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The sign at the entrance to the Wierzynek restaurant at Rynek Główny 16 (no. 16, Grand Square) in Cracow

Among many tourist attractions in my beautiful hometown of Cracow (or Kraków, if you will), the former seat of the kings of Poland, there are two venerable establishments which pride themselves on dating back to the reign of King Casimir the Great – specifically, to the year 1364. One of them is Poland’s oldest institution of higher learning, the one where Copernicus went to college. Indeed, King Casimir obtained papal consent to open a university in Cracow in 1364. But it took him three more years to actually open the Academy of Cracow, and three years after that King Casimir died and the Academy closed for business. It was only in 1400 that King Vladislaus Jagailo and Queen Hedwig founded a new university in Cracow, which is known to this day as Jagiellonian University (and not Casimirian University). “Founded in 1364” turns out to be somewhat of a stretch.

Okay, but what does it have to do with culinary history? Nothing. That’s why we’re now going to focus on the other establishment, one which even has the year 1364 written into its logo. Here’s what you can read about it in 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, a snobbish guidebook to the world’s most overpriced hotels, restaurants and other tourist traps:

Also on the square is the historic restaurant Wierzynek, the best place to enjoy courtly European service and traditional Polish specialties. Said to be one of the oldest operating restaurants in Europe, its history goes back to 1364, when innkeeper Mikolaj Wierzynek created a banquet served on gold and silver plates for the guests of King Casimir the Great, including Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. Wierzynek restaurant has hosted every visiting head of state ever since. Experience 500 years of history at the elegant café downstairs or the venerable upstairs salon, where seasonal game, mountains trout, and mushroom-sauced delights are served amid decorative reminders of the establishment’s gloried past.
Patricia Schultz: 1,000 Places to See Before You Die: A Traveler’s Lifelist, New York: Workman Publishing, 2003, p. 300

As a child, I too was convinced that this restaurant – back then passing for the best in town, if not in all Poland (largely due to a lack of competition) – had been founded in 1364 by Mikołaj Wierzynek🔊, who must have been, therefore, Poland’s first restaurateur. My first doubts appeared later, when I read that restaurants in general are a 19th-century invention and that medieval monarchs avoided dining in taverns or inns, unless they had absolutely no choice. And together with doubts came questions: What was this banquet in Cracow about? Who took part in it and why? What kind of food was served? Who was this Wierzynek and what role did he play in the banquet? And when was the restaurant bearing his name and located on Europe’s largest city square really opened?

These are the questions I’m going to try and answer today.

A Diplomatic Summit or a Family Reunion?


A supposed portrait of Casimir the Great (2nd half of the 14th century) on a bossed keystone at the Hetman House (below one of the Wierzynek restaurant’s dining rooms) in Cracow

The only historical source that mentions the banquet at Wierzynek’s are the Annals of the Glorious Kingdom of Poland by Jan Długosz, also known by his Latinized name, Joannes Longinus. According to his account, it all began when Charles of Luxembourg, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and King of Bohemia (a kingdom roughly corresponding to the modern-day Czech Republic) was receiving envoys from Hungary and said something very offensive about King Louis of Hungary’s mom. It led, obviously, to a major diplomatic crisis. Louis, together with Duke Rudolph Habsburg of Austria (who also had his differences with the emperor and, incidentally, his father-in-law), was getting ready for war. This is when Pope Urban V decided it was enough that western Europe, recently ravaged by a pandemic of bubonic plague, was already being plunged into a bloody conflict (which would later come to be known as the Hundred Years’ War). Having rulers of the relatively stable and quickly developing central Europe at each other’s throats would be too much. Which is why he dispatched his nuncio, Peter of Volterra, to try and calm them down. The nuncio did a great job – he managed to prevent hostilities and to convince the wrangling monarchs to settle their argument through arbitration. It was agreed there would be two adjudicators: one was Duke Bolko the Small of Schweidnitz, the last sovereign ruler in Silesia and uncle of the emperor’s recently deceased third wife. The other was King Casimir of Poland, brother of the Hungarian queen mother whose honour had been besmirched.

