The Life of an Artisan Baker – Piotr Banachowski

Jan 31, 2024

This article first appeared in the Jan/Feb 24 issue of Style of Wight magazine. Words by James Rayner. Photography by Julian Winslow

At 2 AM on a chilly Monday morning, behind the unassuming door of an industrial unit in Lake, master baker Piotr Banachowski ties his apron strings and fires up his ovens. His rustic sourdoughs have been cold-proofing overnight, sitting in the fridge in their own wicker baskets, awaiting the intense heat of the bread oven which will shortly bring them to life. As Piotr selects his baking paddle, ready to start the day’s work, it’s clear his connection with artisan bread is a deep-rooted one – and one that leads all the way back to Poland and the year 1990.

Master baker Piotr with his freshly baked sourdough loaves

Born in the central Polish city of Inowrocław, Piotr started professional bakery studies at the age of fifteen, encouraged by his car mechanic father and his mother who was a housewife. After three years, he travelled north to the city of Bydgoszcz for his theory and practice exams, soon working full-time in a string of different bakeries. Here he kneaded and baked Poland’s traditional (often German-influenced) specialities including chleb żytni (rye bread), chleb baltonowski (a sourdough made with 40% rye) and the horn-shaped rogalik rolls, which are traditionally dipped in natural yoghurt before eating. Later he learnt the art of confectionery and after five years he passed his final exams with the Guild of Various Crafts, earning him the title ‘master of professional bakery’, something he’s clearly very proud of.

“Apart from a break of a few months” Piotr tells us, “I’ve been a baker ever since. Then, in 2006 I came to the Isle of Wight after my sister, who was working in a Sandown hotel, found out that Grace’s Bakery had a vacancy that needed filling. I arrived on a Friday and started work on the Monday, without a single word of English. Unfortunately, the only second language we’d been taught at school during Soviet times was Russian’.

Sourdough – cut, weighed and ready to prove

In 2018, Piotr’s career took an entrepreneurial direction as he decided to take the plunge and set up his own baking business. He took over the keys to Number 10, Shanklin High Street and created an Eastern European-style delicatessen with a small in-house bakery at the back. Visible from between the shelves of Polish rosehip tea and Moldovan wine, Piotr baked everything from sourdough bread and drożdżówka pastry swirls, to cheesecakes and traditional apple pie. Every Saturday was ‘doughnut day’ when he cooked Polish pączki (pronounced: ponch-kee) doughnuts, filled with jam, cream, custard or salted caramel – a tradition that continues in the shop to this day. Initially a well-kept secret amongst the Island’s Eastern European residents, local Brits soon became aware of Piotr’s top-notch baking too and demand for his goods was rising.

“A few years later” Piotr explains, “an opportunity came up to take over the Island Bakers kitchen in Lake, so we moved the bakery there and started increasing production. Assisting me today is John, a hotel management graduate from Kerala in India who previously worked in kitchens for the British Army both in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s a very good bakery student and always strives to make sure everything is perfect. I also took on confectioner Andrzej a few weeks ago and my sister Kasia helps in the office with all the paperwork.”

Originally from Kerala in India, John is now Piotr’s right-hand man

This small but talented team now supply artisan, locally baked bread right across the Island, from Bembridge Farm Shop and Rosalie’s of Cowes, to the restaurants of Cibo in Wootton and Fumo in Ryde. Over in West Wight, The Piano Cafe frequently toasts Piotr’s sourdough, whilst PO41 make it into sandwiches and Orchard Brothers of Freshwater Bay sell a selection of aromatic loaves. Meanwhile, the delicatessen in Shanklin is now run by Piotr’s cheerful wife Justyna, where, aside from the rustic bread and poppy seed rolls, customers can also test the ever-changing selection of cakes, pies and pastries – such as the chocolate and cream wuzetka cake (a 1940s invention, supposedly named after the W-Z motorway near Warsaw).

“At the moment,” Piotr tells us “our most popular products seem to be the traditional sourdough bread and sourdough baguettes, as well as the walnut and cranberry bread, our olive and thyme, spelt with sunflower seeds and the rustic white. We’re trying to do something different, something you just can’t find in the supermarkets. For Christmas, John helped us devise a special Keralan-inspired Christmas cake with figs, dates, apricots, prunes and sweet ginger, all mixed together with candied peel and dried fruits, before being soaked in dark rum. We’ll keep heading in this direction in future, trying new things and pushing to create the highest quality artisan bakery products that we can”.

Artisan sourdough, fresh from the oven

Having sampled Piotr’s creations numerous times in recent years, we can confirm there’s something very special about his baking, no doubt down to his thirty-four years of expert experience and perhaps the fact his bread is kneaded (unusually for an industrial kitchen) on natural wood. Whatever it is, as we leave him cutting and weighing the next batch of dough, we can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.