Song of Warsaw
Article and photos by Mikko Reinikka, English translation Sini Kaukonen
Matti Kassila directed the movie Song of Warsaw in 1953. The film is a thriller about liquor smugglers. Poland is still an important producer of artisan vodka. This article will tell you what Warsaw has to offer to culinary and cultural tourists nowadays. The image of Warsaw as a shabby Soviet city is a thing of the past. Warsaw is a city destination comparable to Paris or Madrid, and only a 1.5-hour flight away from Helsinki. The price level in Poland is very affordable.
As a first-timer, it was easy for me to arrive at Warsaw with one of the leading researchers in food culture in Poland, Doctor of Philosophy and food writer Magdalena Tomaszewska-Bolałek, and her husband Radosław Bolałek as my guides. The couple had pre-booked three or four places for me to visit each day of my trip. A compact 3-day travel itinerary was quite sufficient for getting to know the capital city of Poland.
Magdalena and Radosław visited Finland in August 2018, and I was their host when they came to Tampere. A book on Finnish food culture was born as a result of that trip, and it went on to win first place in the ”Culinary Diplomacy” category at the Macao International Book Fair on the 4th of July 2019. The Gourmand World Cookbook Awards have been held annually since 1995, and are known as the ”Oscars” of the cookbook world. Magdalena's book also became second in the ”Scandinavian” category.
A city that has seen hard times
There are almost 2 million people living in Warsaw. In the course of history, Warsaw and the whole of Poland have seen some hard times. During hundreds of years, conqueror after conqueror marched over the land from the east or the west. King of Sweden, Sigismund III Vasa, relocated the capital city from Krakow to Warsaw in 1596.
Warsaw was one of the most damaged European cities during World War II. The city was in almost complete ruin. Fortunately, several historical sites, such as the Old Town, were reconstructed to their former glory during the 1950s and 1960s. Warsaw's Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
During its communist regime, the food and drink culture in Poland disappeared almost completely. Because the availability of ingredients was uncertain and inconsistent, expertise in the kitchen withered away. Vodka was the only product that remained an important export item throughout the entire communist regime.
Today, Poland is a member of NATO and the European Union, and Warsaw is a modern European city with excellent restaurants, luxury hotels, green parks, and plenty of culture. The price level is significantly lower than in Finland. Even the basic hotels in Warsaw are newer and, therefore, better quality. Warsaw can well be compared to Paris or Madrid. The city centre can also easily be managed on foot, even though the subway and trams run punctually.
A walking tour in Warsaw
Warsaw's city center is just the right size to get around on foot, everything important is located within a 3-kilometer radius. There is a good subway and tram network in the city, but I believe that walking is always the best way to get to know a city. You choose a destination, and everything you encounter on your way there comes as a surprise. On the side alleys, you might accidentally come across a unique antique shop or a store selling delicious artisan meat products. Warsaw's Old Town is beautiful and pleasant, and it's a nice place to sit down for a hot chocolate or beer. The food sold in the Old Town's restaurants, however, is poor quality stodge for tourists. A culinary traveler heads straight to the modern part of the city, where one can find some excellent restaurants.
We start our walking tour at Hala Koszyki, a former market hall, which is filled with small restaurants. Here, you can have a bite to eat in a Polish, Italian, Spanish, or Asian restaurant. Hala Koszyki is a suitable place for an espresso, lunch, or appetizer before an actual dinner. Koszykowa 63, www.koszyki.com.
The restaurant's name, White One, was chosen to represent a blank page. It reflects the restaurant's creative attitude in always creating a new menu from scratch. The menu can be described as modern Polish cuisine with Scandinavian influences. Polish ingredients are largely the same as in Finland: herring from the Baltic Sea, potatoes, and beetroot are used a lot. According to restaurant manager and sommelier Marta Tarwacka, up to 17% of White One's customers are vegans, which is surprising. Marta also organized a small Polish wine tasting for me. The production of Polish wines has so far been small-scale, but it is constantly growing. The Polish people usually drink beer with their food, and artisan breweries have a wide and delicious selection of beers on offer. Koszykowa 47, www.whiteone.pl.
