food

Bienvenue en France

I’ve taken years of French courses, and each year, there is inevitably a lesson titled, “on va au marché!” In this vocabulary lesson, you learn the names of fruits, how to ask for two kilos of tomatoes, and indicate what kind of meat you wish to buy. The lesson always includes a section on the different types of French stores: the boucherie, for different meats, the fromagerie, for cheeses, or the pâtisserie, for pastries. I’ve studied this lesson many times, memorized the vocabulary, and done silly role playing exercises, where we pretend we are in a French market.

And yet, here I am in Grenoble, France, standing in front of an actual French cheese vendor, completely blanking on the word for “slice”. Umm… a pile of cheese? “Un petit peu”? Enough for two sandwiches, s’il vous plaît?

Eventually, he gets my meaning, and I get my cheese- two tranches de chèvre, fresh and fluffy. The vendor smiles knowingly at me, and I think he’s happy that I’m making an effort. I slink away, repeating to myself, “une tranche… tranche… tranche de fromage”.

A real, bona fide French market. How beautiful! Exactly as French as I pictured it.

I am lucky to be welcomed in Grenoble by Patrick, a Lawrence University alumni who, despite never having met me before, showed me around the city for the weekend. I happen to arrive during the city’s big festival, La Fête des Tuiles. The festival is named for the famous protest in Grenoble, when citizens took roof tiles, or tuiles, off their own houses and threw them at the marching parade of the army. This was one of the starts of the French Revolution. Today, we celebrate their rebellion with food and music. What better way to honor the revolutionaries?

It’s been a few years since I was in a French speaking country, but the language is starting to come back to me. After a few drinks at la Fête des Tuiles, I find my tongue loosening, fitting better into those French vowels and the dreaded French “r”. If only I could adapt as easily to the accent as I have to the wine.

La Fete des Tuiles, à Grenoble!

Though I spent many months in Sénégal, a francophone country, it’s fun to finally be in France too. I spent years in French courses, reading books and small cultural anecdotes about this country. Now I’m here, taking the TGV and seeing that, truly, a large percentage of people have a baguette in their bag at any given time. I’m excited to finally see this country for myself, to talk to the people here, to learn this accent and this slang.

But let’s be honest- I’m really just here for the cheese. And now that I can proficiently order what I want, let the culinary exploration begin. Une tranche de fromage, s’il vous plaît!

Sunday, Patrick and friends and I visit a nearby lake. Finally, finally, I was able to find an excuse to use the useless vocabulary word I had been carrying around for years: how to say “windsurfing” in French. “Beaucoup de monde fait de la planche à voile ici, non?”

Advertisements

Island Peculiarities

Though I have been traveling for a while, I have not yet forgotten my home, my natural habitat- the flat, corn-filled plains of the American Midwest. As my travels continue on, and the end of my trip is in my sight, I think about home often.

It is harder to be further away from my home climate than the Adriatic island of Korčula, with white stony beaches and rolling hills filled with olive groves. Yet by my second visit to a stunning beach, I found myself thinking, “well, ok, I could get used to this.”

It was not difficult to adapt to this climate.

Korčula is one of a string of islands along the Dalmatian coast, with a long and eventful history. For thousands of years, a series of peoples, from the Illyrians to the Romans to the Byzantines, then to Slavic peoples and Venetian rulers and others in between, called the island home. Today, as part of Croatia, the relatively densely populated island is an increasingly busy hub along the Dalmatian coast.

The long habitation on the island is obvious. One of the most visible old technologies is the dry stone walls that line many roads and form hillside terraces all over the island. These stones have been dug up from the island’s topsoil for thousands of years, and they serve a dual purpose. Firstly, the farmers needed to remove the stones from the soil to grow their crops. And secondly, the walls that form terraced fields help keep the invaluable island topsoil from washing into the sea. The same rock was used to build old houses and sheds.

Korčula is rocky. The beaches are covered with white rock, coarse limestone and dolomite, instead of fine sand. All over Maja’s land, this rock sticks out of the earth, and at certain points the top soil is only a few inches deep. The formation of the island has even made fresh water reservoirs historically unreliable, and sea water intrusion into aquifers remains a threat today. Until fresh water started being pumped in from the mainland in the late 20th century, water was difficult to use for agriculture. Even today, little of the farmland on Korcula is irrigated.

