Pan Ross Collage
Angus Dunn
Short biog.
Writer in Residence for Aberdeenshire from November 1997 to April 1999.  Editor of Northwords magazine for several years until 2001.  Won the 1995 Robert Louis Stevenson Award.  Received an SAC Writer's Bursary in 1994

Selected Publications
His short fiction has been published in many journals: Cencrastus, West Coast Magazine, Gairfish, Chapman etc. and in collections: New Writing Scotland 12, 13 & 14, the SAC/HarperCollins collection Looking For The Spark and in the anthology The Perfect Loaf. Stories have also been broadcast on Radio 4, Radio Scotland and Loch Broom FM.
Poetry has been published in several literary magazines and in anthologies such as:
Atoms of Delight pub. Polygon/Pocketbooks 2000
The Black Book pub. Wordsinc 1999
Things Not Seen pub. Aberdeenshire Council 1999
After The Watergaw pub. Scottish Cultural Press 1998
Carmichael's Book pub. Morning Star Publications 1997

Highland Culture

The Perfect Loaf

The young man has a battered book propped open on the kitchen table. The book has flecks of bread dough stuck on the cover. The dough is old and brittle, it could easily be removed. He likes it the way it is.

There is a big plastic bowl beside the book. He fetches flour and sugar from the cupboard, yeast from the fridge. He blows old flour from the pages and bends to read the book.

A Basic Loaf:
This recipe will provide a large loaf (2lb) or two small loaves (2 x 1lb). A measure of strong white flour is included with the wholewheat, to improve the workability of the dough. It also serves to lighten the texture of the loaf.

Faraway in the past, an old man, a floury dwarf, puts the last tray into the Scotch oven and shuts the cast iron door.  The boy's father is ill, and his grandfather is helping out.
"I'm just off up to the house to see how your father is. Mind the bakery for me."
"All right, Grandpa."

As soon as the door shuts, the boy fetches a chair and climbs up to get the icing sugar from the cupboard. He drags a box over to the huge wooden work table and takes the saucepan that stands beside the single gas-ring which is always kept lit.
He takes the saucepan to the tap, half fills it, and climbs on the box again.
"When you're making water icing, the water has to boil. That's the secret of it."

That's what his Grandpa had said. So now the boy knows the secret.
He stands by the table, waiting for the water to boil. It seems to take far too long. If he is caught playing with the gas-ring he'll be in trouble - but if he has a saucepan full of perfect icing, well that would be different.  He jitters nervously, from the table to the door and back, to check if his grandfather is returning.

At last he can stand it no longer. He spoons in the icing sugar and stirs. Almost instantly, he has a saucepan half full of runny icing with lumps in it. He stirs desperately, trying to mash the lumps down into a smooth paste. It doesn't work. He adds some more water, then more icing sugar to thicken it up...

When he hears his grandfather returning, he abandons the saucepan in panic and stands by the steam-press, trying to look as if it has nothing to do with him.
Grandpa spots the saucepan immediately. He looks into it and grunts.
He takes the saucepan to the deep sink and drops it in the water. Nothing more is said.

Add half an ounce of baker's yeast and one ounce of sugar to half a pint of lukewarm water. Put this mixture in a warm place for a few minutes.

The young man takes the jug to the shelf above the gas cooker. There is no room there, so he lifts off a small pile of paperbacks and puts the jug in the empty space.
He looks around the room. Apart from the table, where he is about to make bread, there is no surface left that is not covered by kitchen utensils or more books. He gathers several notebooks together, stacks them upright and squeezes the paperbacks into the space.  He returns to the battered recipe book.

Take one pound of wholewheat flour and four ounces of strong white flour. Add a teaspoon of salt and mix lightly. Warm the flour for a few minutes in a very low oven.

In the dim bakery, the sun shines in slants through the dusty windows. Thick with flour motes, the sun beams fall on the grey concrete floor and the edge of the massive pine work table. From low down, where he is playing with a piece of dough, the boy cannot see the table top, but the smell of candied peel, sugar and flour drifts down, mixing with the scent of warm rolls rising in the steam-press.
The flour seems to settle out of the air onto the old man. His white hair and eyebrows are furred with it; his shirt and his trousers are almost as white as the old flour-sack he uses for an apron. Compared to the other two bakers, he is small, but he is magical in his smallness, like a dwarf, or one of the small dark picts who used to inhabit our land.
Though the old man is only helping out for a few days, the other bakers defer to him, subtly, in the way they work. The elder of these is the old man's son, and the owner of the bakery. The boy does not usually see his father like this, waiting to let someone else speak first, and occasionally hesitant in his actions, as if waiting to be corrected. There is less talk too, when the old man is there. A small part of the awareness of each man is watching him, seeing the easy movements, the economy of action that he has learnt in over sixty years of baking.

The yeast will be soft by now. Stir the yeast, sugar and water briskly until a creamy liquor is formed.

Sundays were different when the old man came up to stay. The boy's family never went to church, but as the old man was a Kirk elder, he dressed in a dark suit and went to the Kirk three times. There was an uncomfortable quiet about the house, and the children played up on the moors to be out of the way.

Somehow, on Sundays, the old man seemed more than old. He was ancient, and his age could hardly be measured in years.

Sometimes his father talked to the boy about his grandfather. It was like hearing an ancient myth, for the old man's life spanned epochs. Historical events punctuated his life. He was already a time-served baker when the Boar War was being fought, and by the time of the Great War he had a bakery of his own. By the end of the Thirties, he had five bakeries.  After the Clydebank Blitz he had one left. His family were grown by then, and he was happy to run just that one for a few years before retiring.

Remove the flour from the oven when it is warmed through. Pour two tablespoons of oil and the creamed yeast into the middle of the flour.

