My place of belonging is West Cork
I see myself primarily as a human being and my place of belonging is West Cork. These are the only two labels I’ll admit to. But I am proud of my Polish and other cultural influences.
So said Frank Krawczyk as he told us his family's amazing story in URRU, Bandon, last Saturday evening in a round-the-table discussion hosted by Ruth Healy and guided by Dianne Curtin. The event was one in the Art of Living Series, itself part of the local Engage Arts Festival.
That story ranged from the second world war in Poland, the gulag and the Katyn forest in Russia, prison and refugee camps, Kazakhstan, India, Uganda, London, Franco’s Spain, West Cork’s Baltimore and Schull and even Tankardstown House where Frank’s son Robbie is now head chef and carrying on the charcuterie trade that made his father a living.
Poland was right in the middle of the conflict as WW2 raged back and forth across Europe. Its citizens were pawns, many lives taken, many disrupted forever. Frank’s immediate relations were caught up in the mayhem and he never got to meet many of them, including his father’s parents.The Soviet Union was particularly harsh on Poland and no less than 15,000 Polish officers were murdered in the Katyn atrocities.
His father was released and made his own way, with great difficulty to the Caspian Sea, and from there to transit camps in Persia (Iran). At that stage, the British were dispersing refugees to the Commonwealth countries and his mother (she hadn't met his father, yet) ended up in India, close to Kerala, along with 15,000 others. She even got to meet Gandhi and wrote about it.
His father, who had been badly treated in the Gulag, had been fairly well educated and also ended up in India, getting work at the Polish consulate from 1943-45. But the new Polish government, a communist one, dispensed with his services and he too was sent to the refugee camp where he met his future wife.
After Indian independence, the refugees were relocated to many countries. By then, Frank's father was working in camp administration and made sure that both he and his future wife would end up together. And they did both get to Uganda, to a camp near Kampala. Here, they married and here both Frank and his sister were born.
But, by 1951, the family was on the move, this time to England where Frank would be educated. Up to then, he had spoken only Polish and had no English when starting school. The food at home was very much Polish. His memories from that time including: free range chickens, beehives, foraging for mushrooms and wild strawberries. His Russian grandmother influenced his culinary awareness, as did Polish and neighbouring cuisines.
He went on to work in London where he would meet his own wife Ann. After his introduction to the hippy movement in the 60s, he dropped out and headed off to, of all places, Franco’s Spain. He tried to get home but needed the assistance of the British consulate. Ann, from Cork, had made her own way to Paris where she too joined the hippy “movement”.
Six months after the Spanish escapade, Frank heard a knock on his door. The young visitors said they had come for the party. Frank said there is no party here. “There is now,” said the hippies. In return, Frank was invited to the next party, in Hampstead, and it was here that he met Ann.
She brought him home and introduced him to West Cork. “It was winter time,” he recalled, “but even so I decided to move to Ireland and it happened two years later in 1974”. A year earlier (1973), they were married in Baltimore and spent the honeymoon on Sherkin Island.
When Frank started living in West Cork, he had nothing but a self sufficiency book (by John Seymour). He was leaving “a good enough job” behind but “never had a great grá of urban living. I preferred the woods and foraging.”
Some years later, he had his “beginnings in food production”. Not with charcuterie but by making a soft fresh cheese (Polish style but from a Scottish recipe based on buttermilk). It was quite a success and won a 1st prize in the RDS in 1990.
Gradually he got back and used to occasionally fill in for his sons who were working as kitchen porters in a local restaurant. The chef patron though was in the habit of drinking too much and often Frank had to do the cooking, learning a lot in the process. Lots of compliments were coming his way but, when he asked for a raise, the boss told him where to go!
Next step was to start his own supper club. And that was such a success that they still get requests to stage it again. It was here too that son Robbie “got a liking” for cooking (even if his 3rd level education took a completely different track). But later he raised the money for the Ballymaloe course and it was that that put the younger Krawczyk on his way.
And it was while doing the supper club that Frank decided to revisit salamis, based on the Polish style of his childhood memories. But, having mastered the technique, he gradually came to the intention, and then the practice, that it was “better to do something from the region rather than replicate from somewhere else”.
He was so successful that he was soon recognised by Euro Toques. “I just happened to be the one that opened the door for Irish charcuterie, similar to what Veronica Steele did for cheese.”
It was with the supper club and the charcuterie that Frank had his battle with the food bureaucracy though he smilingly admitted to being as “much an architect of the battle as the system”. I am a firm believer in the “economics of enough”, that is making enough to live on and no more. He doesn't want to make a fortune but rules are made for the big producers, not for the small but, of course, they are still applied to the small.
Frank is no longer producing his own charcuterie. Son Robbie is now doing it at Tankardstown. And Frank is obviously and rightly proud of that. But, he stressed, “he is not copying, he is doing his own thing.” Frank participated in the launch of Slow Food West Cork, about ten years ago, and is still very much involved.
The many Polish people coming to Ireland, over the past fifteen years or so, have given Frank opportunities to use Polish, “my first language”. “There is a lot I can give to that community. I value my Polish education.”
And there is doubt that West Cork and the Irish food scene generally values Frank.