“There was no sweeter pleasure than spending time at Pop’s side in the bakery”

Editor Karen Barnes has more than one lightbulb food moment to tell. From the memory of her mother handing her an onion at the age of five to the smell of the fruit-studded saffron loaves cooking at her grandfather’s Cornish bakery.

“There was no sweeter pleasure than spending time at Pop’s side in the bakery”

When I was a child in the late 1960s/early 1970s a standard dinner at my friends’ houses was meat, gravy and two veg or (exotic) a packet of Vesta Chow Mein. My mum, a miner’s daughter brought up in the Welsh valleys, had been bold enough to apply for a job abroad as a governess to the American Ambassador’s children in Moscow.

Stop for a moment and think about that. It was the height of the Cold War and she was from a tiny mining town in Wales. Only years later did I realise what an extraordinarily brave move that was – not to mention how shocked her parents must have been.

Mum ended up organising all the parties in the embassy and her cooking in later years was influenced by the people she’d met from countries all around the world: dancers, actors, artists, intellectuals. So that’s how, once Mum was married and my brother and I came along, our meals were more likely to be lasagne or slow-roast lamb in tomatoes and garlic than pie and mash.

Gillian Bourdeaux (Karen Barnes’s mum)

 

One of my earliest memories is of Mum handing me an onion (I think I was about five) and showing me how to peel and chop it. That was my first lightbulb moment. I remember it taking me what felt like forever and I couldn’t imagine ever being able to achieve the task quickly like Mum.

But within a year I was cooking whole dishes and, by the age of 11 or 12, my task was to make a two-course meal for the family every Saturday night. I made the same thing every week: Flemish beef stew followed by lemon syllabub. The family must have been heartily sick of it but I don’t remember them moaning (there was a lot else going on).

Scroll forward many years to 2018… Under our hob at home is a huge curved drawer full of pans and baking equipment, but there’s one item with which I’d never part. It’s a battered bread tin, blackened with use and with our family name embossed on the side.

Karen’s saffron loaf

 

It has to be more than 60 years old. My great grandma set up Bourdeaux’s bakery three generations ago after her husband Cecil was gassed in World War 1 and left unable to work. His wife was so ashamed that she forbade all mention of him.

"Every time I walked into that bakery it was another food lightbulb moment: the attention to detail and the hard work struck me as principles for life."

By all accounts she was a tough, terrifying woman. We only recently discovered that my great grandfather lived out his days in an institution. That in itself is shameful now. Great Granny Bourdeaux had to find a way of supporting the family and she did that by getting her son (my grandfather – Pop) to train as baker, then run a bakery with his younger brother Brian.

Karen Barnes’s grandparents

 

Over time, the bakery became famous in Cornwall, where my father’s side of the family lived, and was renowned for its pasties, bread, Madeira cake and saffron loaves. When I was a child, there was no sweeter pleasure than spending days at my grandad’s side, watching as he made puff pastry, patting on dabs of fat and rolling the dough back and forth, or helping flour-dusted baker Arthur crimp pasties and shape splits (bread rolls) under his cupped palm.

Karen’s grandfather at his bakery

 

Every time I walked into that bakery it was another food lightbulb moment: the attention to detail and the hard work struck me as principles for life. My enduring memory is of those buttercup-yellow loaves, studded with fruit, the smell of a spice from faraway lands filling the bakery as they cooked to golden perfection in the cast iron ovens. This recipe is a different take on the traditional recipe – no fruit and scented with orange peel. I think Pop will forgive us the tweak – as long as we don’t commit the sacrilege of putting butter on the loaf…

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September 2019