Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Eating cheaply and well in Warsaw

I wrote a couple of years ago about the Polish phenomenon of the Bar Mleczny - which is neither a bar nor does it specialise in dairy products - but rather is a subsidised eatery offering basic Polish menus and very reasonable prices. This week I visited two. The first, a bar mleczny on ul. Czerniakowska, named, with hipsterish disdain for artifice, Bar Mleczny na Czerniakowskiej. This was a real find. One bus stop south (and a short walk) from the British Embassy, it's not exactly enticing from the outside. But inside it is trendy in a stripped-down sort of way - and the food is awesome. I ordered chicken livers stewed in onion, with buckwheat and spring cabbage. Oh it was so good. I took the bus home in a state of bliss. The liver had the consistency of a cream cheese, the zasmażana spring cabbage was a total delight, parboiled, then lightly fried in butter and flour (zasmażka = roux) with skwarki. Pyszności, Panie!

Unprepossessing, isn't it? But within lie culinary delights.
The following day, a visit to the legendary Prasowy, a bar mleczny at the lower end of Marszałkowska. Opened in 1954, it served printers and journalists from local publishing houses. It was closed in 2011 because the City of Warsaw, which owns the building, sensed it could make more money renting it out to a wealthier tenant. Anarchist squatters then moved in and started cooking and serving food themselves, raising the profile of the old Prasowy. Goaded into action, the city hall reinstated Prasowy and it reopened shortly after our office moved from nearby Al. Szucha to Marszałkowska.

Larger, busier and serving a trendier clientele than the bar mleczny on Czerniakowska, the menu was similar; again I went for the chicken livers and buckwheat, though at five pm, they had run out of all vegetables. My chicken livers were not served as hot as on Czerniakowska, although they were every bit as tender. At this advanced hour, ordering some freshly made pierogi was a better bet, despite the wait. A portion of pierogi cost six złotys, an extra złoty for them to come smothered in skwarki.

Dine as Varsovians dine - at a bar mleczny.
The price is the best part of it. For a main course, expect to pay around 12 to 15 złotys - around two to three quid. The tomato soup is 50p. No alcohol is served - this is mainly a lunchtime rather than evening eating concept. Queue to order and pay for your meal, then hang around the serving hatch until it is served. Menus and prices chalked on the wall.

Seven hundred meals a day served here.
Because the bary mleczne are subsidised by the Ministry of Finance, what they serve is regulated by law (in this case the Regulation of the Minister of Finance from the day of 30 March 2015 year, in the case of objective subsidies for meals sold in milk bars). As you will see from this ordinance, there are 95 ingredients which can be subsidised. Item 83 is table salt, which was missing from the previous iteration of this law, which meant that food had to be cooked salt-free. Read more about Poland's bary mleczne on this informative Wikipedia page.

Incidentally, you may have caught some alarming headlines on the front pages of Polish newspapers of late about deaths caused by barszcz Sosnowskiego. I immediately made a mental note a) not to buy any soups from this manufacturer or b) eat at any of Sosnowski's restaurants.

Turns out that this story has nothing to do with Poland's popular beetroot soup; barszcz Sosnowskiego is actually giant hogweed, a particularly nasty plant that can kill. Heracleum mantegazzianum grew along the banks of the River Brent, close to where I lived in London for many years - a nasty three-metre high umbellifer which is highly toxic when in contact with human skin.

This time last year:
In which I foretell the MH17 tragedy a day before it happened

This time three years ago:
Who should pay for railways?
[A good question to pose would-be politicians]

This time five years ago:
Grunwald - the big picture

This time seven years ago:
"Take me right back to the track, Jack"

This time eight years ago:
The summer sublime

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