Sunday, April 29, 2012

Soft Dumplings in Krakow

Every hour, on the hour, a bugle call sounds from atop the northern tower of St. Mary’s basilica, the russet-red church that dominates old Kraków’s main square. Traditionally a warning to the people of Kraków to defend their city, the mournful tune is today just as much a reminder that lunch is approaching. For many, that means pierogi – versatile and delicious stuffed dumplings.

With a royal pedigree that stretches back over a thousand years, Kraków is a treasure trove of Gothic and Renaissance architecture. The Old Town was spared the bombing most other Polish cities suffered during World War II, and Kraków now contains more historic buildings, monuments, and artworks – some 2.3 million registered at the last count – than any other place in the country. Savor it slowly, preferably on foot, and you’ll discover something pretty or old or curious or tasty around every corner.
You’re not likely to wear yourself out, because all the major points of interest are contained within the thumb-shaped Old Town. Looming above it to the south is Wawel, a royal complex containing the mainly Renaissance castle, cathedral, royal tombs, and crown treasury. The views from what is the very symbol of the Polish nation are priceless, but get back on to the street and head north along ulica Grodzka to the Rynek Główny, the largest medieval square in Europe. Here you’ll find not only Kraków’s faithful bugler but some of the finest buildings in the city, such as the Sukiennice (Cloth Hall), once a focus for commerce in the city. At the main square you can also pick up one of the many colorful horse-drawn carriages and take a leisurely tour of the city, or strike out to one of Kraków’s cultural sights, such as the Czartoryski Museum, where you can see Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting Lady with an Ermine.

Outdoor dining in one of the many restaurants in the former Jewish Kazimierz quarter

After a morning on your feet, you’ll appreciate the prospect of a hearty Polish lunch, and nothing is more fitting or filling than a plate of pierogi – crescentshaped flour-based dumplings eaten throughout the country. Pierogi are usually boiled but can be baked or fried; they come with a variety of savory fillings and are typically served smothered with lard, sour cream, butter, or onions. Unless, that is, they are of the sweet variety, filled with strawberries, blueberries, or plums.
The classic trio are those with cottage cheese, potato, and onion (or “Russian pierogi”); cabbage and mushrooms; and minced meat; but today you’ll find new takes on this quintessential Polish dish. Venison and bacon, apples with rose petals, and smoked salmon are among the tasty modern fillings. Innovation is the raison d’être of the Pierogi Festival, held annually in Kraków in mid-August, as close as possible to the feast of the Assumption of Mary (a very big holiday here) on August 15. Hundreds of restaurants compete to produce the most inventive pierogi, and up to 200,000 of the crescent-shaped delights are consumed.

Pierogi are for every day and for feast days; mushroom-filled variants are a Christmas Eve tradition

Best Places to Eat Pierogi

Zapiecek Polskie Pierogarnia
Pierogi were a mainstay during Poland’s years of Communist rule, and while a lot has changed in both Poland and pierogi fillings since then, cheap and cheerful pierogarnie (places serving pierogi) still seem to have the best dumplings.
A quintessential example is Zapiecek in the Old Town and, to the eternal gratitude of party people and denizens of the dark, it’s open around the clock. Nothing fancy here – Zapiecek is self-service with a half-dozen tables and garden seating in the warmer months. But the legions of locals frequenting the joint are here for the finest handmade pierogi in town, rolled and pinched before their very noses. It’s a quintessential Kraków experience and one not to be missed.
Ulica Sławkowska 32, Kraków; open 24 hrs daily;
Also in Kraków
If you’re looking for pierogi in more stylish surrounds, just cross the street to U Babci Maliny (; inexpensive), where the pierogi are fried, not boiled, and served on a real trencher – a piece of bread as a plate. The decor is faux-folksy, with rough-hewn wooden walls and sheepskins, but cozy and fun.
Also in Poland
One of Warsaw’s finest restaurants, Gessler Restauracja U Kucharzy (; expensive) serves peerless pierogi along with more ambitious dishes in a delightful restaurant set inside the kitchen of a elegant old hotel.
Around the World
The Polish diaspora ensures that excellent pierogi can be sampled in many corners of the world, and notably in London.
Gessler of Warsaw has taken over Daquise, the longest-established independent Polish restaurant in London and favorite of Polish emigrés. It now trades as Gessler Restauracja at Daquise (www.; moderate) in spruced-up but still very homey surroundings, just around the corner from the South Kensington tube station. For something even more stylish, head north along Exhibition Road to Ognisko (www.; expensive), a clubby place filled with oil paintings, chandeliers, and mirrors and overlooking a verdant square. It serves a variety of Polish specialties, including pierogi z mie sem lub pierogi ruskie (pierogi stuffed with meat or cheese and potatoes) and watróbka ciele ca nieborów (calf’s liver with Polish smoked bacon, tomato, and mustard sauce).
A Day in Kraków
Many of Kraków’s notable sights lie within the pocket-sized Old Town. A strip of parkland called Planty, which was formerly a moat, marks its border.
MORNING : Introduce yourself to Kraków by walking up to Wawel and exploring as much of the royal complex as the morning will allow. Don’t miss the Royal Crypts in the cathedral (where Archbishop Karol Wojtyla – the future John Paul II – once preached) or the Flemish tapestries in the castle’s Hall of Senators.
AFTERNOON : Get lost in the Old Town, visiting St. Mary’s basilica in the main square for its exquisitely carved altarpiece and the 15th-century Cloth Hall, which is still used as a market. Nearby is the Collegium Maius, where Copernicus studied.
Check out the 15th-century college’s awesome Renaissance hall and treasury.
EVENING : After sundown, head south of Wawel for Kazimierz, the one-time Jewish quarter, which has been revitalized in recent years and contains a great choice of bars and restaurants, some featuring live bands playing klezmer (Jewish folk music).
Getting to Krakow
Flights arrive into John Paul II International Airport, 7 miles (11 km) west of the city. Where to stay in Krakow
Nathan’s Villa (inexpensive) is a modern hostel at the foot of Wawel Hill.
Hotel Wit Stwosz (moderate) occupies a restored 16th-century town house in the heart of the Old Town.
Hotel Copernicus (expensive) has 29 rooms in two beautifully restored buildings in the Old Town.
Ulica Szpitalna 25;
What Else to Eat
Another iconic Polish dish is a “hunter’s stew” named bigos, which is made with sauerkraut, chopped cabbage, and meat (pork, beef, game, sausage, and/or bacon). Everything is mixed together and cooked over a low flame for several hours, then put aside to be reheated a few more times, enhancing the flavors. The best place to try it is in someone’s home; every family has its own recipe. Very few meals in Poland start without soup: żurek, made with beef or chicken stock, bacon, onion, mushrooms, sour cream, and kwas, a mixture of rye flour and water that has been left to ferment for several days, is a classic. Just as Polish but less unique is barszcz, a red beet soup not unlike Russian borscht.

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