Wandering round the swish Karl Fazer* campus in September 2018, just outside Helsinki, I met an old friend. Among the historical artefacts that tell the story of Finland’s best known confectionery company, buffed to a dull shine, it was sitting in a display cabinet as part of the visitor tour.
The look is heavy metal sculpture. A pair of candlestick-like towers rise above an open, metal bowl. Each is topped with a hollow spike. On either side are spring-loaded, palm-sized handles. The contraption marries fearsome, medieval utility with the gleam of Twentieth Century, industrial design.
I was instantly catapulted back to the 1970s.
Cap sleeve T-shirts. Donna’ Summer’s ‘I feel love’ pumping out in woozy, ululating thuds from the radio. The strange excitement of listening to Capital. In Hazlemere, Bucks, the sounds of the city promised all manner of urban delight. Even the ads, with their jingles about “Superior interiors from Vogue” or encouragements to ring and buy space in the Evening Standard Classifieds (“Nine-Oh…Three-Eight-Three-Eight-Three” intoned as if by a robot) spoke of a distant sophistication. The radio played all day long when I last met the same machine.
The contraption I saw in Finland is a doughnut filler. Over two or three years, I used one to squirt jam into around 2,000 of the things each morning at the Progress Bakery, which was practically opposite our house. A fantastically satisfying task, I would grab two doughnuts, freshly fried and drained, from their wire baskets and plonk them on the spikes. Pressing down on each paddle with a rewarding squelch, brilliantly purple jam would shoot inside. I’d then chuck them into a tray of caster sugar. Once rolled and evenly covered, I had either to arrange them onto trays for the shop, or carefully line them up by the dozen into open crates for delivery elsewhere.
For 40 pence an hour, the bakery was a holiday earner. Starting when I was fourteen, it was my first paid work. I had to be there around five am, joining the three full-time workers.
In 1977, the Sunblest factory in nearby High Wycombe went on strike, along with every other industrial bakery in the country. The unions rattled their sabres at Jim Callaghan’s government for several weeks. Privately owned, our little business kept working. Richard and Angela, the owners, couldn’t afford not to. Our customers and contracts were supportive but visiting pickets would argue loudly with the ladies in the shop and hurl insults. One night, a brick was thrown through the window, shattering glass across the wooden worktops. I swept it up the next morning and we all wore protective goggles for a day or two. There were anxious moments but we kept on. Additional demand made life frantic. Local supermarkets that no longer had sliced, packet bread to sell doubled their orders and pleaded for more. For a while, my start time became 3am. Richard looked beyond exhausted, his black rimmed eyes peering out from a face as white as flour. He told me to be careful on my walk to and from work in case “they” were waiting. In the event, nothing more happened. The battles of Grunwick, Orgreave and Wapping were far off in the UK’s troubled, unions-versus-management future.
Making bread was primeval fun for a teenager. Into a huge vat, I emptied vast bags of flour, solid blocks of yeast and handfuls of salt. The yeast was fresh and pungent, a rubbery brick with a vividly sharp reek. From the Recreation Ground behind the bakery, I’d been sniffing its characteristic scent, the benchmark fragrance of the Progress Bakery, all my life, whether from the swings and roundabouts as an infant or, later, on daily dog walks in the holidays. I’d make 140 loaves in a batch, stroking shallow gashes in the top of billowing bloomers, tins or Danish with a vicious cutthroat razor before they went in to cook. In the evenings, before leaving, I’d drop a 50lb bag of Bun Mix 664 into the same, huge container, along with the yeast, sugar and water required to make doughnuts ready for the morning. The individual shapes would be the size of a walnut when I squished the resulting dough carefully with the cutter. Overnight, they would prove to cricket ball dimensions in the chiller, ready for the morning fry and my jam injections.
Depending on the time of year, my tasks would vary. Hot Cross Buns were a favourite. I painted flour and water crosses on countless thousands. At Christmas, Richard let me help him make a batch of Stöllen, a German festive bread, oozing with marzipan, studded with plump, dried fruits and clouding us in a spiced, fragrant mist when we opened the oven door. Custard tarts were an exercise in mass egg breaking, perhaps forty or fifty at a time, before sowing cinnamon over their frilly-edged pastry tops in careful pinches. I was fascinated by them all. The deputy baker shared the same name as the boss and was, inevitably, referred to as ‘Little Richard’. I watched as he was taken to task one day, not unkindly, about over-generosity when weighing out individual loaves from raw dough. With the cutthroat razor, our boss Richard nicked off lumps from each as he weighed them again to check. After a few, he had a big enough wadge to make a whole new loaf. Little Richard burned pink, humiliated. “That’s our living,” said the boss quietly, with steel in his voice. It was – truly – his bread and butter. Lesson learned.
When Richard and Angela took over the place from the Banham family after the tragic death of Doug, the previous baker, aged forty, they were, mysteriously, only ever referred to by their Christian names. After some months, my unassuming mum was talking to Angela over the shop counter. What exactly was their surname, she asked eventually. Angela blushed a deep shade of pink.
“It’s Crapp,” she whispered.
They stayed Richard and Angela after that. Anything but a crap job, I loved working for them.
*Karl Otto Fazer, who died in 1932, is listed as a ‘business person, confectioner and sport shooter’ in his Wikipedia entry. Most Finns would add that his name is synonymous with ‘Fazer Blue’, the chocolate bar as much a part of that country’s national identity as it is delicious.