Tuscany in Poland: Lesser Poland and Subcarpathia Culinary Trip
„You praise what is foreign not knowing your own” is a popular Polish saying (and, originally, a quote from a Polish poet) and we can’t think of a phrase that could work better as a tagline for our culinary travel around the country. When browsing through must-visit places in Poland you’ll surely come across Krakow, Warsaw, Gdansk, Zakopane, Toruń, not to mention former Nazi camp of Auschwitz or Wieliczka salt mines, which are all beautiful or important but who’d expect to find places like Jasło, Szczyrzyc or Stary Sącz on the list? At Eat Polska we’re excited about both eating and Polska so once again our drive for the local, unexpected and undiscovered led us off the beaten path. Here’s what happened on our last trip to Małopolska (Lesser Poland) and Podkarpacie (Subcarpathia).
Heading South of Krakow on almost literally any day of the year most people will anxiously ask themselves a question: will I get stuck in a traffic jam on Zakopianka? It’s the main road to Zakopane, an uber-popular mountain resort, but this time we’re lucky, the road is clear, and just an hour and a half later we hit Szczyrzyc: a small village among the rolling hills of Beskidy range with a XX c. monastery and an adjacent brewery. But it’s not beer that brings us here, it’s cider. Poland has been rediscovering this delicious drink for the last couple of years, but the problem is, most of the produce available in shops is high-volume, factory-made, sweet-as-hell carbonated alcoholic apple drink. This is not something the guys at Smykan Cider considered the most you can get out of delicious Polish apples.
I meet Bartek, one of the company founders at his office in the centre of the village but he immediately suggests we join Łukasz, another partner, at their small plant in the country, a couple kilometers away. Bartek is a wealth of knowledge on cider and Polish apples and in no time I realize I’m talking to a guy who really cares about what he does. He’s telling me about where they source the apples from, what a chore it was to start production (making and selling alcohol in Poland is a task for those super resistant to nuisances of the red tape) and the new types of cider they’re just putting in bottles. We reach the plant, beautifully located amid an apple orchard and I’m amazed. Bartek and Łukasz are showing me around and just as I’m about to say I’m in love with all the apple trees around they say: it’s not the apples we use. Those are beautiful, round and red apples that will end up on supermarket shelves, but they need pesticides to grow this way. We only use old kinds of apples growing naturally. Let’s get into the car, we’ll show you our fruit. And so we drive another couple kilometers to the other side of the village to reach an orchard where we meet Irek, whose family has been cultivating it for more than 80 years. All the trees grow naturally here, they’re much bigger than in orchards catering for retail I’ve seen before, and tall grass among the trees makes it feel magical, like being in a secret garden. I’m told this type of horticulture allows for producing fruit that may not look perfect but is much, much tastier. And all-natural, of course.
The whole experience is overwhelming. Bartek and Łukasz are super-friendly and clearly passionate about what they do. I drop them by their office in Szczyrzyc but later go back to the area of the apple orchard to take more pictures. It just looks so lovely in the setting sun!
I take a few bottles of Smykan Cider with me to try it later. I open the first bottle in the evening and this makes the experience complete: the cider feels really fresh, and even though the aroma is sweet, the taste is definitely dry with nice notes of acidity. It’s naturally carbonated, which makes it taste a bit like sparkling wine. It’s definitely a thing for enjoying the taste, rather than just downing the bottle on a hot day.
The first day of the trip comes to a luxurious end when I check into the 5* Heron Live Hotel by the Rożnowskie lake. Even though the surroundings and the room views are breathtaking, and invite for just sitting back and watching the sun set over the mountains and the water, I can’t stop myself from checking the local restaurant. I order chef Krzysztof Małocha’s tasting menu and it does not disappoint. Not all the dishes are perfect (the shrimp is just ok, while the home-smoked chuck served alongside is delicious; the clear fermented gherkin soup is the very essence of gherkinness, but the serving is so large that somewhere half way through it it just becomes too sour; the sour milk jelly is a little too bland, but the rhubarb it comes with hits the perfect balance between sweet and sour), but the overall impression and value for money are very, very positive.
I get up quite early: it would be a shame not to make us of all the hotel’s facilities before checking out: good buffet breakfast, the saunas and – last but not least – the infinity pool. It’s tiny, good for taking a dip rather than swimming in it, but still, it was a genius idea to close it with a transparent glass wall that seems to dissolve in the lake down below. Thumbs up! Heron Live Hotel is definitely a gem, and a great place to unwind in a classy atmosphere.