Bubbles rise and burst slowly in the jug. The heady smell fills the kitchen. The young man takes the jug to the table. He pours the liquid into the flour, where it gathers in a hollow.

Mix well with a wooden spoon until the mixture begins to cling together. Now mix the dough with your hands for a couple of minutes until it can be easily formed into a ball.

The old man, being an elder of the Kirk, did not drink alcohol. But when he was visiting his son's family he would make his own ginger beer. A big bowl, with yeast, sugar, warm water, ginger and a couple of lemons chopped in. The bowl was put in the cupboard beside the sink in the bakery - the only cupboard with a key. The boy never got the chance to try the ginger beer, but he could smell it: in the cupboard, bubbles rose and burst. The smell drifted through the bakery.

Some old recipes call for a pinch of ginger to be added at this stage, to 'clear' the flavour. This is best added with the creamed yeast.

The boy sits under one end of the table while the bakers have their tea. The old man is telling a story.

"I was working at John Munro's bakery at the time - this was before the First War - and in those days we didn't have baker's yeast. We used barm. It was a kind of beer, and we made it in troughs in the bakery.
"Well, one winter's morning, a couple of scaffies came in for a heat. The bakers were at work on the big table top, pounding and mixing a mass of dough. The lids were off the barm troughs, and on such a bitter cold morning, of course one of the bakers offered the scaffies a mug of barm. And of course if the scaffies had a mugful then the bakers, since their master had gone upstairs, had to have a mugful too."
The boy played quietly out of sight, listening.
"Well, one mug led to another, and in the warm atmosphere of the bakehouse, with the oven lit and waiting for the bread, it wasn't long before they all became drowsy and fell asleep. And the dough on the table was forgotten.
"An hour or so later, one of the scaffies woke his mate. Each as befuddled as the other, they leant on the table for support, and saw there the heap of dough which the bakers had abandoned. It had been growing while they slept, and it was about to overflow onto the floor. The bakers were in no state to deal with it, so the scaffies decided to help.
"Somehow, still drunk as they were, they managed to heave the dough in armfuls off the table and over to the oven. They stuffed the lot in, then closed the oven door and left.
"The bakers slept on, and in the oven, the dough began to heat up. The outside grew crusty and brown, while on the inside the barm continued to work, and the dough swelled up and began to push the oven door open. Before long, the oven doorway was filled with a large rounded mass of crusty brown bread.
"It was just then that the master baker's wife came downstairs on an errand. She took one look round the bakery, then turned and ran back up the stairs, screaming, 'John, John! Come quickly! The bakers are a' deid and there's a horse in the oven.'"

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead well for five minutes. If the dough is sticky, sprinkle more flour on the work surface.

The old man had three sons and one daughter. He talked to his grandson about them while they worked together in the bakery. One son was a doctor, in Glasgow. Another was a lecturer at the college. The daughter was headmistress of a secondary school.
"They've all done well," he said.
"What about my dad?" the boy asked.
"Aye, he's done well too. Maybe he's done best of all."

Oil the bowl lightly before putting the dough back in. Cover it with a damp cloth and set the dough in a warm place to rise.

The young man sets the mixing bowl on top of the cooker and sits at the table with a book. Sadness can creep in at this point in the process. He has to wait on the yeast to do its stuff, and the empty time is filled with the ghost of his grandfather, silent and invisible, but certainly present.
There had been a falling out between the old man and his son. It was summertime, and the old man had come up from Clydebank to help out in the busy season. The boy had grown, and was helping where he could, picking up and storing tips from his grandfather. "You have to make fondant on a marble slab, and keep working it while it cools. If you don't, you just end up with a big lump of sugar."
Then the old man was told that his son had decided to give up the bakery. The trade was too uncertain, too seasonal, and the big bakeries were sending trucks up the West twice a week, supplying the local shops. The father would go to teacher training college. The family were to move to the East coast so that he'd be able to get home at weekends.
The old man listened silently, and when his son paused for comment, he just said, "It's your decision."
Then the old man turned back to his work. The boy was watching, and saw something too terrible to be borne. The magic drained out of his grandfather. The floury dwarf was gone, and there was just an old man filling pie cases. The boy turned and ran from the bakehouse.

In about one and a half hours, the dough will have doubled in size. Press it down a couple of times with a fist, turn it out onto the work surface and knead for three or four minutes.

At the age of eighty-five, the old man stepped off a bus, as it slowed for a corner. This was to avoid walking a hundred yards from the bus-stop to his front door. He'd done it all his life.
The boy's father was a teacher by now. He took time off and went to sit with the old man while he died.

Shape the dough and put it into an oiled tin. Cover it with a damp cloth and set it to rise for a further twenty five minutes.

The boy was in a strange way pleased: not at his grandfather's death, but at the manner of his going. There was spirit in that, at eighty-five, jumping off a moving bus.
His father stayed in Clydebank a few days more, to settle affairs. When he returned, the boy did not know what to say, what to ask. His father told him anyway.
"He was clear in his mind right to the end." The boy nodded, said nothing.
"We didn't talk much, but he did say one thing. A regret he had." The boy looked up.
"He told me that there were so many beautiful words, and he'd never had the chance to use them." The boy and his father looked at each other.
"I think he wanted me to tell you. He said it twice, so it was important."

The top of the loaf may be glazed with beaten egg, for a smooth finish, or sliced with a sharp knife for a 'crustier' loaf. Or it may be left plain.  Bake in the centre of an oven at 425oF for 40 minutes.

Now the boy is grown, and here he sits at the kitchen table in his flat. Reading. The room is full of the smell of bread baking.

Angus Dunn

Return to home page

Terms & Conditions     © Ross and Cromarty Heritage