The Polish word “jedzenie” translates into a noun that describes food, and also into a verb that describes the act of eating food. I am definitely not an expert on Polish linguistics, nor on Polish food, but during my short time in Krakow, I decided to immerse myself in the hearty tradition of bread, sausage, and meat.
When I arrived in Krakow from Prague, it was late May, pouring rain, and very dark. I had layered practically every item of clothing onto my shivering self, to no avail from the damp. I was only in the city for two nights, and although I wanted to bury myself in blankets and sleep in the warmth of my dorm bed, I knew I would probably regret that decision. With the intention of life on the tip of my tongue, I drew on my sweater tights, my jeans, a knee length dress, a long sleeve t-shirt, a hoodie, and a woven hat, and ventured out into the grey sunless streets.
My first stop was a boat tour on the Vistula River. The boat operator was surprised, and honestly a bit disappointed that I had arrived. My fellow passengers had all cancelled. I guess they decided to cocoon in bed, instead of brave the wind and the rain. So I had a private tour of the City of Krakow on a boat with a dragon at the helm, although the tape the boat operator played did not line with the sights on the route. I guess she didn’t speak enough English to knew we were out of sync, or she wasn’t worried about it. I didn’t mind; I was more interested in seeing the river and the city than learning about the history. When the tape of the tour ended, she turned on music, and Bob Marley classics guided us back to the dock. The upbeat Rasta rhythm brightened the sky… a little bit.
Attempting to de-thaw myself, I ventured over to the Rynek Glowny, the Main Square in the Old Town. The Project for Public Spaces lists this city center as the best public place in Europe. It is a medieval market square re-built in 1257 after a Mongol invasion destroyed the city. When I was there in May 2017, it was a lively with cafes, foot traffic, bars, vendors selling amber jewelry and sheep fur pelts, street musicians, and tour guides waving English, Italian, and Spanish flags.
I had about 45 minutes before meeting my own tour, a Polish Food Tour to introduce me to traditional Polish jedzenie. I was already very hungry, and in typical INFP style, I almost decided not to attend the tour, and to eat alone at that cafe instead. To this day, I am still happy with my decision to attend the tour. While I passed the time, I ordered a German coffee, which is a decadent cocktail with Kirschwasser, coffee, and whipped cream.
Feeling a bit warmer, I wandered to the other side of the main square to meet my tour group. I saw the young blonde tour guide, a man named Peter holding a British flag, and for three hours, about ten of us followed him through the Old Town as he introduced us to his country’s traditional food.
From the main square, we walked a short distance to Stary Kleparz, the oldest operating marketplace in Krakow. For seven centuries, Krakovians and visitors have been shopping sausages, cheeses, fermented cucumbers and cabbages, fresh fish, and supplies of endless herbs and dills marinating in glass jars. Kleparz is a derivation of the word klepac, meaning “to bargain.” I wouldn’t have been able to bargain anything because the vendors didn’t speak English, but I was with Peter. Peter guided us directly to a stall selling sausage and some type of dried cheese. Although I don’t tend to eat much meat, I follow the “when in Rome” rule of food and global travel. I can’t go to Poland in the late winter month of May and expect spinach salad, so I ate up and it was delicious.
Next, we went to a restaurant that served us a full course meal. We drank tea sweetened with plum and pears; dense rye bread with lard and pickles; creamy and salty pig belly soup; and of course some type of dumpling with potato. I imagined the amount of time, effort, and planning to prepare a meal of this variety for a family of twelve.
After that meal, I needed a five mile walk, but instead we waddled about three blocks to a bakery. Peter said it was the bakery where his father and mother met before they were married. Inside, we ate kremowka, which is a layered cream pie, filled with whipped cream, buttercream, and custard cream. Our last stop was a distillery with flavored vodka. I guess that’s similar to moonshine? My flavor was honey. Zachwycajacy. Entrancing.
Although I typically prefer to see and experience a place alone, without the guided tour, this tour added depth to my experience with Polish food. Peter obviously loves his job and is passionate about his country, his food, and his language. The Old Town of Krakow had a bit of a “Disneyland” feeling to it, and I wondered what the locals felt about living somewhere with so many foreigners flooding through. Peter had built a life from it, and clearly a life that he loved. Someday I will visit Warsaw, Gdansk, Wroclaw, Poznan, and Mikolajki, and that time I will pack a warmer sweater, and a second stomach.
Co ma wisiec, nie utonie!
-Polish proverb that translates literally into “what is supposed to hang won’t drown!” –