With an abundance of sugar, spice and plenty of the other, Rosemary Barron discovers that medieval Torun is well versed in taking the biscuit.
Torun is northern Poland and the currency is the Polish zloty. Time is one hour ahead of GMT. In October, the average high temperature is 11C and the average low is 5C.
Ryanair has a route from London Stansted to Poznan-Lawica Airport (150km south-west of Torun) twice a week. http://ryanair.com
Wizz Air flies from Luton to Poznan five times a week. http://wizzair.com
Polish National Tourist Office has plenty of information on trips to Torun and the rest of the country. Contact the London office on 030 0303 1813. http://poland.travel
Torun Tourist Organisation has information on the area’s historical monuments, events, festivals, public transport and bicycle routes in the city and through the surrounding countryside and http://forest. torun.pl
The Museum in Torun Comprehensive information on the city’s museums. Visit the Under The Star House and marvel at the beautiful staircase made in 1697 from one huge tree trunk, and climb to the top of the gothic Old Town Hall tower for a bird’s-eye view of the city. A ticket includes access to Copernicus House and Torun Gingerbread. Rynek Staromiejski 1, 00 48 56 660 5612, http://muzeum.torun.pl
Founded by German knights, divided by Catholics and Protestants and captured by Swedes and Prussians: it’s fair to say Torun, in northern Poland, has a turbulent history. But this long, dark past is overshadowed by something rather sweet – pierniki (gingerbread). The city is renowned for the deeply aromatic biscuit that’s been made here since the 14th century. And appropriately for a place steeped in such history and intrigue, its origin depends on who is telling the story. Some say an apprentice baker made a beautifully shaped cookie as a declaration of love for his master’s daughter, Catherine, while others believe it was created in a panic from ingredients to hand in order to impress an unexpected visiting dignitary. One thing, however, is certain: pierniki Torunskie have been praised by everyone from Chopin and Napoleon to Pope John Paul II.
While gingerbread’s English name is derived from its distinctive flavour, its Polish name means ‘hot and spicy’ due to the large amount of pepper traditionally used in its spice mixture. The quantities of the other spices – cinnamon, cloves, dried ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, aniseed, allspice and dried coriander – depend on the cook, and today’s commercial pierniki-makers keep theirs a closely guarded secret. Over the centuries, recipes for gingerbread – made as a loaf-type cake or into cookies – have varied. The oldest known recipe from 1725 in the Compendium Medicum Auctum book is rich with honey (‘take comb honey, use as much as you want’) and flavoured with lemon peel as well as the classic spices. Later, 19th-century recipes sometimes included turmeric, mace, orange peel or almonds.
In medieval Europe, Torun was a thriving port on the River Vistula and an important link in German, Dutch and other trade routes. Spices from the recently discovered East Indies and India were highly valued due to their ability to preserve (pepper) and to alleviate some of the common ailments of the damp and cold (ginger, cinnamon, cloves). They enticed cooks and doctors alike with their warm perfumes and exotic flavours.
The fertile Vistula valley is perfectly suited to growing rye and wheat for flour, and the surrounding forests provided honey and firewood for bakers’ ovens. Today, each cook has their own way of making gingerbread, although few take the six weeks that was once required or use a carved wooden trough for making the dough. Many still include one or more of the techniques that has produced such an iconic taste: spices are carefully measured and ground and thick; rich honey is expertly sourced.
Those captivating gingerbread flavours can be found in Torun’s restaurants. In the light and friendly dining room of Szeroka No.9, owner Malgorzata Pucko’s menu recreates her love of well-prepared food. ‘I want everyone to taste the fine flavours that we have here,’ she explains as we enjoy herrings in cream sauce, flavoursome pork chop with roasted black pudding, and gingerbread covered with plum sauce.
Regional food is also served up on the tables of U Kucharzy, on Torun’s main square. Built in the 15th century, the inn and tavern is a microcosm of the world that has passed through the city. It has played host to European nobility, well-to- do merchants, Russian tsar Peter the Great, renowned Polish artists and writers, and the medieval province’s intelligence service.
