Leith is a dirty word. At least, many residents of rest of Edinburgh seem to think that, and wonder, why would one move to that part of town. Once a borough in its own right, it never seemed to work up a good reputation – even though it was the last place in the capital where trams were actually up and running; go figure.
At the same time, Leith is an epicentre of fine dining experience, with two Michelin Star establishments within its borders*; on top of that, staggered across the Shore and beyond are countless restaurants and cafes catering for all shapes and sizes of customers. After all, in the Midlothian dictionary, Leith stands for minority haven.
A stroll down Leith Walk, one of the longest roads in Edinburgh that connect Leith with the New Town, and you’re bound to understand. Apart from coffee shops and eateries, there are souvenir shops, furniture shops, clothes shops and even bookshops ran by Asians, Africans and Arabs, serving their own public and the more adventurous Brits who brave it inside. Among those it’s impossible to forget about the arguably second biggest minority on this side of the border: the Poles. With three shops on the Walk alone, it’s pretty much in your face – that’s how they do it, the Polish way.
It could be argued that this is where Leith gained its bad fame; the Brits, after all, don’t like having their noses rubbed in anything, especially greatness of foreign origin. Yet, with Deli Polonia there might have been a breakthrough.
Opened in 2005 as a first Polish delicatessen in Edinburgh, the Deli was a one shop establishment set up to meet the needs of growing Polonia in the capital. Five years later it acquired two neighbouring shops and expanded into a full-blown business, more of a mini-supermarket than a “survival pack” for immigrated countrymen. Today it attracts a variety of customers not only with the abundant choice of fresh and non-perishable foods, but also with fresh bread, baked daily on the premises (a Sunday Greggs remedy!), and a sit-in or take-away catering service.
The cafe section of the Deli has developed considerably in the recent months, although visually not much has changed – apart from the blackboards on the walls, of course. These have expanded alongside the growing selection of hot and cold dishes on offer, both from traditional Polish kitchens, as well as from locally safer options from the British Isles. The manager, Tomasz, says that the place attracts many Poles, but also tourists and Scots.
“Through our café we wanted to give the locals a taster of our Polish cuisine. On our menu we have the classic dishes such as pierogi [dumplings], schabowe [pork cutlets], mielone [mincemeat cutlets], which people here don’t really know. This way we wanted to open the doors for them to our Polish world.
“The British people who come in say they are really pleased with the experience, and agree, this is a kind of food they never ate before. And they like it! They open up to our tastes…”
Indeed, whilst having a browse round the place, you can often hear some English voices, many quite confidently making their choices; especially when stood in front of the spirits counter. Surely, together with the fresh bread and pierogi, this must be the product most sought for by the Scottish visitors (proof is in the pudding: a couple of bottles chill in the pastry case, next to the cakes in the cafe section).
Although Tomasz took over the place only in December, he knew how to use its potential and didn’t fear to put his plans into action. He says he has a few new projects planned, but did not want to give away any details.
Deli Polonia is a haven for home-sick immigrants, as it offers absolutely everything a Pole might need when in doubt of own nationality; there are magazines in mother language to catch up on the latest political and celebrity gossip; medicine that has been trusted since childhood (although it might not carry the best memories); there’s even Holiday decorations, including Easter Baskets that some more dutiful residents might be taking to St. Mary’s on Good Saturday; but most importantly, there’s the traditional Polish food, that cannot be substituted by any other produce.
“I really like the idea of a Polish deli in the UK,” says Beata. “Having lived here for over five years I really miss Polish food. I don’t live in Edinburgh, but whenever I’m in town I stock up on stuff like bread, sweet buns, cooked meats, even soft cheese for cheesecake.”
Paul, an Englishman and a vegetarian, also enjoys the goods provided by the Deli, such as Polish mustard or pierogi ruskie [savoury cheese and onion dumplings]. “And most of all, Polish beer,” he adds.
Tomasz doesn’t fear the competition from two other shops further down the road, and why should he? The Deli offers much more than just the food; it offers it to your liking, served on a plate to your table by a person who knows best, what your food should taste like – even if you don’t. Either way, your first experience of Poland will quite likely differ from what you were expecting; you might love it or hate it. But if there’s a place to break your duck, it’s got to be this place on the Walk.
And you might just leave wondering, why do they actually say all those things about Leith…?