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The Warsaw Voice » Special Sections » May 28, 2013
Polska… tastes good!
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Rural Tourism: Podlasie Province
May 28, 2013   
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Podlasie province in eastern Poland offers visitors near-pristine natural surroundings, picturesque landscapes and a unique culture that make the region a perfect destination for rural tourism.

Podlasie province is home to some of Europe’s most valuable natural areas, including the Bia這wie瘸 Forest, the August闚 Forest, the Knyszyn Forest, and the Biebrza Marshes. National parks in Podlasie account for almost 30 percent of all national parks in Poland.

The most remarkable of the region’s four national parks is the Bia這wie瘸 National Park with a history dating back to 1921. The park encompasses sections of the primeval Bia這wie瘸 Forest that have been preserved almost intact to this day. The Bia這wie瘸 National Park and parts of the Bia這wie瘸 Forest in present-day Belarus are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Every year, the park draws more than 100,000 visitors.

Podlasie’s Biebrza National Park is the largest national park in Poland, spanning the Biebrza River valley all the way from the source to where the river flows into the Narew River. The Biebrza Marshes, the largest wetland in Central Europe, are regularly visited by nature lovers and those who enjoy a trapper’s lifestyle. The area is particularly popular among birdwatchers and avid nature photographers.

Another protected area, the Narew National Park, was primarily established to protect the local swamps, wetlands and waters that account for 90 percent of the park’s total area. The Narew National Park stands out with its unique Narew River valley rich in flora and fauna. The area’s extended system of channels and river beds has no match in this part of Europe.

The region’s fourth national park, the Wigry National Park, is a local treasure with 42 lakes and a famous water trail on the Czarna Ha鎍za River.

Canoeing fans also like to come to Podlasie’s August闚 Forest, which lies on the August闚 Canal, which is known across Europe as one of the finest achievements of 19th-century hydraulic engineering.

Melting pot of cultures

Natural beauty aside, the Podlasie region has a rich cultural heritage shaped by different cultures and religions. Poles, Ukrainians, Jews and Tatars lived in the area side by side for centuries. This interplay of cultures is manifested in local sculptures, tapestries, songs and dances.

According to An Expert Analysis of the Potential of Rural Tourism Products in Poland and Their Competitiveness on Regional, National and International Markets for Tourist Services, a document compiled by the Polish Tourism Development Agency, the natural and cultural qualities of Podlasie province allow it to develop distinctive and highly interesting rural tourism services and products. The province is home to around 600 rural tourism farms, many of which keep expanding their range of services. That encourages tourists to come here more often and for longer periods of time. The document says that rural tourism in Podlasie province is becoming increasingly attractive to visitors from both Poland and abroad. Farms frequently rely on the local heritage to enhance the appeal of their products.

Since rural areas prevail in Podlasie province, rural tourism seems to be a good, strategic choice to ensure diversified rural development in the region, according to the Development Strategy for Podlasie Province Until 2020, which aims “to stimulate tourism by taking advantage of the region’s natural beauty and cultural heritage.”

Efforts to promote and stimulate rural tourism in Podlasie are supported by a number of regional tourist organizations, including those based in August闚, Suwa趾i, υm瘸 and Sejny.

According to experts from the Polish Tourism Development Agency, Podlasie has potential to become a perfect destination for rural tourism. Farm owners and managers in Podlasie should aim to offer a skillful combination of natural beauty and traditional customs as well as regional cuisine, the agency says. It adds that rural tourism in the region has been growing rapidly in the past several years, with a radical improvement in the quality of services provided to visitors and accommodation standards in the countryside.

Top tourist products

Podlasie province is home to a number of rural tourism farms with original tourist products. Four such products have been put on the “Greatest Hits of Rural Tourism” list compiled by the Polish Tourism Development Agency.

One of these products is the Zio這wy Zak徠ek (Herbal Nook) farm in the Grodzisk district near the town of Siemiatycze, 70 kilometers west of the Bia這wieska Forest. Tucked away in a beautiful forest, Zio這wy Zak徠ek encourages visitors to explore herbal medicine or just relax—and to relive the times when the scent of flowers and herbs penetrated villages and houses had thatched roofs. The farm has one of the largest herbal collections in Poland. As a tourist product, Zio這wy Zak徠ek also comprises the Podlasie Herbal Garden, which in 2011 was officially awarded the status of a botanical garden and has Poland’s largest collection of therapeutic and aromatic plants. The local Natural Education Center offers a wide range of activities for children, adolescents and adults. The complex has 120 beds in traditional Podlasie cabins. It is also home to the Dary Natury (Nature’s Gifts) company, which is a well-known producer of herbs and organic food.

Another top Podlasie tourist product is the Folk Handicraft Center in Niemczyn, Czarna Bia這stocka district. Located next to the Knyszyn Forest, Czarna Bia這stocka is a retreat for folk artists who pursue dying professions. Visitors to nearby villages can see many handicraft shops where potters, blacksmiths, spoon makers, sculptors and hand weavers have worked for generations. The Folk Handicraft Center in Niemczyn was specifically established to protect and cultivate this tradition and enable local craftsmen and qualified instructors to pass on their knowledge and skills. The center organizes various handicraft workshops to let visitors try their hand at pot making, wood carving, wicker weaving, paper making, drawing and working with felt and leather. Organized groups can also take a tour of studios managed by local craftsmen. On the tour, visitors can see how functional and decorative pottery is made in a traditional way—how clay is conditioned, how it is molded on a potter’s wheel, and how ceramic items are baked in huge kilns. In the spoon-making shop, tourists can see pieces of wood turn into spoons, ladles and forks in a matter of minutes. In the smithy, they can watch a blacksmith at work.

