It’s Food, Jim — But Not As We Know It!
Christmas is finally over — thank God.
Even the Spanish, who, like the Polish manage to drag the festive season kicking and screaming into a fourth week with the Three Kings’ bonanza, have conceded that enough is enough, and Christmas playlists are finally mothballed.
No more Paul McCartney for another nine months.
I spent Christmas and New Year in Poland and I have to admit, despite certain trepidation, it was right up there with the best festive seasons I can remember.
Okay, let’s get the negative stuff out of the way first: the weather and the food. You can do something about the weather, such as dress appropriately or stay indoors, but there’s little you can do about the food.
I found Polish food, like strychnine, a bit tricky on the digestive system. Here are some of the symptoms that mild strychnine ingestion shares with Polish food: agitation, apprehension or fear, ability to be easily startled and restlessness.
So it is with great apprehension that I sit down to a twelve course Christmas Eve dinner in the company of eleven of my partner’s relatives, with a thirteenth place set — as is the custom — to welcome a hungry traveller.
This number of dishes is the symbol of the twelve Apostles and represents the twelve months of the year.
Now, the Poles take a great deal of pride in their food, so I would not wish to be
disrespectful, as the warmth of the hospitality my partner’s family extended me was utterly staggering.
It’s not, after all, their fault that I’m as fussy as a cat when it comes to food; a French dog, my partner calls me.
On the subject of dogs, my partner’s old pair have a delightful twelve-year old ‘Euro-Mix’ dog with short legs and a big belly whose bark is definitely worse than her bite. I know this because she only has four teeth; I befriend her immediately, managing to surreptitiously slip her a few of my dumplings, and the relationship is cemented.
Thereafter it’s pretty much a buffet with the table in the dining room of the family country estate groaning with the encumbrance of food.
This is good, because one is not accountable for what one eats or what one avoids, but I’m feeling quite adventurous so I tackle around four of the twelve servings.
Meat is off the menu on Christmas Eve. I’m not going to carp on about it, but there was plenty of carp on the table.
I rather liked the classic herrings fillets or ‘matjes’ in oil, and wolfed a couple of these down with some salads and potatoes, but avoided the raw herring in jelly which both my partner’s uncles consumed with gusto.
For desert, auntie Eva produced a huge cheesecake, which was delicious and then various other plates of cake-type deserts fought for table space.
The Polish also celebrate Name Days, and Christmas Eve happens to be attributed to the name Eva, so there was yet more cake, goodies and general celebrative joy.
There is, in fact, so much food that when the meal is finished two hours later, it looks as if we have barely touched it.
I had been under the illusion that alcohol plays a large role in the Polish diet, but apart from the bottle of Chardonnay we bring, the only drink available is jug upon jug of a homemade fruit concoction what looks like pond water with a plethora of suspicious looking vegetation lurking below the surface; but it tastes surprisingly good.
And then Uncle Bogden asks if I would like to share some vodka.
I think the expression: ‘Do bears shit in the woods?’ is slightly lost in translation.
I had arrived in Warsaw, where my partner was working a few days before the festive onslaught.
We spent two days in the capital — which is nowhere nearly enough to get more than a sniff of what a great city it is. The monuments of Lenin are long gone, of course, but the Soviets put an indelible stamp on the city, which is still there. The Palace of Culture and Science sits juxtaposed against the postmodern architectural majesty of the Trade Tower, the InterContinental and the Warsaw Financial Centre.
We take the train to Wroclaw. A three-hour journey in the restaurant car of a Pendolino enjoying Polish beer and enduring Polish dumplings with waitress service is no great hardship. We check into our apartment close to the centre, which rushes me less than three hundred Yoyos (including parking) for eleven nights.
Wroclaw is my partner’s home city and, like most of Poland was ravaged by both the Nazis and the Russians in the last war, and has been extensively and painstakingly re-built.
Poland has suffered more than any other European country — even Ireland — at the hands of those who used their homeland as a battleground both to pillage and to further their imperialistic ambitions.
Between 1939 and 1945, at least one and a half million Polish citizens were deported to German territory for forced labour. Hundreds of thousands were also imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps. Almost two million non-Jewish Polish civilians were slaughtered, classified by the Nazis as ‘subhuman’. Fourteen per cent of the population of Poland died during the war, which tops the per capita death register, knocking the Jews into second place and the Germans into third.
And just when they thought it was all over, the Russians subjected Poland to forty-five years of Soviet oppression before Lech Wałęsa and Solidarity triumphed in 1989, as the democratic lights were switched on in Eastern Europe’s New World Order.