The nuncio also engaged in matchmaking and arranged the marriage of the freshly widowed emperor with Casimir’s granddaughter, Duchess Elizabeth of Stolp, Pomerania. The wedding was held in Cracow. According to Longinus, people invited by King Casimir included – apart from the young bride (and her family) and the not-so-young groom (and his family) – King Louis of Hungary, King Sigismund of Denmark, King Peter of Cyprus, Duke Bolko the Small of Schweidnitz, Duke Otto V of Bavaria, Duke Semovit of Masovia, Duke Vladislav II of Opole, etc. The wedding reception lasted twenty days, during which barrels of wine were put out in the streets for the common folk, while the royals and lords passed their time with tournaments, dances and banquets. The festivities were overseen – again, according to Longinus – by a certain Wierzynek, “a councillor of Cracow, native of the Rhineland” and “manager of the royal treasury”. He held one of the banquets in his own home, where – in gratitude for “unspeakable benevolence” – he seated King Casimir (and not the emperor!) in the place of honour and showered him with presents that were worth more than the new empress’s dowry.[1]

Empress Elizabeth’s bust in Saint Vitus’ Cathedral in Prague (ca. 1380)

So much for Longinus. Unfortunately, historians realized long ago that much of this story is at odds with what you can read in other historical documents, especially in the Cracow cathedral chronicle, the Annals of the Holy Cross (although these contain errors too, which Longinus merely repeated) and The Capture of Alexandria, an epic poem by Guillaume de Machaut (more about which later). Neither the date, nor the purpose, nor the guestlist of the event turned out to be exactly as the chronicler claimed they were. This is how these discrepancies were summed up at the end of the 19th century by Prof. Stanisław Kutrzeba:

Clear-headed historical criticism does not fully trust Longinus, who tends to combine distinct facts, seek relationships among them where there aren’t any and embellish his account with more than just stylistic additions. No more did the beautiful story of a king’s fight for his sister’s honour and of his granddaughter’s wedding survive the scalpel of critique. Doubts, minor at first, eventually dismantled almost entirely the structure which Longinus had skillfully pieced together.
Stanisław Kutrzeba: Historya rodziny Wierzynków, in: Rocznik Krakowski, vol. II, Kraków: Wydawnictwo Towarzystwa Miłośników Historyi i Zabytków Krakowa, 1899, p. 53, own translation

Original text:
Trzeźwa krytyka historyczna nie bardzo wierzy Długoszowi, który nieraz wiąże ze sobą fakty odrębne, szuka między nimi związku, choć go nie było, wreszcie upiększa i ozdabia opowiadanie nie tylko stylistycznymi dodatkami. Tak i ten piękny obraz walki o sławę siostry i zaślubin wnuki królewskiej nie ostał się przed skalpelem krytyki. Drobne początkowo wątpliwości doprowadziły do tego, iż prawie na szczątki rozbito gmach sklejony sztucznie przez Długosza.

As it happens, the great Cracovian chronicler, writing a century after the actual events, combined at least three separate meetings of central European monarchs which took place in Cracow in the years 1363–1364 into one big congress. First there was the imperial wedding of May 1363. Louis wasn’t there as he hadn’t yet reconciled with the emperor, nor had the kings of Denmark and Cyprus any reason to attend. The bride’s and the groom’s families were certainly there, so we can presume the presence of some people not mentioned in the sources, such as the emperor’s brother John Henry, Margrave of Moravia, or Casimir of Stolp, the bride’s brother and King Casimir’s favourite grandson.

In December of the same year Bolko the Small arrived in Cracow, so that he and King Casimir could finally adjudicate on the dispute between Charles and Louis. It’s possible that King Valdemar IV of Denmark (not Sigismund, as Longinus writes) was in town at the same time on unrelated business.

Finally, in September 1364, Emperor Charles and King Louis convened in Cracow to reconcile and swear friendship to each other, as mandated by Casimir and Bolko’s arbitration. This was a purely political gathering, not a family event, so most likely without women. Other participants may have included dukes of Austria, as parties to the dispute, other aforementioned dukes and – quite coincidentally – King Peter of Cyprus.

A panorama (from the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle) of the Wawel Castle, the city of Cracow and its suburbs, including the town of Kazimierz, founded and named after King Casimir the Great

Let’s take a closer look at this somewhat exotic ruler. The Kingdom of Cyprus was established after crusaders led by King Richard the Lionheart had conquered the Christian, but strategically located, island. From then on, it was ruled by Catholic kings of the French house of Lusignan. Most of the time they were warring against the equally Catholic city of Genoa, but for PR reasons they promoted the need to fight the Arabs and the Turks. And so, in 1362, King Peter set out on a tour of Europe to gather volunteers and money for a new crusade against the infidels. He travelled through Italy, France, what is now Belgium, England and Germany. He collected quite a sum of money, but the he was robbed and had to start again from scratch. Eventually he got to Prague, where the emperor proposed to take him to a big get-together of monarchs in Cracow, where he was just getting ready to go and where Peter could propagandize his idea for a crusade.