Emily and Reece walking Cleo through a small village, where we stopped to eat our lunch. Notice the stones used to build these old buildings, some of which are still in use.

The view of the peninsula town of Korcula, on the island of Korcula. The white stone gives the town its distinct aesthetic.

All of these factors affect Korčula’s agriculture. When I think about my own home, the “breadbasket” of the United States, it becomes more and more apparent how well suited it is for massive industrialized agriculture. With relatively thick top soil, flat prairie land, a low population density, and an abundance of fresh water, the soil was fertile for the miles and miles of intensive grain and corn farming that spread today.

On an island like Korčula, that sort of industrialized agriculture is simply not possible. The landscape will not allow it. Small plots of land are broken up by rocky outcrops, and most of the land contains various sized boulders. Small, old villages are scattered throughout the farmland. And an island ecosystem is no place for intensive crop production; the topsoil does not regenerate as fast. Instead, small commercial farms are kept small, and the crops grown remain limited.

These environmental factors, among the certainly complicated cultural and political systems, influence the type of agriculture found on Korčula today. As I try to make sense of what I find in my own home, and what I find elsewhere, the history of these systems becomes more important to me. Nothing, especially food, exists in a vacuum.

Reece, Emily and I eat our lunch under a fig tree. Notice the uneven, terraced ground, and the stone walls that divide the levels. This is one of the reasons that industrialized agriculture does not work on this island. (p.s. Sorry Emily, but you had this face in most photos)

Cuisine, everywhere, is inextricably linked to its environment, but island cuisine is even more particular. In the times before hourly ferries and cheap island supermarkets, most people ate almost entirely what was available on this 280 square kilometer (110 square mile) stretch of land.

This meant that Korčula’s cuisine has relied on a few staples that are still very present on the island today. Fish and other seafood, of course, was the main protein. Without enough room for big animals like cows or pigs, the only common domesticated mammal was a donkey, which was used for transport.

Grapes and olives grew all over the island, but the farmers today will tell you that there are many microclimates on the island that are difficult to guess. Some plot will grow the best white wine grapes you’ve ever tasted, and half a kilometer away the grapes will fail. Nonetheless, wine making and olives remain integral to the island. These plants grow well in the rocky soil.

One day, Maja asked us if we wanted to eat the classic comfort food of Korčula, like her grandparents used to eat. The dish is a mix of semi mashed potatoes, a sort of chard, and olive oil and salt. Though it could not be simpler, it also could not be more delicious. It shares the appeal of macaroni and cheese for many Americans- it is warm, filling, and you want to cuddle up and take a nap after eating it. This dish is also made entirely with ingredients from the island: the potatoes are grown and stored, the chard is foraged, and the olive oil is pressed from the olive crop. Comfort food, à la Korčula island.

A salad featuring olives and octopus, absolutely fresh and delicious!

A local vinyard. Croatian wine is delicious, and some of the liquors that they make from that wine are even better

The last night on the island, we celebrate the birthday of Reece, one of the other workers. This celebration involves a beautiful fish dinner and too many glasses of a fennel based liquor, but the night was certainly memorable. We shared grilled fish, steamed and fried vegetables, and olives and local cheese. Nothing could have been a more appropriate goodbye, and nothing could have been more like the island of Korčula: good food, good liquor, and good company, all overlooking the beautiful sea.

I had to end my post about Croatia with one of my favorite pictures- the beautiful Cleo, who is the color of Croatia, looking at me on our last beach visit. Reece is in the background. No more beautiful place to say goodbye!

Thorns in Croatia

I was lost, listless, after my visit with my mother. Where to go next, on this big continent? What soil to search out; what food to eat, what climate to sweat in?

Whenever I’ve been at a crossroads on this trip, some wayward breeze pushes me in a new direction. An American friend named Emily, who had worked on Iulia’s WWOOF farm with me in Romania, emailed me to catch up. She was in Croatia, helping a Croatian woman named Maja start work on some newly-acquired land. She told me I should come, and without hesitation, I bought my ticket. Soon, I was in a tiny apartment in Split, Croatia, with Emily, Maja, and two crazy dogs. Everything smelled like a combination of coffee and essential oils.

These wayward breezes always lead me somewhere interesting.

