(Black Bread and Black Coffee)
It’s been an exhilarating two or three weeks with three excursions to different parts of Europe in search of the stories that bread has to tell.
After Cologne my next stop was southern Poland. I flew into Katowice with Agnes Gabriel from the Polish Bakery in London and headed straight for the bread museum at Radzionków about 25km from the airport.
The setting seemed slightly unlikely. It’s not quite in the middle of nowhere but it’s a forgotten corner, shall we say, of a region known more for industry than for its beauty.
The museum itself is charming. If I understand correctly it’s not professionally curated, rather it’s a labour of love by the owner, Piotr Mankiewicz, a baker himself who set up the museum to try to convey something of Poland’s long and intimate relationship with bread to the next generation of bakers.
Bakers however were less in evidence than schoolchildren. A party of four year olds was just leaving as we arrived, shepherded onto buses by the nuns who run their nursery.
There’s a room in the museum devoted to counting machines, from old tills (and probably an abacus somewhere) through thirty five years of computing. There is a school classroom with old fashioned desks. There are shop counters and eclectic collections of china. Piotr tested me with a cup with a built in moustache protector (useful in Poland’s recent history – moustaches were worn with pride), a gravy boat and a shaving mug. I have to confess that I guessed all three. Piotr got his own back with an early inhaler and a vintage fridge.
There is a room full of baking equipment, but the star feature is not any of the exhibits but Piotr himself. He is a living archive of Polish baking traditions. Industrialisation has come to Poland just as it has transformed bread making in Britain, the US and much of continental Europe. If Poles are to stay in touch with their rich cultural heritage they’ll need people like Piotr.
Perhaps unsurprisingly Poles abroad miss traditional bread, made using a leaven, or a sour as some would have it. Homesick Poles in Britain are the foundation of Agnes’s hugely successful business in Wembley. Started in 2002/3 with just her and her partner she now employs more than 80 people making sourdough bread for Britain’s Polish community.
I’m not going to give away everything ahead of next year’s Radio 4 series about bread, but suffice it to say that bread tells you a lot about Poland and the Poles. So did the hospitality of everyone I met while there not least Agnes and her sister who were kind enough to drive me around, translate, help tell the story of Poland and bread and to treat me to pierogi, Polish dumplings, albeit the Polish dumplings Poles call Russian dumplings. Delicious and wonderful.