So, the idea of reprising the story of me having ceoliacs disease wasn’t to moan about it (much) but to share the idea of how very ironic it is that I have it. Because not only am I an excellent baker – the product and protege 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 bridging 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, working his way up through the ranks of the establishment he trained in to eventually owning a business himself. It was a cafe – a culinary dining establishment – or, most likely, a top-end London pie and eel shop.
According to census returns Albert’s business was prosperous enough to require a large number of assistants to keep it running, including 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, without which, indeed, I might not even be here. In a very literal sense Albert put bread on the table with the work of his own, capable hands.
In a further act of irony, I wrote the following piece about Albert for my dissertation 18 months ago, 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 cloud of flour into the fragrant, warm air. Clenched fists begin to pummel its sticky whiteness, strong, square-nailed fingers ripping, stretching, kneading, in well practised rhythm. Sinewy arms move at rapid pace, like well-oiled pistons on a steam engine, particles of flour settling delicately along their hairs as they work. Albert glances up 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?”