My family moved to the UK in 1951, a cold and freezing January it was. The ice on the horse troughs had to be broken each morning for the nags to drink. As food stuffs became more available, the traditional trades in food revived. This is a short story of one that came back for a short time and then died of neglect.
We lived in a small town called Camberley in Surrey just west, south west of London about 35 miles from Hyde Park but over an hour by car. The first supplier we found when we arrived in 1955 was F.H. Wells Confections, Bakery, and General Stores on Park Street, a side street in Camberley. The only thing we bought was there superb breads that were still cracking as they cooled on the counter when my mother arrived in the morning. None of us could resist breaking open the crust and just chewing on the warm, moist interior and crunching on the crust. We always had to get an extra loaf since most of the first one was consumed between F.H Wells and home.
I grew up on the Cottage Loaves with their round bellied bottoms and smaller top knot of an equally relaxed smaller cousin perched on top, sort of like a doughy snowman. In the store were two sepia toned and well worn photos of the original proprietor. One in her pony cart delivering bread and the other standing in front of the shop with someone who looks very much like someone's chauffeur with his riding jodhpurs and boots and a basket hanging from his right arm. The photo shows how little the shop had changed in appearance from the day the camera caught time in its grasp then and 1973 when I decided to do the same.
In 1973, electric light had long since arrived but consisted of a few weak and bare bulbs suspended from the yellowed ceiling by a fraying cord. I had arrived at 4.00 AM, an ungodly hour for a partying early 20's young photographer. But I had heard the baker was about to retire with no one to take his place. "Who wants to get up this early every day?" he said "and have to work so hard?" And it was true. He and I had to be up at 3.00 AM to get started at 4.00 AM. He had the coal oven fired up, a pot of strong, black tea with fresh milk at the ready. So as I blew on the brew and warmed by fingers on the mug, I asked him if he had always wanted to be a baker considering the hours and physical work involved. "No, oiye did not!" He said. "Oiye wanted to be a train driver, didn't oiye?" Well, I guess he swapped a coal fired boiler for a coal fired oven just as hot. Not that I was complaining mind you, it was winter, cold, damp and chilly outside and that coal oven soon had the place nice and toasty. It suited the dough as well as us dough boys.
Above the bakery, there were two huge wooden vats; one for the white flour and one for the whole wheat. Descending from both were canvas hoses much like elephants' trunks that would direct his "measured by eye" flour into two equal sized mixing troughs roughly the size of a man's coffin and about the same shape but with slanted sides. There he mixed the flour, water, yeast and other secret ingredients into the dough. No Hobart mixers for him. And he said he would retire before using one. There was something about the warmth of the hands, the personal kneading and slamming down of the dough that brought out the personality of the bread. He did not look like a strong man especially. No six pack abs, no bursting biceps. But I don't think I would want to arm wrestle with him down the pub.
He was meticulous in his daily book keeping of orders, special orders and customer quantities. He was not given to verbosity, but worked with that quiet concentration we associate with craftsmen who do their job with precision and pride. When the hard work was done, his part time helper arrived and helped pop the loaves out of their black pans, stand them to cool, and pack away the pans. Help make the smaller loaves and the rolls. Clean out the mixing troughs and generally make himself useful. He was in his middle age. So no eager young apprentices learning from a master.
In earlier times, the proprietor would hitch up the pony to the cart kept in the stables in the back, and deliver the days bread. Even by 1973, customers both commercial and private came to the shop themselves and the pony and cart had given way to the automobile. The stable was now a garage with the pungent aroma of oil instead of digested hay. I wish I had had the presence to take more copious notes. I took some but they have long since vanished. I think the baker's name was George but it is a weak connection. I do know that it was only a short time later that that "George", if that was his name, retired. The shop stayed open for a while later selling other breads and the range of general goods, but the bakery itself was assigned to history it's oven cold, windows dark in those early mornings. But the remembered taste of those rolls hot from the oven will stay alive in my memory for ever.
They spurred in me a passion for great baking. We have found passionate bakers here in California (La Brea in Los Angeles, de Angelo in Santa Barbara, Acme in Berkley and many others), Poilâne in Paris (whose bread is availabe online now), many country bakeries with wood fired ovens and Theirry in Digne in Haute Provence using organic flour and wood ovens, but Theirry has since sold and no longer makes the same bread. We even had our own bread oven at the small 400 year old hamlet house in the Dordogne we used to own. It was 2 meters in diameter, had its own "loge" (local field stone) roof. Each house in the hamlet took its day to make bread for the whole hamlet. But these days it is a quest to find good bread. Perhaps that makes us appreciate it all the more when we do find it but I don't remember taking that taste of fresh baked Cottage Loaf for granted back them. We simply felt we had died and gone to heaven.