Sonhood starts here

On that snowy morning, the drivers were the major focus of his temper because they had not warmed up their vans or cleared the snow and ice from the yard. The vans had to be started, moved into position, loaded and dispatched before dawn. The way in which Dad organised getting those deliveries out on this frozen night was emblematic of his strengthens and weaknesses.
After it had been snowing for long enough that he could be sure there was going to be a crisis, he began to think about ways to deal with it. His idea was very simple: an extra person would be put on each van with a shovel. Any problems and the van would be dug out. The bread and cakes would get through. For a small boy the prospect of riding “shot gun snow shoveller” on Sean the driver’s huge town centre van, filled to overflowing with bread baskets for the holiday panic buyers, such a solution to the impending crisis would make the holidays perfect. The essence of small business people is that they will do almost anything rather than let people down. They don’t have a choice. It was vital to get the morning goods – all the things baked fresh the night before – into the shops, hotels and caravan parks that serviced the tourist industry of the region. We sold our cut bread as cheaply as we could and we sold on top of that a good range of morning goods. A large part of our production was sold directly to the public through our own chain of high street shops. If people turned up once or twice to find the bread not in, or their favourite loaf sold out, they did not come back. They would go to the supermarket and get it cheaper. Each year people had more and more options. In the bakery trade, even then, it seemed that everyday saw a new supermarket with a large in-store bakery opened. For a long time we could compete on quality but the advent of these in-store bakeries saw the quality of supermarket bread improve a great deal. And we could not compete on price. So we had to beat them on service. That meant that whatever needed to be done that morning to get the vans out was to be done.

The snow had to be cleared from the driveway down to the road were the council grit trucks had been working. To do this and finish the production, everyone had to be brought in and paid double over time. They were then given cash in hand to travel on the vans with their shovels in case the vans got stuck. Much of the margin, the financial point of the production for this night, was wiped out by the extra expenditure. Obviously you could not let the customers down, especially at Christmas, and the stuff had to get out. But I am not sure if my father’s failure to plan for these eventualities was conscious or not. I think that on one level he knew that if he had put the gravel down in advance there would have been no crisis and without the crisis he would not have been able to play his favourite role: The Boss.

When faced with an emergency like the snow, my father’s response would be to get everyone, especially himself, to do something. One Easter we had so many Hot Cross buns on order that we ran out of wire baskets to pack them in and had to use cardboard ones. We were so busy and understaffed that my mum’s sisters, Laura and Dina, over from Italy for a visit, were recruited to put Hot Cross Buns in the boxes. The sight of Laura, a major industrialist, packing buns was splendid. I only remember it happening once.

My father’s ingredients card for Basic Bun dough and Jam Doughnuts
For a time I lost sight of the drama unfolding outside because I had to make the doughnuts. First I had to assemble the ingredients: the wet and the dry; the wet were water and milk and the dry were yeast, sugar, salt, flour, egg powder. The process of combining ingredients was the same for doughnuts as for anything else. My father’s recipe and costing cards contain four doughnuts. The system was simple. Each card was numbered and had columns for the volume and cost of each ingredient and then for the yield. As the years passed and costs changed new columns were filled in and new individual unit costs calculated. The four cards were for Jam, Ring, Fresh Cream and Devon doughnuts. Each was based on Recipe number 115: Basic Bun Dough Plain:

Bakers Pride (Flour) – 50lb
Sweetex (Additive) – 5lb, 8 oz
ranulated Sugar – 5lb, 8 oz
Milk Powder – 2lb 8 oz
Salt – 6 oz
Yeast – 2 lb
Water – 27 pts 8 fl oz