Years later Guillaume de Machaut would sing of King Peter’s peregrination, as well as the eventual crusade against Egypt, in The Capture of Alexandria. According to de Machaut’s account, Charles and Peter leaved Prague on horseback, entering Silesia (a region between Bohemia and Poland) after three days, then passed a number of Silesian and Polish towns (some of which couldn’t possibly be on their itinerary, so it looks like the poet just listed the place names he happened to know) and finally reaching Cracow, where they were greeted by other monarchs with much rejoicing. During the congress, the monarchs politely lent their ears to Peter’s pleas and then supported his crusading efforts by letting him win the main prize in a tournament.

The Bourgeois Nobleman

Mikołaj Wierzynek Junior according to an anonymous lithographer (1831)

As for Wierzynek, Longinus gives us only his surname. A merchant family of this name, one of Cracow’s most affluent and influential, used to live in the city for centuries. Its progenitor, Mikołaj Wierzynek, arrived in Cracow from the Rhineland, or what is now western Germany, at the beginning of the 14th century. And of course his name wasn’t really Mikołaj Wierzynek, but Nikolaus Wirsing; it was only years later that his descendants Polonized the German surname to Wierzynek. He served as member of the city council of Cracow and later as a mayor of the nearby salt-mining town of Wieliczka. He was even named Pantler of Sandomierz, but it doesn’t mean he was actually responsible for the royal pantry whenever the king was in that city; it had already become a purely titular office, although a prestigious one and reserved for the nobility. So how did a Rhenish merchant become a Polish nobleman? We don’t know for sure, but there were basically three options to achieve this status: ennoblement, naturalization and imposture. Whichever it was, Wirsing was certainly a man of means who enjoyed a high level of the king’s trust – in other words, an ideal candidate for organizing a great banquet designed to wow the emperor and other monarchs, and to glorify Casimir the Great’s kingdom, which was just making its debut as a serious player on the international stage.

There’s only one but: Pantler Nikolaus Wirsing died in 1360, that is, 3–4 years before the banquet. So if it hadn’t been him who threw the most famous party of medieval Poland, then it must have been one of his family members. His family grew quickly after he had settled in Cracow, but, out of a number of Wirsings residing in Cracow in 1364, historians have been able to identify one who could have been responsible for the feast; it was the pantler’s son, Nikolaus Wirsing Junior, who, like his father, served as a Cracow councillor and, unlike his father, isn’t known to have accomplished much else. Hence the conclusion that Junior held the banquet, perhaps in his own house, but did so in his official capacity as a representative of the city and spending money from the city’s budget.[2]

It’s commonly accepted that Wirsing’s banquet took place during the third of the meetings mentioned above – the one of September 1364. This one took the top spot in the number-of-crowned-heads-in-one-place category, which surely stirred people’s imagination. But if sources confuse this summit with the imperial wedding of May 1363, then you can imagine just as well that Wirsing’s feast was part of the multi-day wedding festivities. Especially if you remember that Longinus compared the value of Wirsing’s gifts for Casimir to that of the bride’s dowry. Although, after all, if Wirsing had done such a good job as a wedding reception manager, than why couldn’t he repeat his own success during the political summit a year and a half later? Perhaps there was more than just one “banquet at Wierzynek’s”?

Tourist-Gastronomic Establishment

It wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century that the first restaurants began to open in Cracow. Some of them have had their ups and downs, but still operate under the same names and at the same addresses as over a hundred years ago. Hawełka, Wentzl, the hotel restaurants at Pod Różą, Pollera, Grand…

This is how Jan Matejko, in 1877, imagined guests arriving at the banquet at Wierzynek’s – on the opposite side of the Grand Square to where the restaurant bearing his name is now located.