Today, the restaurant’s is an ideal place to people-watch as you explore the subtle flavours of wodka and seasonal foods prepared in a style reminiscent of old Poland: mushroom soup with lightly spiced goose stock, goose fillet with apples and raisins, czernina (duck blood soup), preserved pork with cabbage, and offal in dill and cream sauce.
A few minutes’ walk away, on the terrace of Hotel Bulwar, a 19th-century building that once housed the Prussian army and later Poland’s first naval academy, restaurant director Anna Urbanska tells me: ‘We have some very good food here, including a special goose – plump, white and noisy – that is celebrated with its own festival each November.’
Our dish of goose stomach with mushroom and honeyed beetroot is indeed delicious and enhanced by the contrasting textures. Anna continues: ‘We buy locally as much as possible and have built relationships with our producers. It hasn’t always been easy because restaurants such as ours need consistency but we’re persevering because we believe it’s the right thing to do. I go to the market for many of the other ingredients we need.’
Torun’s daily produce market, close to the administrative offices of Pomerania and Kuyava (the name of this region), is clean, local and a good place to learn a few words of Polish.
Anna takes me past stalls heaped with fresh and dried herbs and others selling honey, groats, nuts and dried beans and fruits. Vegetables are earthy and appetising: bunches of soil-coated carrots and beetroots with leaves (young leaves are used in soup), knobbly parsley, turnips, kohlrabi, cabbages, piles of bunched radishes and the season’s first white asparagus. ‘I buy my carrots here as the juice I make from them tastes fresh for several days, unlike shop-bought juice which deteriorates within hours. And if I run out of my own tomato juice, this is where I buy it,’ she says, pointing to a nearby stall selling bottles of organic juice.
The smaller Wolny Jarmark Torunski (Slow Food market) takes place fortnightly in the grounds of Torun’s impressive castle. One stallholder, who sells sow thistle syrup and pumpkin jam, tells me he moved from Spain to a 7ha farm in the Vistula meadowlands because he can source food from his childhood that he can no longer easily find at home. Another stallholder, Jan Filipski, is having no difficulty selling his home-reared goose, lamb, mixed-meat sausages (‘smoked over oak or any type of hard-wood tree that has leaves, not needles’), tender smoked rumps of pork, lamb tenderloins and duck breasts. Filipski also farms in the verdant Vistula valley, following his father who moved out of the city 70 years earlier.
Producer Waclaw Wasielewicz also smokes sausages over oak but his are dark, soft and made from goat meat. ‘I make them for friends and family and sell any surplus here,’ he tells me, before pointing to bottles of wine, ‘and this is made from sea buckthorn. The fruits are small, about the size of blackcurrants, and very soft, so I can only pick them when they’re frozen. I wait for the temperature to reach -15C – usually around the first week in January – wear a thick glove and pull the hard, frozen fruits off the thorny branches.’ Wasielewicz then adds sugar and water and ferments it for six weeks. Its full, rich flavour is a surprising revelation, as is his birch and wild strawberry wine.
Other stalls stock cheeses, chutneys, jams and cakes, and one sells the perfect accompaniments to Polish vodka: smoked catfish, river trout and eel from the River Brda, a tributary of the Vistula.
A short walk from the castle, baker Jaroslaw Grochowalski starts work behind his small shop, Piekarnia, at 10pm each day. He lifts the heavy lid of a deep chest and breaks off a piece of starter dough. ‘It’s somewhere between 40 to 60 years old,’ he tells me. ‘Pull it apart and breathe in deeply – it’s very good if you have a cold.’ He then adds the dough to carefully measured flour in a large vat and leaves it for 36-48 hours to grow. At baking time, Grochowalski puts the loaves into a low, humid oven then transfers them to a hotter one to create a good crust and texture. ‘These loaves last for days but I don’t know exactly how long as everyone eats them before I can find out,’ he says.
