Jolanta and her husband Lukasz had long dreamed of owning a restaurant. Now that Poland was free again, entrepreneurs could thrive in the new economy. For the first time in memory, basic foodstuffs were readily obtainable. At last their dream could become reality.
They opened the restaurant on Sienna Street, just south of the Maly Rynek (Little Market Square) in the Stare Miasto (Old Town) of Krakow. They named it Niebieski Kot (The Blue Cat).
Like many young Polish restaurateurs Jolanta and Lukasz favored the slow food movement. They prepared most of the dishes themselves from traditional recipes handed down from their grandmothers, using fresh local ingredients preferably grown or raised without chemicals or pesticides.
“We will start off with a small menu,” said Lukasz. “But everything on our menu we will have in stock.” They recalled the days of Soviet occupation when diners were lucky if even one in ten items on a menu were actually available.
“We will also have variety,” insisted Jolanta.
Simple foods like freshly baked chleb (bread) or krupnik (mushroom and barley soup).
Elaborate dishes like strucla z makiem (coffee cake with poppy seed filling) or tort migdalowy (almond torte).
Dishes as light as dilled cucumber salad or Baltic salmon.
Or as substantial as bigos (hunters’ stew) or nalesniki (pancakes).
Easy on the pocketbook like flaczki (tripe soup) or zimne noge (pigs’ knuckles).
Luxurious like sarna duszona (leg of venison) or bazant pieczony (potted pheasant).
In summer patrons could eat outside, perhaps enjoying a luncheon of root vegetable salad, homemade rye bread, and sok z czarnej porzeczki (black currant juice). Niebieski Kot was the perfect place for a late afternoon snack of lody (icecream) and Turkish kawa (coffee).
Soon Niebieski Kot showed a profit, allowing the couple to make a good living. The restaurant was popular with local people and tourists alike.
Poland has always been a country open to new ideas and influences. Turkish, Persian, Jewish, Hungarian, Tatar, Lithuanian, Viennese, French, Italian all contributed to what is known as Polish cuisine.
Polish cooking seems delightfully complex and exotic, yet the majority of Polish dishes can be prepared using ordinary ingredients combined in imaginative ways.
However under the communist regime the only ingredients that were not rationed were pickles, vinegar, and tea.
As a child Jolanta could remember her babka (grandmother) standing in line at the shops all day long while the rest of the family was either at work or at school. For her efforts Babka was lucky to bring home a bit of pork or sausage and maybe some butter. After awhile butter disappeared from the shops; an evil tasting margarine was substituted. Tropical foods such as oranges, lemons, cinnamon, and coffee were almost impossible to obtain. Sugar and even flour were rationed and traditional Polish baking became a thing of the past.
The Soviets insisted that the Polish economy emphasize heavy industry and manufacturing. Industrial pollution poisoned land, air, and water; damaging crops, livestock, fish, and wildlife.
Most farms, like the one belonging to Lukasz’ grandfather, were taken over by the state. The regime dictated the use of chemicals and pesticides which was contrary to the Polish way. Much of the bounty from Polish farms was sent to the Soviet Union.
Following the collapse of the communist regime in 1989, Poland began to reclaim her culinary heritage.
One Sunday after Mass at Kosciol Mariacki (St. Mary’s Basilica) the couple strolled along the Planty Gardens. They admired the fish jumping in the Wisla River and the skylarks soaring overhead.
“Lukasz,” cried Jolanta. “How wonderful it is that we no longer live under Soviet rule. We are free to live, and speak, worship, and eat as we please!”
As they walked by the medieval buildings on Florianska Street, Jolanta noticed a new storefront.
“Lukasz, what are those strange looking doors—the ones with a red stripe?”
Lukasz had taken a course in the history of architecture at Jagiellonian University. “They do not resemble any style with which I am familiar.”
The couple entered the building. Inside the shop, people were seated at flimsy tables, drinking kawa from Styrofoam cups, and eating something resembling stale bulka (rolls).
“It smells dreadful in here,” exclaimed Jolanta. “The way factories did during the communist era. Surely it cannot be the food itself that smells so bad.”
As they walked out Jolanta turned to look at the entrance again. “Those yellow ‘M’s’ above the red stripes. Lukasz, they look like----‘golden arches’.”
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