What about Wierzynek? Well, the history of this establishment dates back all the way to… 1947. This is when Kazimierz Książek opened the restaurant in the Morsztyn House at no. 16, Grand Square (Rynek Główny 16). It’s said that it was from Dr. Jerzy Dobrzycki, head of the Cracow History Museum, that he got the idea to name the restaurant “Pod Wierzynkiem” (“At Wierzynek’s”).[3] Did Książek open his business in the same house where Wirsing had held the famous banquet, as he wanted his patrons to believe? Nobody knows for sure; it’s generally assumed that the feast took place in one of the houses on the Grand Square, but Nikolaus Wirsing Junior owned real estate in various parts of Cracow and it’s hard to guess which of his many properties he entertained the visiting monarchs in.[4] Książek may have picked the Morsztyn House not for sentimental reasons, but because it had (supposedly) already housed a German-only restaurant during the Nazi German occupation.[5]

Unfortunately for Kazimierz Książek, the Communist regime was already beginning to solidify its grip on Polish economy. Between 1948 and 1951 (different sources give different dates) the restaurant was nationalized and rechartered as the Wierzynek State Tourist-Gastronomic Establishment. You might think that an ennobled patrician wouldn’t have been an ideologically appropriate namesake for a state-owned eatery in a people’s republic. Yet, in this case (as in many others), nationalism had the upper hand over socialism. For the Nazi Germans, Nikolaus Wirsing was German enough to let them rename Senate Street (ulica Senacka) in Cracow’s Old Town to Wirsing Street (Wirsingstraße).[6] And if Nazi occupiers had claimed this historical figure as their own, then it was time to reclaim him for the Polish culture as Mikołaj Wierzynek (along with Mikołaj Kopernik and other German-speaking Polish subjects).

In Cold-War-era Poland, the Wierzynek restaurant was synonymous with Old Polish grandeur. This was where the few hard-currency tourists were directed to when they asked for the best restaurant in town and where international delegations were invited to sample what fine dining meant this side of the Iron Curtain. As Edward Szot, the restaurant’s long-time manager, reminisced, the Kennedys came here to enjoy beef escalopes, George H.W. Bush polished off a haunch of venison and a pork-loin roulade, and Fidel Castro was regaled with export-grade chocolate. One of the most troublesome patrons of this establishment, known for its selection of game and other meats, was Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru – a vegetarian![7]

Wierzynek restaurant advertisement from the 1960s

In the 1980s, Wierzynek declined from Communist Poland’s shop window to Communist Poland in a nutshell; beyond a decrepit façade, the restaurant was busier cooking books than food, with the management habitually turning a blind eye to widespread theft and graft. In the following decade, Poland was no longer Communist, but little changed at Wierzynek, which continued to be state-owned. Employees sold their own unrecorded merchandise, managers destroyed financial documentation and prosecutors failed to investigate it all properly. In the end, in 2002, only the restaurant’s director, officially identified as Stanisław K., was sentenced to two years of probation for criminal mismanagement.[8]

Meanwhile, in 2000, the Wierzynek Tourist-Gastronomic Establishment was finally privatized. Mr. Janusz Filipiak, founder of the Cracow-based software house Comarch and one of the richest people in Poland, decided that inviting his wife to dinner was too cliché and why not buy her the whole restaurant instead?[9][10] And so Mrs. Elżbieta Filipiak and her daughter began their work on restoring Wierzynek to its former glory, in keeping with their own vision of medieval cuisine.

In the Wierzynek menu, as on medieval tables, reigns the golden roast duck, quail eggs, barrel-cured herrings and steaming-hot sour ryemeal soup with rabbit stock, served alongside smoked ribs. There is juniper-scented wild-boar ham, Mikołaj Wierzynek plum brandy and Casimir the Great vodka. This is how I imagine the menu composed by the Cracow councillor’s chefs and this is what I serve.
— Elżbieta Filipiak as quoted in: Kachel Katarzyna: Lustrowanie Wierzynka, in: Dziennik Polski, Kraków: Polska Press, 24 September 2012

Original text:
W menu wierzynkowym, niczym na średniowiecznych stołach, złoci się kaczka, goszczą jaja przepiórcze, jawią się śledzie z beczki czy paruje żur na króliku, podawany z ziobrem wędzonym. Jest szynka z dzika, która pachnie jałowcem, śliwowica Mikołaja Wierzynka i wódka Koronna Kazimierza Wielkiego. Tak wyobrażam sobie menu, które układali kucharze krakowskiego rajcy i takie podaję.

