Saturday 28 May 2016

Cheap to Rich: The Tasty Food of Poland

I visited Poland courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.

Something that doesn't get enough credit internationally is Polish cuisine. 

True, it's not particularly spicy, and cabbage is never far away from your plate. However, Poland's native food is diverse, flavoursome and filling, and very affordable for the average traveller. Here are a few dishes I particularly enjoyed on my recent visit.

1. Cafeteria comfort food. During the communist era, the low-budget culinary needs of the worker were filled by the bar mleczny, or milk bar. Some of these inexpensive cafeterias have survived into the 21st century, and are a great place to discover classic dishes at a low price.

I had lunch one day at Prasowy, a surviving milk bar in Warsaw. Having narrowly escaped closure a few years ago, Prasowy has now become a retro favourite with a new generation:

I ordered the vegetarian set lunch. The combination of tomato soup, vege lasagne, salad and house-made juice only cost a few dollars, and it was great:

You can find Prasowy at ul Marszałkowska 10/16, Warsaw.

2. Pancakes to order. Up the other end of the poshness index is Restaurant Gdańska in the port city of Gdańsk.

The highlight of the meal was my order of pancakes (naleśniki) for dessert. A simple dish, I thought, so was somewhat surprised when my waiter wheeled forth a trolley with all the fixings and prepared it in front of me:

The following evening I dined nearby, at Pod Łososiem (Under the Salmon). I'd always wanted to eat here, as it's the place which invented goldwasser, a liqueur flecked with gold, back in 1598. That's what I finished the meal with:

Restaurant Gdańska is found at ul Świętego Ducha 16, Gdańsk, see Pod Łososiem is situated at ul Szeroka 52/54, Gdańsk; see

3. Gothic degustation. When I visited Malbork Castle, the world's largest brick castle, I expected to eat something simple in the onsite tavern. 

However, lunch was at the Gothic Cafe & Restaurant, the base of chef Bogdan Gałązka. As a chef with international experience, he's adapted local ingredients and Polish standards to produce an eclectic array of excellent dishes. I don't know quite what you'd call it - Modern Polish? - but the results are outstanding. 

Again, dessert was the show stopper - here's the chef presenting it:

Within the birdcage was a glass containing white chocolate, sesame seeds, halva, blackcurrant sauce, and fruit. It was superb, all the flavours fresh and working together harmoniously. I don't have much of a sweet tooth, but I loved this.

The Gothic Cafe & Restaurant is within Malbork Castle, ul Starościńska 1, Malbork;

4. Tatar tastes. Later in the week I visited Kruszyniany, a tiny eastern village near the border with Belarus. It's notable for its fine old 18th century mosque, a legacy of the Muslim Tatars who were given land here by the Polish king in 1679:

The mosque still serves a community which celebrates its Tatar roots. There's also Tatar food on offer, at the nearby Tatarska Jurta restaurant. 

I had lunch there, starting with this chłodnik, a Lithuanian cold beetroot soup blended with sour cream (hence the pink); and a juice made in-house from local fruits:

The Tartar portion of the meal was this plate of kartoflaniki, dumplings filled with potato, egg, onion and parsley. You drill a little hole into each one, then pour some of the accompanying butter sauce in. Delicious and filling.

Tatarska Jurta is located at Kruszyniany 58, Krynki; see

5. Breakfast plenty. Finally, I should include at least one example of a Polish hotel's breakfast spread. Hotels in Poland - especially the three-star variety - tend to include breakfast with the room rate, and it's generally very good value for money. 

You'll find an array of meats, egg dishes, cheeses and breads, along with a few wildcard choices including herring and pasta. There'll also be cereals and sweet items such as cheesecake. It's diverse and delicious.

To give you an idea of what it looks like, here's part of the breakfast buffet at the Hotel Amax in Masuria, shot from either side:

The Hotel Amax is at Al Spacerowa 7, Mikołajki; see

If you head to Poland, try sampling its cuisine at all price levels - it's tasty stuff. Bon appetit; or as the Poles say, smacznego.

Friday 20 May 2016

Statues of Copenhagen

I paid for my accommodation in Copenhagen, and was given assistance with museum entry and public transport by Visit Denmark.

Last Sunday I was looking to kill some time before joining a walking tour of Christiania, Copenhagen's famous counter-culture neighbourhood. It was a cold, drizzly day and I didn't want to be wandering around outside until I absolutely had to.

