Culinary heritage of Krakow
Krakow’s long history is also a history of culinary innovation. Despite the post-war population mixing, the long-standing policy of cultural homogenisation and subsequent globalisation, the capital of Malopolska has preserved its tasty traditions, the most important symbol of which is probably still the obwarzanek. Krakow is also home to an unprecedented accumulation of restaurants, a lively street food culture and markets. Let’s find out what makes up its culinary identity!
City of bread
Krakow stands for bread. Obwarzanki, pretzels, bagels and prądnicki bread are undoubtedly some of the city’s most vibrant and widespread traditions. At the head of this floury procession is undoubtedly the obwarzanek, entered in the EU register of Protected Geographical Indication in 2010 as a traditional snack of Krakow and its surroundings. Walking around the city, you are bound to recognise the distinctive blue trolleys with this handmade delicacy, sold accompanied by thinner, crunchy pretzels.
The dough for an obwarzanek is formed from sulek – finger-thick rolls, interlaced between each other and shaped into a distinctive circle. A key moment comes later, when, after rising, the dough is placed for a moment in a hot bath of water – i.e. the obwarzania (parboiling), which gave its name to the final product. It is then that obwarzanki sprinkled with poppy seeds, sesame seeds or salt usually find their way onto the streets of Kraków. The origins of obwarzanek date back to the Middle Ages; it first appeared in writing as “obrzanek” in the accounts of the court of Władysław Jagiełło and Queen Jadwiga at the end of the 14th century.
Kazimierz, the former Jewish quarter is the land of bagels. Thanks to Jewish emigrants from Poland, this cheap street treat conquered the New World in the 20th century, becoming one of the most popular breakfast snacks in the USA and Canada. The Lender family, originally from Lublin, were the first to introduce bagels to the average American family, but Krakow also played a part in making the halved and cheese-coated bagel a recognisable international dish.
Kukiełki are round or oblong rolls of sweet dough that have been alive in Krakow’s culture since the 15th century. Over the years, guild organisations have strictly adhered to the permitted bread ingredients and their proportions. A very interesting example of the revival of Krakow’s baking traditions is the history of the prądnicki bread. The recipe for huge, oval or round loaves of bread, weighing up to 14 kg, made with rye sourdough comes from villages on the Prądnik river, which are now parts of Krakow – Prądnik Biały and Prądnik Czerwony – and dates back to the 15th century. The river mills there once produced flour, which was used to form this bread famous for its durability. Well-baked prądnicki bread can be kept in a breadbox for months! Since 2011, it has been another of Kraków’s products registered as a Protected Geographical Indication.
Kraków’s baking traditions are closely linked to the renaissance of artisanal bakeries in the city. A pioneering role in this respect is played by Piekarnia Mojego Taty (My Dad’s Bakery) at ul. Meiselsa 6, beloved by the people of Krakow, in which an antique ceramic “Anglik” type oven has been baking bread almost non-stop for over 100 years. Other addresses worth recommending to lovers of good bakery products include the Zaczyn bakery at ul. Kościuszki 27, featured in the Gaullt & Millau Yellow Guide, as well as such places as Pochlebstwo, Świeżo Upieczona, Miejska, Handelek, Zmączeni, Breaking Bread, Nasz Chleb or Massolit Bakes.
In the world of cold cuts
Equally characteristic of Kraków are its butcher’s traditions. Their prime symbol, recognisable beyond Poland’s borders, has become the Kraków dry sausage – coarsely minced, smoked, baked and then dried for 14 days – whose brand was established in the inter-war period. Inscribed on the national list of traditional products, the sausage, like prądnicki bread, is distinguished by its long shelf life.
Kiełbasa lisiecka, on the other hand, comes from the closest vicinity of Kraków – the villages of Liszki and Czernichów. It is a high-quality smoked pork sausage seasoned with curing salt, garlic and white pepper – an indispensable piece of tableware present on almost every granny’s table in Kraków. Since 2010, it has been protected by the EU as the 13th traditional product with Protected Geographical Indication.
For fans of the unadulterated taste of Polish cold meats from Krakow, we can also recommend kiełbasa piaszczańska. This is a distinctive, heavily crumbled, dark cherry-coloured sausage which originally comes from the former village, now a district of Krakow, Piaski Wielkie. It is currently only produced in one factory in Podstolice near Krakow. This Krakow delicacy also received the EU Protected Geographical Indication certificate in 2017.