Right next door they also opened an Italian restaurant, a sushi joint, a steakhouse and a chocolate shop – just anything to keep abreast of Cracow’s rapidly expanding gastronomic offer. As for Wierzynek itself, it remains one of the city’s many decent eateries (although not among the 25 places in Cracow that have made it into the Michelin Guide) and certainly one of the most expensive.

Pike in the Polish style

Let’s return to Wirsing’s original feast and try to answer the most interesting question: what was there served to eat? Longinus didn’t write much about the menu, except that there was plenty of everything.

It was him [Wierzynek, a councillor of Cracow] who, on King Casimir of Poland’s orders, demonstrated during these days such magnificence, opulence and liberality while hosting all the kings, princes, lords and any guests and strangers who had arrived by invitation or out of their own desire, that not only was food offered in generous amounts, but anything anyone asked for out of need or habit was provided to him in abundance.
— Jan Długosz, op. cit., own translation

Original text:
Qui [Wÿerzinek consul Cracowiensis] Kazimiro Polonie rege iubente, tantam regibus, princibus, baronibus et quibuslibet hospitibus et advenis, tam invitatis quam suapte venientibus monstravit in procurando illos diebus magnificenciam, opulenciam et liberalitatem, ut singulis non solum victualia largissima et expense preberentur, sed etiam que cuiusque postulasset privata necessitas vel usus, in abundancia ultro largirentur.
Ioannis Dlugossi: Annales seu Cronicae incliti Regni Poloniae, vol. 9, Varsavia: Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1978, p. 319–320

The Cracow cathedral chronicle, which Longinus based his account on, goes even further in its praise of Wirsing’s munificence (even if it doesn’t mention Wirsing or Wierzynek by name).

It is impossible to describe how joyful, magnificent, glorious and abundant this feast was, except by saying that all were given more than they had wished for.
— Cracow cathedral chronicle (1380s), quoted in: Grodecki, op. cit.; own translation

Original text:
Huic convivio quanta laetitia, magnificentia, gloria et habundantia fuit, describit non potest, nisi quia dabatur omnibus plus quam volebant.
Monumenta Poloniæ Historica, vol. II, Lwów: August Bielowski, 1872, p. 634

This must be one of the earliest descriptions of what is now considered an important part of traditional Polish hospitality, that is, forcing more food and drink down one’s guests’ throats than they are able to ingest. I can almost hear Wirsing and King Casimir urge their commensals with “You should try this one too! Just a little piece. But you must! Aren’t you gonna drink with me?”

Later descriptions of the banquet often stress the lavishness of golden and silver tableware, which is probably how some historians have interpreted the mentions of expensive gifts that were presented to the visiting monarchs. This may have been influenced by analogy to a chronicler’s account of another famous banquet from Poland’s medieval history – the one in Gniezno, AD 1000, where Duke Boleslav the Brave entertained Emperor Otto III and impressed him so much that Otto made Boleslav Poland’s first king.

So Bolesław was thus gloriously raised to kingship by the emperor, and he gave an example of the liberality innate in him when for three days following his coronation he celebrated a feast in style fit for a king or emperor. Every day the plates and the tableware were new, and many different ones were given out, ever richer again. For at the end of the feast he ordered the waiters and the cupbearers to gather the gold and silver vessels – for there was nothing made of wood there – from all three days’ courses, that is, the cups and goblets, the bowls and plates and the drinking horns, and he presented them to the emperor as a token of honor […]
[Gallus Anonymus], ed. and trans. by Paul W. Knoll and Frank Shaer: The Deeds of the Princes of the Poles, in: Readings in Medieval History, ed. Patrick J. Geary, vol. II: The Later Middle Ages, Univeristy of Toronto Press, 2010, p. 632

Original text:
Igitur Bolezlavus in regem ab imperatore tam gloriose sublimatus, inditam sibi liberalitatem exercuit, cum tribus suae consecrationis diebus convivium regaliter et imperialiter celebravit, singulisque diebus vasa omni et supellectillia transmutavit, aliaque diversa multoque pretiosiora praesentavit. Finito namque convivio, pincernas et dapiferos vasa aurea et argentea, nulla enim lignea ibi habebantur, cyphos videlicet et cuppas, lances et scutellas et cornua de mensis omnibus trium dierum congregare praecepit et imperatori pro honore […] praesentavit.
Gallus Anonymus: Chronicon, red. Ludwik Finkel, Stanisław Kętrzyński, Leopolis: Sumptibus Societatis Historicae Leopolitanae, 1899, p. 12