I arrived in Korcula from a ferry, and this was my first view of the island. Unreal!

Maja owns the beginning of an organic cosmetics empire in Croatia. She makes all of the cosmetics herself, toying with the recipes to produce what she herself would use. Her face creams, lotions, oils, soaps, and cleansers are infused with different herbs and plants. All of them contain only natural ingredients; in Maja’s words, “you can eat them. They probably won’t taste good, but you could eat them”. Her first shop is a successful establishment on the island of Korčula, selling to the hordes of mainland and yachting tourists.

I have immense respect for those who own well-run small businesses (Pom and U also come to mind). As Emily and I spent a few days helping Maja open for the summer season, I was continually surprised at how much Maja could accomplish in a day. Even when it looked impossible, she would somehow find a way to surprise everyone. In her own words, “before I opened my own business, I was a baby. Then, I had to become a witch”. When the final responsibility lies with Maja, she develops a sometimes haphazard but superhuman productivity. I loved watching her work in her store. Her success lies somewhere between her good product, and her personal ability to convince you that you’ve been searching for it your entire life.

Maja is also one of the rare types that is always looking ahead, to guarantee the health of her business. She saw an opportunity to diversify her business, and she took it. This is why Emily, an herbal expert, and I, someone who likes to dig in the dirt, were in Croatia: Maja had bought some land.

Maja and I, getting a drink in town before dinner. This woman gave me more good life advice than I know what to do with.

The plot that Maja had bought had previously been a young olive orchard. But the many “micro climates” on diverse islands like Korcula doomed the finicky olive trees, and the land was left fallow. Fallow lands grows surprises.

We planned a few things for “the land”, as we called it. First, Maja wanted to be growing her own herbs for her cosmetics. St John’s Wort and rosemary,  two of the herbs she used, were already growing wild on the land, but she wanted more focused cultivation of all of the herbs she used. Maja also wanted to grow fruits and vegetables for herself, using principles of permaculture. Finally, with the leftover space, she planned to create a “glamour camping” site. With Korčula becoming a bigger and bigger tourist destination, unique accommodation, like a camping site tucked away in the middle of the island, is a good investment. With all this in mind, I was excited to see the land and start working.

But the first time we visited the land, I couldn’t look at or think about anything but the blackberry wall. A former compost pile had given birth to a wild blackberry thicket as big as many houses, blocking a large part of the front piece of the land. They grew bigger every day it grew warmer, and we wanted to remove them as soon as possible to start bigger reshaping of the land.

Emily is walking through the center part of the land. To the left, there are piles of cut blackberries.

Emily, again, covered up and chopping blackberries. She did it in shorts- highly unadvisable, unless you have cold salt water to swim in after working.

For anyone who has never had the experience of untangling wild blackberry branches, I highly recommend it. You’ll need clothes you don’t mind being torn apart by thorns, a machete to hack through the top layers, a rake to haul away the spiny branches, and a heavy duty hoe for the extensive root system. If you have any appointments, cancel them. This will take longer than expected. Make sure you are well rested and fed, to be able to concentrate on the mess without chopping a finger off or sticking yourself in the eye with a thorn (on second thought maybe protective eyegear is also advised). And finally, only work with people you trust. When tools and long branches of thorns are being thrown around, you want to make sure you are working with good people.

A week of solid work, and many thorn-inspired curse words later, we had completed the biggest section. The first and most urgent task was finished, for now. The rest of the work could begin.

After we celebrated with an afternoon at the beach, of course.

Cleo, Maja’s dog, waits for me to come out of the water. We are at one of my favorite beaches, taking a swim break and having a picnic on the stony shore. (Photo credit: Reece)

There is something very special about helping start a farm. You know that a lot of your work is going to be seen as a milestone, as “the first _____”. And nothing could be better than watching Maja plant her first plant.

At the beginning of the season, Maja was very busy at her store, and we had the independence to set our own agenda and work hours. Clearing the invasive blackberries and generally cleaning the land took up most of our time, but with the approaching end of our time in Korčula, we wanted to finish one last project: the first garden bed.

Emily, Reece, an Australian, and I worked hard, finishing the garden bed on one of the last days. We hoed up a section of the bed, layered different organic materials and compost, and built a stone wall to enclose it. Excited to start filling the bed, we brought a few transplants to the land, and with Maja, we planted. We all took a moment to celebrate- our first plants on this land, our first attempt to farm here.