The first stop on the way further south is Nowy Sącz. You’d be surprised to know that this town with population of 85k is actually home to businesses of quite a number of Polish millionaires, which include one of the biggest ice-cream producer or factories making windows and gates that are exported around the world. Other than this, Nowy Sącz is a beautiful Galician town where you can actually travel back in time: just on the outskirts, you will find a 1:1 reconstruction of a 19 c. Galician town square with the town hall, an inn and a myriad of little stores and workshops.
It’s time to hit the road to make it in time for one of the highlights of the day: rafting in Dunajec river. On the way I go past Łącko, famous for producing 70 ABV śliwowica (slivovitz), which at the same time is listed by the Polish Ministry of Agriculture as a tradition regional product and illegal (who will understand the logics of Polish bureaucracy!), but this time is not the time for tastings:) I’m headed for Sromowce where I’m supposed to embark on a raft that will take me down the Dunajec river, meandering among dramatic rocks of Pieniny mountains. The views are breathtaking and the time passes by quickly with the help of a flisak: a local highlander specializing in navigating traditional rafts who entertains tourists with jokes about mothers-in-law and the Slovaks (part of the river is a border between the two countries). They’re all groaners, but the lamer they are, the funnier.
The long days of Polish summer should be listed as one of the wonders of the world: it’s late afternoon but it will be light for another 5 hours or so, which allows to catch up with what I didn’t have time for in the first part of the day: Stary Sącz. Does the name sound familiar? Time for a quick lesson of Polish: “nowy” is “new” and “stary” means “old”. Just a quick stop here for a stroll in the main square and the views. Oh, the views! Can there be anything more picturesque than a broad panorama of the mountains in the setting sun? Whatever comes to your mind as better is only better until you see what Stary Sącz is surrounded with:)
But hey, isn’t this blog about food? Is day 2 only going to be nature? Of course, not! The best, when it comes to eating, is yet to come. Taking small and winding countryside roads where cell phone reception is continuously lost, I get to Laskowa, home to Gęś w dymie. It’s not uncommon in Europe to find world-class restaurants deep in the country, but granted how development of Polish culinary culture was slowed down by the communism, in Poland when you’re away from big cities and looking for something great to eat, you’re screwed (in 90% of cases). Laskowa and Gęś w dymie are a blessed exception: it’s a restaurant that is not only worth stopping by, it’s worth travelling to! I arrive without previous notice in the middle of the week so I almost miss my chance to get a dinner (it’s best to book) but it turns out it’s not a problem to order. I get chłodnik, i.e. cold beetroot soup and breaded veal schnitzel with green beans, new potatoes and a fried duck egg. After a long day I feel like homey, comfort food. Both things turn out to be way more than ‘homey’. What rules in the restaurant is high quality product: there are no random suppliers here, whatever you get was either farmed on the spot (ducks, geese, eggs) or bought from the people the owners have long worked with which is a guarantee of quality that results in rich, full flavours. I’m the only person having dinner that night so I had a chance to chat with the owners and I must say you rarely meet people who are so passionate and devoted to what they do. Marcin Pławecki, the chef, is a fount of knowledge on Polish cuisine and, despite running a restaurant that is not in a big city, is fully aware of all current trends and fads in gastronomy, so you don’t feel like you’re having a great “grandma-made” meal. No, what you get is a 100% modern restaurant experience.
I wish I could stay longer but long Polish summer days eventually come to an end, so it was time to say goodbye and go to nearby Limanowa for the night.
DAYS 3 AND 4
Spending a night in a superior room of the 3* Limanova hotel, actually gives you a 4* comfort. Even though located a bit off the town centre, the hotel is new, comfortable and has well designed rooms and friendly staff. After a quick breakfast, it’s time to go. Past Nowy Sącz again I’m headed for Krosno, a beautiful Subcarpathian town famous for its glass industry (we’ll get to that later), where I’ll be staying in the 4* Pałac Polanka hotel. As much as you may associate oil industry with places like Persian Gulf, the manor where the hotel is located, is actually a place where the world’s first company aimed at finding and extracting crude oil was established. This is also where I meet Magda, a local who over the next two days will be my guide to the area.
