We left Le Meridien Bristol Hotel and head out on to the Nowy Świat, Warsaw's royal road, in search of morning tea. It was too early for pierogi and vodka at Radio Café. A leisurely stroll along this historic thoroughfare of Warsaw brought me to the green awnings of Café A. Blikle. As we opened the doors to the confectionery, unknowingly we had stepped into a part of Warsaw's history and one of the most famous names in cakes and baked good in Poland.
The calm exterior masked a buzzing scene of locals queuing impatiently while staff busied to fill takeaway orders of pastries, cakes, chocolates and breads that filled a long 2-tier, U-shaped display. With both tables empty, we decided to browse around, wait out the queue and enjoy a winter morning tea indoors.
The space reminded of a classic Viennese café with tall ceilings, highly polished surfaces and exuding a traditional European charm and elegance unavailable in the modern Polish confectioneries. Through the limited Polish-English translations, we managed to pull together some interesting facts about the owners and this old world venue.
The A. Blikle confectionery next to its "Cukiernia A.Blikle" or Café A. Blikle on the Nowy Świat, is highly reputed to serve up the best pastries in Warsaw, blended from Polish and French recipes since its founding by Antoni Kazimierz Blikle in Warsaw on 11 September 1869.
Operated by the Blikle family for five generations, this 143 year old Polish institution bore witness to many important milestones in Poland's history, survived the tough times of 2 World Wars, managed to overcome long years of communist ruling while other private enterprises closed down, all the while serving customers.
The company building which was completely destroyed in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 rebuilt after the war continues to house the original confectionery and bistro and is the centrepoint of the elegant shopping street of Nowy Świat.
A chocolate and marzipan cake known as "General's Cakes" were the favourite of General Charles de Gaulle, a regular personage during the difficult Stalinist era who helped prevented the company from being shut down. Being the desserts supplier of choice to government functions during that era also helped.
Pope John Paul II had the Vatican ring up with special orders. Poland's first Prime Minister, Ignacy Paderewski played piano in the adjoining bistro as a young man. Polish-American classic pianist Arthur Rubinstein and internationally acclaimed French actor Marcel Marceau stopped by whenever they visited Warsaw.
They include the nationally famous "Pączki" or Polish doughnut. 15,000 of A. Blikle's legendary doughnuts are sold in a single day at the end of the Carnival festival or Mardi Graz holiday. They have become the standard by which ever every Polish American bakery goes by and a must-eat for Polish Americans visiting Warsaw.
Nothing beats a taste test and with in-decision about what went into the box, we decided to indulge from every glass counter including the Opera, Marczello, Eklerka ze Smietana, Torcik Owocowy, Napoleonka and Pączki.
Apart from the "Eklerka" or éclair topped with chocolate and filled with cream, which we found too sweet, everything else was superbly delicious. The French Opera had layers of light almond sponge cake, coffee buttercream and dark chocolate ganache in every bite. The "Torcik Owocowy" was simply light and fruity with raspberry mousse sandwiched between three layers of sponge cake. The "Marczello" was rich and sophisticated with multiple layers of light chocolate sponge cake with chocolate cream, topped with a thin layer of coca powder. Popular with Pope John Paul II, the "Napoleonka" consisted of a generous layer of creamy custard between 2 squares of puff pastry topped with caster sugar.
Forget about Krispy Kreme and Dunkins. The soft and chewy "Pączki" or Polish doughnuts, deep fried in lard, filled with jam and frosted and sprinkled with bits of candied orange was one of the best I'd eaten throughout my travels in Europe and one up over my favourite hot jam doughnut in Melbourne's Queen Victoria Market. I now understand why A Blikle's doughnuts are highly recommended by locals and a must-try for visitors.
For someone who is not a big fan of sweets, my indulgence in the A. Blikle confectionery was well worth the calories. The refinement of presentation and taste of each pastry was a reflection of the skills of A. Blikle bakers. It was like having Italian cakes at Brunetti in Melbourne but just more delicate and elegant or the excellent French patisserie at Cafe de Beaumarchais in Mount Dandenongs but with more sophisticated flavours. Savouring the range of pastries, cakes and doughnut was not just a true cultural experience but a taste of Polish history.
Unlike its quality pastry, the latte and cappuccino at the A. Blikle confectionery was nothing to rave about. The cuppa reminded of the weak espresso topped with milk from Gino's in Fremantle or Coffea in Melbourne and not proper coffee from artisans like Hush Espresso or Market Lane.
A. Blikle celebrated its 140th anniversary on 10 September 2009 illustrating its growth from a single confectionery shop before 1990 to a famous Polish company with more than 15 outlets, delicatessens and cafes in Warsaw and one of the top confectioners in Central Europe.
Today, with the support of Poland's growing middle class, the Blikle name is becoming one of the country's top luxury brands. Fourth-generation Blikle, Andrzej Blikle is planning for the company to be the major supplier of luxury food on the Polish market much as the luxury food shop Fauchon is a Paris gourmet landmark.
If there is a confectionery that defines Polish history, A. Blikle at Nowy Świat is a Warsaw classic where the pastries speak for themselves.