I’ve spoken about free walking tours on this blog a few times now. I love them. I think they’re a great way of being introduced to a city by a local who really knows what they’re talking about and can share the love of their city with you. Surprisingly however, the only place that we visited on our holiday that offered a free food tour has been Krakow. Needless to say, we signed up for that one pretty quickly!
Our guide Tom was full of jokes. Though he’s Krakow born-and-bred, he admitted an affinity with Canadians as he was almost one himself (his parents considered moving there after Communism fell) and has a pretty cut-glass proper English accent as well.
We started our tour in the Main Market Square with a few introductions around the group before a quick stop at one of the many obwarzanki stands around the city. Obwarzanki can be thought of as the granddaddy of both bagels and pretzels and are a protected heritage food item that is only allowed to be sold in Krakow.
Boiled before baking and topped with sesame, poppy seeds or cheese, obwarzanki is a local tradition and a cheap snack to have on the go, with one setting you back only about 50 cents in Aussie dollars. My preference is for the cheese-topped ones!
Our next stop was at Ambasada Sledzia, the herring bar of Krakow. While they offer some food items mainly featuring herring, the main reason we were here was to have a Polish traditional drink – vodka! Most people think that vodka is Russian, but the first historical mentions of vodka actually come from a town that’s located in present-day Poland.
I broke my two years of no-alcohol by having a half shot of Polish vodka. In this particular instance, I didn’t want to miss out! This is high-strength stuff and definitely burned going down, warming me up from the inside quite nicely. The taste of the vodka is irrelevant though because…
…in Krakow, you finish off a shot of vodka with a chaser of a bite of raw herring! It doesn’t sound that appetising but it works surprisingly well – the raw fishiness of the herring helps to mute the burn of the vodka, and the strength of the vodka dulls the fishiness of the herring. The two definitely go hand in hand.
Another option that you could have with your vodka if herring doesn’t suit your tastes is smalec on bread, or what is otherwise known as pork lard. It’s quite fatty and oily so most people add in a few small chunks of pork crackling into the mix for textural interest. It’s definitely an acquired taste, and I think I preferred the herring to this.
Our next stop was Przystanek Pierogarnia, a local institution run by a woman who still gets up at the crack of dawn every morning to make her pierogi from scratch. It’s literally a tiny hole in the wall, with barely enough room for two people to stand inside to order their pierogi from a window into the kitchen. If you want pierogi, this is the place to go!
We got to try two different types of pierogi here, ruskie pierogi like we’d had the day before at Polakowski, and a cabbage pierogi. The ruskie pierogi was much better here than at Polakowski, with a thinner pastry and a much stronger cheesey flavour. The cabbage pierogi was the winner though, with an interesting mix of spices in the filling that had everyone on the food tour licking their lips.
A brief stop at a bakery around the corner from the pierogi shop so that we could try a piece of kremowka. It’s a Polish cake made famous internationally when the late Pope John Paul II (a Krakow native) mentioned in public that it was his favourite cake as a child. Apparently he and his friends used to make bets about how much they could eat!
Now I don’t know how many pieces John Paul II was able to eat, but I could have definitely eaten a whole slab of this cake! It’s essentially just a vanilla-scented custard cream sandwiched between two layers of puff pastry – simple, but so very effective. It’s available at bakeries all over Krakow and indeed all over Poland, as the Polish are still very proud of the legacy of John Paul II. In fact millenials in Poland are even called the John Paul Generation, in honour of the impact he had on their childhoods!
Our next stop was at the local markets, which were already starting to close up around 3pm as most locals shop in the mornings. Luckily this one cabbage stand was still open, with the stallholder packing away all her unsold cabbages. Homemade pickled cabbage and pickles were the order of the day here, a Polish tradition dating back centuries as the only way to preserve food for the long hard winter months.
Many people in our group found the sauerkraut quite challenging as it was true to its name and quite sour. Our guide Tom told us that this was actually a weaker version though, as it had only been fermenting for about a week. Sometimes they let it ferment for months on end, creating an extremely sour end product! For my part, I really enjoyed both the sauerkraut and pickle and thought they were just right.
Stopping in at the butcher’s at the markets, we tried some kielbasa otherwise known as Polish smoked sausage. Flavoured with a good amount of pepper and garlic, this porky sausage really hit the spot. Trust me when I say that this wasn’t like the kielbasa you can find in Polish enclaves in Australia or the US – this is far superior with a greater depth of flavour. You haven’t really had kielbasa until you’ve been to Poland!
Our next stop was actually at a branch of Polakowski, which we had already visited the day before. What we were trying here was Polish sour rye soup, known as zurek. Like the sauerkraut, this soup is an acquired taste. If you like sourdough bread, you should like this soup – it’s made from fermenting rye flour so has the same sourness of sourdough, but intensified. I quite liked this soup, especially with the little bits of herbs and mushrooms through it.
Our next stop in the New Jewish Square was more for information. Here, Tom talked to us about the history of zapiekanka, a Polish street food that actually finds its origins in the lean Communist years. Bread was a constant, but other ingredients were hard to find unless they were local. And so zapiekanka was born, made of half a toasted baguette topped with mushrooms foraged from nearby forests, and the cheese of Polish mountain sheep.
Now it’s clearly popular as a cheap snack for local school kids! We tried our own later in our trip as well, and you can see my photo on Instagram.
Our final stop was at Wrega Pub, a local pub in the Jewish Quarter serving up traditional foods and a wide range of beers. We were here to try the Hunter’s Stew, commonly served with slices of local rye bread.
Hunter’s Stew, or bigos, stems from medieval times when hunting was a more widespread pastime for noble families. It’s a big old mess of stew, incorporating as many different meats as possible, as well as fresh and pickled cabbage which gives it its distinctive sour flavour (in fact, the Polish love their sour foods!). It’s very hearty and filling, and I can just imagine the hunting parties of years past tucking into big portions of this soup (served in bread bowls of course) after a hard day’s hunting.
The Free Walking Tour Foundation’s Foods of Krakow Tour is a great way of becoming introduced to Polish cuisine because not only are you eating the different foods but you’re learning about their significance in Polish history and culture. Tom was a fantastic high-energy guide who kept our whole group enthused and excited for the whole tour.
I highly recommend joining the tour if you visit Krakow. When we did it, we were asked to pay a 15 Polish Zloty nominal fee per person to cover the the cost of food samples (we tipped Tom a good amount on top of that). According to their website, they now ask you to contribute a 50 Zloty fee as they’ve turned it into a paid tour. It’s definitely still worth it!