By: Roshni Vatnani
“That looks like a Marvel supervillain.”
When I first attempted a loaf of bread, I was riding high on a wave of perfectly-risen cakes. That, in hindsight, was the golden age of my baking journey. I was chained to my oven, creaming butter and sugar; batch after batch, till the scent of vanilla, drew everyone out of their hiding places and onto the table for tea and cake. I think what I enjoyed most was perhaps the look on their faces, as they had their first bite. While struggling with kneading, I tried to hold on to that look. The look then provided an adrenaline rush for my aching arms and anxious mind. A simple loaf required kneading for twenty minutes by hand. Gathering the dough with hands and pushing it back with palms, repeating everything till it felt pillow soft. The timer was set. The kitchen was quiet, and the house more so. The yeast was fresh, the flour sifted, and the ingredients at room temperature. After thirty-five minutes of kneading, I raised my hands, trying to free myself of the dough that clung to fingers. My sister came from behind me and said; “it should probably have its own villainous name.” After she left, I washed my hands, sat down on the floor, and replayed my failures while peeling off bits of dead dough from my fingers. The honeymoon period for my marriage to baking had ended, and I was grieving.
“I can’t remember when I first baked bread, actually.”
Raluca Micu is a force to reckon with. Its 10am for the rest of us but she operates on baker’s hours. Her day begins at 5am. By 5.30am she is at the bakery to turn on the ovens. Then, a daily schedule is followed. Weighing, sifting, baking, shaping, proving, baking, and chatting with customers are only some of the things she does at her 11-month-old bakery, October 26.
Everything is covered in a film of flour. The scent of slightly charred toast hangs in the air along with steam, like fragrant, swooping clouds. This causes the bakery windows to condense slightly with little droplets arranging themselves around the cyclic logo. From the outside it appears as if something steamy is underway, and even the windows are hot and heavy. The kitchen is not that far off.
As Raluca talks to me about growing up in Romania, she is shaping baguettes. In France, a baguette must weigh 250 grams, with a diameter of about 5 or 6 centimetres, and a usual length of about 65 centimetres. It is the law. Raluca herself is un petit. Without looking at them, she has managed to shape twelve baguettes in a span of 20 minutes. They are all alike, a veritable feat for any baker, let alone one without any formal training. I feel a twinge of envy. As they are shoved into the oven, she continues to narrate her days in the marketing team of Communications giant EE; ‘very dull.’ She swiftly works on a batch of ganache for the chocolate éclairs, the only other non-bread item available at her shop; and cleans down the steel top of all the flour. As she does, more flour settles onto the counter. Without consulting a recipe, she melts chocolate and cream, weighs sugar, crack eggs for the choux shells. ‘My father was shocked,’ she says, ‘when I told him I wanted to be a baker. He said ‘15 years of schooling for that?’’ She laughs. Romania was boring and she was tired of complaining about it. ‘It was just a feeling; you can’t change anything, but, can’t live with it either.’ She moved to London with a job in then-Orange. ‘I worked there for 11 years, and complained to my colleagues the entire time.’ Now, she is zesting lemons for the silky filling that goes between dry choux batter. When she speaks of her mother passing away from cancer, she stops for a minute. There is a whirlpool of floury steam behind her, straight out of an alley of a noir film. A lot of things propelled her to move to London, mostly centered around October 26. Of course, with a name like that, people are bound to ask questions.
‘It’s my birthday, my half-sister’s birthday, the day my mother died,’ she tells me. ‘I was very sure that I wanted the name to represent me.’
Satisfyingly symmetrical black-and-white photos are within her line of vision from the kitchen. The people in the pictures, some kids, some not, smile widely adding to the warmth of the minimalist décor of the space. It was designed and assembled by an architect friend, the one that she first scouted the space with. It took some visualising, with the help of a combined Pinterest board, she tells me.