The third “Greatest Hits” entry is the Tatarska Jurta (Tatar Yurt) farm in the village of Kruszyniany in the heart of the Knyszyn Forest, some 3 km from the Belarusian border. Kruszyniany is a stop on the Tatar Trail, which cuts across an area in present-day Poland and Lithuania where Tatars started settling in the 16th century. Often referred to as a melting pot of cultures, the village is inhabited by followers of three major religions—Catholicism, Islam and the Eastern Orthodox Church. This special heritage has been highlighted in Kruszyniany with a 6-kilometer ecumenical trail that gives tourists a rare opportunity to visit a mosque, a Muslim cemetery, a small Orthodox church and several other historic sites of religious importance. Visitors to the Tatarska Jurta farm can pitch up a tent or get the full “Polish Orient” experience, complete with traditional Tatar cuisine and accommodation in genuine Tatar yurts.

The fourth rural tourist product recommended by the Polish Tourism development Agency is the Pi徠ka znad Biebrzy (The Five by the Biebrza River) initiative by five farms on the Biebrza River that joined forces to promote active tourism. They offer activities including rafting, canoeing, angling, Nordic walking, horse riding, bicycle trips and a Biebrza River photographic safari. One of the farms, Agroturystyka nad Biebrz (Rural Tourism by the Biebrza River), also operates a medical center called Biebrza, which provides treatment and rehabilitation for patients with mobility and respiratory problems.

Traditional cuisine and specialties

The Podlasie region takes pride in its distinctive cuisine and a range of unique, traditional food products. The Agriculture Ministry’s list of traditional and regional products features 46 specialties from Podlasie, a region known for its low emissions of pollutants—just one-tenth of the national average.

Podlasie’s regional cuisine combines simple Polish rural dishes with strong Lithuanian influences. Many regional specialties are made from potatoes and include stuffed dumplings, potato pie, potato sausage and potato pancakes.

Kartacze is one of the most popular traditional foods in Podlasie and a staple dish in Lithuania where it is known as cepelinai. Formed of potato-based dough, kartacze is stuffed with minced pork. Some stuff kartacze with sauerkraut and mushrooms, poppy seeds or cheese. Typical kartacze dumplings are elongated, oval and the size of a human fist. Depending on potatoes, the color may vary from light to dark gray. They are served hot and sprinkled with grease, pork scratchings and fried onions. Tourists order kartacze as a local specialty.

The people of Podlasie are also partial to the babka ziemniaczana potato pie, especially in the region’s northernmost part around the town of Suwa趾i. The pie comes in different variations, served with a choice of side orders and relishes. The main ingredients are grated potatoes, fried fatback, flour, eggs and onions. Some local cooks also like to add mushrooms. The pie is served hot and cut into rectangular pieces.

The popular potato sausage is made from grated and partially drained potatoes with different kinds of groats, such as buckwheat groats. Mixed together, the ingredients are stuffed into a thoroughly cleaned and washed pig intestine. A properly made potato sausage is golden-brown, firm and has a crispy skin. The sausage and most other potato-based dishes are traditionally served with fried bacon and onions.

When they hear about Podlasie cuisine, many Poles will instantly think of the s瘯acz cake. This is baked over an open fire, with thin layers of dough poured onto a slowly spinning cylinder. S瘯acz is a complicated and time-consuming delicacy to make and takes a lot of skill. The largest s瘯acz cakes can be as high as one meter. The most famous variation comes from the town of Sejny and takes two people at least three or four hours to bake. To ensure the exquisite, distinctive s瘯acz flavor, only the best ingredients should be used. The Sejny s瘯acz contains no dough enhancers or dyes.

The flavors of Podlasie also include homemade sausages and cold meats. The most famous of these is the kindziuk dried sausage, originally from Lithuania, where it is known as skilandis. In the 19th century, skilandis was made in most Lithuanian households according to a recipe borrowed from the local Tatar population. Made from partially minced meat of the finest quality, a good kindziuk should contain bits of intact meat, clearly visible when it is cut into slices. In the past, the largest kindziuk sausages were made in pig stomachs and weighed up to 10 kilograms. Smaller ones, contained in pig bladders, weighed around 1.5 kilograms. The sausage is available smoked or just dried. Wood used to smoke kindziuk in Podlasie comes exclusively from trees cut in the region’s clean forests. The product is savory and long-lasting, as the high content of salt makes sure it can be stored at room temperature even on hot days. Usually prepared in winter, kindziuk tasted great in summer and was the favorite meat of harvesters. Well-made kindziuk has very long shelf life and when it has matured, the seasoned meat has a strong and pleasant smell of spices. Part of family traditions, kindziuk recipes are handed down the generations.

Cold meats from Podlasie go well with the distinctive flavor of rennet cheese from the village of Korycin. Made according to traditional recipes by homemakers from Korycin and nearby villages, it originally used rennet from dried calf stomachs which were grated and processed into powder. The natural enzymes have since been replaced with rennet used in the dairy industry. The Korycin cheese comes in many different flavors depending on producers’ ideas and preferences. Originally a local delicacy, over the centuries the cheese has become popular in other parts of Poland.

Regional specialties also include the dried Podlaski cheese with a rich, hard-cheese taste and distinctive buttery flavor. It owes its unique taste and aroma to a six-months drying and maturing process and different herbs the locals add to it. The cheese is a fine snack in its own right, but when fried in butter, it softens to the consistency of regular cheese. The region’s cheese drying traditions date back centuries, and dried cheeses are some of the most remarkable food products of the Podlasie region.

People in Podlasie also like Lithuanian dessert cottage cheese made from cow’s milk. It tastes great when fried with butter in a pan or heated up and dried in an oven. Every household uses a slightly different method and spices, picked from their own garden. The cheese can be prepared in different ways and can be both sweet and salty.
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