Relishing Polish heritage cuisine at Opasły Tom
‘We forgot, for a while in Poland, how to grow things. But this is turning around now. We’re starting to see a return to traditions and a focus on real food. Gastronomy is now growing really quickly. In Warsaw we’re seeing about 100 restaurants a year opening.
Words and photos: Wanda Hennig
As it turns out, we’re lucky that our planned short meeting with Agnieszka Kręglicka—(multiple) restaurant owner, book author, TV culinary show host and general Polish culinary celebrity—extends. She joins us for a long lunch.
The delightful, friendly and engaging Agnieszka has been in the restaurant business for 25 years. The focus at Opasły Tom is modern Polish food which, she says, is a fairly modern trend for the family.
“My brother opened our first restaurant in 1989. He was involved during the transition from communism to capitalism. When everything changed and we could start running private businesses, we opened our early restaurants: Chinese, Mexican, Greek, Italian—and brought in foreign chefs. This was food for Polish people. What they wanted at the time. It was a novelty then as during communist times, none of this was available.
“For 10 years, despite the logistics and organization, we were very successful.
“Then our guests started to travel more.”
This meant they could eat “foreign” food in foreign countries. Back home in Poland “they started to rediscover—to appreciate—our own Polish cuisine. To see we had our own cuisine that was really interesting. That we had traditions and a
food heritage to share and to enjoy.
100 restaurants a year
“Gastronomy is now growing really quickly. In Warsaw we’re seeing about 100 restaurants a year opening right now.
“During the Soviet era—and subsequently—we lost a lot of small-scale agriculture. It is difficult to get organic pork and chicken, for example. And running this kind of restaurant, we need to consider the origins of produce.
“We forgot, for a while in Poland, how to grow things. But this is turning around now. We’re starting to see a return to traditions and a focus on real food.”
Smoked food, Agnieszka confirms, has always been big in Poland—and will continue to be.
“It is wet and cold in winter and we have to conserve—so we have smoked fish, smoked meat. And then, for example, Hungarian plums. These are very intense. You don’t add sugar when you make jam with them.
“We have good milk and many cows. Cheesemaking was historically never that popular. We were drying cheeses. Fresh cheese is now becoming a priority.
“Foraged mushrooms are very much a Polish tradition. You find people selling them along the roadsides in mushroom season. And blueberries and raspberries also grow wild. And then there is venison. And now wines being produced in Poland.
Impact of communist times
“During communist times we had 50 years of people forgetting our traditions and there wasn’t the motivation to maintain them. Essentially we started from zero 25 years ago when communism ended here. We now have people traveling and working in kitchens around Europe and the UK and elsewhere and coming back and sharing their knowledge and using the ideas as inspiration in creating modern Polish cuisine.
“The climate, the soil, the temperament of the people—and the heritage of people who came to Poland; who live here. All these influence the food.”
Agnieszka also calls where they’re doing “heritage cuisine.”
“When you’re serving people food and making people happy and you’re able to make money doing this: it brings happiness.”
This is the foundation of the many facets of her involvement in food.
While we talk we eat.
First, a beetroot salad with oyster mushrooms, blackberries, which have a toothy texture thanks to their tiny pips (pits), and melt-in-the-mouth goat cheese, with no added bacteria, made in a nearby wine region. The dish has a whisper of figs offset by a delicate tartness of caramelized onions.
Wild boar braised in dark beer
This followed by a subtle cream of pumpkin soup with tiny pillows of kale and the smokey flavor of sheep-milk cheese.
Then, it being rainy outside and chilly, a wild boar braised in dark beer is the perfect comfort food—served with eggplant and split pea puree drizzled with roasted butter: a perfect meld of flavors and textures. The wine with this, I wrote down as Dom Bliskowice 2015 regent. Others, I was too busy talking and listening and taking notes and enjoying to record. You will just have to go there yourself to discover them.
Finally, for dessert we are served small portions of creme brulee, chocolate mousse, coconut panna cotta and a forest fruit sorbet: each equally intense and delish.
“I would say our moment—and Poland’s moment—is coming now,” says Agnieszka, who owns Opasły Tom with her brother, Marcin Kręgliccy. If you click through to the link you will read that in the sixties, the Warsaw restaurant housed a legendary literary café, initially a place for intellectual feasts for elite members of Warsaw society, and later the distinguished bookstore of the State Publishing House. Hence the book facade out front.
Part of what is inspiring chefs and restaurateurs like Agnieszka and Marcin—and many others at the cutting edge of the food renaissance in Poland—has been the discovery of Scandinavian food [click through here for a great article on the “new Nordic”—about a decade old now and generally credited to Noma’s René Redzepi]. It’s success has seen a global culinary focus looking to northern Europe.
It has also seen people who live in these chilly climes looking with new eyes at what they can forage; what’s available; at what they can be inspired by and create.
“A focus of ours here at Opasły Tom is to offer surprising new tastes and experiences,” she says.
It worked for us. Bon appetit!
Find Opasły Tom on Instagram and Facebook.
Some special links not in the article above:
- To join a culinary tour from the US or elsewhere, connect with Sarna Rose at Poland Culinary Vacations.
- In Poland connect with Monika Kucia.
- See her Polish P(a)late on Facebook.
- Warsaw Official website.
- With special thanks to the Department of Public and Cultural Diplomacy, Warsaw.
- And the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Pretoria.
© Words and Photos Wanda Hennig, 2017