Torun is also the birthplace of Nicolaus Copernicus (born 1473), the astronomer who identified that the planets revolve around the Sun, not the Earth. It’s easy to imagine him walking along the atmospheric cobbled streets, past the elegant four-storey brick houses with their magnificent wooden beams and staircases, and most enjoyable to think he would have been given gifts of elaborate gingerbread. It’s even more fun to learn how to make gingerbread and other regional dishes.
On the day I visit Agnieszka Michalowska’s cookery school, Studio A Culinary Academy, instructor Joanna Tosik has picked a bunch of young stinging nettles to make soup and sourced some elderflower vinegar from a nearby producer. As she sifts flour and spices into thick local honey and stirs raisins, walnuts, hazelnuts, butter, eggs and an untraditional but very effective shot of vodka into the gingerbread mixture to make a modern rendition of this old-world delight, I marvel at the foods and flavours that are still alive in this medieval city and no doubt will be for centuries to come.
Where to Stay
Bulwar Hotel Stylish family owned boutique hotel and restaurant overlooking the River Vistula. The light, comfortable rooms have an attractive minimalist design. Doubles from £61, including breakfast. ul. Bulwar Filadelfijski 18, 00 48 56 623 9400, http://hotelbulwar.pl
Copernicus Spacious and modern hotel a short stroll from the old town. Doubles from £70, including breakfast. ul. Bulwar Filadelfijski 11, 00 48 56 611 5700, http://copernicustorunhotel.com
Where to Eat
Hotel Bulwar The welcoming dining room and terrace are ideal spots to try chef Rafal Jurkiewicz’s goose with red cabbage, noodles and plum sauce or duck with cranberries and apple. For a local flavour, order the Kuyavian sour rye soup and finish with ice cream and hot cherries. From £14. ul. Bulwar Filadelfijski 18, 00 48 56 623 9426, http://hotelbulwar.pl
Jan Olbracht Brewery Close to the old town square, this microbrewery is set in a 15th-century building. Enjoy the Olbracht pils with its distinctive hop aroma, or dark, slightly sweet piernikowe piwo (gingerbread beer) with sausages and cucumber pickle. Chef Marcin Drazkowski’s dishes include homemade bread with goose fat, roasted duck, goose-stuffed dumplings and pear steamed in gingerbread beer. From £10, beer from £1.50 for 500ml. Szczytna St 15, 00 48 79 790 3333, http://browar-olbracht.pl
Lenkiewicz Lively and popular ice cream parlour with a large terrace. There’s more than 20 flavours to try, including grapefruit, pistachio, hazelnut and fig, blackcurrant and, of course, piernik. ul. Wielkie Garbary 14, 00 48 53 490 9004, lenkiewicz.net
Restaurant Sfera Order award-winning chef Sebastian Krauzowicz’s imaginative and innovative dishes of salmon with lightly pickled horseradish and dill sauce, goose broth with chanterelles, duck breast with vodka, and beef cheeks with pears. From £16. Copernicus Hotel, ul. Bulwar Filadelfijski 11, 00 48 56 611 5759, restauracjasfera.com
Roze i Zen Historic building with a delightful courtyard. Owner Joanna Borowicz is inspired by her visiting artists and writers. Acclaimed chef Dariusz Zajac prepares marinated herring with mustard seed, chicken livers in buckwheat honey with blueberries and beetroot juice, meat dumplings in broth, and piglet with pearl barley, mushrooms and radish. Don’t leave without trying the cheesecake. From £8, or from £3 for cake and coffee. Podmurna 18, 00 48 56 621 0521
Szeroka No.9 Breakfast dishes include scrambled eggs with mushroom or Polish veal sausage; for lunch or dinner it’s beetroot leaf soup, rabbit and apple with cream sauce or duck with cranberry sauce and, to accompany your meal, the very Polish drink, zubrowka (bison grass vodka). Menus are seasonal and tempting. From £14, or from £4 for breakfast. Szeroka St 9, 00 48 56 622 8424, szeroka9.pl
