In December 2008, I penned these words in the Times Literary Supplement:
Katarzyna Dzieduszycka was sitting at her desk at Warsaw’s Association of Polish Writers and Artists in 1956 when a quiet, unassuming young man sat down in a nearby chair, waiting for an appointment. She noticed that he seemed as shy as she was. When he was finally called into his interview, the twenty seven-year-old secretary whispered to her co-worker. “Who was that?” “He’s going to be our new director!”, the colleague replied.
Zbigniew Herbert, the young man, was not, in fact, particularly young – he was thirty-two years old. Nor was he a composer. But he definitely needed a job; and he got it. The poet was made the head of the Association of Polish Composers. Katarzyna Dzieduszycka, who eventually became Mrs Herbert, now lives in a pleasant, light-filled apartment in Warsaw, next to the verdant enclave of Morskie Park. (It wasn’t posh when the Herberts moved in, but the post-Communist years have been kind to it.) …
The relationship evolved in a cafeteria, Mrs Herbert remembered. As Herbert spoke about poetry and recited poems to her, they drank Egmi Bikower, a ubiquitous Hungarian white wine, the only wine readily available in postwar Poland. To the Polish Galatea, it might as well have been the nectar of the gods. “I wasn’t the first or last one who fell in love with him”, she admitted. “Courtship is nice, but it didn’t last forever, because Herbert treated his life seriously. The time of reciting poetry and flirting soon finished. His first priority was writing.”
Horror! The column inspired this reply a few days later, which was forwarded to me by my editor:
This may appear a piddling point, but the name of “Egmi Bikower”, the “ubiquitous Hungarian white wine” which Zbigniew Herbert and Katarzyna Dzieduszycka drank during their courtship (Commentary, 12th December), bears a more than passing phonetic resemblance to Egri Bikaver, the famous and delicious “Bulls’ Blood from Eger”. Legend has it that the Turks withdrew from a siege of Eger when they heard that the red stains on the beards of the inhabitants were the result of bulls’blood being their favourite tipple – an effect hardly likely to be produced by white wine.
I had made every effort to make sure that spelling of the wine was correct – I had Madame Herbert write it in my notebook with her own hand. Somewhere, I still have the notebook with her carefully printed words. Moreover, I have her words on a digital recording.
But I should have known better – I, the daughter of the Magyars, who had sipped bull’s blood at my grandfather’s knee. The Polish “w” is pronounced as “v.” And the rest was either pure error or a Polish variant I hadn’t recognized in time. Imagine the shame.
What, you may ask, does this have to do with the attractive man in the photo at left?
Ted Gioia had sent me these wise words on my Facebook page: “Try to find time to visit Wierzynek Restaurant while in Kraków. It’s been providing fine cuisine since 1364, and is one of my favorite European eateries.”
I made the trek to the restaurant (the fare was somewhat more limited for vegetarians … well, not just “somewhat”) and instead I found Davide, who gave me a tour of the historic restaurant, and a tour of its gift shop as well.
And what should he show me? That’s right. A bottle of Egri Bikaver. In Poland. Which makes it even more likely it was in the company cafeteria in 1956.
Poland recognizes its limitations, the connoisseur told me – and one of them is that it doesn’t produce great wine. So they are happy to import the good stuff from their neighbors. Hungarians and Poles have always enjoyed an especial affinity – Czesław Miłosz thought so as well.
The wine he showed me, however, is not cheap plonk from a company cafeteria, nor is it white wine. And it was, alas, too expensive, and too heavy, to haul back in my bulging suitcases.