I’ve written before about my time working at Cooks Bakery in Upton Upon Severn, and I return to the theme now in reflective mood. Cooks was owned and run for years by the Russell family, by Dad/Chief Baker Aubrey (known as Russ) and Mum/Boss Sue, with help at various points from their children – Louise, Sally and Sam. Sally is one of my oldest and closest friends; we go way back, she knows about misdemeanours in San Diego youth hostels, dodgy tummies in Barcelona and God knows what else.
Russ died on 9 February, aged 69, from cancer.
Now this of course is a profound and private sadness for the family, but Russ’s passing will have touched many other people besides. For the past fortnight I’ve been struck by genuine, heartfelt grief for my friend, the first of our group to lose a parent. It’s a generational shift and it makes the ground feel rocky underfoot.
At Russ’s funeral Sally’s husband Paul gave a quite brilliant tribute to his father-in-law, a speech touched with humour and generosity. So in this spirit, I now want to call to mind Russ as I knew him, one of a small breed of old-fashioned craft bakers, who got up everyday at the crack of dawn in order to turn out tin loaves, bloomers, doughnuts and Belgian buns for the townsfolk of Upton.
The front of Cooks was the shop area, where the assistants like me served customers and practiced our mental arithmetic as we added up the cost of three jam tarts, one French stick and two Cornish pasties (there was no automated till, just pen and paper. For someone who is interested in maths but not great at adding up, this was both useful and challenging).
But the interesting bit was at the back, where the bakers worked. Here, floor-to-ceiling ovens engulfed the space, surrounded by giant mixing machines, sacks of flour, massive wooden trays and hundreds of bread tins, including the original embossed Hovis ones. (Incidentally, Matt bought me a vintage Hovis bread tin back in the early days; I knew then he was a good’un).
Russ and the other bakers started work at stupid-o-clock and so I never really watched them do their thing – but oh! I was itching to. How much more interesting to make doughnuts rather than sell them!
And doughnuts must surely be Russ’ legacy. His were huge. HUGE. Properly round, deeply golden, caked in sugar and filled with gloopy jam that dripped onto your lap as you took a bite. But then I also liked the apple & almond slice…and Sally was keen on the cheese straws…and the bread pudding took some beating. Remarkably, it was best either straight out of the oven or after it had been lying around for a few days.
By the end of the day my hair, clothes and skin would be impregnated with the smell of baking and, if I was lucky, there would be a few goodies to take home for a treat.
These days the traditional village bakery, whilst not fully extinct, is not the commonplace thing that it was. What am I saying – back in the 1990s Cooks was already unusual. Now we live in an age of Greggs with their sell-it-cheap-pile-it-high approach or at the other extreme, trendy bakeries with their 48 hour sourdough and highly technical creations.
So the skills I saw at play at Cooks were an insight into a time-honoured, and deeply British, food culture. I genuinely believe that I wouldn’t be the cook I am today had I not worked at Cooks and been so deeply immersed in traditional British baking. For this I thank Russ, and Sue for giving me the job in the first place. It sounds a small thing, but for me, it was life-changing.
So Russ, or Mr Russell as I would call him, your memory will live on in ways that I am sure you never expected. Go well, wherever you are.
The Russell family are collecting for Cancer Research UK and the RNLI in memory of Russ. To donate, visit www.justgiving.com/teams/AubreyRussell