On a recent trip to the Wedel chocolate shop in Warsaw, I stood before a counter covered in crystal jars filled with foil-wrapped chocolates. Chocolate boxes decorated with roses lined the back wall, and Wedel's signature candies were modeled in a glass display case finer than those found at many diamond merchants. Hot chocolate came crowned with a scoop of fresh whipped cream, and the five-layer chocolate torte was topped with the most natural accessory: caramel and raspberry sauce.
But how did they taste?
After a spell of tasteless chocolate, Polish shops like Warsaw's Wedel are now making top-quality sweets.
Good question. Polish chocolate (czekolada) has long suffered from a bad reputation. Indeed, one of the many victims of Poland's numerous political transitions has been its chocolate. For many sweets fans, the 1981 imposition of martial law marked a nadir: Ration cards restricted chocolate consumption to children. Sugar became rationed, and other ingredients couldn't be imported or afforded.
But beneath the clots of freshly whipped cream that slather so many Polish treats, the chocolate is undergoing a revolution. With the country's recent entrance into the European Union, local experts say a strengthening economy and access to new ingredients is helping to accelerate the quality of chocolate one tasteless, watery, marshmallow-and-gelatinous-filled treat at a time.
Any serious chocoholic who wants to experience chocolate in transition should start with the Wedel chocolate shop and salon (Ul. Szpitalna 8) in Warsaw's city center. Wedel has a main shop and three tea rooms where visitors can test its three hot chocolate flavors (bitter, natural and light, and all delicious). You also can taste an elaborate selection of outstanding chocolate desserts with a requisite garnish of more whipped cream. Two hot chocolates and two desserts cost about $11. (If you can't make it to the store, many shops carry WW, the popular Wedel candy bar that's similar to a Kit Kat.)
For a chocolate version of a Polish specialty, try the chocolate-covered cheesecake at Warsaw's To Lubie (Ul. Freta 10), just outside the remnants of the city wall. The cavernous two-story cafe also features a delicious hot chocolate with fresh whipped cream and glass jars filled with homemade cookies including chocolate and hazelnut. Two hot drinks and two desserts cost about $10.
In Krakow, my younger sister and her semester-abroad friends established themselves as regulars at the cafe Slodki Wentzl (Rynek Glowny 19), on the main market square. At first glance, the menu looks as if it came from an Italian restaurant, with desserts named spaghetti suttanskie and pizza margarita. But they're actually desserts with healthy doses of chocolate. The chocolate torte, in particular, is rich, dense, clotted in raspberry sauce -- and huge. Six women couldn't finish two of these desserts. A dessert and cappuccino cost about $5.
Locals swear that the Wawel candy shop (Rynek Glowny 33), also on the main market square, is home to Krakow's best chocolate. These chocolates feature brightly colored wrappers with names like Tiki Taki, which have a peanut and marshmallow filling; Advocat, with a liqueur filling; and Korylki, with a creamy filling. Chocoholics can purchase these sweets by the pound or the piece. A pound of Wawel chocolates (about 26 sweets) costs roughly $5.
For a final stop in Krakow, chocolate fans shouldn't miss the tasty chocolate-covered gingerbread at Kopernik (Ul. Grodzka 14). A single packet of chocolate gingerbread costs about 40 cents. The shop's brochure brags that its gingerbread has been served to "popes, Caesars, kings, presidents and Nobel Prize winners" -- a noble role model for other sweets on the path back to greatness.
-- Christine Haughney
For information about travel to Poland, contact the Polish National Tourist Office, 201-420-9910, www.polandtour.org.