It’s possible that these gifts were not so much handed to the guests as allowed to be taken. During the congress of Cracow, these may have been parts of the interior design of royal sleeping chambers at the Wawel Castle, “sumptuously decorated with purple and scarlet, gold, pearls and jewels”,[1] as well as precious-metal plates, which the visitors simply helped themselves to after the party. It’s like you steal a towel from a hotel room and the hotel manager decides to make you a present of it; this just seems to have been the norm in the Middle Ages. It’s little surprise, then, that both the guests and the chroniclers paid much more attention to the tableware than to the food and drink that was served on it. Especially that, outside of special occasions, even at royal tables people normally ate from trenchers cut out of stale loaves of rye bread, which – soaked with rich, spicy sauces – were later consumed by the servants.[11]

Guillaume de Machaut wrote a little more about the food served in Cracow.

Wierzynek’s Banquet by Józef Simmler (1862)

And what a welcome did they get!
How they were honoured, served and dined
On bread and victuals, and on wine,
All kinds of birds and fish, and beef,
As well as plenty other meat […]

Guillaume de Machaut: La Prise d’Alexandrie, ed. Sophie Hardy, Université d’Orléans, 2011, p. 38, own translation

Original text:

Comment il furent receü,
Honnouré, servi et peü
De pain, de vin et de vitaille,
De toute volille et d’aumaille,
De poissons et d’autre vïande […]

It’s better than nothing, but still rather generic – bread, wine, fish, various kinds of meat – but no word of specific dishes or recipës. Which is not surprising after all; mind you, de Machaut wasn’t personally present at the feast. Even if he’d based his poem on a first-hand account of the event – either from King Peter himself or from a member of his retinue – he must have guessed the culinary details himself. And he simply guessed what one just could have expected at a royal feast – that is, on the one hand, various meats aplenty, which is what inhabitants of northern Europe liked best, and, on the other hand, bread and wine, the attributes of Christianity and Mediterranean civilization. And of course fish, as any banquet longer than three days must have covered some lean days.

De Machaut wrote there was no point asking for further details of the feast, as grandeur of such scale couldn’t be put into words anyway. Still, I’m going to try and imagine what kind of dishes may have been served on King Casimir’s and his visitors’ table. Unfortunately, no Polish recipës from the Middle Ages have survived to our time, but we do have Czech recipës, which are worth looking at. Why? Because, firstly, the most important guest was Emperor Charles, ruler of the Czech-speaking Bohemia who resided at the Hradčany Castle in Prague, so it makes sense that some Czech recipës could have been included in the menu to honour him. And, secondly, the Poles generally looked up to Czech civilization, which stood much higher than their own at the time.

Today the Poles are most keen to ape the Americans; earlier, “what a Frenchman dreamed up, a Pole soon adopted”[12]; and even before that, Italy was the point of cultural reference. But few people in Poland remember that in the late Middle Ages and at the turn of the Renaissance everything Czech was en vogue in Poland. Under Casimir the Great, the Polish Kingdom was growing strong, and forgotten were the times when Poland was ruled by King Wenceslaus II of Bohemia (Charles’s grandfather), while Vladislav the Ell (Casimir’s father), leader of the anti-Bohemian opposition, had to hide in forests and caves; but Casimir still looked from Cracow to Prague – by then, the de facto capital of the Roman Empire – as the West, in both geographic and cultural terms, and eagerly copied Bohemia’s legal, administrative and monetary solutions. Even the Czech language, which rings childish and funny to Polish ears today, was regarded as a tongue of great beauty and elegance by 16th-century Poles.

And what about Old Czech cuisine? Well, not everyone was fond of it, least of all the French poet Eustache Deschamps, who had learned to rhyme from Guillaume de Machaut.

Lice, fleas, pigs, mold,
The gist of the Bohemian soul,
Bread and salted fish and cold.
Black pepper, leeks, a rotten cabbage roll,
Smoked meat as hard and black as coal;
Lice, fleas, pigs, mold:
The gist of the Bohemian soul.
Ten people eating from one bowl,
A bitter drink — it’s beer, I’m told —
Bad beds, and dark, straw, filth, a hole,
Lice, fleas, pigs, mold,
The gist of the Bohemian soul,
Bread and salted fish and cold.