Many of the ingredients were kept in a separate section of the bakery and in this part there was also the cold storage room in which open tins of fruit, including apricot halves, that made an excellent snack during a shift, were stored. The cold room had a door that was as thick as that of a bank vault. There was always something sinister about the cold store and the deep freezer rooms. Some meat was kept in them but in the main they were used for storing dairy products and fresh cream cakes. Periodically, when they knew they would get away with it, the bakers would pick on me. Not in an unkind way but being the boss’s son I was to an extent fair game for being thrown in the flour bins or sprayed with water. Neither of these I especially minded, in fact they made me feel more like one of the crew. What I hated was being shut in the cold room, even for few minutes. The trouble was it would have been disastrous to cry or tell tales on people so I just had to wait until someone let me out. A cold storage room is the easiest place in the world to imagine yourself as a corpse.
Flour was the most important ingredient and also the hardest for a small boy to add on his own. The sacks of mainly Canadian flour each weighed about 50lb. They were tied with hard string that cut your fingers when you tried to pull it off. My father would undo a sack with a single swift motion and haul it over the side of the bowl. Eventually I could also lift one of these sacks but I never mastered the art of opening them by pulling the string. I often had to cut it open, spilling flour on to the floor and me. “Useless Boy! One day Titch, you’ll get it right”. My father would swoop down, save the sack, and empty the flour into the bowl.
The ingredients were combined in a metal bowl that measured about four feet across. Each ingredient had to be measured and added individually. Once everything was in you hit the on button and the slow rhythmical motions of the mixer’s large metal hooks manipulated this soggy mass of seemingly random textures into the smooth perfection of dough. Years of bake house innovation and controlled experiment went into making this simple dough. It was not a secret recipe, premixed and delivered, though there was a mystery at the heart of the successful creation of this dough. The mystery of the Yeast.
On one level I know how Yeast works. It is a living thing, a plant, and can be any one of a number of unicellular fungi (ie with one active cell) of the subdivision ascomycetous and genus Saccharomyces. A very simple chemical reaction makes the dough rise. Then fungi are able to convert sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. In effect the yeast eats the sugars and starches in the flour and converts them into the carbon dioxide and alcohol. This process then gives bread its lightness and provides the basis for its distinctive flavour. The reaction is fermentation. By altering the amount of sugar or starch present and by controlling the temperature the speed and extent of fermentation can be influenced and made more predictable. The greater the amount of sugar present the faster the yeast grows. To activate the yeast warm water or milk must be added and time must be allowed. The liquid must not be too hot or too cold or the yeast will die. As water is added to the mixture and begins to work with the yeast, the dough starts to form. The warm water and milk give life to the dry powders. The dough bubbles and is alive and the race against time, which is at first waiting, begins. When the dough has risen once it is then knocked back. This allows the temperature outside to equalise to that of the centre and makes for an even rise in the prover and then the oven. Once in the oven the heat kills off the yeast cells and creates a further expansion of the dough. The process of the yeast working is easy to describe and the history easy to understand. But there is also something miraculous about it. The more you think about it the more intriguing it becomes. How did it first happen? Did one the ancients deduce that this form of fungi would make flat bread rise? Was it a miracle of divine inspiration or blind luck? Whether science or a miracle, when mixed the dough needs time to rest. The best thing to do is walk away and maybe make the tea. The advantage of the plant bakery is you do not have these gaps in production. The disadvantage is that the shift becomes a continuous repetition of the same set of movements. If the salt had been kept away from the live Yeast, the warmth of the water and the bake house allows things to begin to work. Occasionally, pop back to take a look. Is the Yeast doing its work? Is the dough rising? Changing into this warm, comfortable and universal image of sustenance: the risen dough.
When it has risen like this for the first time, the dough then needs to be shaped. When I was older I could do this myself, but on the snowy morning I was not yet big enough to cut the dough out by myself so my Dad had to help. He rolled up his sleeves revealing decades of scars from burns and cuts. His hands were rough from handling hot things and rough edges like the ties on sacks of flour that cut the skin. Yet his fingers were surprisingly slender for a man of his size. They were able to do very subtle work with icing and dough. He could do the most intricate piping on a wedding or birthday cake, using royal icing to make shapes with skill and imagination. He once made a replica of Elvis Presley’s wedding cake. He enjoyed this kind of work but it was doing the oven which he seemed to relish most. It was also doing the oven that had given him most scars that were now revealed on his arms.