the unfamiliar territory of a free market economy and democratic governing. Poland managed to transition in a relatively smooth manner; no serious, violent domestic upheavals, no tragic economic unrests. Not to insinuate that the new reality has been void of the difficulties often caused by the clash of the new progressive social groups and the conservative, regressive fractions of pro-communist and Catholic sentiments. But enough of this stark, grim reality talk. Let’s set the table. We are here to wine and dine. Aside from some unavoidable social and political adversities, the new democratic reality brought about a fresh sense of awareness and exponentially broadened possibilities of improvement and progress. Poland’s new generation of young—in body, mind, or both—culinary entrepreneurs and artisanal food producers revive old traditional methods of food production with a focus on ecological consciousness. They’ve made strong, determined efforts to return to the roots of Mother Nature and to reverse decades of communist devastation on the country’s natural resources. The reeducation of the consumer mentality poses other challenges – abolishing myths and misconceptions of overcoming the mindset of quantity over quality. Instead of trying to tackle the whole country’s trends on the topic I’ll, focus on the area most familiar to me: Lubusz Province, where I grew up and recently visited. This region can be used as an example of Poland’s new direction. Lubusz Province lies in Central Western Poland near the German border. It’s a gorgeous, mainly rural area of dense forests, with a multitude of reed-lined lakes,natural ponds and flat farmlands. The Odra river, the third longest in Poland, runs through the province. Over the centuries, this part of the country has been tossed back and forth between German occupation and Polish liberation. Here, one can still find many remnants of German influence from the ethnic to the architectural. This is where I grew up and lived an innocent, charmed life until I left for the U.S. in 1988, right before the collapse of the communist government. Wine When leaving Poland at the age of 23, I’d never tasted grape wine. I’d never seen grape wine period. We had apple “vino.” We called it “J 23” for slang. A hideously sulfured, dirt-cheap concoction with painful consequences. Grape wine was viewed as an imperialistic, bourgeois drink unbecoming of a true communist and completely absent in already scantily stocked grocery stores. Poles, by historic destiny, were condemned to be beer and vodka drinkers. A difficult curse to break. Kissing frogs didn’t work; I tried. Historically, Lubusz Province grew grapes and made wine. With a similar micro-climate to some German wine growing regions, the weather here is a factor. It’s cold, meaning that only grapes adaptable to such a climate can reach required ripeness to produce quality products grapes; Riesling, Bianca, Hibernal, Pinot Gris, Regent, Dornfelder and Ronndo, to mention a few. Usually, they originate from German nurseries. Wineries have sprouted up in the last few decades in Lubusz Province, elevating it to Poland’s leading wine region. These are still humble, yet ambitious projects, where mistakes are learned from, and striving for improvement seem to be a driving force. Out of financial necessity, wine makers hold full-time jobs, making it an exhaustive task. Two wineries in the village of Mazów, Winery Cantina, and Winery Mazów, are part of Honey and Wine Trail. It’s a 150-mile long tourist attraction of modest proportions showcasing some of the local culinary, cultural, and historic sites. The Pacholaks, a husband and wife team, own Winery Cantina; an unassuming adobe with an old well, wood-burning oven, and long wooden benches for their guests. With a diverse, experimental approach to winemaking, they grow a wide variety of grapes and produce wines of different styles from dry, to semi-dry and dessert. There is a cluster of wineries near the Odra river in the town of Górzykowo which offer a picturesque scenery of bucolic feel with gently sloping vineyards and the Odra river flowing lazily in the background. Before the Second World War, Lubusz Province had about 1,500 acres of under vine, and this tiny town of Górzykowo had 110 acres. After the war, with the communist government in power, it was all reduced to zero. Now go vote communist, you fool. Two wineries are leading the way in Górzykowo. Both are of impressive architectural statures worthy of some of the best world domains. Winnogóra Winery in Ogrodzie is owned by Anna and Bogdan Macewicz. After amassing a small fortune in the alcohol distribution business, they purchased and settled on 10 acres of beautiful land, building their residence and a winery of impressive proportions that has a resemblance to some Napa Valley properties. Anna tends to gardens full of rare flowers and trees on the property, while Bogdan runs the winery. Three grapes are grown here, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Gołubok, a Cabernet Sauvignon hybrid with flavors of earth, brambly mountain fruit and black pepper. The wines are solid and of a varietal nature. Bogdan approaches his winemaking with honesty and realism; “it’s a never-ending learning process,” he says. “I know little now and will most likely die dumb.” Marek Krojcig is the proprietor of Stara Winnogóra Winery, a chateau-like building serving as a hotel, restaurant and tasting room. He is the pioneer of the area, owning the first registered winery in the post-communist era. With 14.5 acres of under vine and 25,000 liters of annual production, 70% of the production is Riesling. The remainder is divided between Pinot Gris, Traminer, Saphira (my favorite) and in the red category, Pinot Noir, Regent and St. Laurent. I tasted only whites. The reds were sold out. The wines were focused, well balanced, full of complexity and worthy of any international tasting. In 2015, in the village of Zabór, Lubusz Wine Center was opened. It is a 85-acre multi-functional facility which is home to 13 wine makers working in close cooperation. It is an education center, museum, scientific laboratory and conference venue. 