The Fabulous Baker Boys
Following her family footsteps, a writer saved the recipes and traditions of the bakehouse her dad ran for 42 years
August 19 2010 The Times
Peter Johncox at work in his bakehouse
in Weybridge in 1969
I was in a café in Poschiavo, a small village on the Swiss-Italian border,
transfixed by a tray of cakes. They were small, round, almond meringue
biscuits coated and filled with coffee cream, decorated with a dark chocolate
drop. I had not seen a coffee japonaise for a decade, and the coffee almond scent transported me back to my father Peter Johncox’s bakehouse bakehouse in Weybridge.
As a child, I sat on a stool in my green school uniform and watched Dad
make coffee japonaise, along with almond macaroons, apricot Danish pastries,
Victoria sponge cakes, delicate chocolates and petit fours. In the week
he made white and wholemeal loaves, rye bread and brown and white floury
baps. On Saturdays, French bread, brioches, croissants and finger rolls.
Membership of the National Association of Master Bakers has dropped by
more than 50 per cent over the past 20 years. Despite a vogue for fancy
cupcakes, the traditional British baker like my dad is in decline.
He opened Peter’s in 1958 while courting my mother, Frankie. It was a classic
British café with a 1940s décor (floral wallpaper, small wooden tables,
red cushioned chairs), a powder room and Dad’s quirky collection of chamber
pots, which lined the shelves. On the walls were local paintings alongside
copper pans, decorative plates and a chiming wall clock.
The shop had previously been a Fuller&rsqou;s tearoom in which Dad devoured the
classic coffee and walnut cake with his parents when he was a boarder at
the nearby St George’s College. P’s had a cosy atmosphere. The school
chaplain held his meetings with concerned parents there and it also attracted
some familiar faces: Cliff Richard, David Jason and Hannah Gordon. Once
the café was used by a magazine for a fashion shoot.
Mum, a former nurse, was the face of the shop. She had a natural way with
customers and was a surrogate mother to the boarders who came in for college tea: spaghetti or beans on toast with a poached egg and then an iced bun or cake.
piping cream into meringues, squishing jam into doughnuts and sprinkling nutmeg on custard tartsbut I was more interested in eating cakes than making them.
Friends loved coming to tea because we sat in the café and I presented them with a stand of fresh cream cakes. We poured tea into china cups feeling very grown up. My birthday parties were held in the tearoom, where the tables groaned under the weight of jam tarts, chocolate crispy cakes and, my favourite, a pink cottage birthday cake with chocolate flakes on top.
’teashop, Lanes, in Westcliff. He learnt how to bake bread and cakes, make chocolates and petit fours. Unlike me, he was born to be a baker. His mother, Leonylda, grew up in Beti’s tearoom in Ryde, Isle of White, and she worked at the front of house. Her mother, Angelina Luminati, was born in Poschiavo, where her brother, Aristide, eventually ran the family bake house and patisserie.
In Poschiavo I met Aristide’s daughter Ida, who showed me a photograph of her father in his baker’s outfit. I was struck by the likeness to my dad when he was a young baker. It seems that Poschiavo produced a glut of pastry chefs. Harsh winters in the remote farming community led many to emigrate to find work in restaurants and cafés across Europe.
Dad worked 14-hour days baking, making and decorating traditional cakes
and for birthdays, Easter and Christmas. In the evenings he balanced the
books. My brothers and sister knew how hard our parents worked. It never
entered my head to become a pastry chef or to run the teashop. In 1984,
I went off to university, assuming the shop would always be there. But
behind the façade of the sweet fancies, lay big pressures on my parents.
Business rates soared, eager environmental health officers arrived with
ever-changing health and safety laws, blaming EU legislation for demanding
expensive modern equipment. The cash burdens rose as competition arrived
on the high street: multinational coffee chains offered frothy cappuccinos
and muffins. Supermarkets opened selling cheap flavourless bread and cakes.
