Friday, 1 June 2012

Encouraging

The market stalls in the Plac Nowy groaned under the weight of fresh produce from the smallholdings around Krakow; the first delicious tender yellow beans, a few strawberries, fresh salads, firm red tomatoes and great heaps of early asparagus. All grown locally, all just harvested - a foodie's paradise. Not for those who like their veg flown halfway round the world, held in a refrigerated warehouse for a week and trimmed to consistent sizes and proportion, all traces of soil and mis-shapes weeded out in a sort of veggie Eugenics, but paradise for the taste buds. With this sort of fresh ingredient, the confident little restaurants that have sprung up all around this Boho little Kazimierz market can hardly go wrong, I thought, but I reckoned without the Polish character. 


Polish restaurant food is generally both homogenous and tedious. Three types of Zupy; beetroot, sour rye and goulash. Five main courses; Pierogi dumplings, roast pork knuckle, Kotlet, Schnitzel, baked Cod. But the interior designers and gutters have moved into this scruffy and fashionable area, and fashionably-named chic little places now overspill the pavements, complete with lithe leggy waitresses in simple little black dresses cut so short in the thigh that bending at the waist would be indecent, so they drop vertically in little Polish curtsies as they serve. They offer the promise of a new Polish cuisine with great confidence, but alas with limited success.

The finest new asparagus spears are best enjoyed steamed with butter alone, eaten in the fingers from a plate tilted on a fork to form a pool of molten butter for dipping. If you must adulterate your asparagus, or if it's past its best, a little parma ham, or a little parmesan cheese is about as far as I'd go. What arrived on my plate as the chef's asparagus dish was .... astonishing. He'd made a thick cheese sauce to which he'd added pine nuts and dill, covering a bed of bitter endive, on which the mushy over-boiled spears were laid like the dead. He then hid them beneath wispy shrouds of Parma ham. Not satisfied, he then covered the whole with shavings of parmesan and quartered strawberries. It looked as if he's barely been able to resist wrapping the lot in pierogi-paste and deep frying it. It was every cliche of Western cuisine of the 80s and 90s combined with a Polish inability to conceive of any dish without dill. 

Elsewhere when I'd been in the mood for sour and tart I thought I couldn't go wrong with picked herring. All they had to do was take it out of it's vinegar preserve and put it on a plate with a piece of lemon. Oh no. It arrived drowned in a puddle of olive oil and sprinkled with chopped dill. I wanted to say "you're trying too hard!", wanted to explain that I know they're trying hard to be sophisticated but they need to trust their taste buds, that less is more, that they'd got it right with the elegant simplicity of the LBDs (though they could let the hems down 4" without loss) and just needed to transfer that approach to the restaurant plate. 

Enjoying a beer with a young musician I mentioned how much I liked the Krakow International Airport rail interchange (pictured below), one of the few at which you can watch the antics of a flock of hens in an adjoining field whilst waiting for the city-centre shuttle. I really do like it; it's a thing of joy that makes my heart smile every time I see it. It does the job perfectly, just five minutes walk down a dirt track from the airport, with a little two-coach formation that shuttles the single track with great efficiency. She was unimpressed - she thought I was making fun of them. With EU money, she said, they'd make it 'modern' - I think she meant lots of glass, steel and greatly enhanced inconvenience - and (worrying, this) the chickens and the peasants would be removed. I really couldn't convince her that it was perfect as it was, that simple was good. I thought better of asking her if she liked to cook. 


2 comments:

cuffleyburgers said...

Sounds a bit like Hungary. delightful place, but food's terrible despite all being freshly grown.

Mac the Knife said...

"The finest new asparagus spears are best enjoyed steamed with butter alone, eaten in the fingers from a plate tilted on a fork to form a pool of molten butter for dipping."

I can reccomend a fresh,warm hollandaise for the purpose too...