Though, undoubtedly, Maja’s land and goals will change as she moves along and learns, I still love celebrating milestones like these. They are important, to keep you motivated and looking ahead. As I watched Maja smile, her hands in the soil and probably already planning her next project, I smiled too. I felt to so lucky to be drawn here for these few weeks, to see the development of the land. I felt utterly content.

I looked down and spy a small blackberry plant, next to my sandal.

The work never finishes.

Maja, planting her first transplant in the new bed.

All of us, after we finished the first bed. We are tired but happy, content to have finished this big project. Cleo looks happiest of all.

Beer in my Blood

My great grandparents immigrated to the United States from Europe just after WWI. As a third generation American, I am not very connected to my roots. I never knew my great grandparents, and our family retains little of their culture, apart from a few stories.

I was nonetheless excited to visit the Czech Republic with my mother, as she is half Czech, and I, therefore, am a quarter Czech. One pair of my great grandparents immigrated from Northern Bohemia, now the border between Poland and Czech Republic. Almost a century later, my mother and I are visiting for the first time.

This is how I discover that beer is in my blood.

I could publish an entire photo essay of pictures of my mother drinking Czech beer. We tried every one we could find. (bonus, in this picture, if you can read who I was writing a postcard to!)

My beautiful mother, and a beautiful beer.

I spent my formative drinking years young adult life in Wisconsin, where good beer is as easy to find as good cheese. For all those who have not visited a Wisconsin grocery store, the beer section and dairy section, combined, are easily half of the entire store space. With the exception of a magnificent beer festival in Poland, on this trip I have mostly encountered weak industrial lagers. I have been missing the vibrant and creative American craft brewing scene, with complex flavors and crisp finishes.

But in the Czech Republic, there is an abundance of good beer. Czechs drink more beer than anyone else in the world, about 40 gallons, or 150 liters, per person per year. (It works out to about an American-sized bottle of beer a day for everyone. You know what they say, a bottle a day keeps the doctor away!) “Liquid bread” sustained people before reliable, potable water. And today, potable water aside, it is still beer that sustains the Czech.

My mother and I started our trip in Český Krumlov, an old town centered around a large castle in southern Bohemia. With a Rick Steves (the demigod for Americans traveling in Europe) book in hand, we explored the busy restaurant scene. While many restaurants served delicious food, we were preoccupied with the beer, trying a different brand every meal. My mother, always organized, even jotted down the names of each one and our impressions. We devised a star system for rating different beers, giving Pilsner Urquell and Budvar Budweiser the highest number of stars. (For my American friends, no, it is not the same Budweiser. After a long trademark fight with Anheuser-Busch, the Czech Budweiser changed its name to Czechvar in the states. In return, American Budweiser here is marketed as “Bud”. The two beers differ greatly in quality.)

After leaving the beautiful Český Krumlov, we headed to Prague. With beautiful weather and the ice hockey championship on in every bar in the city, my mother and I found plenty of reasons to sit outside and try new Czech beers. But no matter how good the beer was, we never drank on an empty stomach.

Knedliky- dumplings, roast pork, potatoes, and cabbage. This dish is about as Czech as you can get.

Czech food complements Czech beer. In general, Czech food is heavy on meat, potatoes, bread, and cabbage, like in many surrounding countries. A classic meal like knedliky, or dumplings, for example, would be served with gravy, roasted pork, and cabbage. It is a heavy but substantial meal, perfect for fueling long nights of Budweiser. If you want to drink like a Czech, you must eat like a Czech.

The Two Marys, a wonderful restaurant in Český Krumlov, takes “traditional cuisine” even further. The owners, having conducted a lot of research into what ancient Bohemians actually ate in the Middle Ages, aim to replicate ancestral diets. There, the more recent bread and potatoes was replaced by older cereals, like millet. Our meal also included beautifully steamed trout and cabbage, lightly spiced and delicious.

Traveling with my mom, sharing these two weeks together, was a lovely séjour in my trip. As we dug into our meal at The Two Marys, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was also similar to the diet of my great, great grandparents. Did they too raise a glass of beer, toasting to family, and yet another delicious meal?

I like to think so. If not, I do it in their honor. Cheers!