It’s hard to paint a dark enough picture of how ghastly Poland’s history has been in the last century alone. And before that, it wasn’t a whole lot better; the most horrid of horrible histories.
Wroclaw is a delightful city, much smaller than Warsaw, with a wonderful blend of restored renaissance buildings, fifties’ Soviet conglomerated edifices and modern architecture, such as Sky Tower, adorned with Salvador Dali’s ‘Profile of Time’.
The Old Town spans the river Oder and the Market Square plays host to a fine selection of bars, pubs and restaurants, my favourite being Spiz which dates back to the thirteenth century and has its own micro-brewery — not uncommon in Poland — and has turkey without jelly on the menu.
With the first onslaught of Christmas done and dusted, we head southeast to Katowice to visit more uncles and their families. Katowice is one of five industrial cities in the South East and home to the worst pollution I have ever experienced. We go for a run after which I spend the day coughing up black stuff as if I’d spend a lifetime smoking Gallagher’s Blues.
We are a hop and a step from Kraków, which with its well-preserved medieval core, Jewish quarter and old town ringed by Planty Park with remnants of the city’s medieval walls, is well worth a visit, but we decide to head to Ustroń and the mountains instead.
Apart from the journey — a disturbing feature of which was a set of non-functioning traffic lights at a major crossroads — this proves to be an inspired decision.
Ustroń is a charming little town with a population of around fifteen thousand, situated in the Silesian Voivodeship, and the Silesian Beskids mountain range.
We check in to the quirkily named ‘Kolejarz Best For You Hotel’ — a snip at twenty-five Yoyos a night. It has a pleasant bar, and adequate restaurant, an outdoor pool (frozen) and a gym, but best of all a grand piano on which I unashamedly bash out the only song I can play: Lennon & McCrapney’s (sorry did I spell that incorrectly?) Something.
So next morning dawns, bright and around minus eight degrees and the hotel owner, in his luxury 4X4 drops us at the beginning of the trail to a mountain that’s pretty much twice the size of anything in GB.
Four hours later we make it to the top, eat and think about the journey back to the hotel, as the sun begins to set and the temperature plummets.
We jog down the valley, sleep, shower and literally stumble upon this terrific bar/restaurant which, in addition to having its own brewery, had a couple of things on the menu I could eat.
Next day, it’s New Year’s Eve.
We have a choice of parties; one, an invite from Auntie Eva’s daughter Camilla was a good three hours’ drive away, and the second was in Wroclaw at the apartment of Katarzyna Borek one of Poland’s pre-eminent concert pianists and experimental musicians, and a friend of my partner’s. Have a listen — awesome. We tackle the three drive back to Wroclaw and go there.
Everyone speaks English — which is both a good thing and a bad thing. Good, in as much as I was included in conversation and bad that I vaguely remember (although I can’t be entirely sure of this due to an excess of Jamesons’ whiskey) that I had a bit of a go at a fella with an ego the size of the Greek debt mountain — Mr Big-Bollox in Polish TV. But like I said, I can’t be sure; typical New Year’s Eve, but at least we were spared the irritating Scottish showboating.
On the positive side, I don’t cop a bollocking from my partner the following morning, but on the downside, I have a hangover as deadly as Polish industrial smog, which wouldn’t go away until we hit Spiz again early evening.
Monday (which is not a holiday in Poland — despite New Year’s Day falling on a Sunday) arrives and we take the train to Berlin.
There is no direct train, so we are compelled to travel via Poznań, where we have a two hour wait for our connecting Inter-City train to Berlin.
The Poznań train is rammed with beardy intelligentsia and their molls returning to academia, and is fuller that the Student Union bar in Freshers’ Week. But for the princely sum of twenty Zloty (c. €4.5) we upgrade to First Class which is a student-free zone.
Now, I’m temped to crack an extremely distasteful joke about slow, overcrowded trains
travelling between Germany and Poland but — in the interests of Political Correctness — I will resist. However, my partner’s old fella wasn’t so PC on New Year’s Day when he quipped that we were eating Polish chicken cooked in a German oven.
Oh dearie me.
Well, amigos, that was Poland — what a terrific country. To sum up — the people are friendly — you get a warm welcome everywhere, except when driving; there are some terrific cities, wonderful scenery, great bars and restaurants. Or yes… forgot the best bit: everything’s dirt-cheap.
Can’t wait to get back there!