Sugar

In the village where I grew up there is a bakery.

It’s unique in the sense that of the many shops in the village it is the only one to have always been what it is today. Which is a bakery.

I don’t remember what was there before it, it has been there for the longest time. Definitely longer than I’ve been alive, before my family moved to the village from across the city; to the house in the cul-de-sac with the pine trees out the front that gave wonderful privacy and a garage that resembled a Nissan hut.

If you stay in one place long enough you can see the x-rays of what was. Memories that strip the current day back to the brickwork, to remember what was there before. Like wallpaper, one layer after another, each separated in its own uniqueness. The bookies, where recently I lost a considerable amount this year on the annual Superbowl, used to be a toy shop. The fish and chip shop was a hairdressers, before that a video store. The estate agents across the road from that was also a video store, an independent Blockbuster, but this was after the first video store closed down; VCR was all the range but everyone knew having two stores across the street from one another was a battle no one wanted. The older video store moved to a nearby village, the newer one surviving until 2006 before Blockbuster finally forced it under.

No one rents movies anymore it seems.

But the bakery was always a bakery.

The high-street was less than 500 yards away from the local comprehensive, now an Academy in 21st century double-speak, and the kids would finish off at mid-morning breaktime what the builders and roof-monkeys discarded on their way out at eight-thirty.

There was a savoury and sweet section but considering I have a tooth sweeter than honey the far end of the counter offered little appeal. Nearest the door was where I wanted to be, with the Danishes, Chelsea buns, chocolate éclairs and the fairy cakes.  The bread was displayed behind the counter, sliced to order on the machine in the shop window, itself an unnecessary loud contraption of metal and teeth which sawed loaves apart in seconds, thankfully leaving the attendant’s fingers intact. No one wants blood on their freshly sliced bloomers.

I remember my mom and I used to go there in the eighties to order birthday cakes for the family. The ladies at the time, some were friends of my mom would fuss over me (I was little and liked the attention) and take orders for sponge and icing designs, concoctions that would appear by magic a few weeks later. One I remember distinctly was a hand design of an X-Wing pilot for someone’s birthday. Clad in the iconic Star Wars orange jumpsuit and white flight helmet he had been constructed of sugar icing and transferred atop the cake. A simple 2D image but at the time it was impressive, given the lack of technology. Nowadays we can print 3D images of working human hearts, but at the time this was the best we’d get. The cake obviously tasted better.

Later I went away to college but would return during the summer; the relationship coming to a head when I walked in the shop one day in ’05 wearing surgical blues. London blues, different from other cities, I’d snagged a pair following a one-day visit to the operating suites where I was stationed. This being a full year before I was immersed into surgical nursing, before I even realised this was the path I wanted to go down when it came to healthcare.

But being home for my final summer of studenthood I’d tugged on what I had to hand that morning, piled my curls atop my head and wandered down the road in crocs, the summer heat, for once, being kind that year and turned up in their shop with an irreverent smirk across my face that simply said ‘Hi’.

The lady behind the counter; middle-aged, blue-rinse with a face like a scratched button took one look at me and asked ‘Are you from around here?’

The League of Gentlemen was on TV at the time so if she’d uttered the catchphrase ‘Are you local’ in a nasally, rural accent I wouldn’t have been surprised.

I told her I was, that I’d been to the highschool (not yet an academy) less than 500 yards away and was just home from London for the summer. She huffed again and asked what I wanted, so much for friendly local chitchat then.

Later I tell my mom what happened. She laughed, telling me in no uncertain terms that they’re all like that in there now. The old man who owned the bakery had bequeathed it to his son who was quickly running the business into the ground. Many of the employees there were retirees, working to supplement their pensions and junior was hardly the most popular man on account of his attitude, intent to lengthen their working day and reduced their pay-packet all at the same time. We all saw the writing on the wall at that point, and anyone I spoke to thought the same; that the bakery would fold before the year was out.

It did fold.

And then it didn’t.

And no, it wasn’t magic.

A terrible story arrived one day about a nearby coffeeshop that had been closed during the lunchtime rush. Midway through serving with a queue almost out the door bailiffs had come, seized the entire take from both tills, and the keys. They ordered the staff out, along with anyone sitting at the shops few tables regardless if they’d finished or not and promptly locked the shop down. For days you could walk by the place and see the rotting and unfinished food and drink left behind. Turns out the owner had finally scarpered, fleeing the country and so his creditors had acted accordingly in his absence.

It sent shivers through the local community that the same would happen to the village bakery.

In the end the ladies behind the counter quit. The son sold the business and bailed and for a good two months the shop sat idle. And then the rumours began.

What would the shop become?

