We spent the last two weeks working our way east across Europe. Stepkids had a tour that ended in Lisbon and vvitalny had a performance in Warsaw ten days later. With a little luck and some family members well-positioned for visiting, we were on our way, each step taking us deeper into our stock of warm winter weather wear.
From pastéis de belém to pretzels to pickles, here are some ¡dpm! highlights.
The Portuguese like their massa folhada, or, puff pastry. Meat in massa folhada. Multiple meats in massa folhada. Bacalhau in massa folhada. Massa folhada sprinkled with sugar. Stuffed with cheese. Fried. Even ensconcing a delicious curry lamb mixture that looks and tastes suspiciously like a samosa (called, appropriately, a chamusa). It is, apparently, the thing.
And they get creative. Take this apple: dipped in custard, wrapped in massa folhada, skewered with cinnamon and baked.
(It was interesting.)
But – scores of bakeries, sardines and sparkling vinho verde aside, the absolutely most delicious thing we encountered in Lisbon were the pastéis de belém, from Belém itself. Yes, you have to take the train. And yes, there will be a significant line. But yes, it’s oh-so-worth it.
Like the elusive freshly-baked donuts The Stepkids chase on their trips south, this otherwise commonplace pastry is transformed into a bite of heaven when its this beautifully executed and delivered hot from the oven. The famous, original, version is, truly, exceptional: tiny cups of – yes – massa folhada, flaky and caramelized, filled with a luscious golden custard scented with vanilla, and capped with an impossibly mottled crust. It’s simple in theory, but so much better than what we expected, especially given the hype.
Generically, these treats are called pastéis de nata, or, custard pastries, which is, simply, what they are. Pastéis de belém is reserved only for those baked at the Antigua Confeitaria de Belém, which opened its doors in 1837. The recipe is on lockdown – rumor has it that only three living souls actually know how these particular confections are made. And with good reason. Whatever it is they are doing behind locked kitchen doors, it’s working.
We got one a piece, sprinkled them with a bit of cinnamon and powdered sugar…
And then we went back to wait in the long line for seconds. It had to be done.
Next up was Munich,
where we made it our mission to sample pretzels, big and small:
And were somewhat dismayed to learn that our homemade pretzel attempts, while good, will never reach German standards of golden deliciousness because the secret ingredient behind a good German pretzel is… sodium hydroxide. Yes, lye. Although it’s applied in impossibly diluted amounts, we’re not sure our chemistry is up to the challenge of home use without risking poisoning our guests and ourselves. Sigh. So instead, we comforted ourselves with snacking on pretzels – multiple times a day.
We were lucky enough to be whisked away on two day trips on this visit to Munich, both rewarded with delicious eats. First, to Freising, where we dined on roasted goose with chestnuts and venison goulash with cowberry sauce at the Weihenstephan Brewery, which has been making its delicious Vitus and Dunkel since 1040. What?!
And then to Nuremberg, where we spent far too much time at the Christkindlesmarkt, snacking on sausages, Nuremberg style…
… drinking glühwein – mulled red wine to warm the bones on frigid winter evenings – and feasting on brightly-wrapped candies, chocolate-covered exotic fruits, bits of dense stollen, and lebkuchen, that spicy German better-than-gingerbread laced with candied citrus and anise.
(Unfortunately the carousel was for small children, only.)
Warsaw was cold, though not quite as cold as we’d prepared for mentally, and not snowy, unfortunately. Perhaps the sun made for more street vendors than usual, or perhaps its always like this, but we were quite taken with the tiny corner stands overflowing with brightly colored citrus, kilos of Brussels sprouts in plastic netting, knots of garlic, jars of home-marinated mushrooms in varieties we’d never seen, and pickles! Pickled peppers, pickled carrots, and enormous half-gallon tubfuls of picked cucumbers, briny and satisfyingly crunchy, for four zloty – just over $1 (!!)
It was cold enough to warrant a special trip to E. Wedel’s for a cup of hot chocolate. A bit touristy, perhaps, but unexpected in a city of new constructions, with its golden walls and heavy mahogany trim. We sat by what once was a fireplace and drank in the creamy bitter chocolate and classic milk with gusto. Possibly our favorite hot chocolate so far, although we definitely recommend splitting one between two, and you’ll need a spoon.
But truly, one of the most interesting food experiences of our ¡dpm! does life was had at the bar mleczny, or milk bar, across the street from where we were staying, on the corner of Targowa and Zabkowska. (It’s next to the infamous Bazar Rozyckiego where, apparently, in its glory days, one could get a gun and a university degree with one’s peirogis! Today, the market seems to tend towards the sparkly wedding dress trade, no less fascinating when outdoors in below-zero weather at 7am.)
Milk bars are a communist era hold-over, the name a reflection of its offerings: vegetarian, milk and other dairy-based dishes, served because meat in those days was scarce. They’re simple, cafeteria-style spots, subsidized by the state, serving cheap and filling Polish cuisine. We couldn’t think of a better place to really taste Polish cooking, and ventured in.
Um, wow. For about $5, we feasted on some delicious, if simple, dishes: zupa pomidorowa, tomato soup with noodles, Russian pierogis stuffed with sauerkraut and dusted with dill and fried pork fat (brilliant), a plateful of potato pancakes (not latkes, but akin) served with sugar, and berry compote. Healthy, made from ingredients grown or found largely in Poland, cooked up by some nice old ladies in the back kitchen – it was food that tasted like something we’d make at home. And the menu was extensive. We were extremely lucky that the cashier, from whom you order first, was able to guide us through the choices in a version of English. (Our second time around, we opted for naleśniki – crepes stuffed with mushrooms and cheese – and kotlet schabowy, a schnitzel-like dish with creamy mashed potatoes. And we had seconds of the pancakes, a Christmas-time specialty, because they were that good.)
Had the zloty and the dollar been one-to-one, we wouldn’t have blinked at a $16 tag – not for this much food for two people, and good food at that.
We went to this milk bar twice (we would have gone more had we not run out of time!) and were intrigued by the diversity of people that passed through its doors. There wasn’t just one kind of person who stopped in, and the line was always long.
Did we mention we would have gone more than twice?
Cheap, healthy food subsidized by the government? Not a soup kitchen? No unfortunate stigma of charity? Just nutritious… affordable… accessible… appetizing….food?
$5 gets you two Big Macs at McDonalds, which is neither healthy nor home-made-like. It doesn’t get you much else, either, so your dollars don’t go far in terms of getting diverse, balanced meals. We won’t go into our tirade about socialist ideals winning out over the evils of corporate food but think of the problems we could solve if …
What an idea.
“National Polish Cuisine.” Sure, it could be construed as some troubling government agenda, or it could be seen for what it is – foods that earned the label “traditional” or “national” because they’re actually the foods that folks have access to, what grows near by, what makes sense for the climate and the work. What would a milk bar in New York serve? What about in California? In Texas? In South Dakota?
Watch out. We might just open a milk bar in Brooklyn. (But we’ll need help getting some of those corn subsidies moved over to our venture first.)
Perhaps we’ll look back on our Warsaw excursion as the week we were radicalized. More likely not. But we returned to the States with much to think about, and the sweet, smoky, deeply nostalgic taste memory of roasted chestnut from corner vendors – a permanent fixture of our entire wintry Europe escapades – on our tongue.
(Maybe before we open the milk bar, we can convince some New York nut vendors to add chestnuts to their winter rotation. It’s not just a cheesy carol, after all.)