Krakow stands out from other places in Poland as a city with a truly Mediterranean café culture, but also as a place where the tradition of street food is very much alive. Its quintessence can be felt on Mały Rynek during the annual Pierogi Festival. The flour delicacy, which most likely came to Poland with the Mongolian horsemen in the Middle Ages, takes over the space of Krakow’s auxiliary market square during the summer months. At several dozen stalls there, you can try a variety of pierogi variations – from the classic pierogi with potatoes, cheese and onions (i.e. Russian dumplings) or cabbage and mushrooms to dumplings stuffed with fresh lingonberries, broad beans and chanterelles.
Maczanka krakowska is a traditional dish of Krakow’s horse-drawn carriages and a “distant sister of the burger”, which has been given a second life on the streets of Kazimierz in the 21st century. Finely minced, doused in a generous portion of sauce and sprinkled with caraway seeds, this pork chop with slices of Wrocławska bun (in Krakow: weki) may not be the stuff of choice for a sophisticated Sunday lunch with the family, but it does show how alive the city’s culinary heritage is and how varied its forms.
In the same circle of street delicacies are zapiekanki from Plac Nowy, a fast food from the People’s Republic that has won the hearts of Krakow’s evening visitors to cafés and pubs in the former Jewish quarter. A round of the culinary highlights of Krakow’s streets can be continued under the blue “Nyska” van at Hala Targowa in Grzegórzki, where at night crowds of locals and tourists await tasty roast sausages. However, these are not the only addresses for street food lovers – there is a thriving culture of food truck gardens in Krakow, the most famous of which is probably located in the square below the Judah mural in Św. Wawrzyńca street in Kazimierz.
For more street food delicacies, head to Krakow’s markets – especially Stary Kleparz.
This brief and necessarily incomplete overview of Krakow’s culinary specialities is completed by confectionery specialities. In the 19th century, Krakow was part of the multicultural empire of the Austrian Habsburgs, and Vienna became the main centre from which new trends reached Wawel. It was inspired by Viennese café culture that gave rise to the first Noworolski Café in the Sukiennice, which still exists today. Its customers were particularly fond of the Viennese apple strudel and, later, the simple chocolate cake created by Austrian confectioner Oskar Pischinger in the 1980s.
The cake, simply called pischinger in Krakow, conquered bourgeois Krakow and became an integral part of afternoon tea parties and house parties. Successive layers of the cake, based on dark chocolate and butter, are layered with wafers (in Kraków: andruts). In later variations of the cake, the chocolate filling is replaced by kajmak, and the cocoa coating is replaced by flaked almonds or coconut shavings.
European Capital of Gastronomic Culture
Today’s Krakow is a city where the catering sector plays a huge role in the local economy – a space filled with places to eat well. Historically, the Wierzynek restaurant has taken centre stage, famous for the feast held there in 1364 by King Casimir the Great, immortalised in Jan Matejko’s painting as one of the symbols of the golden age of Krakow’s history. No less recognisable is the restaurant founded in 1876 by Antoni Hawełka, located, like Wierzynek, on the Main Market Square.
In 2021, 26 Krakow restaurants were featured in the famous Michelin guide, almost twice as many places were distinguished with characteristic yellow stickers by Gaullt et Millau, and 8 recommendations were left by Slow Food Polska. Well-known chefs originate from Krakow: Adam Chrząstowski, Rafał Targosz or Marcin Filipkiewicz – awarded the title of Chef of the Future (Chef de l’Avenir) by the International Academy of Gastronomy. Marcin Sołtys (nominated as Traditional Chef of Gault & Millau 2019 Poland) and Łukasz Cichy (bronze medal of Bocuse d’Or Poland 2021) are active here. Finally, the city is home to a number of colourful markets, one of which – the suburban Parsley Market (Targ Pietruszkowy) – is a member of the prestigious Slow Food Earth Markets network.
In recognition of these culinary traditions, Krakow was awarded the title of European Capital of Gastronomic Culture in 2019. The city then organised many events, congresses, public tastings and culinary festivals.
The culinary arts are part of Krakow’s intangible heritage – a part with a weight and stature equal to that of the Lajkonik processions or the elaborate constructions of Christmas cribs. Time spent at Wawel Hill can therefore be more than just a feast for the eyes and ears. It will only be truly successful if it is also a pleasure for the palate!
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