My mother, excitedly receiving her plate of ol’ Bohemian food at the Two Marys. I felt like a Bohemian king, eating such delicious food while overlooking the castle and the river. Na zdravi!

A Spicy, Fatty, Delicious Visit

When my mother and I met up in Budapest, Hungary, the first thing we did was walk to a nearby cafe. We hadn’t seen each other in seven months, since I had started traveling, and we were excited to catch up. We sat across from each other in a beautiful courtyard cafe, chatting about my mom’s long flight from Chicago and our plans for the next two weeks. The afternoon flew by as we slowly ordered coffee, then food, and finally finished with some Hungarian wines. Our server never hurried us out of our seat or rushed us; plenty of people here spend an afternoon at the local cafe.

There is no better beginning to a Europe trip than a slow afternoon in a leafy cafe.  Europe’s “cafe culture”, comparable to the cafe scene in Vietnam, encourages relaxation and long conversations. The late 19th century was a golden age for Budapest and its many cafes. However, the city suffered the destruction of the world wars, which was followed by four decades of communism. Cafes, like many civil society institutions, suffered under communist leaders. Cafes are places where dissent can breed, so many were closed down or replaced with stand up, quick espresso counters.

But today, thankfully, slow cafe culture is thriving again in Budapest. Cafes line every street, full of friends and partners gossiping around empty espresso cups. Cafes flourish here in the gentler, warmer months, and cafe owners even try to lengthen the season by offering blankets and heat lamps. Cafes are a place for people watching and relationship building, a place to fuel the average European’s espresso addiction. Cafes are where couples meet, where ideas are born, and where a country’s real business is done. And for my mother and me, these cafes were a place for many enjoyable hours of catching up.

My mother and I, reunited, sharing a delicious meal in a Hungarian cafe upon her arrival. She looks more happy than jetlagged!

A view of Pest, from the other side of the river Danube. The cityscape is lovely, even on a cloudy day.

Budapest is actually made up of two cities. Hilly and quiet Buda lies in the west, and commercial Pest in the east; the Danube river separates them. The city is located on top of some thermal springs, which fill the many hot baths (“Pest” comes from the Slavic word meaning “oven”). This old capital of part of the Austro-Hungarian empire is full of different architectural styles, though most date after 1838 (the year of an incredibly destructive flood).

Hungarians pride themselves on being unique among the surrounding Slavic countries. Hungarians are descendents of a migrant Asian people, the Magyar. Their language shows their lineage, being distinctly different from its neighbors and notoriously difficult to learn. Hungary is also a melting pot in central Europe, historically influenced by neighboring Slavs, Aryans, Turks, and many others. All of these factors combine to form a uniquely Hungarian culture, and of course, Hungarian cuisine.

Though I do love the meat, potatoes, and bread based diet that sustains much of eastern and central Europe, I was excited to visit Hungary for the one thing I’ve been missing: spice. Thailand had stoked my love for spicy food (though it is quite doubtful that I’ll ever be able to eat “Thai spicy”). And since I had started traveling in Europe, I had missed spice- the kind of spice that encourages crying regularly during meals, or gulping down the nearest liquid to calm down the fire on my tongue.

But in Hungary, I found spice, because paprika is everywhere. When Hungarians say paprika, they can refer to two things: the red or green peppers, or the powder made from them. In addition, there are two main types of paprika, sweet and hot. The sweet variety are used during cooking, to add flavor and a beautiful red color to a dish. Particularly in the tourist places, the hot paprika is served on the side, powdered, pickled, chopped, or otherwise. Each person can adjust the individual heat of a dish. Paprika- pickled, roasted, stuffed, stewed, chopped, or used for color- can be found in most Hungarian dishes.

Walking around the (albeit, touristic) Central Market Hall in Budapest, I scan for peppers. I spot peppers dried, fresh, pickled, powered, and nicely packaged for tourists to take home. There are peppers in key chain form, printed on bags, and made into plush toys. Paprika is a national symbol, and Hungarians are certainly proud of it. And I could not be more excited: I have found spice, finally, in Hungary.

A sampling of paprika, served on the side of our meal. There is dried, pureed, and chopped pepper.

A view of a market hall, where locals do their shopping on the bottom floor, and tourists browse souvenirs on the second floor.

