The search for slow food starts, a little improbably it may seem, in Poland's Beskidy Hills. Here, under the shadow of the High Tatras away to the south, is a land of folded ridges and forested valleys. The overnight train from Warsaw arrives at Chabówka bang on time after its eight hour journey from the Polish capital. As you climb down from the train onto the snowy platform, warmth flees, and the bitter ice cold of the February morning is everywhere. "The bus to Kasina Wielka?" says the man on the platform, repeating the question. "Yes, it leaves from outside the station" he says with a gravelly tone that hints of an excess of cigarettes and vodka. Then he adds, rather apologetically: "But it went at five to six, and the next one is not till the same time tomorrow morning".
From Kasina Wielka, it is a 6 km walk along snowy tracks and lanes to the Cistercian monastery, where, despite the vicissitudes of Polish politics, some things have not changed for at least four hundred years. This is Szczyrzyc (pronounced 'Sh-tshi-zhits'), a Cistercian foundation that has been here for eight centuries, one of only two in the country that have an uninterrupted history of prayer and diligent work. The white priory church of the Assumption of Mary, set amid the spruce forests and little irregular pastures, is a handsome enough building, with its oversized gables and neat collection of adjacent farm buildings, the priory museum and cloister. On this bitter Saturday morning, all frost breath and icicles, the adjacent football pitch is evident only from the goal posts poking through the snow.
As recently as a couple of years ago, the route to Szczyrzyc was a road less taken. Few visitors disturbed the tranquil valley, and the Cisterian community here, noted for its strong agrarian traditions, quietly played out their prayerful lives in the manner prescribed by their congregation's motto: "ora et labora" (pray and work).
Then something very curious happened.