Flicking through a list of museums, I noticed one on the route between my hotel and Christiania: the Thorvaldsen Museum.

On paper, it didn't seem that appealing: an old-fashioned museum full of the plaster models of statues created by a Danish sculptor who was resident in Rome in the early 19th century.

It turned out, however, to be something special.

For a start, its building was purpose-built for Thorvaldsen's works, bequeathed to the state after he returned to Copenhagen in retirement. Opened in 1848, it was the first ever public museum in the Danish capital.

Inspired by ancient Roman architecture, it's an elegant square building with attractive corridors and halls, something of an artwork in itself. This is what its great hall looks like:

As you can see, it's lined with full-sized models of the statues he created for clients across Europe. Although they're made of plaster rather than stone, they contain every detail of the final products, and they allow you to see all the sculptor's work in one place.

There's also a marvellous sense of immensity, if I can put it that way - emanating from all these figures at mythic size arranged next to each other:

The middle photo of the above three is Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press - if you look closely at his right hand, you'll see he's holding some pieces of type.

As for the gent on the horse, he's Józef Poniatowski, an Polish commander who fought the Russians in the late 18th century and later as part of Napoleon's forces. 

The statue has an interesting story: commissioned in 1817, by the time it was finished in 1832 the Russian tsar (then ruling Poland) blocked it from being installed in Warsaw. 

It was shuffled around the Russian Empire, spending decades in the city of Gomel, until it was finally erected in the newly independent Poland in 1922. It was then destroyed in an explosion set by the occupying Nazi German forces in 1944. 

A tragic end - except of course, the original still existed in the Thorvaldsen Museum in Copehagen. As a result, a new copy of the statue could be cast, and was donated to Poland by Denmark. In 1952, it was erected in Warsaw. It's still there today, in the courtyard of the Presidential Palace. 

Surprisingly, Poniatowski was not the only notable Pole I was to encounter in the museum. I also recognised this statue, of the famous astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus:

This statue I know well, from seeing it in the streets of Warsaw. It stands in a prominent position on the Royal Way, at the beginning of ul Krakowskie Przedmieście.

I assumed, given the fate of Poniatowski's statue, that the Copernicus statue in Warsaw must also be a modern copy.

However, though the Nazis intended to also destroy this statue, they only got as far as removing it to Silesia before they had more pressing concerns to deal with. Brought back to Warsaw, it was re-erected after the war.

Beyond this hall, there were alcoves and corridors containing smaller works with the same fine detail, and often with a dash of Thorvaldsen's sense of humour.

For example, this is Mars and Cupid, having exchanged weapons - Cupid leans on the war god's sword while Mars seems to be judging the heft of the arrow of love: 

This is Mercury, looking like he's had a refreshing drink or two:

And finally, here's Thorvaldsen's interpretation of Lord Byron in somewhat thoughtful mood:

I wonder what Byron is thinking? Perhaps something like: "To do: 1. Write poem; 2. Take new mistress; 3. Liberate Greece."

We shall never know. But Thorvaldsen's take on the great poet lives on... in Copenhagen.

The Thorvaldsen Museum is open 10am-5pm Tuesday-Sunday at 2 Bertel Thorvaldsens Plads, Copenhagen. Admission $10, see

Friday 13 May 2016

Top of the League: Lübeck's Hanseatic Museum

I'm currently in Lübeck, Germany. 

Nowadays it's an attractive small city with a beautifully preserved Old Town, the pretty little sister to big brash Hamburg. Through the Middle Ages, however, it was the de facto capital of the Hanseatic League.

You'll hear the Hanseatic League mentioned again and again when visiting cities along the Baltic coast, especially in modern-day Germany and Poland.

Before the rise of strong nation-states, the League (founded in 1356) was a loose confederation of trading cities. It developed trade across Europe from north to south and east to west, for example trading furs from Russia for foodstuffs and manufactured items from the west.

In an age when setting forth as a merchant meant a dangerous coast-hugging voyage, subject to pirates or state-sponsored raiders, the League was basically a trading association with muscle - aside from cracking down on pirates it occasionally fought armed wars, winning against kingdoms such as England and Denmark.

Its complex history, as it evolved from small allied groups of traders to an organisation with permanent trading missions across Europe, is told in detail at the European Hansemuseum which opened in 2015 within the foundations of Lübeck's original castle.

It's remarkable to realise just how much territory the Hanseatic League covered at its height:

And beyond that core region it had trading posts across Europe (you can see a few above, but they extended further south).