A market stall where my mother and I bought fresh strawberries. I couldn’t help but notice the garlands of peppers!

Dishes never seem to stay within borders, and as I travel around eastern and central Europe, I continue to discover many linking threads. However, as with most things in Hungary, the cuisine is slightly different from its neighbors.

For example, goulash (gulyás in Hungarian) can be found in many different counties in central Europe. However, whereas in places like the Czech Republic the goulash is a thick stew (that usually leaves me wanting to roll out of the restaurant), in Hungary it is a thin broth soup. The meat, potatoes, and other vegetables are spiced but fresh, making it a delicious meal on a cool day.

Another uniquely Hungarian dish, one I have yet to see anywhere else, is meggy leves, or cold fruit soup. While this cream based, rich soup would be considered a dessert by most, it is actually eaten before the meal (when my mother and I ordered it, we thought that there must have been a mistake, until we were informed that it was normal). This soup is usually made with sour cherries, and it is unbelievably rich and delicious.

We also try the delicious nokedli, boiled egg noodles, which strongly resemble German spätzle. It is frequently served with káposzta, similar to sauerkraut. However, these dishes are usually spiced with hot paprika, making them truly Hungarian.

My mother and I share a cold fruit soup, made from sour cherries. In the middle is dry chocolate cake, making this pre-main course soup almost a meal in itself!

Hungarians are wine lovers. They have grown grapes since the Roman era, and in the years up to WWII, Hungarian wine had an excellent reputation. However, under communism and collectivization, the vineyards suffered, and the quality of wine declined.

Today, Hungarian wine is popular again, domestically. The industry has not yet grown enough to be widely exported, so my mother and I took the opportunity to try a new Hungarian wine with most meals. As two wine lovers, we agreed: we never had a bad glass. I’m sure that Hungary’s reputation will only grow as the industry recovers and the vineyards return to their former glory.

But as my mother and I found out after our first traditional meal in a Hungarian restaurant, Hungarians don’t just drink wine. At the end of our meal, the server brought us small glasses of pálinka. Pálinka is a powerful schnapps made from different fruits, similar to liquors found in Romania and Bulgaria. Another strong bitter liquor, unicum, is a bitter liquor made from dozens of different herbs, aged in oak casks. As digestifs, these liqueurs are a great cap to the meal, guaranteed to make you leave the restaurant in a good mood.

One of my other favorite fermented things was the sheer amount of good, spicy pickles. The lady that makes these can be seen in the background of this photo. She didn’t speak any English, but tried to explain things to us anyway- look at those big blue bins, they are full of pickling vegetables!

I tried my first Hungarian food in Warsaw, Poland, weeks before I visited Hungary. I had spent the night trying new beers at the Warsaw Beer Festival, chatting with friends and walking around the stadium. Late in the night, my friends and I checked out the food trucks, hungry for something to soak up the beer in our stomachs

I spotted lángos, a Hungarian specialty. It is a simple dough that is deep fried,  usually rubbed with garlic and covered with sour cream and cheese. Predictably, all this fat, dairy, and bread was delicious. After an introduction like that, I was very excited to visit Hungary.

Once there, between the cafes, two strong liquors, Hungarian wine, and spicy but delicious cuisine, Hungary charmed my mother and me. Like someone warned me in Romania, “the best Hungarian food will make you fat, but very happy!”

Pierogis are Stuffed with Messages

When you travel to a different country as a foreigner, how do you learn about its people, its history, and its values? For most of my travel, I have worked on farms owned by locals. I was able to explore questions about countries by talking to local people, seeing the way that they lived, and learning from them. I was able to sit at their table and share a meal with them.

However, I am currently taking a hiatus from working on farms, and instead simply being a tourist in the cities that I’ve always wanted to visit. I am staying in hostels, meeting other travelers, going on walking tours and visiting museums. But, as I’ve tried to explore these countries as a tourist, I have found it more difficult to witness the everyday life of local people. Tourist districts may include walkable streets and English menus, but the opportunities for meeting people from the area are more limited. The question for me is, how do I learn about a country, if I’ve never sat down for a meal with a family from that country?

Well, obviously, I still start with food.

One of the largest markets in Wroclaw. Here, there were still a few small family style eateries for cheap, delicious Polish lunches.

