Soft and moist on the inside, slightly crunchy on the outside. Faintly sweet. Deeply satisfying. It is sometimes called precel (pretzel). It kind of looks like a bagel. But obwarzanek is neither. This ring-shaped bread, reportedly the only ‘fast food’ in the world with more than a few centuries of history, is called obwarzanek, a name which has been long associated with Krakow, as it is only baked there.
What exaclty is obwarzanek?
Obwarzanek (Polish pronunciation: [ɔbvaˈʐanɛk kraˈkɔfskʲi]) is a braided, ring-shaped bread that is briefly boiled, sprinkled with toppings (i.e. poppy seeds, salt, sesame seeds) and then baked. The name is said to be derived from the word obwarzać, which in Polish means ‘to dip in boiling water’. The same process is used in making bagels, which nonetheless differ from obwarzanki, as the hole in the middle of a bagel is rather small, whereas in obwarzanek – it’s much bigger. Not every ring-shaped bake is an obwarzanek though. Industrially produced, ‘fake’ obwarzanki will have round patterns on the bottom, and the real thing should have long dark lines, indicating it was baked on a wire rack.
In 2010 the European Commission decided to give obwarzanek a Protected Geographical Indication certificate. This certificate is only given to products specific to the given region which have a longstanding tradition. With the certification came regulations: obwarzanki can only be produced within the Krakow area and they must be made according to strict specifications regarding the production process, ingredients used, shape, size, appearance, colour, consistency and finally – flavour. It is said that obwarzanki taste best up to few hours after being baked, which supported the argument that they are not liable for transportation and/or export. 99% of all the obwarzanki baked on the day are sold from the iconic blue street carts (which are said to change their appearance in the near future), from early morning each day, no matter the weather. The salt used as a topping must come from Polish salt mines, located in close proximity to Krakow, on so-called Trakt Solny (Via Regia), which historically had been used for salt trade in Europe. The salt mines themselves are remarkable and worth visiting, to name the two closest to my heart: Wieliczka Salt Mine and Bochnia Salt Mine.
Let’s get down to history
Krakow’s bakers have been baking obwarzanki for centuries now. The first mention of bakers from Krakow, being granted by the king the right to sell their breads on Krakow’s Main Market Square, comes from the location document written during Bolesław Wstydliwy (Boleslaw V the Chaste) reign, in 1257. Another important document, this time naming obwarzanki, is the decision from 26th of May 1496 made by the King of Poland Jan Olbracht (John I Albert) that from then on obwarzanki are to be baked only in Krakow.
Nowadays, obwarzanki are baked by the guild members, whose bakeries are located within the borders of the City of Krakow, Krakow county and Wieliczka county. Obwarzanki are now sold in many points throughout the city, from the ubiquitous blue carts. These chewy and slightly sweet ring-shaped breads are an inseparable part of Krakow’s life, intrinsically interwoven with the morning commute: waiting at the bus stop, running to school or going on a trip. There is no going anywhere without obwarzanek in hand in Krakow.
When I was a high school student, and (due to my own stubbornness) stuck in a two-hour commute to school every day, buying an obwarzanek after getting off the bus from my village and before boarding the tram to the town centre, was my favourite moment of every day. Sometimes, the obwarzanki would be just a tiny bit more golden that usual, and that – that would be my own private Christmas. I love the flavour of the slightly over-baked obwarzanek. When I’m in Krakow, I’m always on the hunt for these. But, as the strict regulations of obwarzanek production prevent over-baking, they are a rare find!
Where to find them?
The blue obwarzanki carts are so conspicuous, they don’t need introduction, really. They are usually located in the busiest town corners: near bus and tram stops, in touristic spots (Main Market Square has quite a few!), near schools and universities (students’ diets are often sustained by obwarzanki only, when the lean times come), they are even inside the massive, modern shopping centres, because in Krakow the division between history and modernity is does not exist. I, personally, find it difficult to imagine Krakow without the iconic (yet quite ugly, let’s be honest) blue carts. But then I think to myself: let’s give a chance to the new generation to come up with a design. Krakow is a city of students (and recently, increasingly, tourists); it breaths history, yet it evolves and changes with the times. I am excited to see new obwarzanek homes. Will they also be blue?
Let me know if you’ve ever tried obwarzanki. I am curious to know, if anyone else found them special.
Below, an obwarzanek gallery. Krakow with few friends and few obwarzanki, on a rainy day in March. God, do I miss this town!
Have a nice weekend, everyone!