Welcome to the greener, tastier life

A new frenzy is underway in Warsaw – eating out al fresco. However, it is no longer about grilled pork and sausages with beer. On the contrary: the phenomenon is about healthy, organic food, very often vegetarian.

Foto:Creative Commons/ Rrrodrigo

Visiting markets that sell organic food has become a popular Saturday pastime in Warsaw. Nearly all districts have one. The most recent ones are LeTarg in Wilanów and Breakfast Market (Targ Śniadaniowy) in Żoliborz. You can sit on the grass or at a long table and eat scrambled eggs and warm sandwiches, and buy such items as vegetables, cheeses made of sheep or goat milk, and sour-dough bread to take home Everything is made by small producers; nothing comes from supermarkets and big chains.

Although these markets are not especially cheap, each week hundreds of people, sometimes from the far ends of the city, spend many hours sitting on blankets chatting and eating, while children and dogs frolic nearby.

The big change is Polish attitudes toward food is difficult to grasp in numbers, but people who work in this field are not surprised.

“It started two years ago – from the boom of culinary blogs, crowds of people taking part in cooking workshops,” said Zuzanna Groniowska, a healthy food activist and one of organizers of Le Targ in Wilanów. “First, people became interested in what they actually eat and the interest in food resulted in a growing interest in healthy, good quality produce, preferably bought straight from the farmer.”

People prefer to buy directly from the producers, even if it costs a bit more than in a big chain shop, Groniowska said.

“If I do not have the money, I will just buy less,” she said. “But still I will buy food that I know where it comes from. Also, when the demand for healthy food grows, then the prices will also come down.”

There is reason to believe this. The weekly Polityka recently reported that the Polish organic food market is growing 20-30% per year, and one-third of Poles are willing to pay more for healthy products, at least from time to time.

At the Breakfast Market

A goose egg is almost twice as big as a duck egg. They are mixed in a big basket at Rusłan’s stall at the Breakfast Market. Eggs at the market sell out quickly, even if they are much more expensive that hen eggs. One goose egg costs 5 zloty (a bit more than a euro), while 10 hen eggs, even the strictly organic ones, cost about 10-12 zloty for 10. Still, there are many people willing to try them – even if it is just out of curiosity. After all, how often do we have a chance to taste scrambled goose eggs?

Although it seems like a good business, geese and ducks – and also hens – are not the main interest of Rusłan, a Russian pianist who settled in Poland. Together with his wife, Sylwia, he runs a farm called Ranczo Frontiera in Mazury, the lake district in Poland, where they keep sheep and cows. The cheeses they make there have won many awards and drawn media attention. Their success story is one of very hard work. Taking care of 200 animals is not easy – milking them by hand takes 2 hours at dawn.

At first, he and Sylwia had only a few sheep, just for milk for their family. But their cheeses were so praised by friends that they decided to turn it into a business. Now they make cheeses out of raw milk, without any chemicals and according to traditional recipes. In addition, they use only old Polish breeds of chicken to produce  poultry, part of an effort to preserve the old lineages.

Last year, economist  Agnieszka Sułowska quit her job and decided to change her life. “I am not from Warsaw, and since I started to live here, I could not find fresh good quality vegetables and fruit,” she said.“So I started to bring them from eco-farms in the Świętokrzyskie region, where I come from. Then friends asked me to bring some for them, and suddenly, when I saw dozen of boxes with vegetables standing in my flat, it became a business.”

“I must admit that the first winter was tough, and I was a bit scared, but now I am thinking about opening a shop in Warsaw.”

Sułowska’s business, Wolepole,  is Internet-based, selling vegetables and fruit in a way similar to the vegetable-box services popular in the West. She also sells produce such markets as the Breakfast Market. The crop comes only from certified organic farms. “I know all the producers myself, and I know what I deliver to Warsaw,”  said Sułowska. “I think that people are more and more concerned by what they eat. They are willing to pay a bit more than in a supermarket, but at the same time, as I minimize the chain of middlemen between producers and customers, it allows me to lower the prices.”  In fact, the cherries at Sułowska’s stall cost the same as they do at a traditional grocery store. And her apricots, even if they are half the size, are much sweeter and tastier than ordinary ones.

