Polish Deli isn’t exactly off the beaten track. You’ll find it in Queen Victoria Market’s busy deli hall. And no matter what time of day, there’s almost always a swarm of shoppers lining up to order smoked smallgoods – many speaking Polish – from the tiny shop’s elevated counter.
It’s been here since the ’60s, and in the years since it’s barely changed. Staff duck under a row of dried sausages strung up along the window to serve customers. All the hams and cold cuts are presented whole (not pre-sliced), spiked with handwritten neon-coloured labels.
Choose from single-, double- or triple-smoked meats; ox tongue in jelly; tatrzańska sausage made with pork, beef and coriander seed; German liverwurst; żywiecka (a fatty pork sausage with juniper berries from the southern region of Żywiec); and several varieties of smoked pork loin – similar to a lean, dry, smoky ham. The food here is mostly Polish, but you’ll find the odd German, Croatian, Albanian and Russian cut too.
“I like to think it’s like a toy shop for adults. They get excited, they smell the smallgoods,” says owner Peter Langtry. “I’ve probably got the [best-smelling] deli in the market.”
Langtry says his entire staff is bilingual, to help Polish customers feel at home. All but two staff members are Polish – one German-Australian man, and Langtry himself. He was born in Melbourne and refers to himself as “the custodian” of this 57-year-old deli, which he bought in 1998 from a woman from Krakow, Aleksandra Kwiatkowska, who passed away earlier this year. He hasn’t changed much.
“She was my hero,” says Langtry. “Because when she came to Australia she couldn’t speak any English. [Customers] used to point to what they wanted, and they’d put up how many fingers they wanted in slices … When I bought the deli off her she loved the deli so much she stayed on and worked with me.”
Langtry’s wife owns a nearby cheese shop and he used to love working there on Saturdays. When he dropped her off for work during the week he’d usually head straight to Polish Deli – which was his favourite deli in Melbourne – for smoked sausages. When the opportunity came through word-of-mouth to buy it, it was an easy decision.
One sausage the Polish community will make a special trip for is kiełbasa weselna, or wedding sausage, which Langtry says is his biggest seller. It’s a lean pork sausage made from smoked leg ham, packed with garlic and black pepper, and hot-smoked (over a flame rather than embers) for 45 minutes. It goes well with cold, almost fizzy ogórki kiszone (cucumber pickles fermented over several weeks in water, salt, garlic and dill – no vinegar), and ćwikła (cooked grated beetroot mixed with horseradish).
Members of Melbourne’s Polish community, which arrived en masse after WWII, come to the deli for this huge range of cold cuts, as well as the bits and bobs that go with it. You’ll find jars of horseradish in varying degrees of sharpness, mustards from all over Eastern Europe, pickled pine mushrooms and even Polish stock cubes. In Poland, cold meats are traditionally served sliced at drugie śniadanie (second breakfast, eaten mid-morning) or kolacja (supper) on a platter with rye bread, pickles, raw vegetables such as tomatoes and cucumber, and horseradish.
You’ll also find a handful of different types of pickled herring; twaróg, or quark, something halfway between ricotta and cottage cheese, which is used to make sernik, a baked cheesecake; jars of pickled vegetables; Polish confectionary such as boiled blackcurrant lollies and crumbly milk fudge; fruit teas; and frozen pierogi (half-moon dumplings the size of an apple quarter, filled with quark and potato, mushrooms and sauerkraut, or blueberries). They come from a woman in Sunshine who hand-makes them for the deli.
It’s mindboggling that roughly 70 products fit into this miniature space. Most of the pantry items are imported from Poland, and smallgoods come from independent, small-scale Polish or Eastern European smokehouses around Australia. One of the deli’s main suppliers is Polish smokehouse Narel Smallgoods in Sydney, which has been smoking sausages using wood chips shipped from Poland since 1997. Another in Laverton smokes meat on German beechwood, and another in Sunshine North smokes on red gum.
“People come for all the old flavours,” Langtry says. “They come for things they can’t get in the supermarket, and they come to get what they had when they were a child, or what their mother or father used to make before they died, it’s like a revisit to their growing up.”
But, he says, “Smoked smallgoods appeal to many people,” says Langtry. “You don’t have to have it in your DNA.”
Shop 5–6, Deli Hall, Queen Victoria Market, 513 Elizabeth Street, North Melbourne
(03) 9348 9211
Tue & Thu 6am–2pm