Sun, Jun 09, 2013 - Page 14 News List

Polish cuisine leaves Soviet era to go global

By Bernard Osser  /  AFP, WARSAW

Farmer Piotr Rutkowski, center, checks salad greens at his organic vegetable farm in Maciejowice, Poland, on May 20.

Photo: AFP

After years of communist-era shortages, then a craze for Western fast food, Polish cuisine is undergoing a revival thanks to quality local ingredients and a modern twist on traditional fare.

Leading the renaissance is Atelier Amaro, a Warsaw eatery that won Poland’s first Michelin star in March for using “local produce to create innovative cuisine and original combinations.”

Tucked away in a wooded area by the Polish capital’s modern art center, the 32-seater began serving up modern takes on Polish specialties in September 2011. With no fixed menu, the dishes change with the season and feature such inspired ingredients as bison grass, burnt oak oil, wild rose petals and nettle — a native stinging plant.

Sample recipes include “pearmain in nettle syrup, cotton candy with ginger and cinnamon, nettle sorbet” and “chilled mirabelle plum soup with vanilla, hazelnut emulsion, lemon verbena leaves.”

Owner-chef Wojciech Modest Amaro says the emphasis is on natural ingredients, preferably Polish ones. The 41-year-old electronics expert and political scientist learned to cook while living in England. He then honed his skills at elBulli, Spain’s now shuttered Michelin three-star restaurant, before opening up his own place.

“We want to put Poland on the culinary map of the world...” said his wife, Agnieszka Amaro.

Polish cuisine was once rich with Italian, German, Jewish and Armenian influences, but communism stripped it of its variety, leaving it with a bland reputation.

“For 50 years, really only around a dozen staple ingredients were available,” Amaro said, referring to the chronic shortages under communism.

“So we learned to cook very simple dishes like pierogi and breaded pork chops, which ironically are not part of traditional Polish cuisine,” he said. “After the fall of communism, Poles quickly grew richer and adopted a Western lifestyle — fast food included — and it’s only recently that they’ve begun to respect local products.”

Amaro is determined to revolutionize the national cuisine by reaching out to small farms that operate the traditional way: no pesticides, preservatives or additives.

Poland is “rich in natural food: We are the world’s fifth producer of wild herbs and flowers, we’re the land of mushrooms and game thanks to our forests,” Amaro said, pointing to the country’s mountains, lakes and Baltic Sea shore.

Before opening his restaurant, Amaro clocked 60,000km driving around the country seeking out farmers like Piotr and Maryla Rutkowski in the central village of Maciejowice. They started out selling a few kinds of lettuce 15 years ago and now the 40-somethings also grow herbs, cucumbers, strawberries, tomatoes, cauliflower, squash and zucchini.

“The demand for vegetables grown the traditional way is continually on the rise, especially among young people, to the point that sometimes we run out of product,” Maryla Rutkowski said.

In the hip Warsaw neighborhood of Saska Kepa, one enthusiast of the Slow Food movement — which promotes natural ingredients in contrast to fast food — started the Le Targ farmer’s market, one of six in the city.

Stocked with produce from across Poland, the market is one of four to crop up in Warsaw in the past year, reflecting “a niche that keeps on growing,” founder Zuzana Groniowska said.

With about 30 stands, the market features vegetables, honey, yoghurts, bread and charcuterie and draws shoppers from all over.

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