Sonhood starts here

Whenever I went to other people’s houses, with the exception of my friend Declan, they always seemed to smell of cabbage. I assumed this is what English people had to eat every day and that was why their houses smelled of it. They did not smell the same as my house, which as far as I was concerned did not smell of anything because that was what houses were supposed to smell of. Declan did once ask me why my house always smelled of garlic. Other people’s bread and cakes never looked quite right. Our bun rounds were how bun rounds were meant to be. Other people’s bun rounds were slightly odd. They were not wrong exactly but not quite right either. Machines and chemicals played an important role in getting this finish. Dad invested a great deal in rack ovens that used steam to produce a really good quality crust.

The best ovens for this came from Italy because the Italians were obsessed by having crusty bread and are not especially interested in the insides of loaves. So Elliott Road had big orange double rack ovens from Polin oven makers in Turin, the first of their kind in the UK. Ovens could do some of the work but additives did the rest.

There were two additives in particular that I remember, S500 and something called Sweetex. The job of both was to stabilise the work of the yeast which could be unpredictable, to ensure the goods appeared substantial enough and to prolong shelf life. When I first realised the importance of S500 in creating the bread and cakes that we lived by I was shocked. I suppose that I had assumed that except for the cut bread, a harsh necessity, the things that we made were somehow better just because we made them. I assumed that there was a virtue in technique and skill that made our stuff intrinsically superior. The quality of our additives mattered as much.

Looking back on it now, a mystery had been resolved, which raised the question of the authentic and the fake. Every element of the bakery was authentic in the sense that it was an artisan concern in which machines remained as good as the human input to them. This was not a plant bakery in which human intervention was minimal. Skill mattered. And yet part of that skill had been to ensure that the products looked and felt distinctive, even a little homemade. It was like a slash into my father’s standing in my eyes. There was never a single moment at which he became mortal. It was more one of the things that gave me a sense of his multidimensional nature. Super heroes are one dimensional, you cannot see behind them and they have no visible means of support. When you are very young fathers are rather like that. But S500 gave me a sense of the depth behind my father or rather of the wires holding him up. As you become bigger your parents must become smaller. If they do not you are not becoming yourself. As the major way my Dad and I related to each other was through the bakery his status in that context was vitally important. The universe I had created for the bakery relied on my perception of Dad as the ultimate craftsman. What was craft but human skill? S500. Even the name sounded like a Dr Who villain.

It was this villain that had made the finish to the goods I was now unpacking in Gigi. There were 18 shops in all, including one called “Yesterday’s Bake” which sold stale or out of date goods at a discount. The other shops operated under three names, Gigi, Annette’s Patisserie and the Bakers Shop. Two or three of the shops also had cafes attached called Cosy Cup. My mother also ran a boutique above one the shops in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The best shops were the ones called Gigi, especially the one in Christchurch. This was in a very old row of buildings at the base of the castle in Christchurch just in front of the medieval priory. On one side of the shop as you came in through a central front door was the sweet counter with floor to ceiling shelving. The shelves were filled with large jars of boiled sweets that were sold by weight. They remained stubbornly popular, and not just in Christchurch. Across Britain in 1961 307,000 tonnes of loose sweets were sold as “weight outs”. A decade later this had dropped to 305,000 tonnes. Nicholas Whittaker, the historian of sweets, accounts for this survival into the 1970s of boiled sweets, some of which had not changed since the 1890s, by their simplicity compared to the branded goods against which they competed:

“It wasn’t just the sweets themselves: for many people etiquette and ritual were just as important as the sugar fix. Buying a quarter of barley sugars, Everton mints or Tom Thumb drops took time and it was well-nigh impossible to conduct any such transaction without engaging in chat and pleasantries. The sugar jars and the weighing-out ceremony were parts of a street communion. Even the names rang out like a litany: “I’ll have four ounces of three noughts, red coughs, clear mints and strawberry sherbets”.

While Whittaker’s theory of street communion has something to it the reality was also harsher. While getting down a jar, opening the big and often tightly closed lid, weighing off the right amount and bagging it up, it was difficult to keep an eye on the customers and their little hands. Doing the jars was always rather difficult even if you just gave up trying to keep an eye on the wandering hands. Getting the lids off the big jars was a pain and once off your problems started. You had to get the right number out of the jars into the scales, hoping that the sweets had not stuck together or melted. When they had a huge congealed lump of sugar would come out of the jar and crash down on the scale. It was worse of course if the customer happened to one or more girls. The last thing I wanted was to surrender the obvious coolness of working behind this sweet counter by dealing with a huge mess of sweets on the flour. All you could hope for when pretty girls came in was that they would order chocolates or fudge instead.

The main counter of the sweet side housed our homemade chocolate range and an assortment of Dorset fudge. The chocolate making machine had been a major purchase. It operated from its own small room next to the fresh cream preparation area at Elliott Road. It was a very temperamental machine that needed a lot of attention. Dave the hippy baker became responsible for it. Dave seemed to live in the back of a small van that he had filled with cushions and rugs, and which was inevitably christened a shag wagon by the other bakers. He was a chirpy, bearded guy who clearly smoked dope but was also very smart and able to learn new things. He nursed the chocolate machine and did other roles around the bakery. The chocolates did not have perishable centres and kept for quite a long time. Serving the chocolates was much easier than doing the jars. The fudge was also straightforward but really too good not to pick at. The best time was when you opened a new box of fudge to fill up the trays in the counter. The fudge came in large blocks like a chocolate bar; you had to break them up into pieces. You didn’t want too many fragments left on the tray so…. For a long time after I left home I could not bring myself to eat to fudge.

Opposite the sweet counter was the cake counter. This was divided into fresh cream cakes in a chilled section, fondant and other fancy cakes both large and small, and then the morning goods that would not fit in the window or on the shelves behind. The first job to do when opening the shop was to fill the window. The drivers delivered the bread and morning goods in wire baskets and trays and left them at the back of the shop. On Sunday morning there would be a queue of people outside to get their fresh bread. The fancies were in the counter or in black plastic trays in a cupboard at the back of the shop. These could be brought out pretty quickly but the fresh goods had to be cleared from the middle of the shop first. To help build up the queue the best idea was to fill the window first. Then fill in the rest of space behind and above the counter as and when you had time. Things got really tense if the doors were opened too soon and people started asking for things that you had not yet unpacked.

In theory all fresh goods had to be picked up with tongs once you had started to serve customers because you would then take their money and put it in to the till. In reality you did use tongs if you could but with a queue going out of the door and down the street, with stuff not fully unpacked and with people shouting orders at you, the tongs were often forgotten. Everything was bagged up and with a flourish the bag was twisted over to seal it. Sometimes the bags would split open sending the carefully chosen cakes flying. When this happened I would lose count of what people had bought and have to start again. Serving in the shop was great fun if it was busy and intense like this because you never had a moment to stop. When the shop was quiet it was deadly boring because once you had filled everything up, cleaned the surfaces and restocked the bags there was nothing to do but wait for customers.

The far end of the shop had the sandwich counter with the filled rolls, baps, meat pieces, sausage rolls, Cornish pasties and canned drinks. There was also a whipped ice cream dispenser. This provided 99 flake single and double cones. Which meant that there were always boxes of 99 flakes in the back of the shop. I had a real weakness for those flakes.