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Saturday June 22, 2013

New Pole position

<b>Salad bowl:</b> Farmer Piotr Rutkowski, who grows organic vegetables, checks out the lettuce at his farm in Maciejowice, Poland. Salad bowl: Farmer Piotr Rutkowski, who grows organic vegetables, checks out the lettuce at his farm in Maciejowice, Poland.

Polish cuisine sheds Soviet-era blandness, fast food.

AFTER years of communist-era shortages, then a craze for Western fast food, Polish cuisine is undergoing a revival thanks to quality local ingredients and a modern twist on traditional fare.

Leading the renaissance is Atelier Amaro, a Warsaw eatery that won Poland’s first Michelin star in March for using “local produce to create innovative cuisine and original combinations”.

Tucked away in a wooded area by the capital’s modern art centre, the 32-seater began serving up modern takes on Polish specialities in September 2011.

With no fixed menu, the dishes change with the season and feature such inspired ingredients as bison grass, burnt oak oil, wild rose petals, and nettle – a stinging plant common to Poland.

Sample recipes include “pearmain in nettle syrup, cotton candy with ginger and cinnamon, nettle sorbet” and “chilled mirabelle plum soup with vanilla, hazelnut emulsion, lemon verbena leaves”.

The emphasis according to owner-chef Wojciech Modest Amaro is on natural ingredients, preferably Polish.

The 41-year-old electronics expert and political scientist learnt to cook while living in England.

He then honed his skills at elBulli, Spain’s now shuttered Michelin three-star restaurant, before opening up his own place.

“We want to put Poland on the culinary map of the world ... serving Polish cuisine updated and improved by my husband,” his wife Agnieszka Amaro said.

Polish cuisine was once rich with Italian, German, Jewish, and even Armenian influences, but communism stripped it of its variety, leaving it with a reputation of being simple and bland.

“For 50 years, really only around a dozen staple ingredients were available,” Amaro said, referring to the chronic shortages under communism, when even toilet paper and bread were scarce.

“So we learnt to cook very simple dishes like pierogi and breaded pork chops, which ironically are not part of traditional Polish cuisine,” he said.

“After the fall of communism, Poles quickly grew richer and adopted a Western lifestyle, fast food included, and it’s only recently that they’ve begun to respect local products.”

Amaro is determined to revolutionise the national cuisine by reaching out to small farms that operate the traditional way: no pesticides, preservatives or additives.

Poland is “rich in natural food: we are the world’s fifth producer of wild herbs and flowers, we’re the land of mushrooms and game thanks to our forests,” Amaro said, pointing to the country’s mountains and lakes, as well as its Baltic Sea shore.

Before opening his restaurant, Amaro clocked 60,000km driving around the country seeking out farmers like Piotr and Maryla Rutkowski in the central village of Maciejowice.

They started out selling a few kinds of lettuce 15 years ago, and now the 40-somethings also grow herbs, cucumbers, strawberries, tomatoes, cauliflower, squash and zucchini on their 2.5ha of land.

“The demand for vegetables grown the traditional way is continually on the rise, especially among young people, to the point that sometimes we run out of product,” Maryla Rutkowski said.

In the hip Warsaw neighbourhood Saska Kepa, one enthusiast of the Slow Food movement – which promotes natural ingredients in contrast to fast food – started the Le Targ farmer’s market, one of six in the city.

Stocked with produce from all over Poland, the market is one of four to crop up in Warsaw in the last year, reflecting “a niche that keeps on growing“, founder Zuzana Groniowska said.

With 30 or so stands, the market features vegetables, honey, yoghurts, bread and charcuterie and draws shoppers from all over the city.

Sylwia Kolbug, a retiree in her 70s, said the taste of the fare evokes her childhood, “a time when food wasn’t chock-full of chemicals”.

Amaro, who dreams of opening restaurants in Berlin and New York, predicts bright days ahead for Polish food.

“The Michelin star shows that we have all the elements needed to create a great Polish cuisine that can be exported around the world.” – AFP

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