Poland, Vodka and Krakow

Davies Wakefield

davies wakefield | wine uncorked | feb. 2019

I was on my way to Poland in 1992 after the Soviet Union collapsed and post Berlin Wall. Lech Walesa, a shipyard worker, had just won a free election beating the Soviet puppet Wojciech Jaruzelski. I was headed to a small town near Wroclaw (Krakow). Flying on a Lufthansa Boeing 747 in business class while watching an icon of the plane projected on a small TV screen as it raced across the Atlantic Ocean at 920 kilometers per hour made me feel like the world had leaped into the future for a kid who grew up riding on trains powered by steam locomotives. Occasionally one of the pilots would walk back to chat with the passengers, and I thought they dressed and looked a lot like what German Luftwaffe pilots looked like with the sides of their captain's hats curled down. The plane was filled with businessmen, like me, all headed to the former SSRs (Soviet Socialist Republics) to buy up chemical plants, banks and other manufacturing businesses that had suddenly been freed from their Soviet commissars.

We all had the attitude that we were “masters of the universe” and could bring our skills and capitalism to Eastern Europe and turn it around. Little did I, and probably a lot of other passengers on that brand new 747, know that all our assumptions, prejudices and comfortable world views would be turned upside down when we arrived. Forty plus years of Communism had changed not only the landscape but more importantly, the minds of the Polish people.

My last touch with the modern world was in the Frankfort airport where I and my chief engineer switched to a Let 410 Czech turboprop, known for its crashes, for the trip to Wroclaw. Our trip was scheduled for February and the flight into Poland on this poorly insulated plane gave us a preview of the bitterly cold air we were headed for, as well as a look at the dystopian world of communism.

The Wroclaw airport at that time was a one runway version of fourth-world, banana republics complete with officious customs inspectors in threadbare suits and peaked caps right out of the Republic of Freedonia and with condescending attitudes. Our Polish “fixer” met us in his Polski Fiat 126p for the trip to our hotel. Szymon was fortyish with thick black hair under an old newsboy cap, his rugged Charles Bronson face inspired confidence that we wouldn't be hassled. On the trip into the city we noticed quite a few cars along the road with people dressed essentially in rags. They were Russians sellingmatryoshkanesting dolls, religious icons and meat out of the trunks of their beat-up Ladas and Trabants. These were people selling articles that would not have been out of place in medieval European open-air markets. They had driven from the nearby Russian border to participate in a market economy that they were still locked out of in Russia. Communism had sucked out all capital and capitalism out of the country and their minds for the last 40 years and the picture would get worse as we headed to the factory.

We were headed to the small town of Ŝwidnica about an hour's drive from Wroclaw. The company Wagony Ŝwidnica made railroad freight cars, but these weren't anything like railcars in the US. These cars were something out of the last century. The best example of this type would be the railcars that Jews were loaded into during WWII. They were wooden constructions with steel undercarriages. We were here to propose a joint venture to manufacture our proprietary product for the Western European construction market. But what we saw as we walked into the manufacturing facility was right out of the 19th century. The factory was open air with 10 rail tracks where heavily dressed men assembled the cars in the sub-zero temperatures. The bitterly cold wind brought to mind my reading of the history of Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812 when his army of 422,000 men was reduced to 10,000 as they trekked over the Polish border in the face of a Russian winter. The workers did their best with the antiquated tools they had to build the railcars but the scene resembled an open-air blacksmith shop more than the modern manufacturing facility I had left a week ago. I was immediately disheartened and knew that we did not have the capital to bring this plant into the 20th century.

While we were dressed very warmly, the bitter cold in the factory was freezing our toes and fingers. The general manager, Tomasz Kaskiewicz, realized this and quickly ushered us into the lunchroom where the aroma of freshly made soup hit our noses. We discussed our proposal with Tomasz and through our interpreter, Szymon, we understood that they really wanted to sell the business since it was basically worthless, we could only reply that we would present their proposal to our board of directors. With that, our host pulled out unlabeled bottles of clear liquid and poured shots of a locally made vodka. The toasts to future success were well intentioned and enthusiastic but rang hollow on our ears. It was a bittersweet end to our dreams of establishing a European partner, but the people we met at the factory had started to realize that they had to change and eventually a larger railcar manufacturer (Greenbrier) bought out the factory in 1996. As fellow manufacturing guys, Tomasz and I got along famously and I maintained correspondence with Tomasz for many years until he retired.

During the toasting, the company cook brought in a big pot of Zursoup. The aroma and heat from the soup as she ladled it out made me forget the chill of the antiquated shop. The soup had a mixture of potatoes, turnips, cabbage, polish sausages and hard-boiled eggs. The base of the soup was watery fermented rye flour that had an intriguing taste and immediately warmed us. The cook in the cafeteria tried to explain the process to me but her limited English made it difficult. I thought that they used sourdough bread to make the soup but it was the fermenting sourdough itself. The soup and vodka generously poured during the lunch warmed us up and provided a genial atmosphere and developing friendships. It was a scene I will never forget.

All the northern European countries like Sweden, Poland and Russia make a version of vodka. It is either made from potatoes or rye. The Polish people prefer rye because of its affinity for food with crisp mineral-driven acidity and peppery finish, whereas the potato vodkas are oilier. This vodka came from a distillery in Polmos Žyrardòw that was built in 1910. Polmos Žyrardòw is near Warsaw and produced a distinctive vodka that later became Belvedere vodka, a super-premium export vodka.

For this article I tasted both potato-based and rye-based vodkas and clearly liked the rye-based one better. Chopin, the Polish potato vodka was not to my liking because it had a weird mouthfeel. It was more viscous and oily and felt a bit heavy on my palate. I was intrigued with the variety of Polish food while in Wroclaw and had a liking for fried pierogis, the oily herring, pickled vegetables and garlicky sausages and I enjoyed the rye vodka better with these foods. As I have always stressed in my columns: food and wine or any fermented drink go better together. The Belvedere vodka went better with food because it had a clean, light mouthfeel with a short, hot, peppery finish that cleaned the mouth-coating fats off the tongue for the next bite. The poles drink a lot of vodka — their consumption scared the hell out of me — but they consume vodka before or during meals which speaks to the reason why rye-based vodka is so loved by the Polish people. I would agree heartily.

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