My father raised his considerably large brood of children on the money he made from selling fish to local restaurants. He did not particularly love fish but he did love his family and so this is how he spent his days; scaling, cleaning, filleting and selling fish.
Being a quiet, gentle and thoughtful man, it was the selling of the fish that was the hard part. Being a rambunctious, superficial teenage girl, it was the smell of the fish that bothered me most. Perhaps it bothered him too because every night when he got home, he went straight to his bedroom to wash, dry, and powder himself. A fresh splash of aftershave was the final farewell to the cloying fish smell that never managed to infiltrate our house.
My Dad’s family were also purveyors of food. My Opa was a bakker in the Netherlands, selling bread cooked in his oven from the back of his bicycle in war time. He had occasion to add sand into the bread mix when rations were very tight. His Uncle, also a bakker was found dead early one morning stooped in the front window of his bake shop. The Nazis were unhappy with his efforts to assist in the underground movement to protect and transport Jewish families. They shot him through the front window of his shop and continued on their way.
One afternoon the German soldiers were seen running down the main street of town. Not long after the American soldiers arrived, their rations of bread carried in back packs. My Father, then a little boy, was greatly impressed with this idea and so he fashioned his own back pack from a tin and string. A small loaf of bread made by his Father completed the picture and this little boy could finally join in a march he did not really understand. Not long after, his parents Fokko and Johanna decided to leave their land and home and head for the new Country, Australia. A place of peace, hope and new beginnings.
There was no need for his skill of baking in this new place, where you could buy pillowy white bread fresh from the supermarket every day. So instead he bred pigs, creating a living from the land and then eventually the sea.
My Opa never lost his love for baking although perhaps love is the wrong word, I don’t know. He installed a huge, hand-made wood fire oven in a shed in his back yard in the Yarra Valley and continued cooking on it for many years. Fokko quickly Australianised his name to Fred, but his bread remained staunchly European; dense and chewy with a crunchy scorched crust.
As migrants in a new land my Dad and his family dedicated themselves to fitting in with the people around them but a few traditions remained. We ate Ollie Bollen on New Years Eve. At my Oma’s house, Gouda on rockerbroodt always followed Split pea soup or groentesoep met balletjes for lunch.
We would always be offered Specualaas with coffee or tea and little Almond cakes for a treat.
I fell in love with cooking early one morning back in the late eighties. We were staying at my Tante Dina’s house for a small holiday. I padded down to the kitchen bright and early to find the most dazzling of feasts laid out on her ornate timber, cloth-covered dining table. There was juice and milk in little glass jugs, there were porcelain dishes of freshly made jam, there was cheese and sliced meats and there were napkins and table-cloths and little dishes filled with butter. There was also freshly baked bread, fresh from the oven, which tasted so much better than anything I had ever eaten before. The lavishness of it all impressed me greatly. This was life in the land of peace and promise, but to me it was just a delicious feast.
I learned about the warm affection that can be expressed through the cooking of food. I also learned that home-made bread is yum. The whole affair imprinted itself on my brain and this love of home-made breads, cakes and soups has never left me.
So now I cook and I write about cooking and I think about food and I share my love with others, all because baking bread is a family tradition that has crossed oceans, generations and time, to end up here in my home and hand.
Although I promise to never add sand into the bread dough.