I’ve often mentioned milk bars in my blog. Their numbers have dwindled but they are no longer terminal cases consigned to the historical culinary books. It looks like they are here to stay, along side sushi, Vietnamese, kebabs, Mexican, Italian and posh Polish. The regulars are not just hard-up folks but office workers pining for home-cooked meals, the type of time-consuming fares only grannies have time to make, such as leniwe (ironically, leniwe means lazy, but you can be sure slackers won’t be bothered to make it from scratch).
Below is a shortie I wrote about milk bars for my food column in Kaleidoscope, the inflight mag of LOT, Poland’s national carrier. Thanks for dropping by. Come back for photo updates.
Last Order? (Kaleidoscope, June 2007)
The devotees mourned the passing of yet another old timer. Though the casualty was not stop-press news, the episode was noted in the papers and the obit posted on the web. Eulogies trickled in from former patrons and fans of bar mleczny.
However, for some, including my hubby, the name still conjures images of sulky cooks doling out dodgy gruel from grimy kitchens. Bar mleczny (‘milk bar’) is eateries born in the 60s to provide rough and ready fuel for the workforce. Bar, in the local vernacular, is a place where food is served but not always alongside alcohol. Milk bars’ set up is dry and functional.
Time’s a changing and the state-sponsored milk bars have dwindled in numbers. Those that survived have shaken off the gawkiness of their adolescence to become, frankly, quite pleasant grown ups. Probably no one had imagined that more than four decades on, these off-springs of communism are not only still around, but also have a loyal following. Without the price filter, regulars like neatly groomed pensioners, scruffy homeless and cash-strapped students rub shoulders with curious tourists, glossy Rick Ashley look-alikes, sleek suits and sturdy builders. All tucking into unpretentious food in shabby-and-retro chic canteens.
The menu in each bar is similar. Then, as now, nothing is translated and the staff is strictly monolingual. The offerings are basic Polish repertoire where many dishes are crafted from simple raw material like flour, eggs, potatoes and cottage cheese. I enjoy spotting the humble classics ignored by posh restaurants. Mizeria, a salad of thinly sliced cucumbers in cream and chives, is one. Coffee is at times hard to come by, a remnant of the bean’s shortage in a time bygone. Some places has kawa Inka, coffee made from grains and chicory. When an item isn’t available, the price tag is covered. And preceding each item is a quaint practice of stating the weight or volume of the merchandise. But I never knew if I got the exact 200g of kaszanka (blood sausage).
Last summer, Percy and I jabbed at żurek (fermented rye soup), sautéed pork liver and cheese pancakes. He’s my teenage nephew visiting from Hong Kong. Everywhere we went, we made pit stops at milk bars located at prestigious addresses. The lunch time queue at the Neptune Bar in Gdańsk was fast-moving. The poor ventilation at one bar in Kraków’s Old Town had us soaked in sweat.
“Cheap aunt,” I speculated on what Percy might have thought of my feeding habit. “It is just like the ‘cha chaan teng’ (Hong Kong style cafés),” he summed up the run. “The type of food is generally simpler and cheaper in price.”
Simple they may seem, but the dishes are labor-intensive. The milk bar in Warsaw’s ul. Marszalkowska has a wide serving hatch that opens up to an unplugged cooking show. Huge pots and pans sit on mega-burners, and enamel buckets have soups and sauces bubbling lazily. I let loose my inner kitchen-voyeur and lap up the view of portly matrons pottering about molding giant klopsiki (meatballs) and kneading dough for dumplings. It’s meals cooked from scratch and ready to go the moment the hungry trickle in.
And cheap it isn’t anymore compared to other budget joints. Sure, a hearty whack of buckwheat and mushroom sauce is a mere 3.50 zł (less than €1). But the deluxe set of pork cutlet with potato and veg sides will set you back by 12 zł (€3). That gets my son a Happy Meal. Or from Turkish pits, Percy’s preferred option of a kebab comes with change to spare.
A trace of indifference lingers over some of these places. One in southern Warsaw has a lovely sepia-tinted feel. The friendly granny behind the hatch spied me spying the fixtures. The sorrel soup she recommended came tepid and the hard-boiled eggs were stone cold. We lacked the temerity to send it back. Another day I returned to find R.Ashley at the next table denouncing his fish cake as raw. My fillet was over-salted and the gooey carroty bits hadn’t lost their refrigeration chill.
I wonder how long the sepia-coating will grant them immunity from expiration. But while they still take orders, I’ll savor their time-warped vagary.