In 2000, the shop closed. Dad was 70 and his health was in decline. At the end, there were no cake displays left in the windows, the glass counters lay bare, the fridges were switched off and empty, the dark chocolates gone from the cabinet. There was no hum of conversation from the café,
no clattering of cutlery, no scent of baking from the kitchen, only the
smell of cleaning liquids. The huge GEC oven my father had bought for £400
in 1958 had to be removed: 6ft wide by 6ft high, it had been a “faithful
friend” for more than 40 years, breaking down only once. It took three
days for Dad and my brother Johnny to smash the oven. Afterwards my father
offered cake, as he always did in a crisis.
“This was the last batch of cakes from that oven,” he said. No one uttered a word. We sat there and gorged ourselves on fruit cake and flapjack until it was all gone. I remember wanting to savour the taste of the last flapjack for ever: the sweet oats that always made me feel at home.
éopened, the traditional tearoom ripped out and refurbished with wooden floors. I went in one day with my toddler Lara. The new menu left my taste buds numb. There were Danish pastries in plastic wrappers and chicken nuggets and chips. It was painful to endure. Now I pass by what was once Peter’s and is now a Nepalese restaurant, on the way to visit my parents. My father is teaching me to bake the traditional recipes. Dad is now 80 and I don’t want the recipes that were handed down to himwhich came from a Swiss valley to our teashopto be lost.
Dad baked blind and knew instinctively when something was ready, so I needed to write the recipes down. But I
also wanted to be able to pass his skills on to my two children. I also decided
to write a food memoir based on the teashop as part of a PhD in homage to my
parents and for my family. My research led me to Albert Roux, who asked if
I wanted to gain some experience in the pastry section of Le Gavroche. Imagine
my father’s surprise. I felt privileged to help to make petit fours in the
award-winning kitchen. I’d watched Dad make them and he made it look so easy.
It was only as I stood there in my chef’s outfit, piping bag in shaking hand,
that I appreciated the skills involved.
I told Roux of my journey to Poschiavo and he surprised me by whipping up a
coffee japonaise. It was also known, he said, as a success biscuit. The baking
industry could do with more success biscuits.
Recently, I made my first batch of coffee japonaise with my Dad. I was surprised
and relieved to see that they looked the same as his. Then I took a bite -
the biscuits were golden, crunchy and infused with almond, the coffee butter
cream filling smooth and mellow, the dark chocolate on top added an extra cocoa
sweetness. Yet although they tasted good, they lacked the old bakehouse taste.
Despite this, I reassured myself that at last I was baking with my father.
Peter’s coffee japonaise
15 coffee japonaise
5fl oz egg whites
225 g caster sugar
110g ground almonds
For coffee buttercream filling:
115g icing sugar
Preheat the oven to 150C. Whisk the egg whites to a peak. Add half the caster
sugar slowly spoon by spoon. Add a teaspoon of almond essence.
Sieve the almonds and remaining caster sugar into a second bowl and mix together.
Blend the dry ingredients into the meringue. Place the mixture into a piping
bag with a 1cm tube and pipe out a spiral on a greased baking tray to make
about 35 flat biscuits, approximately 3-4cm diameter to make a 5cm biscuit
(the mixture expands). Bake in an oven until biscuits are golden brown (approximately
Meanwhile, make the cream filling by sieving the icing sugar into a new bowl.
Cut butter into cubes, mix into a smooth paste. Add a couple of drops of coffee
Allow biscuits to cool. Place five biscuits in a plastic bag and crush, using
a rolling pin to create japonaise crumbs. Pipe coffee buttercream on to half
of the remaining biscuits with a clean piping bag. Place remaining biscuits
upside down on the buttercream to create a sandwich, pressing down slightly
to achieve uniform thickness (between 1-2cm).
Using a palette knife, coat the sides of the biscuits with the buttercream
and roll like a wheel in the japonaise crumbs. Coat the tops with more buttercream,
and sieve almond crumbs on top. Melt the chocolate in a bain-marie, and then
spoon a dollop of melted dark chocolate on to the centre of each biscuit for