I have always believed that some of the most important messages that we say are sent through food. Whether it’s the (albeit disputed) origin of the phrase “to give the cold shoulder”, or the warm welcome of a hot plate waiting for you at home after a journey, we use food as a form of communication. There is information, history, and meaning carried in food.

So when I arrive in a new city or country on this trip, I look to the food to learn. In Poland, especially, I used networks like couch surfing and food tours to learn about the local cuisine. Here are a few of the messages that I saw in Polish food.

Pierogis

The most iconic Polish food, fried or boiled dumplings with various fillings, can say a lot. Their preparation is very time intensive, from the effort to roll the dough to the careful stuffing each one. The most basic pierogis contain just potatoes and flavorings, and others can contain any mix of meats and cheeses. There are succulent pierogis stuffed with sweet cheese and fruits, and I have even seen pierogis stuffed with smaller pierogis (that was a tourist trap). There are types of pierogis appropriate for weddings, and different ones for funerals. And truly, no one makes them better than a grandmother. Whatever the occasion, a hearty pierogi sends a comforting message.

The best pierogis in Krakow! Made by, of course, a Polish grandmother.

Pierogis and goulas, the perfect lunch!

Vodka, pickles, and fish

There is a saying in Poland, “fish like to swim”. Though this phrase may sound obvious, it has a subtler meaning: herring, a popular bar snack, is best eaten with a shot of vodka. That fish likes to swim in vodka. And according to some Polish people, there are other foods that like to swim in vodka: pickles. That’s right, after a delicious vodka shot, many people like to bite into a juicy pickle.

While these combinations may sound strange to American university students used to other chasers to vodka, there is reason behind this tradition. Both herring and pickles are supposed to keep away hangovers, and allow you to drink more without becoming sick.

However, to all my other weak-blooded American friends, no matter how many pickles you may eat, I urge you to never try to keep up with an Eastern European when it comes to drinking liquor.

Vodka and pickles. While I may never search out this combination again, it was certainly interesting to try.

Raw beef tartar, with a raw egg on top. While this dish may not be native to Poland, they usually add a distinct ingredient: pickles!

Soup

My favorite Polish food, beyond any doubt, is barszcz, a beetroot soup. Its acid taste traditionally comes from leaving it to naturally sour, but today it is sometimes replicated with lemon juice or vinegar. The white barszcz (biaty), is soured with fermented wheat flour, and the amaying zurek contains sour rye flour. All of these soups, if made traditionally, contain healthy bacteria for your stomach. These sour elements come from the days when many things were pickled and fermented to save them.

The ultimate hearty soup, bigos, or hunter’s stew, comes from that tradition. This soup is made with many different meats, saurkraut, and fresh cabbage and mushrooms. The mixture can be stewed for hours, or days, without going bad, and it keeps for a long time. It is the symbol of the hearty countryside food.

Today, in Poland and elsewhere, there are many migrant workers. Young people leave the country and migrate to the city. However, just like in Bulgaria and Romania, these young people still visit home often. When they travel back to the city, they are identifiable because they usually lug large jars of bigos back with them. Bigos does not go bad easily and it is a healthy meal, so it is ideal to take back home from the coutnryside. Today, in Polish, these migrant workers are now being referred to as “jars”.

A tiny taster of bigos on a food tour, which I ate again later in the day (and in my excitement, failed to photograph).

Apples

A bowl of apples may not seem like a revolutionary act, but for Poland in 2014, consuming apples turned into a political statement. When Poland expressed support for the Ukranian people against Russia’s actions in 2014, following some of the EU’s sanctions, Russia responded with a ban on Polish fruit imports. This left Poland with a 700,000 tonne surplus of apples, which were historically shipped to Russia’s enormous market.

In response, some celebrities and activists in Poland tried to start a campaign: eat Polish apples to annoy Putin. Celebrities photographed themselves with apples, restaurants tried to buy what they could and give them away with meals, and cidear consumption tripled. While this may not have been enough to fully aid the struggling orchardists, it certainly brought attention to the issue. There has never been a more delicious political message.

While I don’t have any pictures of Polish apples, this hot Polish donut had apple filling. Was this donut political?

In Poland, I visited many museums and read many histories. These are important and valuable teachers. However, I also learned about the country from sharing everyday meals, or in asking about the history of a dish. Messages are sent in many different mediums. There is rich information stored in the things that we do everyday too, like eat food.