Past that initial map, the museum is set out as a series of separate rooms, each focusing on a different topic: the rise of towns, the sale of goods, the settlement of disputes. Although it sounds a little dry, the material is brought to life by a good deal of cleverly designed audiovisual content. Beyond text, excellent diagrams and images expand on each subject.

I was particularly interested in the big display in one room detailing the background of the Steelyard, which was the Hanseatic League's outpost in London. Missions such as this acted as enclosed communities, akin to diplomatic enclaves within the state they were trading with.

(As an aside, I did a little online digging later and discovered the Steelyard remained in the possession of the then-moribund League all the way to the mid-19th century, when it was sold to provide the site of Cannon Street railway station. The old giving way to the new!)

As the museum explains, there was a lot of technological and social change driven by the League and the increased scope of manufacturing and trade; and this was all happening centuries before the Industrial Revolution.

A nice little extra at the museum is provided courtesy of the ticket you're given upon entry, which brings up text and displays in the correct language when touched to icons next to exhibits. When setting it up, you can nominate a particular Hanseatic city of interest, along with a topic such as the life of everyday people. 

I chose Thorn as my town, which as Toruń is one of my favourite Polish cities. Periodically as I walked through the museum, I could touch the ticket to a display which told me something about Thorn that related to the theme of that room (eg the 15th century conflict over the city between the Teutonic Knights and the Kingdom of Poland).

As unsexy as the topic of trade might sound, I really enjoyed the European Hansemuseum. 

There's a tendency (at least in my mind) to assume that nothing much happened in Europe between the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. However, this museum opened my eyes to the significant changes that happened under the sway of the Hanseatic League, that shaped the world we live in today.

European Hansemuseum, An der Untertrave 1, Lübeck, Germany. Open daily, adult entry €12.50. See

Friday 6 May 2016

A Tour of Portland's Coffee Culture

Last month I had a food tour article on Fairfax Media's Good Food site about Portland, USA; where I was hosted by, the Hotel Eastlund and Travel Portland.

What was missing, for space reasons, was an account of an equally good Portland coffee tour I took the following day. Now the story continues...

On my last day in the city I join another tour, this one focusing on coffee.

It’s easy for an Australian to be dismissive of American coffee, but in Portland there is a genuine quality coffee scene, less overshadowed by Starbucks than further north in Seattle.

The Streetcar Named Delicious tour (US$40,, run by Third Wave Coffee Tours, takes advantage of Portland’s great tram system to move tour members to six inner-city outlets.

At our first café, Case Study, guide Lora warns against over-caffeination in the three hours ahead.

After an introduction to the history of coffee and its development in the USA, a hipster barista who could feature in Portlandia talks us through coffee “from body to clarity” (see above photo).

He serves us Ethiopian coffee prepared via French press, Chemex, and Kalita Wave filter, as a practical demonstration of each method.

At each succeeding café we try something different. Christopher David presents us with its café di nini, with layers of vanilla syrup, cold rice milk and espresso (see photo at left).

Sisters Coffee Co serves a Kenyan pour-over coffee prepared via the Hario V60 filter.

At Nossa Familia we have an espresso con panna with with chocolate espresso whipped cream, then step into the roastery to see green beans imported from the owners’ family farm in Brazil. 

The next stop is at the Downtown’s central food cart pod, our group huddling in light drizzle beneath the canopy of Ole Latte for a pumpkin poached orange latte (this was just before Halloween).

As there’s only one small window, cart owner Todd says he gets to know all his regulars as he serves one at a time (see photo below).

The tour concludes at Public Domain, a warm Downtown café with a timber bar and lots of natural light. Five years old, this third-wave café is now owned by roaster Coffee Bean International, itself founded locally in 1972.

The coffee we drink here, prepared by barista Amanda using a V60 filter, is decaffeinated. Thank god for that. I love coffee, but after this Portland experience there’s a risk I won’t sleep for days.

Four more Portland food highlights:

Craft Beer. Portland is a huge craft beer city, and a good way to sample the scene is via a Brewvana tour.

Portland Farmers Market. Open almost every day across the city in the warmer months, including Downtown on Mondays at Pioneer Courthouse Square.

McMenamins. Operates breweries, bars, restaurants and cinemas in an eclectic range of historic buildings.

Voodoo Doughnut. Popular creator of bizarre doughnuts, including its signature zombie version with a pretzel stake through its heart.