…for our daily bread

So, the idea of reprising the story of me having ceoliacs disease wasn’t to moan about it (much) but to voice the thought that it’s very ironic I have it.

Because not only am I an excellent baker – the product of two grandmothers who were both talented and knowlegeable cooks – and have a natural ability to make beautiful, crumbly pastry which my own ‘plain cook’ of a mother marvelled at, but I’m the descendant of a line of top-class pastry chefs who lived and worked in London in the years that bridged the 19th and 20th centuries.

My great-times-sixth grandfather John was a prolific but poor Victorian playwright who died leaving his family unprovided for and, ultimately, consigned to a life in the poor house.

His son Albert, my great-times-fifth grandfather, turned his back on the dramatic life and took up a ‘proper’ trade in which he flourished: he trained as a pastry chef, moving up through the ranks of the place he trained in to eventually owning a business himself.  That place was a culinary establishment – a cafe – or, most likely, a top-end London pie and eel shop.

According to census returns, Albert’s business was prosperous enough to need a number of assistants to keep it running in addition to his sons and – later – his grandsons.  So flour – the very stuff which has the potential to make me ill – was the thing which saved Albert and meant survival for his family.  In a very literal sense Albert put bread on the table with the work of his own, capable hands.

In a further twist of irony, I wrote the following piece about Albert for my dissertation many months ago, long before I knew I was a coeliac and purely as a device to shine the light of discovery on his father John.

“So, you want to know about my father?”

A ball of dough thuds onto the table, launching a mushroom of flour into the fragrant, warm air.  Clenched fists begin to pummel its sticky whiteness, strong, square-nailed fingers ripping, stretching, kneading in well-practiced rhythm.  Sinewy arms move at rapid pace, well-oiled pistons on a steam engine, particles of flour settling delicately along their hairs as they work.  Albert glances briefly from the table, his large, intelligent eyes questioning.

“So you want to know about my father?” he repeats tersely.  “What was it exactly you wanted to know?”