And, most importantly, this kind of learning is delicious.

One of the best meals I had in Poland was a sausage out of a blue van on the street, in Krakow. These two men show up every night at 8pm to roast sausages and serve them with bread. It is rumored that these sausages, along with a few fancy restaurants, are the only foods to have a Michelin star in Krakow.

The sausage king- a real teacher!

Cooked with Love

Many Slavic cultures share a common saying- you display hospitality by welcoming someone “with bread and salt”. The saying has a practical history; bread and salt have alway been the precious and daily necessities. These valuable items were presented in abundance to newlyweds, or special guests, to show welcome.

Though there were no literal bread and salt waiting for me in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, I felt as if I was being welcomed with all the warmth the city had to offer. The weather was perfect, the days were full yet relaxed, and even in my short stay I managed to meet the most wonderful people. Plovdiv is the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe, with grand public spaces and walking streets. The old ruins of a Roman amphitheater have been integrated into the city, functioning as a public park and concert space. The “old town” section of the city, with uneven and beautiful cobblestone streets, is still full of old-style houses. Plovdiv has also been designated the European Capital of Culture for 2019, which has provided investment for its cultural and architectural heritage.

While I am in Plovdiv, delightful fate intervenes, and a couchsurfing friend recognizes me in a bar. Her and her friends kindly welcome me to the city, and once again, I am struggling to leave. It seems that every place I go, I meet people who convince me to stay longer than I originally planned!

The old Roman amphitheater, which today functions as an outdoor concert hall. There were no events while I was in Plovdiv, but I hope to come back someday and party in an old amphitheater.

A high view of the main walking street in Plovdiv, taken from a friend’s fifth story apartment.

On one tour in Plovdiv, I speak to a Bulgarian woman who currently lives in Germany, back to visit her parents for Easter. When I ask her what she misses about Bulgaria, she is quick to reply. “I miss the food, the fruits, the yogurt. I feel like I can taste the sunshine in the food here, and I can’t find that anywhere else.”

I heard expat Bulgarians echo this sentiment all over Europe- there is something special in the food here. While there are plenty of cheap, basic eateries, local grocery stores still stock amazing local Bulgarian fruits, breads, and dairy products. It’s a chicken or the egg situation: Bulgarians are used to high quality ingredients, and so they demand high quality ingredients.

Young Bulgarians, who are growing more and more urban, are still tied to their families in the countryside. Young people may leave their village to study or work in the city, but they know that the best food is still back in the village. I travel to Sofia, the capital, after Plovdiv. My couchsurfing host, who has lived in Sofia for almost a decade, tells me that every time he travels home to visit his grandmother, he comes back home with jars of homemade yogurt. And if too much time passes between visits, his grandmother tells him to go to the bus station, because she has sent jars of yogurt on the bus.

These connections to the countryside are keeping people healthy, and reminding them what good food tastes like. I saw similar threads, connecting rural families and urban working professionals, in Romania. Even though young people may move from the village, they want to eat the same quality food. This changes their palates, their taste buds. They know what good food tastes like.

Sharing an amazingly diverse Bulgarian cheese plate with some friends. Wine would have been a better choice, but the hot afternoon had made everyone crave a cold beer.

Though I was in Sofia for only a few days before my departing flight, I manage to find time to take a “food tour”, Balkan Bites. We visit many local restaurants, sampling small dishes and soups. Though I love Bulgarian food, it can be difficult to categorize. In the Balkans, an area of constant conquests, trade, and influences among shifting borders, it is difficult to describe a clear history for any one dish. We try foods that can also be found in Turkey, or Italy, but with a Bulgarian twist. Again, I am reminded that food, ever-evolving, cannot be parceled into neat historical lineages or national borders.

But in Bulgarian cuisine, more important than the food’s origin, or the name, I find that I appreciate the love in the preparation. I could taste the sunshine, and the pride, in the best food that I ate in Bulgaria. As the food tour guide related, her grandmother always told her, “If the food isn’t cooked with love, it will become stuck in the throat. So you must cook with love.”

Banitsa (Баница), a filo dough pastry with layers of eggs and cheese. Absolutely delicious, when warm. After a long 12 hour train ride, this is the bread that welcomed me to Bulgaria!