And the main reason for my visit in the region is what – again – would never be your first, second, nor third association with Poland: wine! The area of nearby Jasło is one of the strongest wine regions in the country so how could I miss that? We start with Dwie Granice winery, then moving on to Jasiel vineyard which makes you wonder: hey, is that France we got teleported to? As far as I know it’s the only terraced vineyard in Poland and it looks like a dream: impeccable rows of vines rolling gently down a hill towards ponds surrounded with lawns mown so perfectly, they could easily get a medal of honour from the British Queen. We’re lucky to have Mr Wiktor Szpak, the founder, showing us around his estate. He’s a man of passion: once a biology teacher, he decided to quit his job and go full time into winemaking. The weather is fantastic so it’s lovely just to wander around the place, but with Mr Szpak as a guide and a storyteller we get an extra insight into the life of the vineyard: what it looked like, before he bought it (like a jungle), how it changes with the seasons, how much time it takes to meticulously remove any weeds, cut the vines’ shoots and hand-pick the grapes. Jasiel is one of the most appreciated producers of Polish wine and the tasting upon coming back home leaves no doubt about it.
Magda really knows her region well so she had planned one more vineyard visit for me. ‘Does it make any sense?’, I’m wondering, ‘Can anything beat what I’ve seen so far?’. And you know what it’s like: whenever somebody asks such a question in a story, the answer can be only one: it was totally worth it! The place-in-question is Winnica Jana (Jan’s Vineyard). It’s smaller than the others, but no less charming. If it was “Are we in France?” that I was asking myself in Jasiel, this time I go: “Why bother travelling to Tuscany if there’s Podkarpacie?”. Again, we have an honour to be shown around by the owner, Mr Jan Kruczak. His place sits on a hill too, and has mesmerizing views of the Beskid Niski mountains and Wisłok river that you can admire from a cosy cottage, where (as any reasonable man would expect) wine tastings are organized. And the wine here, produced using Solaris, Hibernal or Johanniter grapes, you guessed it, is great!
For many people “wine” rhymes with “cheese”, so without thinking twice we set off to Mszana, where the Maziejuk family run an organic goat farm. The road to Figa, as the farm is called, winds through the breathtaking, pristine landscapes of Beskind Niski and on the way there Magda is telling me about trekking camps she did there as a teenager. That’s the perks of living near the mountains! Upon arriving at Figa we’re greeted by Wawrzyniec, one of the founder’s sons and a partner in the cheese-making business, and we’re taken for a tour of the premises. Despite being located in a remote area that once worked as a communist state-owned collective farm, the facility is really modern and focuses mostly on producing goat cheese. No way we would skip the tasting part and the range of types and flavours we’re treated to is overwhelming! Many people find goat cheese difficult to enjoy due to a particular ‘goat’ aroma they might have. I bet they wouldn’t guess they were having goat cheese if they had one from Figa in a blind test. One of my favourite was wołoski wędzony, a smoked cheese that is a local version of the famous Polish oscypek from the Tatra mountains.
There’s so much more to do in Krosno and around, like visiting Korczyna, where Mr Mirosław Pelczar, a master chocolatier, runs his little chocolate shop, or, if you travel a little further, Kombornia manor, surrounded with a beautiful park and with a spa and an excuisite restaurant on the premises, serving not only great food, but also regional wines. Another not-to-be-missed attraction in Krosno itself, is the Glass Heritage Centre, an institution for promotion of the local glass industry and its history. Almost every car in Krosno and around will read “Krosno – The City of Glass” on their registration plates, which shows how important it is for the city and its identity. Glass production has been a major industry here for nearly a century and the name “Krosno” is a synonym of quality glassware for every Pole. The Glass Heritage Centre houses not only an exhibition but also a workshop section where you can see how vases, plates or other decorative items are made in front of your eyes!
It’s time to leave Krosno and Podkarpacie behind and start moving back towards Kraków. On the way there’s one more important stop: Nowy Wiśnicz and its castle. Hailing from late 1300s, its heyday dates back to the 1600s, when under the Lubomirski family ownership it was changed into a palazzo in fortezza, a magnificent fortified noble residence. Why would the place be of any interest of a foodie? There’s only a cafeteria on the premises, which is a shame, as this is where thousands of tourists hungry for traditional Polish cuisine should be making a pilgrimage: Nowy Wiśnicz castle is where Stanisław Czerniecki wrote Compendium Ferculorum, the first Polish cookbook, back in 1682. Unfortunately, the kitchen rooms are not open to tourists but despite that a visit at the beautiful baroque castle is a real treat.
Kraków is a stone’s throw from Nowy Wiśnicz, but I wish I could use the underground passages of the nearby Bochnia and Wieliczka salt mines to get there, as the overground roads are always stuck with traffic. Anyway,around an hour and a few chapters of an audiobook later, my journey comes to an end. Once again, I’m wondering whether I should not call off my holidays abroad forever as Poland has so much to offer, especially in parts that are not top of the bucket list for most travelers. And again, I can’t wait to bring Eat Polska guests to experience those wonderful places!
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