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Polish Favorite Comes to the Valley

  • Viktor Witkowski spoons a potato and cheese mixture onto pierogi dough at his home in Norwich, Vt. on Jan. 24, 2014. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Viktor Witkowski spoons a potato and cheese mixture onto pierogi dough at his home in Norwich, Vt. on Jan. 24, 2014. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

  • Viktor Wikowskii's home made pierogis. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Viktor Wikowskii's home made pierogis. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

  • Viktor Witkowski crimps a pierogi closed at his home in Norwich, Vt. on Jan. 24, 2014. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Viktor Witkowski crimps a pierogi closed at his home in Norwich, Vt. on Jan. 24, 2014. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

  • Viktor Witkowski makes pierogis at his home in Norwich, Vt. on Jan. 24, 2014. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Viktor Witkowski makes pierogis at his home in Norwich, Vt. on Jan. 24, 2014. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

  • Viktor Witkowski spoons a potato and cheese mixture onto pierogi dough at his home in Norwich, Vt. on Jan. 24, 2014. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • Viktor Wikowskii's home made pierogis. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • Viktor Witkowski crimps a pierogi closed at his home in Norwich, Vt. on Jan. 24, 2014. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • Viktor Witkowski makes pierogis at his home in Norwich, Vt. on Jan. 24, 2014. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

After leading the wandering life of a student and an academic, Viktor Witkowski and his wife moved to the Upper Valley in 2012. He had been teaching art in Paris, and thought he’d be able to find a job teaching art here.

But the concentration of artists in the area is high and Witkowski’s many applications yielded no leads.

In a way, it was a lucky stroke. He had long toyed with the idea of starting a food business and, with no teaching jobs on the horizon, he felt free to try his hand.

So it was that Witkowski introduced to his new neighbors his own spin on pierogi, the doughy cornerstone of Polish cuisine.

“I just realized there is very little informal dining” in the Upper Valley, Witkowski said in an interview at his Norwich home. Like Worthy Burger and Worthy Kitchen, the pair of no-frills, good-eats establishments in South Royalton and Woodstock, respectively, Witkowski hopes to exploit the gap in the Upper Valley food scene. The inventive food trucks, ethnic kitchens and pop-up restaurants that populate the vast middle ground between fine dining places and humble diners and cafes in most places are pretty thin on the ground around here.

Traditional pierogi are stuffed with cheese and potato, ground beef, sauerkraut or sweet preserves. They are like middle-aged former Midwestern football players, pale and doughy. Pierogi are usually boiled, then fried. And the word pierogi is plural; the singular form is pierog, but no one ever eats just one.

Witkowski, a slightly built 35-year-old, does not make traditional pierogi. He experimented with dough to find one light but sturdy enough to hold together. He started out with a store-bought local cheese, but now makes his own ricotta-style cheese from McNamara Dairy milk. He makes his own sauerkraut because packaged sauerkraut contains vinegar as a preservative, which he said damages the dough and the flavor.

The pierogi he makes and sells under his Pierogi Me! label come in three varieties: cheese and potato, which are seasoned with black pepper, salt, nutmeg and caramelized onions; mushroom and sauerkraut; and the same ricotta-style cheese sweetened with maple syrup, cinammon and vanilla bean.

Although he was born in Poland and spent much of his upbringing there, it wasn’t until he was 10 that he discovered the flavors of the national cuisine.

When he was 5, Witkowski’s family was forced to flee Poland. This was in 1983. Poland was under martial law and young Viktor was a sickly child.

“My parents prety much packed one suitcase and we made it over to what was then West Germany,” he said.

With his parents in their 20s and scraping by, traditional food wasn’t on the menu.

Martial law ended in 1983 and a general amnesty was declared in 1986. Witkowski was able to visit his grandparents in 1987, and it was there that he first tasted pierogi.

“I think that was the first time I became aware of food, of good food, homemade food,” he said. His grandmother is a good cook, he said, and he spent many summers in Poland.

Since then, his travels have educated his palate. He studied art in Germany, then emigrated to the United States in 2006. He lived in Ann Arbor, Mich., for a year, then in Paris for a year, then earned a masters of fine arts degree from Rutgers University in 2010. He and his wife, Dartmouth art history professor Katie Hornstein, then lived in Paris for two years.

“Definitely Paris taught me how to eat and how to taste,” he said. He also traveled, and ate, widely in the U.S. “That was kind of like my boot camp, my training, traveling and eating,” he said.

Witkowski is unusual among Upper Valley food purveyors in his ability to talk about how he feels about what he does. He keeps a studio at AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon, and would like to do a portrait project of veterans in the area. But making the pierogi has become an art form in its own way. It’s meditative, a solitary routine, Witkowski said. Taking them to the farmer’s market changes the enterprise.

“There’s something about this sort of instant satisfaction you get when you feed somebody,” Witkowski said. “It’s almost like a collaboration, this business, a collaboration between pierogi and the people who live here.”

He started taking his pierogi to farmers markets last fall, and the response has been far greater than what he expected.

“I was actually really overwhelmed at first because there were so many orders,” he said. At his first Lebanon Farmers Market he sold out.

“If I want to expand, like, I’m going to need a commercial kitchen,” Witkowski said. Commercial kitchen space is at a premium in the Upper Valley.

For now, the pierogi are available only at Dan and Whit’s in Norwich and at whatever farmers market Witkowski chooses to attend. He posts his planned farmers market stops on his website, pierogime.com.

When a reporter stopped by his house for an interview, Witkowski set out small plates of the two savory pierogi he sells. It’s a Polish tradition to offer food to guests, he said. The local ingredients and the nontraditional methods turn his pierogi into an Upper Valley product.

“It’s kind of like taking the ingredients from this area, taking the experience of eating all over the world and putting them in the pierog,” he said.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.