Fat Thursday in Krakow- The greatest day of the year
Updated: Feb 19
Much of Europe every year celebrates Pancake day (Shrove Tuesday/ Mardi Gras), the Christian tradition of fasting during the lent period before Easter and having to use up ‘luxury’ treats like eggs and flour before lent begins on Ash Wednesday. In Poland however, pancakes (Nalesniki) are eaten all year round and are a staple part of the Polish diet, be it sweet or savoury. So when it comes to lent, there isn’t much point in Poland celebrating pancake day like elsewhere in Europe...so the Poles went one better and came up with Fat Thursday.
Tłusty Czwartek as it is known in Polish, is arguably the greatest day in Krakow’s calendar (no mean feat given there are annual dragon, sausage dog and honey parades). Unlike Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras), Tłusty Czwartek actually starts a week before lent starts, meaning Poles have a whole week to munch on the aforementioned luxuries if they so desire. Of course this can include gorging on pancakes, but more commonly it means stuffing your face with Pączki- Hot Polish doughnuts...and boy are they a treat!
Forget everything you ever knew about doughnuts, in fact some Poles will get annoyed at the mere suggestion that pączki even be compared to their more famous American cousin. The Polish version are much bigger (usually the size of a fist) and are at their best when served fresh out of the oven and filled with delicious fillings. A healthy dollop of rose jam oozing out, is the most traditional, but you can find apple, orange and even Nutella these days. In fact pączki are such a part of Polish life that when the classic American style doughnut arrived into Warsaw in the form of ‘Dunkin’ Donuts’ in 1996, rumours are that its popularity bombed so much, they closed up shop, moved out of Poland and didn’t attempt a return of the franchise until 2015.
In a tradition dating back at least as the 16th century, Tłusty Czwartek is such a part of Polish culture that is actually said to be bad luck for anyone who doesn’t take part in the day’s activities by gorging on the sweet treats. In fact, the peer pressure can be so much, that an old proverb on the occasion claimed, “those who don’t eat a stack of pączki on Fat Thursday will have an empty barn and their field destroyed by mice”.
Every February, recommended calorie allowances are torn up and tossed aside, as people wake up across Poland to the sweet aroma of baked doughnuts and start the annual tradition of heading to their favourite pączki bakery.
By late morning on Fatty Thursday, any poor soul who has forgotten what day it is, has woken up, cottoned on and attempted a last minute dash to the bakery. By now the queues have already formed. Such is the demand for the doughnuts, that offices assign a designated Paczki runner whose job that day is to forget whatever project they were previously working on, however important it may be and run, run to man the long line to pączki salvation. There is nothing greater for staff morale in the office. If successful, the pazcki runner will return to the office a hero, if not they could be shunned at the next Christmas party. As demand gets high you can expect to see the victorious, dashing gleefully back to their workmates carrying huge box-fulls, about to become employee of the month and be a shoe-in for that promotion.
As the demand increases so does the pressure. In the chaos, people panic and start to buy extras for their friends, only to find their friends have already bought extras for them. Supplies start to run short. By early afternoon, queueing for over an hour is the norm. By the evening the whole city has consumed so many doughnuts, that people lie in sugar induced, sleep-comas in quiet coffee shop corners all around Krakow’s Old Town. With people overloaded with their sickly sight, remaining pączki are strewn on bar tops and hotel receptions, given away for free to unknowing tourists, who have know idea what they missed out on. And then it’s all over for another year.
As much as most bakeries in Krakow will put out a display especially for the occasion, there are specialist pączki bakeries around, that dedicate their entire year and menu, to producing the sticky treats. Everyone has their favourite, but we’ve listed a couple of the most popular below.
Szewska 25, 31-009
Situated just a minute’s walk from Krakow’s main square and literally translating to Hot Polish doughnuts, there is a window display of pączki here, that would entice any passer by. The location in the city centre means it is likely to be one of the busiest bakeries come Fat Thursday, but if you can get in early it’s worth the queue.
Stradomska 18, 33-332/ Bastowa 31-156
Stara Pączkarnia are actually a specialist chain these days, with stores all over Poland, including two sites in Krakow. Some prefer the local bakery touch, so die hard fans might disagree here, but specialist chain or not, Stara Pączkarnia cooks up a damn good pączek. When the sweet scent of freshly baked doughnuts wafts through the underpass that divides the Planty park from Galeria Krakowska, who could fail to be drawn in? With flavours like Kinder Bueno, sitting seductively beside old favourite rose jam, there is a reason these guys have spread across the country.
Lody na Starowislnej
Starowislna 83, 33-332
This is one of those places that everyone seems to know about just from its reputation alone. It is a pretty unassuming and simple bakery, that is actually probably better known for having a queue out the door for its ice cream in the summer. This small independent bakery gets through the winter months by also serving up some mouth-wateringly fluffy pączki.
These are just a few. There are dozens of great places for pączki all around Krakow and come Tłusty Czwartek you will not be in short supply if you can get in there early enough. If in doubt, just look out for a queue forming somewhere nearby, chances are those people know something you don’t!