Polish Sweet Tooth:
A Broad History of Sugar, Chocolate, and Confections in Poland
The first confectioners in Poland were not Polish at all – they were Swiss and Italian. They came to work in the royal palaces starting around 1775, creating ornate confections for King August III Poniatowski. In the early years of sugar production, sweets were something only the wealthy could afford. Yet with its industrialization in the 18th and 19th centuries, sugar became commonplace and therefore more accessible to the consumer class.
The tradition of chocolate and confection making was a foreigner’s profession in Poland for the first almost hundred years from when chocolate and sugar production was introduced to the country. As Warsaw was a growing and transient capital city, many confectioners came to the city to open up their businesses and stayed.
It was only in 1827 that a man named Jacek Szymański opened the first Polish confectionery in Warsaw. Soon after, many Polish confectioners began to open their businesses. It was confectioner C. Wiśnowski who, in 1845, first introduced Polish people to what they would instantly fall in love with – the English sponge cake (biszkopt angielski); he later went on to study the craft of confection-making in London to prefect his Victoria sponge. This style of cake is still most popular in Poland.
It was during the mid 19th century when the most famous and still well-known today Polish confectioners – Blikle, Wedel, and Wawel (originally Piasecki) – first opened their doors.
Antoni Blikle established his confectionery shop in 1869 in Warsaw on Nowy Świat Street. In 1901, his son Antoni Wiesław Blikle took over the family business. Blikle’s confectionery shop was well known in Warsaw. It was a family business for five generations, priding itself on its original recipes and fresh ingredients. I remember trips to Warsaw when I was younger where a pączek (a traditional Polish pastry in the doughnut family) and an apple cake from Blikle’s original location on Nowy Świat Street was a special treat. Now franchised throughout Poland, I can stop in for their macarons, meringues, and cakes on any given day, but its original location in Warsaw is open and operating for 153 years, as of this writing.
Karol Wedel opened his business in Warsaw in 1851. He originally kept a small storefront on Miodowa Street but with growing popularity, he outgrew the location and opened a mechanical chocolate factory, very new to the city at the time. He passed the business down to his son, Emil, who spent time abroad perfecting his craft and successfully scaled and grew the business into quite a success. It’s his name that is memorialized on the chocolates today – E. Wedel. Wedel chocolate became the standard against which all others were measured. It was so popular, that it became forged; Wedel decided to add his signature to each square of chocolate to identify the originals. His factory production of chocolate used the latest and best in technology at the time, turning chocolate production in Poland from craft to industry.
Wedel still enjoys enormous popularity in Poland and, like Cadbury in England, it can be considered the national chocolate brand of Poland (and in fact, was once owned by Cadbury, then Kraft Foods, now finally Lotte Corporation). The company produces all sorts of chocolates and confections, ranging from chocolate bars to filled chocolates to ptasie mleczko. The latter is a rectangularly-shaped, meringue-like chocolate-covered confection Wedel developed in 1936. Its name rather unfortunately translates to “bird’s milk”, although apparently not the literal kind but rather the Greek idiom meaning “an unobtainable delicacy”, which certainly makes it more palatable.
Another very popular product is the torcik Wedlowski (little Wedel cake) which is actually not cake at all but a crispy circular layered cocoa and hazelnut wafer covered in chocolate. The “little cake” is a popular addition to birthday or name day presents and can be customized with wishes written in chocolate. Wedel in more recent years has opened their chain of Pijalnia Czekolady E. Wedel (roughly translating to the chocolate tasting room). In these cafes, you can order hot chocolate in a variety of flavors – so thick you need a spoon! – as well as filled chocolates and other snacks the company produces.
Adam Piasecki began his confectionery business in 1898 in Kraków and in 1910 opened his chocolate factory to begin operation on an industrial level. He apprenticed to a chocolatier at the age of 12 and steadily grew his business after he completed his exams. Piasecki became known as the “king of chocolate” in 1914, when his chocolate factory produced 1500 kg of chocolate daily. It soon after merged with Suchard, one of the most successful and oldest Swiss companies and took on the name Wawel, a nod to the famous Polish castle located in Kraków.
Wawel is known for its assortment of chocolate products like bars, wafers, filled chocolates, chocolate figurines, as well as its hard candies and jellies. It also produces śliwki w czekoladzie (chocolate-covered plums/prunes) which are a popular treat.
The Role of Sugar in Society
Sugar consumption literally changed how people lived. Its mass production led the way for the commercialization of processed foods, as it was used as a preservative. Bakeries and confectioneries popped up on street corners, making sweet goods accessible and to more of the population. As sugar became cheaper, people of the lower classes used it to supplement their diets; it’s still true today that eating unhealthy and sweet products is cheaper and more filling than eating fresh organic vegetables. Cafe culture was also a result of the boom in sugar production; the tradition of taking leisure time to enjoy a baked good and sweetened tea or coffee was both a result of and a catalyst for mass sugar production and consumption.