When he was at bakery school and had been paid his first decent wages he had bought a very smart new white Macintosh. He hung this on his peg. When he had finished for the day it had been stolen and a dirty old coat had been put in its place. It was the same with this car phone – it was one of those early massive ones. Returning late from work one night he had left the phone in the car and had not even locked it. He must have been very tired. In the morning it was gone. At the height of his business such a device would have been very useful, by the time he got one it was part of a conscious or unconscious exercise by my mother to bolster his sense of worth which had taken many hits in the years after the business failed. Though I never think of him as a bitter man, these two events remained very raw for him.
With my father away answering the phone, I was left with 10-12 stripes of dough cut out, ready for twisting and sealing. I had a go. The problem was that my hands were too small. I could twist the dough but not get it into a net circle. I tried another which came out worse. They looked fine for a bit and then they went out of shape, like clay on a potter’s wheel suddenly going wrong. I should have stopped at this point but instead I carried on and tried another couple. Returning to them a couple of times to try and make them look better but only succeeding in making finger marks in the dough. Dad returned. Looked at my handy work, I waited for the explosion but as so often on these sorts of occasions only a mild rebuke came: “Titch I told you, when you are older”. Then a few quick roles and my oblongs became circles.
It would be sometime before I was able to take on some of the complex tasks in the bakery, so independence would also have to wait. I defined independence as the freedom to take a job and carry it out without instructions or help. There were jobs like packing that, as soon as I could count, I was allowed to go off and do. But it was making things that I really wanted to be allowed to get on with. Dad always came over to check or else spent ten minutes explaining over and over again how a mix should be put together or how a particular kind of cake should be finished. It was not a question of trust, more of him seeing me as one of the men. I desperately wanted him to see me like that and I wanted to be on equal terms with the bakers, with the leading members of my little world.
But until I got older, I mainly did simple jobs that were one part of the process of making an item. One of the first jobs I did in the bakery was cutting out the cases for the custard tarts. These were small tarts that had short crust cases and were filled with liquid custard before baking. The tops of the tarts would brown nicely and the filling was soft custard but not runny. These were not the best custard tarts in the world. Pasteis de Nata are the best custard tarts in the world. Go to Lisbon just to try them. You will never eat another kind of custard tart as long as you live. Warm from the oven the pastry is melting and flaky and the filling remains runny at the centre. There is a café near the Cathedral which serves them hot all day. A few minutes out of the oven and they are perfect. Dad’s custard tarts were not in this class but they were a good English version.
Making the cases was a job that involved organisation and timing. The pastry was already made and ready when it had warmed up a little. First you had to get a rack and fill it with trays depending on how many were on the production total. When the business was at its height this would mean a rack full per go. Years later when my Dad was managing just a single hot bread shop I was in doing the custard and I asked him which rack to use. Dad laughed heartedly and for the rest of the day told everyone I had asked him how many racks to do. He needed only about three dozen. I knew that. I just wanted to know in which rack to put them but his response was revealing of how much he missed the larger stage of his old factories. Once you had your trays ready you had to lay the aluminium cases out. These were arranged in rows, six across. Then you had to take a small hand full of pastry and put it into each case. You had to make sure that you put in enough pastry to cover the whole of the foil case when the heavy dye came down to squeeze the pastry into the shape of the foil. But you did not want too much otherwise you had to keep collecting the excess from the turntable under the dye. Once you were ready with cases and pastry you pushed your rack up to the machine. When I first started doing this job at Dad’s first big bakery at Kimberley Road, I had to stand on a jam tin to reach the tabletop. There were four bases into which you put four cases with pastry in. The dye came down and pressed the pastry into the shape of the foil case, complete with little perforated edges like battlements. By hooking your finger gently into the base you whipped the first case out and back to the tray and then returned a new case into the gap. The dye came down again, the turntable revolved and you were off.
If there was too much pastry it would begin to clog up the turntable and had to be cleared. If you hit a good rhythm you would keep the machine going for the whole tray without stopping. This was always the target. It was a race against time in the sense that the turntable kept spinning. It was also a race against myself. I would time how long a tray took me. Setting records, competing in my own Olympic games against world-wide opposition, winning medals or making great come backs after things went wrong.
Sometimes, just like with the Danish, I would get myself into an awful muddle by trying to keep up. Putting two pastry filled cases into the same base, missing an empty base, catching my finger on the dye – thankfully never fully under it – or worst of all, dropping the tray as I tried to get it into the rack without stopping the machine. Looking back it seems extraordinary that my father left me to operate such heavy machinery. The press was about the size of a lath and it is amazing that nothing serious ever happened.
When the rack was full it was pushed into the fridge to rest for a while. Then a huge jug was brought out and a mixing bowl cleaned. Into this bowl would go 5 ½ pints of milk, 2 lbs of defrosted egg, 11 ounces of castor sugar for every 82 tarts. I usually moved onto another job after making the cases and only sometimes saw the cases being filled with this rich liquid. The egg mix was made up in one of the big mixing bowls and then the jug was filled from this and each pastry case was filled from the jug and some mace was sprinkled over the top. Then came the really tricky bit. In Kimberley Road there was a five-deck brick oven that was loaded with trays. That meant that the trays of custard tart cases now filled with custard liquid had to lifted carefully into the oven and then put into their correct position using a peel, this was highly skilled and needed a really good sense of balance, I never tried it.
The use of the peel, a long paddle with a flat larger section at the end was one of a number of places in which the practices of the bakery used by my father and his merry men were the same as those used in the ancient world. No one has invented anything better that a Peel for loading a traditional oven. The way in which we made the custard tarts was in many ways representative of the continuities with past practice and utilisation of technology that was replicated in many of the things we did. The dye was mechanical and the aluminium cases modern but the shape of this recipe and the process, and the place of a good custard in the baker’s armoury were ancient. In medieval feasts the heavy meat dishes would be followed by a “custard” – an open tart that sometimes contained a thick egg-based filling according to P.W, Hammond in his Food and Feasts in Medieval England, (Alan Sutton, 1993, p 136). John Notts Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary of 1726 (republished by Lawerance Rivington in 1980) contains recipes going back to the 1660s. Included in it are five ways of making a custard, including:
Boil three pints of cream with fome whole Mace; then fet it by to cool; then temper it with eight Eggs, leaving out the whites, beat in Organe-floer or Rofe-water and a Pound and half of sugar. Your Coffins being harden’d in the oven, and pinched with a Pin to prevent their rifing in Bliffers, fill them, and fet them in the oven.
The coffins in this recipe are the equivalent of the aluminium cases I was filling with pastry.