Elixir serves vodka
The Polish people are famous for their vodka. Back in the 1930s, there were over 400 vodka distilleries in Poland, but today there are less than 50. Polish vodka is respected all over the world, the most well-known brand probably being Wodka Wyborowa. Restaurant Elixir specializes in vodkas, and there is a specific vodka recommendation for each dish on their menu. There are hundreds of vodkas from around the world on the list. In the courtyard of the restaurant building, there is also an idyllic vodka museum where one can enjoy a vodka tasting at the end of a tour. Wierzbowa 9/11, www.domwodki.pl/elixir.html.
Vodka in a museum
Muzeum Wódki operates in the same building as restaurant Elixir. The museum offers a comprehensive overview of the history of vodka around the world. On display are objects relating to vodka and drinking alcohol, including Napoleon's hip flask. It is a good idea to end the tour with a tasting, the extent of which can be determined by the customer. Wierzbowa 11, www.muzeumwodki.pl.
Located a few kilometers from the city center, on the other side of the River Vistula, is another vodka museum called Muzeum Polskiej Wódki. It is a bigger museum, and focuses exclusively on Polish vodkas. Some equipment for making vodka is also on display in the museum. In Poland, vodka is made from wheat, rye, or potatoes. Potato vodkas are softer, a little sweeter, and usually more expensive. Centrum Praskie Koneser, pl. Konesera 1, www.muzeumpolskiejwodki.pl.
After visiting the vodka museums, our food tour continues to a meat restaurant. Warszawski Sznyt is slang and means something like ”Varsovian style”. The tartare was excellent and delicious, but perhaps too big for an appetizer. Especially when the main course – a breaded pork chop – was huge. The traditional Polish dish, sour rye soup, wasn't the reporter's favourite, but it was thick and nourishing nevertheless. Senatorska 2, www.waszawskisznyt.pl.
On Fridays and Saturdays in the summer, the platforms of Warsaw's old railway station fill up with street food stalls. At Nocny Market, you can enjoy what different restaurateurs have on offer at a low price, get food from different food stalls, and gather at a table to eat together. If hipster music is not a problem, Nocny Market is a good place to eat and drink inexpensively. The platform area has been under threat of demolition for several years, but so far the food stalls have appeared there every summer. Towarowa 3, m.facebook.com/nocnymarket/
Talerzyki & Bazar Kocha
A definite highlight of the trip to Warsaw was the tasting menu provided by Krzysztof Klimaszewski, the head chef at Restaurant Talerzyki. It was a firework of traditional Polish foods with a modern twist. Krzysztof told us that he wants his customers to enjoy their food with a laugh. If food can be humoristic, then that is what it was at Talerzyki. It was like watching a stand-up show every time a new dish was introduced. The same restaurateur also owns another restaurant next to Talerzyki called Bazar Kocha, which is a more traditional á la carte restaurant. However, the dishes to both restaurants come from the same kitchen. Mokotowska 33/35, www.talerzyki.eu, www.bazarkocha.pl.
Warsaw is a distinctly European city these days, all the cars are western cars and the cafés and restaurants provide service in English.
During the reporter's visit, there was some rain in the mornings. The people of Warsaw can't stand the rain, they take refuge inside, and the streets become empty. My guide Magdalena said that every time one drinks vodka, the sun starts shining. That is in fact what happened on this trip, and the sun did come out.
The next good reason to go back to Warsaw is the two-day vodka festival Festiwal Wódki organized in the autumn. It involves food, hundreds of different vodkas, and lectures given on the subject. www.festiwalwodki.com.
You can enjoy a cigar in a relaxed atmosphere at the Aficionado Room. Filip Rudzinzki (right) and Tom Zol offer friendly customer service. Wilcza 26, www.aficionadoroom.pl.