From bitter loss to sweet relief: baking as therapy

24 August 2019

9:00 AM

24 August 2019

9:00 AM

This is a gentle, lovely book. It will, I’m sure, appeal to many an aspiring cook and baker, and should be read by anyone grieving for the loss of someone they loved. It is a memoir — each chapter ending with a recipe — covering a few years, from the sudden death of a beloved mother, through the author’s bleak, enveloping sorrow to a change of career, retraining as a pastry chef, and a love affair.

At first, I found it unengaging. The stages of grief — denial, anger, resentment of other people’s happiness, manic displacement activity, exhaustion, sudden outbursts of either wracking sobs or unsuitable laughter — are well-written and honest, but too familiar, too predictable. (Though what did I want? Originality in grief?)

But gradually I was drawn in to Olivia Potts’ almost obsessive love for her mother, and her ways of coping — or not coping — with her death. Adopting the ‘I’m fine, I’m fine’ mantra, she works ridiculous hours as a junior barrister in chambers, begins to think that criminal law might not be for her and feels guilty about falling in love.

The legal bits are fascinating. Not so much the cases — most criminals are pathetic and their crimes either too mundane or horrible to dwell on — but Olivia’s own life: her pride in her absurd wig and gown, which give her both status and anonymity (she isn’t recognised in civvies at a bus stop by someone she’s just accused in court of shagging the postman); her arbitrary winning and losing of cases, often having nothing to do with her own skills, let alone the truth; or her description of the magistrates court cells on a Saturday morning:

The stench of sweat is overpowering. Underneath, you can detect the sickly-sweet smell of alcohol leaching from pores. There is a faint undertone of toilets. On top of this, instant coffee and the plasticky, porky, beany tang of the all-day-breakfast ration packs they feed the defendants.

In danger of falling apart, and still obsessing privately about her mother while refusing to talk through or really face her loss, she finds some solace in cooking, and the recipes get more interesting. They’d been a bit on the boring side before: shepherd’s pie, banana cake (admittedly with the addition of a packet of Rolos), soda bread, pizza and minestrone.

Now the book becomes almost all about cakes and puddings. Olivia, having left her chambers, is doing a nine-month patisserie course at the Cordon Bleu. We follow her from cutting up fruit for a fruit salad to making elaborate professional cakes and pastries, sometimes involving half a dozen techniques. She writes with the precision required of a pastry chef. It’s not pretentious foodie-gushing but finely observed and accurate descriptions of texture, taste and smell — with heart.

I’m not sure this book is for everyone. There is a lot of patisserie in it. But non-cooks should take a chance, and be amazed at what drama there can be in a patisserie exam. I held my breath reading Olivia’s account of making multi-layered entremets (one large and two single portions) for her final test. And she’s merciful to those who haven’t a clue about such things, translating Joconde, chiboust, feuilletine, Claire-fontaine and dacquoise.

The point is, this is not a cookbook, despite the chapter-end recipes. It’s a love story, with sadness, humour and tension. It’s uplifting, too. That someone so emotional, struggling with loss, can come out of misery by making 1,700 paper cranes to decorate the roof of a wedding yurt is entirely foreign to me. But you have to be a bit obsessive to be a great pastry chef. It takes enormous patience — hours and hours of repetitive, exacting, minute work. And then it all gets eaten in a flash.

What chimed with me most was the author’s love of good food and her desire for everyone else to love it too. Talking of puddings, she says:

We don’t have to eat puddings to live. We don’t have to eat them at all. Puddings aren’t sustenance. Puddings are joy. The squidge of hot syrup sponge, coated in thick, cold custard; the knife’s first slice into a cake. Ice cream scooped at the perfect temperature. Your first taste of caramel, and the revelation that something bitter can also be sweet and the best thing you’ve ever eaten. The snap of precisely tempered chocolate. Beautiful macarons splurging with scarlet raspberry jam. A gravity-defying soufflé; is there anything more magical?

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