U Flisaka Local flavours in a charming 16th-century building. There’s mushroom soup in a rich stock with fermented cabbage and noodles, marinated smoked goose salad with cranberry sauce, and blackcurrant mousse on gingerbread with blackcurrant sauce. From £8, with a glass of vodka. Zeglarska 25, 00 48 79 911 1063, uflisaka.com.pl
U Kucharzy Chef Stawomir Opalka’s cooking is steeped in Polish food culture: fermented cabbage soup, steak tartare, lamb in rich stock. Seasonal menus use locally sourced ingredients. From £14, or £6 for lunch. Rynek Staromiejski St 21, 00 48 73 381 2671, gessler.torun.pl
Don't missCopernicus House Exhibition of the work, home, education and family background of Nicolaus Copernicus, a physician, administrator and politician, as well as the scientist who determined that the Earth was not the centre of the universe. Entry £2 (free on Wednesdays). Kopernika St 15/17, 00 48 56 660 5612, http://muzeum.torun.pl The Living Museum of Gingerbread Experience a reconstruction of gingerbread-making in medieval times and take home a little pierniczek that you have shaped and baked. Entry £2. ul. Rabianska 9, 00 48 56 663 6617, http://muzeumpiernika.pl Museum of Torun Gingerbread Former family owned 19th-century gingerbread factory, opened as a musuem in 2015. Exhibits include photographs and machinery from the 19th and 20th centuries, and a carved glass window of a gingerbread shop (Schutzmarke). Entry £2. Strumykowa 4, 00 48 56 656 7087, http://muzeum.torun.pl Studio A Culinary Academy Half-day, full-day and week-long cookery courses in a well-equipped, spacious studio with English-speaking instructors. Learn how to create the flavours of Polish cuisine with a modern touch in small hands-on classes, and enjoy the fruits of your labour afterwards at a sit-down meal. Groups welcome. ul. Lelewela 33, 00 48 50 617 7366, http://akademia.cooking
- Barszcz : Borscht or beetroot soup, traditionally made with naturally fermented beetroot juice and vegetable or meat stock, and sometimes thickened with sour cream
- Bigos: Country meat stew made with fermented cabbage, preserved meats, mushrooms and onions, served with rye bread
- Czernina : Duck blood soup. Made from duck blood and clear broth, soured with vinegar and served with noodles or dumplings
- Golabki: Cabbage rolls filled with rice and meat
- Kielbasa: Sausages and a staple in Polish food. Made mostly from pork but also of beef and other meats, they can be fresh, air-dried or smoked and vary by region
- Kotlet schabowy : Breaded pork chop cut from the tenderloin, usually served up with potato dumplings
- Krowka : Literally ‘small cow’. Boiled milk and sugar sweet, sometimes paper-wrapped and given as a small gift
- Miod pitny: Mead. Traditional and popular alcoholic drink made from honey, often diluted with fruit juice
- Piernik, pierniczek : Gingerbread, ‘little gingerbreads’. Made at home throughout the year but especially at Christmas. Cookies are of varying shapes and sizes, sometimes decoratively iced or coated in chocolate, and often given as gifts. When hard-baked, they are turned into breadcrumbs for a topping
- Pierogi : Dumplings with a variety of fillings, including meat, fermented cabbage and mushroom, blueberries or sweet cheese. Often served with melted butter, sour cream or fried onion
- Sernik: Polish cheesecake made with fresh cheese (twarog) Sliwowica Distilled plum brandy. Traditionally made in Lack in southern Poland and usually about 70 per cent ABV
- Wodka : Vodka, Poland’s national drink
- Zubrowka: Bison grass vodka. Herb-flavoured dry vodka named for the bison that eat the grass which colours and flavours the drink. Bison were once common in Poland but can now only be found in the national park near the Belarus border. Good paired with apple pie or mixed with apple juice (tatanka). Can also be served over vanilla ice cream
This article was published on 11th October 2016 so certain details may not be up to date.