Eustache Deschamps: Poulz, puces, puour et pourceaulx, in: Selected Poems, ed. Ian S. Laurie, Deborah M. Sinnreich-Levi, trans. David Curzon and Jeffrey Fiskin, New York – London: Routledge, 2003, p. 188

Original text:

Poulz, puces, puour et pourceaulx
Est de Behaingne la nature,
Pain, poisson sallé et froidure,
Poivre noir, choulz pourriz, poreaulx,
Char enfumée, noire et dure;
Poulz, puces, puour et pourceaulx
Est de Behaingne la nature,
Vint gens mangier en deux plateaux,
Boire servoise amere et sure,
Mal couchier, noir, paille et ordure;
Poulz, puces, puour et pourceaulx
Est de Behaingne la nature,
Pain, poisson sallé et froidure.

It must be said, though, that Deschamps was the forerunner of the French belief in their culinary superiority and he criticized everything there was to eat east of the Rhine.[13] What disgusted him so much in Bohemian cuisine were the ways of food preservation that were typical for the climes of all northern Europe, such as smoked meat, salted fish, brine-cured vegetables and beer-vinegar pickles. Unlike the Frenchman, the Poles had no qualms about imitating Bohemian foodways. The oldest-known Polish-language cookbook, Kuchmistrzostwo (Cookery), is in fact a translation of Pavel Severýn’s Kuchařství, published in Czech in 1535; sadly, only a few of the translated recipës have survived, all of them for vinegar at that.[14]

Let’s a take a peek, then, into the oldest recipë collection in the beautiful Czech language. It’s Spis o krmiech kterak mají dělány býti (How to Prepare Dishes), known from a 15th-century manuscript, although some individual recipës included in it may be much older. It turns out that, even back then, Bohemian-Polish culinary exchange wasn’t entirely one-sided and that among about 160 recipës we can find in the cookbook there are five which are described as po polsku, or “in the Polish manner”. One of them is for Polish-style mutton and the remaining four are variants of štika po polsku, or pike in the Polish way. Pike was a highly prized fish in the Middle Ages, so on a lean day it wouldn’t have been out of place on the royal table. And how better to receive a Bohemian king in Poland than by treating him to a Polish-style Bohemian dish? So let’s see how it was made.

Cook some stock that is not too salty. Scale the pike, cut into pieces, wash in clean water, and when the stock comes to boil, put the pike inside and cook well. Then strain it and put into a bowl. Chop up some onion very finely, cook it in boiling water, and when it’s done, divide the onion into two parts. Grind one part with parsley in a crock, and once it is well ground, pour wine or vinegar into the crock, mix well and force through a sieve. Pour this sauce into a kettle or a pot, put the pike inside and season with all spices except cloves. You can prepare carp and other kinds of fish in the same way. Lace the other part of onion with saffron. And when you arrange the pike in the bowl, put this onion on top.
Spis o krmiech kterak mají dèlány byti (15th–16th cent. manuscript), quoted in: Čeněk Zíbrt: Staročeské umění kuchařské, Praha: 1927, p. 134; quoted in: Roman Jakobson: Szczupak po polsku, in: W poszukiwaniu istoty języka, vol. I, Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1989, p. 102, own translation

Original text:
Zastav rosol nevelmi slaný, ostruž štiku a roztrhni ji na kusy, vymyj ji čistú vodú a když rosol zevře, daj ji do nĕho a obvař dobře. Potom ji oceď a naklaď na misu. Usekajž cibuli velmi drobnĕ, vař ji v vodĕ, ať prudce vře, a když uvře rozdĕl sobĕ tu cibuli na dvé, jednu polovici tři v pánvi s petruželi; když ji dobře utřeš, vezmi vína, anebo octa, rozpusť to v pánvi a potáhni skrze hartoch dajž tu jichu do kotlika nebo do hrnce, vklaď tam štiku, zakořeň všemi kořeními kromĕ hřebičkuo. Muožeš tiem zpuosobem kapry i jiné ryby dĕlati. Druhú pak polovici cibuli ošarfaň. A když štiku na misu daš, daj to cibuli svrchu.
Wierzynek’s Banquet by Bronisław Abramowicz (1876)

