My Notebook of the amazing places I have visited and the memories and experiences I don't want to forget.
I recently returned from a short trip to Warsaw. As I was born in the city, and still have family there, I visit regularly. Apart from the obvious catching up with family and so on, of the reasons I love going back is my grandmother’s cooking. Having left Poland at a young age eating her food brings back nostalgic memories of my childhood, it helps that her cooking is great too. There are certain smells in the kitchen that always bring me back to being 7 years old and eating at the table with my grandparents.
Living in England I rarely cook polish food, mainly because it takes a lot of work and usually is cooked for a large number of people. In addition I definitely could not eat it everyday, my body needs a break from all the meat, potato and pierogi. However a well cooked plate of polish pierogi or beef goulash with kopytka would definitely be in my top 10 dishes of all time.
In recent years I have noticed a change in the food that middle aged and young Poles like to eat. They are certainly becoming more adventurers with more and more Indian, Vietnamese and Japanese restaurants opening up all over the capital. Walking through the city centre I noticed many of the restaurants specialising in cuisines other then Polish were extremely busy, whilst those that were more traditional perhaps not so much. Maybe this is because Poles want a change from the traditional and the food they grew up eating.
Every time I visit Poland when I eat out I search out the traditional Polish eateries, but that’s because that’s something I can’t get ‘back home’ in England, not easily anyway. One of the places that I love visiting is a good old fashioned Bar Mleczny, simply translated as a Milk Bar. The first Bar Mleczny in Poland opened in the late 1890’s and not only served milk but also traditional meals, growing in popularity after the First World War but even more so after the Second World War. Basically milk bars offer a cafeteria like setting, you chose your food from a board which usually contains daily specials, you order your food at the counter, pay, wait for it to be cooked (if required), and then you sit down a at a table and enjoy. It’s like fast home-style food cooked to order.
I have visited a few Milk Bars and quality of food served at these establishments does vary. Over the last few visits to Poland I have frequented the Mleczarnia Jerozolimska located at 32 Aleje Jerozolimskie in Warsaw and I am very satisfied with the quality of the food. As expected the food at these places is cheap and it’s not going to be fancy, you are going to get exactly what you order, nothing more. If you want potato or salad with your meal, order it, otherwise you will just end up with a piece of meat.
On my last visit I noticed the variety of different people that frequented the bar. I came at lunchtime on a weekday and during my time there I saw young students getting a cheap meal, older people ordering food, but also people that were working nearby and on their lunch break. Instead of grabbing an overpriced sandwich, or going to a fast food outlet many people come here and order a bowl of soup or a plate of pierogi. It’s usually a lot cheaper, healthier and heartier. In addition they don’t have to cook these dishes at home, many of which require a lot of time, and instead they can get them here and for very little money.
For example on my last visit I ordered placki ziemniaczane (potao pancakces). To make these at home for myself would require me to grate the potatoes, mix it with the remaining ingredients, cook them and then have loads of batter left over as no one else would want to eat them. At the Bar Mleczny I had to wait 10 minutes or so as they were freshly cooked and I paid under 8zl (about £1.60) for 4 and I was satisfied and full. Where else could I get that?
But it’s not just about the cost it’s also about traditions and being able to eat the kind of food your polish grandmother used to make. More and more young poles are forgetting the food their grandmothers used to cook and turning away from traditional polish recopies. It is understandable as many of these recipes are intended to be made in large quantities and can take a long time to prepare and cook. With work and family life getting in the way there just isn’t enough time to spend 4 or 5 hours a day making Pierogi. However when all the Grandmothers are gone where else are you going to get the traditional polish meals like grandma used to make other then Bar Mleczny? I am very happy that polish people continue to go to these places despite all the choice they have when eating out or grabbing lunch. It means that they can continue to eat traditional Polish food when they want to. I just hope that these bars remain and that Poles continue to cook traditional recipes in the home every now and again, even if it is just at special occasions. It is important to keep these recipes alive. I know that my beef goulash is nowhere near as good as my grandmothers, but I have years to keep making it better and better until I get it right.
So my advice next time you visit Poland is go to a Bar Mleczny for the experience as well as the food. If you find a popular one I am sure you will not be disappointed.
My promise to myself this year is to make pierogi from scratch. I am extremely embarrassed to say I have never done so. So this year I plan to give it ago.