21 different grape varieties are cultivated and experimented with here. The center is a testament that winemaking is treated here as a serious investment now and for the years to come. The wineries and their stories mentioned here are examples of a large surge of quickly developing wine culture in the nation whose main trait, for better or worse, has always been hope. Meats and beyond Poles have always been a nation of meat eaters, and pork has always been their go-to meat. Jokingly, I call sausage Poland’s national fruit. Meet Jarosław Szlachetko a.k.a. Szlachcic, a man of many talents, a renaissance man of sorts. His passion and main focus lie in food and drink. A beekeeper, amateur distiller, cider maker, fantastic cook and most importantly one of the best charcuterie and meat producers in the land. Inspired by his late father, Czesław, he launched his meat business, Salcum Fixum (their household nickname for head cheese,) in 2013. The beginnings were tough. His labor-intensive, meticulous production methods and uncompromising approach to sourcing forced Szlachcic to demand higher than average prices. Poles’ prevailing mentality of value over quality along with some general economic difficulties kept a lot of consumers at bay. Jarosław’s persistence, integrity and national recognition prevailed. Now, he and his wife Magdalena, a partner in the business, own two stores and a food truck that is a frequent visitor at local farmer’s markets. Here the motto is simple: no chemicals, no preservatives, and traditional handcrafting. His sausages are legendary both in quality and assortment. His cured meats can stand up to some of the best in the world. His pates have won him awards at international food fairs. His pork of exquisite quality comes from a special breed of hog, Złotnicka Biała, bred by Adam Dziurawiec. A special clone of potatoes and a mixture of garlic and oregano for disease prevention is the main source of feed for the hogs, resulting in an exceptional quality of meat with an unusually high content of butter-like, packed-with-flavors fat. Szlachcic isn’t an exception in his devotion to the trade, young Turks like him abound in the area, and the entire country, creating a healthy sense of competition and ensuring high standards. There is a weekly, Sunday farmer’s market in Ochla near Zielona Góra, Your Green Market, where some of the best artisanal small food producers gather and talk up their produce; meats of wide variety, cheeses and other milk products, pastries, juices from rare forest berries, coffee from local roasters, organic fruits and vegetables. One of my favorites was a pickle stand; jars of a variety fruit and veggies pickled in different concoctions. Have you had a Polish version of Kimchi? Absolutely delicious! All the vendors are generous with samples and extremely passionate about their offerings. I finished with a homemade ice cream. I’ve never tasted vanilla flavor this decadently sublime. After the market, I visited a local fishmonger named Grzegorz Koza, whose fish-based restaurant Fish Net (yes, in English) was busting at the seams and running out of menu items by midday. The place offers a wide assortment of mainly local fish from lake Wojnowo and has become a huge attraction. Pike, carp, freshwater eel, amur, tołpyga and trout; just to mention a few. They are prepared in various ways: fried, smoked, grilled, or pickled (yes, we Poles love anything pickled.) At the end of my visit to Poland, I spent a few days in Warsaw. I wasn’t sure what to expect considering Poland’s troubling, present political climate perpetuated by the regressive ideology of the PiS Party. Though I was filled with optimism when leaving the city. It seems to be dominated by a younger generation. Thousands of active, animated, self-assured youngsters fill the streets, walking, scooting, biking and passionately talking, trying to solve the mysteries of the universe. Bars with ambitious cocktail programs, wine bars with impressive wine selections, farmers’ markets and restaurants of various ethnicities thrive. Somethings still need a little polish (no pun intended), especially the professionalism and attentiveness of the customer service sector. But, the city resembles a healthy, determined teenager going through a rapid growth spree; awkward at times and confused in its new self, but on its way to becoming a well-functioning adult with a formidable future. Emotions were running wild through me while writing this piece. As much as I’d like to reject a notion of patriotic nostalgia within me I can’t, at the same time, afford to deny myself a sensation of a real feeling in this age of apathy and ambivalence. No matter how far or how long you may have been away from your home, it will call upon you, with or without your consent. This land, its people, and everything that came with them shaped me, made me into a flawed human like we all are. And for that, I am immensely grateful. Therefore, without patriotic pride which often smells to me of an emblematic lethal combo of ignorance and arrogance, I am simply hopeful for a better future for this country where I grew up.