If anyone decides to give this recipë a try, then please let me know whether it’s any good. As for me, I wouldn’t want to waste good fish. Because what was so Polish about this preparation? If you compare the recipës described as “Polish style” with others in the same cookbook, you will notice that the difference was mostly in the method of thermal treatment. All of the supposedly Polish dishes were simply boiled, whereas in other recipës boiling was at most only the first step, which could be followed by roasting, baking, frying, stuffing, covering in aspic, etc.[15] In the case of the Polish pike, all that remained to be done was the spicy onion coulis, or thick sauce.[16] In other words, purportedly Polish recipës were the most primitive and required little culinary expertise. Which doesn’t mean that such a Polish-style pike could not be served at Wirsing’s banquet after all. Maybe not as the pièce de résistance of Cracovian cooks, but perhaps for a change of pace in one of the courses. Today a single course consists of a single dish, sometimes accompanied by some sides, but a course in the medieval sense was an entire set of contrasting dishes all served at once.[17] If roasted or fried fish dishes were being put on the table, then it was only natural to counterbalance them with a boiled one.

Pike in the Polish style would later evolve into a favourite element of the classic culinary repertoire throughout Europe. It was copied from Czech cookbooks into German, Austrian, French, Russian and even Polish ones.[18] As European gastronomy was modernizing and moving away from excessive use of exotic spices, this medieval recipë remained a souvenir of the colourful times when boiled fish was being seasoned with wine, pepper, ginger, mace and saffron (but no cloves!), while a Cracovian merchant was hosting princes, kings and an emperor.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Jan Długosz: Roczniki czyli kroniki sławnego Królestwa Polskiego: księgi IX–XII (wybór), translated into Polish by Karol Mecherzyński,, 2003, p. 14
  2. Stanisław Kutrzeba: Historya rodziny Wierzynków, in: Rocznik Krakowski, vol. II, Kraków: Wydawnictwo Towarzystwa Miłośników Historyi i Zabytków Krakowa, 1899, p. 29–87
  3. Zbigniew Leśnicki: Najstarsze krakowskie restauracje, in:, Kraków: Interia
  4. Jerzy Rajman: Gdzie mieszkali rajcy krakowscy w XIV wieku?, in: Res Gestae, 1, Kraków: Instytut Historii i Archiwistyki Uniwersytetu Pedagogicznego im. KEN, 2015, p. 67–68
  5. Marcin Migacz: Prawo i sprawiedliwość przeciw nacjonalizacji „Wierzynka”, in:, Kraków: 12 July 2006
  6. Neuregulung innerhalb des Wohn- und Geschäftsgebietes der deutschen Bevölkerung – Namen geschichtlicher Erinnerung, in: Krakauer Zeitung, 31 August 1941; quoted in: Deutsches Krakau 1939–1945
  7. Leszek Mazan: Uczty prawdziwie królewskie: „P.” rozmawia z Edwardem Szotem, dyrektorem restauracji „Wierzynek”, in: Przekrój, nr 2234 (14/1988), Kraków: 1988, p. 20
  8. Jarosław Sidorowicz: Wierzynek – mało znana historia znanej restauracji, in:, Kraków: Agora, 24 November 2002
  9. Anna Kaczmarz: Niekończący się spór o kamienicę z restauracją Wierzynek, in: Rzeczpospolita, Warszawa: Gremi Media, 1 June 2013
  10. W Krakowie już nie ma państwowych restauracji – Wierzynek sprzedany, in:, 3 January 2001
  11. Maria Dembińska, William Woys Weaver: Food and Drink in Medieval Poland: Rediscovering a Cuisine of the Past, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999, p. 59, 114
  12. Adam Mickiewicz: Pan Tadeusz, or The Last Foray in Lithuania: A Tale of the Gentry during 1811–1812, translated by Marcel Weyland, Book I, verse 484
  13. Terence Scully: The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages, Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1995, p. 233
  14. Magdalena Spychaj: „Spis o krmích” z XV wieku: u źródeł czeskiej literatury kulinarnej, in: Przegląd Historyczny, 102/4, Warszawa: Instytut Historyczny UW, 2011, p. 597–598
  15. Roman Jakobson: Szczupak po polsku, in: W poszukiwaniu istoty języka, vol. I, Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1989, p. 100–111
  16. Magdalena Spychaj, op. cit., s. 600
  17. Jean-Louis Flandrin: L’ordre des mets, Paris: Éditions Odile Jacob, 2002, p. 13
  18. Jarosław Dumanowski: Szczupak po polsku, czyli co Polacy dali Europie, in: Silva Rerum, Warszawa: Muzeum Pałacu Króla Jana III w Wilanowie


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