This is a long overdue post. Back in September I visited Radzionków outside Katowice in southern Poland to record part of a programme for Our Daily Bread as the radio series is tentatively titled.
The contrast between Katowice and Krakow couldn’t have been starker. Katowice is an industrial maze of highways and tower blocks at the heart of the manufacturing and mining region of Silesia. Krakow is a graceful and elegant monument to Poland’s glorious past.
Having spent the day in and around the former I got on the train and headed East. The train was slow but should have been simple. It wasn’t. It was due to leave at 8.13 but almost fifteen minutes later there was no sign and no announcement and no one to ask what was going on. I rushed back to the ticket booth where they blithely informed me that though it said 8.13 on the ticket these days it ran at 8.35. Thanks. I rushed back. The train then took more than two hours to roll some 70km between the two cities. That’s cycling speed.
However the trip to Krakow was worth it. I was met at the station Katarzyna Zechenter, a lecturer in Polish Culture at University College London. A better guide I could not have wished for. We visited the university and the castle, we toured ancient streets and churches. Every building, every corner had a story attached to it. Katarzyna started by telling me how the bublik, a bread ring indigenous to Krakow is commonly seen as the ancestor of the bagel. It’s certainly a reminder that at its height the Polish state was a remarkably cosmopolitan and inclusive nation by the standards of its time. It makes the country’s contemporary near monoculturalism all the more shocking.
Poland leant towards Protestantism in the late 16th Century but the Jesuits reclaimed the country for Rome, and according to Katarzyna they did it with theatre and spectacle.
However they went about it the Jesuits certainly cemented Catholicism’s dominance in Poland and in later centuries that faith came to play a part in keeping the Poles’ sense of identity alive during the long years when their nation had ceased to be.
If you look at the churches of Krakow you’ll understand what Katarzyna means. British churches are plain; dour Puritanism saw to that. Poland’s churches are not. They dazzle. Sometimes, as in the case of St Mary’s basilica on the main Market Square, they overwhelm.
The interior of St Andrew’s Church is no less gaudy but its gaudiness is delicately if extravagantly 18th Century.
However I was in Poland first and foremost for bread so Katarzyna and I inevitably wanted to look inside a traditional bakery.
This one was in the old Jewish quarter not far from the castle, once the seat of Poland’s kings. I’d expected the owners, confronted with a couple of visitors wanting to have a look behind the scenes of a bakery in full production, to have politely said ‘sorry, not possible’. Instead we were welcomed in. The oven they use in the bakery is probably a century old. I have a feeling it was made in Britain.
I really liked the pictures of the family on the wall in the shop. Just as with Michael’s bakery in Cologne there is a sense of family and history and continuity. That history in Krakow’s Jewish quarter is inevitably poignant, all the more so given that, as Katarzyna pointed out, the Jews were lured onto trains to the death camps with bread. Bread was in such short supply, they reasoned, that had the Germans intended them harm they wouldn’t have wasted bread on them.
Bread in Poland is becoming industrialised in the same way as it has in Britain. The traditional sourdough method is giving way to the Chorley Wood Bread Process which produces cheaper bread and quite possibly bread that stores longer but it doesn’t produce Polish bread. There is a rather sad irony to this as bread was, like Catholicism, something of a nationalist symbol during the 123 years to 1918 in which Poland ceased to exist.
My grasp of Polish history is tenuous to say the least. Growing up in England Poland barely features in the syllabus. Aside from Britain’s going to war over the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany we learn nothing.
While Sir Francis Drake was storing up work for the NHS by bringing tobacco back to England and while the Cavaliers and Roundheads were arguing over hairstyles and how flouncy their collars should be, Poland, in the shape of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth stretched from the Baltic almost to the shores of the Black Sea. While Western and Central Europe were riven by religious wars Poland grew the grain that fed the continent and prospered.
The history of Poland can be written in bread. Through it you get a sense of the Poles defining characteristics; their stubbornness, determination and will to survive. I got that from almost everyone I spoke to in Poland. I just hope they’re as stubborn about preserving the small but worthwhile things that give their culture its identity and they are determined to build a more prosperous future for themselves.