As I sat down to lunch, the sea was a leaden blue. It was still early autumn, but a chill wind as I walked on the beach had given me an appetite for hearty, yet interesting, food. Which happened to be just what Artur Moroz served me at Bulaj, his seaside bistro in Sopot. There were herrings stuffed with horseradish butter, fish liver pâté with green tomato chutney, and roast goose with pears and barley kasha. There were ice-cold shots of honey and barley and new-potato vodkas, and – who knew such things existed? – there were fine Polish Rieslings.
It almost goes without saying that Poland hasn’t enjoyed a reputation for dazzling culinary creativity or remarkable ingredients. My idea of it was one of Communist-era stodge and greyness, of endless dumplings, sausage and cabbage a hundred ways. But my recent trip to Pomerania, Poland’s northernmost province, on the Baltic coast, put paid to my prejudices. In Gdansk, capital of the region, and its beachside satellite Sopot, I found a thriving food scene based on local products and a new generation of horseradish-keen young chefs.
Gdansk may soon swim into our ken as a place worth visiting, boosted by the opening next year of the European Solidarity Centre, a museum, library and research centre in the shipyard where Lech Walesa lit the fuse that blew apart the eastern bloc.
Meanwhile, the Pomeranian tourist board is working on Szlak Kulinarny, a “culinary route” to lure gastro-tourists. The route, due to come on stream next year, will lead visitors to restaurants, food fairs and festivals, and some of the 136 Pomeranian producers listed in the ministry of agriculture’s registry of traditional foods, which is more than any other region in Poland.
At breakfast on my first morning at the Hotel Gdansk, there were pickled herrings and smoked meats alongside croissants and yoghurts, and a blast of dill, the herb that is to the Baltic what basil is to the Mediterranean. I took a tour of Gdansk’s famous shipyard, where derelict dockside warehouses were either being demolished or turned into industrial-chic galleries and nightclubs. The high points were the gates where Solidarity’s demands can still be seen, handwritten on a plywood board, and the electrical repair department that for years was Walesa’s workplace.
I stopped for lunch at the shipyard canteen – a genuine throwback with melamine-topped tables, unearthly coloured soft drinks and a menu of old-time staples such as pickle soup, tripe soup, beetroot soup (Poland is good on soups), stuffed cabbage, and bigos, a take-no-prisoners stew of sauerkraut, meat and mushrooms. As I tucked into a steaming bowl of zurek, a soup made from sour rye and vegetables, I wondered if Walesa might once have sat at my table, eating the same honest-to-goodness fare.
From basic meals like this, Pomeranian food goes all the way to the top. At Filharmonia, the in-house restaurant at Gdansk’s concert hall, a dish of wild mushroom pierogi, cabbage mousse, pike-perch fillet with rosehips and buckwheat wafers was an anthology of autumnal flavours given the nouvelle treatment. After dinner, chef Kristoffer Basznianin explained his fondness for foraged ingredients such as sea buckthorn, dogwood and black lily berries, which he uses in striking combinations of bitter, sour and sweet.
Basznianin’s career, it turned out, had taken him to Sweden and Denmark (including a stage at Noma), and he was an enthusiastic adept of the new Scandinavian cuisine. Did he think that Poland might become the next star of northern European cooking? “It’s going to come, though it’ll take a few more years,” he said. “But there’s a future – we can see the light, the northern light.”
Something is certainly stirring in the kitchens of Poland. The nation is in the grip of foodie fever. “Ten years ago, Poles didn’t frequent restaurants in the way they do now,” says Malgorzata Rose of US-based Poland Culinary Vacations, which offers a seven-night gastronomic tour of Pomerania among several Polish food safaris. Glossy food magazines such as the impressive Smak are raising the bar for the new gastro-culture. Food blogs have sprung up like mushrooms after rain.
An open-air farmers market in the wooded outskirts of Sopot confirmed that food shopping is now a major leisure activity. Families wandered among the stalls, snacking on boar pierogi, while admiring the sweet Kashubian bread, the poppyseed and hemp oils, the smoked goose salami.
At the specialist Sopot fromagerie Ser Lanselot, the selection was a testament to the rude and smelly health of the local cheese scene. My favourite: an aged raw-milk sheep’s cheese from the lake district of Masuria. “Five years ago, I knew of, maybe, 10 good producers in the country,” said proprietor Grzegorz Jankowski. “Now there are 50.”
I drifted back to the seafront, where Artur Moroz was holding an impromptu workshop at a glassed-in shelter behind the promenade. The sun came out after a squall of rain, turning up the colour of the sea from lead to steel. Moroz served spiced warm beer while he cooked up a storm in his pop-up kitchen.
I had eaten some fine things during the previous few days, but this simple food was some of the best: smoked Baltic salmon from an artisan smokehouse in Gdansk, served on black rye bread sliced from a great round loaf, and a Kashubian soup of pike and carp with parsley root, celeriac and a dash of cream. Best of all, the chanterelles and smoked eel sizzled together in cold-pressed rapeseed oil – the pungent bright-yellow liquid which has become the olive oil of the new Polish cuisine.
Poland Culinary Vacations (polandculinaryvacations.com) offers culinary trips to Pomerania.
Hotel Gdansk (hotelgdansk.com.pl) has doubles from about £80.