It had always been a bakery, what more could it be? It didn’t have ovens there; almost its entire stock was shipped in from central depot. It would be very easy to gut the place and make it something else. The whole rank of six shops had undergone similar transformations over the years. From video store to salon to takeaway shop. From bric-a-brac store to wine store to beauty parlour. The real estate was prime for anyone who had an idea, a chunk of capital, a strong work ethic and a bit of luck.

And in the end that’s exactly what happened. And the place became a bakery. Again.

Only this time it was assimilated into a city bakery with branches and roots set firmly in the posh part of town. With more capital than most start-ups it could afford to set up faster, with a wider variety of stock. And we’ve been a loyal supporter ever since.

Polish bread and Russian slices – the heavy, sweet, suet based hunks of icing and jam – fly off the shelves fast. Homemade Battenberg is another popular summertime cake, along with the thick homemade cinnamon whirls which are my personal favourite and often a staple of my breakfast if I find myself sleeping over at my parents for any particular reason. Regardless of the season the morning ritual is always get up, stick the coffee on, shrug on my parka and boots and take a walk. Sometimes it is THE ONLY way to get the whirls; I’m not the only one who finds them popular.

Is this another example of a chain taking over an independent store? The little man being squeezed out by big business? In a way yes, but seeing how the old bakery was going down at full steam it’s surely can’t be a bad thing for another company with similar products to take over and make a better show of things? Can it?

It’s a fine line. The supermarkets and coffee franchises have multiplied like rabbits in recent years. I remember when Starbucks got pilloried for its over saturation of city centres, which was even before it was discovered the country paid zero tax. But that’s capitalism. You see an empty space and if you have an idea and the cash to start, what’s the problem?

The problem is of course when the companies and the councils are in league and earmark land or buildings for future stores without making public their intentions or squeezing out rival independents who wouldn’t have the capital behind them like Tesco, M&S or Costa have. That’s when we get a prime example of corrupting power, when words like “fair”, “honest” and “transparent dealing” go out the window.

Which is also another example of capitalism.

But back to the bread.

We order all our family bread there too. The main bakery in the rich part of the city provides challah for the orthodox communities; they have their own kosher equipment there, and have started advertising the bread to the public and secular Jewish families alike. Like Zaros in midtown Manhattan or Flatbush, challah is the best bread there is, at least in my opinion. Toast it, have it with food, have it in any number of sweet pudding recipes and it goes down a treat. If you ever get your hands on some have it with hot chocolate and butter. Dip one in the other and prepare your taste-buds for the sweet ecstasy to follow.

They also do birthday cakes to order.

DSCF1179

This was one of their more recent creations. Just my name with stars and streamers is good enough but I’ve also had cakes adorned with books made of icing, cakes in the shape of a football, anything within reason they can probably do.

Nowadays family birthdays require a trip to the shop to talk about designs and themes a good month in advance. Every cake has its photograph taken; added to the album the shop keeps to show future clientele. I have at least half a dozen in there now, and I’m gonna have to come up with ideas over the next few months to give the girls an idea on what I might want this year round.

They also make tea, just basic tea for a £1. For a buck. Made from the cheap eighties machine you often see in garages. Machines that stay in service long past their prime, only because they’re the only option for hot caffeine when you’re miles from anywhere, and suddenly without transport. Especially important when you’re worried about your car’s brake-pads and, if you’re a women, the mechanics are going to overcharge you for something trivial or non-existent.  The stuff tastes amazing. Especially when you’ve been working hard outside all day; tilling the garden, though in my case at times I’m tilling someone else’s garden. Family friend.

But sitting in the warmth of the shop, steaming tea in my hands, on rickety steel chairs that the shop provides for its customers to sit and chat (which they don’t, one of the few areas where the shop has decisively failed) it’s a nice feeling of accomplishment. I used to walk up to the bakery years ago as part of my rehab following surgery. Walk in the snow from my parents (where I was holed up for the best part of four months) order tea and something to eat and sit in jeans and green DM’s, dirty and chipped, the laces rotting in their eyelets, sipping the scalding stuff while people watching as customers came and went regardless of hour or season. The floor getting wetter and dirtier with slush after every passing hour, a mop and bucket positioned awkwardly in a nearby corner so the staff could mop the dirt away during a quiet moment.

The bakery’s one of the few things I miss these days about not living at home, funnily enough. Visiting a shop, without question older than I am, and ordering the same thing I was ordering when I was little and timid and having to hold my mom’s hand wherever I went.

I sometimes think this is a great example of how the ties that bind us are neither good nor evil. It all depends on context and purpose. And in my case cinnamon whirls, over coffee, the thought of which is now making me hungry.

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