When you think about pairing alcohol with food, you probably imagine wine or beer. Vodka likely never crosses your mind. However, Aleksander Baron, the Polish ‘Chef of the Future’ (Gault & Millau 2019) is demonstrating why vodka and food are a great pair.
An unforgettable culinary experience
Aleksander has always loved food, and he has nurtured his affection for the art of food by pursuing voluptuary experiences, deepening his understanding of culture and taste. An artist, he aims to recreate that sense of luxurious discovery for each guest, drawing them from their comfort zone. Using aromas, Aleksander is also capable of inspiring guests to recall pleasant memories. He’s famous for surprising his diners with quaint, familiar dishes that have been reimagined with his unique artistry. No matter what journey Aleksander takes his diners on, it’s always an unforgettable experience.
Elements that build his food
History is the most important part of Aleksander’s kitchen, and paying homage to Poland’s rich and terrible history drives everything he creates. This means he frequently builds on the regional cuisine footprints of national minorities (Jewry, Tartars) with dishes like ‘chałka’, ‘Gołąbki’, ‘placki ziemniaczane’, and ‘kogel-mogel’. Aleksander favors nature and his surroundings (simple dirty grey snow on the street or beautiful vivid green grass) as his primary sources for inspiration. This includes the people he works, cooks, and eats with—an invaluable collective of inspiring minds.
Vodka is generally thought of as unrefined, unsavory, and primarily useful for getting a drink—even to Polish people. Aleksander thinks otherwise, insisting that vodka deserves a place among the more respected slow-sipping spirits. Vodka has been an essential element of Poland’s culture for ages. What started as a saloon spirit became an interwar comfort. During communist times, vodka became an alternative currency for the Polish people. Quality, however, was generally poor, which led to a blossoming of more approachable flavored varieties, like ‘wiśniówka’ (cherry flavored), ‘pieprzówka’ (pepper flavored), and the almost forgotten ‘winiak’ (a Polish kind of brandy).
Polish vodka can be produced from potatoes or one of the following grains: wheat, rye, triticale, oats, or barley. Steaming (heating in the aqueous environment to 150ºC) is the first step that enables the starches to transform into a soluble form. When mashed, it degrades into simple sugars, thanks to the work of present enzymes (all of them require a specific temperature to activate). Yeast is introduced and fermentation takes place (72 hours). The produced ethyl alcohol is distilled. Rectification removes impurities and improves the flavor of the final product. Next, the high-strength alcohol is mixed with water to dilute and filtered to obtain a high-quality vodka.
People generally think that vodka is bland and lacking taste. That’s why the spirit is often mixed with other liquids with stronger flavors and aromas, like Coca-Cola or orange juice. This, however, masks the delicate aromas of vodka and leaves drinkers clueless as to its true flavors. Counter to common drinking norms—where vodka is chilled—vodka’s natural flavors are best tasted at ambient temperature, where the palate is able to perceive them most clearly. Aleksander loves to discuss the many flavors and aromas of ambient-temperature vodka. The key notes are sweet ones—honey-like and buttery—but some bitterness appears as well. Other flavors can be smelled, like hefty woody, palpable oak, and cherry tree. Smoky nuances also develop with additional roasted malty hues. A pleasant nutty aftertaste is provided in some vodkas, particularly hazelnut, walnut, or peanut. Spicy vanilla and smooth creamy caramellic undertones are possible too. Surprisingly, faint meaty or fishy scents might occur. Potato vodka contains obviously a potato flavor with some petroleum hue, while grain vodkas bring a more herbal floral aroma*.
Vodka is a perfect companion to many traditional Polish dishes, especially soups, the basis of the cuisine. It’s hard to find a better pairing, even among the best wines.
Vodka is a perfect companion to many traditional Polish dishes, especially soups, the basis of the cuisine. It’s hard to find a better pairing, even among the best wines. The warmth of the thick liquid opens blood vessels, enabling a more clear and flavorful vodka flavor to be experienced. Despite popular opinion, there’s a great amount of diversity in alcohol. The aroma profile is chiefly affected by the main ingredient and distillation process, but the temperature also has an influence. You can relish like exquisite whisky in a snifter or nice rocks glass. Vodka pairs well not only with savory dishes (sausage, herring, pickles) but it compliments desserts as well, thanks to sweet molecules. In ‘Wyborowa exquisite’, Aleks tastes a distinctive ‘kogel-mogel’ flavor (a creamed mixture of egg yolk and sugar) – a base of many versatile sweets. That beverage cleans the taste buds, allowing drinkers to discover new flavors in food, like cheese. The chef also likes pairing ingredients with vodka that contrast, rather than compliment. You can try one of his amazing dishes in your own kitchen with his recipe for traditional Polish soup ‘Żur’, a fantastic pairing to vodka.