Two years ago, I started a long overdue research project of discovering my Polish roots through Ancestry.com and the Polonica Americana Research Institute (PARI) at St. Mary’s of Orchard Lake, Michigan. Three of my four grandparents were born in Poland and the fourth, just across its southern border in Slovakia. However, having never been to Poland, knowledge of my ancestors was limited to the names of my grandparents.
My only memories were of my maternal grandmother, Grandma Golba. I recall her as being an expert in Polish cooking. Even though she had limited means, she loved to cook for the family. We all knew we would get a great meal at her house. From morning to night, there she was, in her small kitchen whipping up soups with home-made egg noodles, pierogi, cakes and pastries for everyone to enjoy. My mother inherited her skills. Therefore, as a child, I was fortunately surrounded by Polish cooks. Subsequently, after marriage, having children and living in various American and European cities, I virtually lost the sense of my heritage, at least from the Polish culinary aspect.
Due to the influx of television cooking programs, food preparation has become in vogue. With the rising popularity of The Food Channel, cooking demonstrations and competitions for aspiring chefs, a new breed of traveler has evolved. Visiting a country, town, city or village is now insufficient as travelers also desire to experience new cultural foods. Not only are they taking pictures of monuments and people, but now, in the age of camera phones, they are photographing restaurant foods and acquiring their recipes as well – the elements for a more meaningful trip.
While researching future travel destinations, I discovered a culinary tour company that specialized in travel to Poland. This was a great opportunity to combine my love of cuisine and my ancestry research.
I chose a tour that began in Krakow and ended in Zakopane, a southern town in the Tatra Mountains. By early 2014, it was an obvious choice because my research led to the discovery of my paternal grandparents’ roots in this mountainous region. I discovered these highland people had deeply rooted folk traditions in food, dance and architecture. In the 17th century documents of the town of Zakopane, I learned my eight times great grandfather was one of its 43 early inhabitants.
My culinary adventure tour of Poland began in Warsaw, the country’s capital. After World War II, Warsaw was left in rubble, but the resilient Polish people raised enough funds to return it to its former glory. Today, the restored Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Most places of interest date back to the 14th century.
Could the traditional dishes of Grandma Golba be transformed into a fresh new style? I now wondered how the cuisine of modern day Poland would compare with the foods of Western European cities. My objective was to disprove the notion that Polish cuisine was boring, fatty and potato-based. My obsession was to prove that Poland was not only known for pierogi and borscht.
My short time in Warsaw was spent dining at some of the best restaurants offering contemporary dishes that were inspired by traditional Polish ingredients. Where will the next great cuisine come from? “Perhaps, Poland.” said the world famous chef, Rene Redzepi of Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark in an interview for ABC Nightline “Don’t laugh”, he said. Ten years ago people would say that about Denmark and now the concept of “field to table” has grown enormously. Noma Restaurant enjoys the title of being the world’s number one restaurant.
Top Polish chef, Wojciech Modest Amaro, said, “I do feel that I have a kind of a pioneering role. We have an abundance of fresh and tasty, high quality food and since 60 percent of success is the ingredients from our fields, we can build a high standard of cooking. Many aspiring chefs who have visited us have drawn inspirations from our cuisine and its preparation. I think that the awareness abroad of what the Polish cuisine is all about is growing at the speed of light.”
Chef Amaro is the owner of the only Polish restaurant, Atelier Amaro, to have achieved the country’s one and only prestigious Michelin Star for the last two years. He faced his toughest test in May, 2014, when chosen to prepare the gala dinner for President Barack Obama and other world leaders who had come to Warsaw to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the first free elections in Poland after the war.
(The dishes that Chef Amaro served were typically Polish and were intended to bring back the past by using long-forgotten ingredients. For the world leaders’ gala dinner, he served asparagus with fresh broad beans sprinkled with beech oil, Polish veal with unroasted buckwheat and caramelized buttermilk. As a lighter alternative, there was cod with spring vegetables, flavored with lavender flowers. For dessert, he served strawberries with elderberries and a special ice cream made of parsley.)
Needless to say, a stay in Warsaw would not be complete without a stop for afternoon tea at the art nouveau Column Bar in the Hotel Bristol built in 1901.
The following day, I boarded a train to Krakow to meet my travel group. Krakow is not only a beautiful city but it was recently named Travelers Choice Award Winner of 2014 by Trip Advisor. It also received the European Travelers’ Choice Destinations Award for 2015. Krakow takes pride in being the home to one of the oldest universities in the world, the Jagellonian University founded in 1364. Everything in Krakow centers on Market Square, one of the largest in Europe. I was delighted to experience its annual Pierogi Festival.
A pierogi is a delicious pasta dumpling stuffed with a variety of fillings from the traditional potato and farmer’s cheese to sauerkraut and wild mushroom. Smoked salmon and potato jalapeño are but a few of the new 21st century ingredients. Imagine being surrounded by pierogi booths all competing with samples of the hundreds of varieties of these delicious dumplings. As many as 180,000 pierogi are consumed during this festival.
The Polish believe Saint Jacek invented the pierogi in the 13th Century when he walked through the streets of Krakow feeding the poor with the dumplings he had personally prepared. Actually, China is the homeland of the dumplings and it was Marco Polo who brought them to Italy where they are called ravioli. However, Poland is the true home of the pierogi.
In the next days, not only did I eat in some of Krakow’s top restaurants but I had the privilege of spending one day preparing a superb 3-course gourmet meal with renowned Chef Marek Widomski of the Culinary Institute.
Having now experienced contemporary Polish cuisine, I traveled to Zakopane in the southern region of Malopolska to enjoy the traditional dishes I remembered from my childhood. The landscape changed dramatically as the mountainous region of Poland came into view. Our itinerary included two stops along the way for morning visits to the quaint villages of Lopuszna and Gromkow. For lunch, the ladies in each village shared their cooking secrets with us. It was a rare opportunity to be invited into their traditional homes.
In the months leading up to my arrival in Poland, I never imagined I would discover relatives. However, now I was on the threshold of the place where my paternal grandparents were born and where I would soon meet these relatives.
My grandfather and two of his brothers left Zakopane at the turn of the 20th Century and would never return. Now, it was the grandson of one of the remaining brothers whom I would meet and share with him my family story from across the ocean.
I was enthusiastically welcomed by my new family members. Knowing who you are, where you come from and what special traits have been passed down through our genes has a special meaning for me. Our family tree has now grown to more than 400.
My culinary trip to Poland was much more than just eating. It was a personal discovery of my family. I now have something to share with the many generations of Zwijacz’s to follow.
If you go:
Poland’s official Travel Website
Poland Culinary Vacations
Experience the Legendary Hospitality & Culinary Traditions of Poland
Tel: 772-777-0571 Toll Free: 888-703-8130
Orange Umbrella Free Walking Tour in Warsaw
Begins each day at 11 AM at Sigismund’s Column at the entrance of the Old Town
Hotel recommendations & Restaurants:
Mamaison Hotel Le Regina
Set within the historic Mokrowski Palace in Warsaw
Restaurant Ateliier Amaro in Warsaw
Villa Marilor Hotel