The Vegetable Bag (Paczka warzyw), a company started by Iza and Adam Rudnik, also has its roots as a response to demand from friends. Iza is a teacher, Adam is a farmer from the Nasielsk area, north of Warsaw. “First our friends, who had a baby daughter, asked us if we could sell them some healthy, chemical-free vegetables, then eggs from the countryside,” said Iza. “This is how it started, and in 2011 my husband had the idea for Paczka warzyw. It is a box service and we deliver bags of vegetables to Warsaw and Nasielsk.” Their clients tend to be young couples with small children, people 35–40 years old and those suffering from allergies. They also deliver vegetables to a Warsaw restaurant. “We do not use any chemicals and it is purely natural farming,” said Adam. “What we sell is seasonal, as we accept the natural rhythm of nature.” At their stall, tomatoes cost 8 zloty per kilo, which is more than in the supermarket, where you can get them for 5 zloty. But the smell and taste of the ones from Paczka warzyw really makes a difference. Eating even simple things when they are of such quality becomes a little feast.

Everybody wants to be a chef

The budding interest in organic and local food is a new trend, but an interest in cooking (and eating) gripped Polish minds a few years ago. Chefs and food critics have become celebrities. This year, for the first time, a Polish restaurant received a Michelin star. Interestingly enough, it was Atelier Amaro, where the menu consists of dishes made from only natural Polish ingredients, transformed in a creative and innovative way by the use of the latest techniques and scientific methods.

More popular cuisine trends are currently dictated by Magda Gessler. The restaurant owner became a TV star in 2010 when she started a program called Kitchen Revolutions, in which she visits restaurants with problems and tries to fix them (it is a Polish version of the British Kitchen Nightmares, hosted by Gordon Ramsey). According to PanMedia Western, this program is the top earner for TVN, the TV station which produces and presents it. Last year, they sold nearly 6,000 advertisements that appeared during the program. Gessler is also the host of the Polish edition of Masterchef, in which ordinary Poles try to prove they can become top chefs. The list of chefs that now appear in the media is long, and programs about cooking have very high viewership – Kitchen Revolutions reaches 3 million viewers, and the final episode of the first edition of Masterchef was watched by more than 4.7 million Poles.

The question is to what an extent watching popular TV shows influences what we do with our food. But even if only a fraction of viewers try to cook themselves, at least all of them learn that food can be interesting. That interest may lead to a change of eating habits.

I remember the early 90s, when the first fast-food restaurants opened in Poland. Back then, going for a date to McDonald’s was the fashionable thing. Or treating guests at a party with take-away food. Now it is different, and even pizzas and burgers can be made from healthy ingredients and turned into a healthy, tasty treat. Cooking at home is becoming popular. It’s even better if we can impress our guests with homegrown herbs. In the past, it would be impressive if we said that they were brought from a foreign trip to France. Now they are best if they come straight from our balcony or garden. It is positive change because of two things. First, it makes us active. Secondly, it is reflection of the growing interest in locally grown food, in local initiatives and in the places around us, in supporting local farmers and sellers. It makes the places where we live better.

Better life

When I was a little girl, I spent holidays with my grandparents in the little town of Bochnia, not far from Kraków. On Thursdays, my grandmother would take me to the local market. She usually bought cheese, butter, sour cream and vegetables. She did not waste time walking around and tasting. She knew exactly from whom she would buy cheese, and who had the best butter. The sellers also knew on which day she would be coming and they always tried to make sure that their stuff would not fall short of her expectations. This bond – and respect – between producer and customer is something that we miss nowadays.

We have no idea where potatoes or strawberries in supermarket come from. At small markets it is different, and that is why Poles have always loved them. They were permanent features in villages and small towns before the war and during the Communist era. The hard times for them came after 1989, when we became infatuated with Western products and big, big shops. Why buy potatoes from a local farmer, when we could have potatoes from Cyprus?

This was the food trend not very long ago. Now it is changing and the label “Polish” next to the prices of potatoes and other vegetables helps to sell them, not the other way around. And it is even better if we know how and by whom those potatoes were grown.

Direct sales between farmers and customers have become a new phenomenon spreading all over Poland. The box-scheme From a Farmer (Od rolnika) functions also in the south of the country, in the Kraków area. In June, an organic market called Parsely Market (Targ Pietruszkowy) opened in Kraków. This shows how much we long for a better quality of food in our busy urban lives.

Yet much needs to be done. Even if there are more and more traditional products registered on the list of the Ministry of Agriculture, their share of the food market is still only about 1%, according to Czesław Nowak from the Agricultural University in Kraków (www.smakujzycie.pl). In his opinion, this number will increase by simplifying the procedures for farmers willing to sell their products directly to consumers.

The EU is considering introducing a food label “Product from my farm,” which could replace many others. Zuzanna Groniowska also believes that it would make sense to change the law in order to make homemade products easier to sell. Despite the bureaucratic obstacles, many farmers and healthy food enthusiasts are on the road to success. The green revolution is on.

Patrycja Bukalska

Patrycja Bukalska

is editor of the V4Revue and editor of Polish weekly Tygodnik Powszechny; writes for „Green Town” („Zielone Miasto”) magazine.