Corn yellow wooden planks with dowels and boards prop the items. A chalkboard tells us the price and make-up of them. Customers can choose between shapes and flour blends. But most customers are regulars, and walk in for their usual order, without consulting the board. Raluca is obviously popular in the neighbourhood. When we walk down to get coffee a few minutes later, she stops to chat with a few residents who also double as regular customers. The fame has a downside too. Customers that are friends often concoct strange requests. She turned away a customer, who was moonlighting as a friend, and asking for bread to be baked in the shape of a star. Some gluten-free fiends find their way to a bakery too. In the age of an overpaying and, under-conscientious Whole Foods shopper, are requests for gluten-free bread common, I ask. They aren’t, but she does chase away some gluten-free customers. Some simply fake it. Murphy’s Law catches up sometimes though, when a customer turns out to be suffering from celiac disease. ‘Fuck,’ she rolls her eyes, telling me of the old lady she almost turned away after a day of suffering through the gluten-free mommy brigade, prams and skinny lattes in tow.
Raluca is decidedly determined. She does not conform. Her breads reign her production, and she has an air of self-assurance; one that also helps customers decide what to indulge in for their ‘weekly treat’. But, like her, what you see is what you get because, as she tells me, ‘it is not Build-A-Bear.’
The fame was incidental. A lot of events that propelled her to open shop were incidental too. Raluca found this space in Askew Road while dropping off her daughter to pre-school. Fiona is 3 years old and just as determined; only willing to explore ‘beige foods’ as dinnertime options for now. There are toddler bearings all around the shop – stickers on the chairs, preschooler paintings. Raluca and Fiona have an ongoing tradition to make Monday mornings bearable. They come in frightfully early and break for breakfast by popping for a babycino next door. Raluca’s husband, a social media whiz, looks after Fiona when she is away. Recently, the mother-daughter pair baked a birthday cake for the father, on her only day off.
Raluca can’t seem to get away from the oven far enough on Sundays. When I ask her what she likes to eat when she gets home, she sighs, knocks down some dough and says ‘anything.’ The signs of a new shop-mother are visible. Now, she is always ‘a bit tired.’
There are sacks of flour from Shipton Mills by the counter, paving the way to an open bakery. Often, it is a conversation starter. Flour from these mills is popular among artisan bakers and customers alike. Some regulars had grandparents who worked at Shipton Mills during a time gone by. That is why they know how good it is. They speak volumes of the quality that Raluca works so hard to provide in her products. Her chocolate eclairs are made with Valhrona chocolate callets, which roughly costs a little over 25 pounds for a kilo. Her products are cyclical, which means that she bakes a certain quantity per day. This works as an incentive for many to rush in and get their hands on the treat of the day before it’s gone, a common occurrence at October 26. She is flexible when it comes to recipes, though. The taste and quality does not waver, but she does not get torn up over the flour blends.
“Would you like to stand with me for lunch?”
It is almost time for lunch and we decide to get coffees. We stand over the prep counter that is our makeshift lunch table, eating freshly-baked baguettes with wedges of comte cheese and French butter, talking about nothing and everything. I am hungry for more bread, equally so to peel back more layers of seemingly simple Romanian fare. The cuisine and country are vaguely familiar. I press her with more questions, excited about what I could discover. She gives in, happily. Romanian food is pragmatic, much like its people, making it the perfect cuisine to feed a large family on a cold night. Sour soup, sauerkraut and sausages grace tables regularly. Among all of its neighbouring influences, their food manages a distinctive identity. She laments that the cuisine is little lost among dusty handwritten recipe books of another generation, because the fact remains ‘there aren’t enough old people left to teach you.’ While growing up, on her table everything was homemade, owing to a lack of foreign restaurants takeaway invasion. She has dreams of condensing her childhood flavours into a cookbook someday, along with a picture book for kids. Due to lack of press this cuisine has received, it requires field research and time, a luxury she cannot undertake with a pressing job and a toddler. It has to be thorough, with anthropological undertones, an enormous but anticipated undertaking. This is one among the many features on her five-year plan. Running a half marathon and traveling in a caravan are checked off her fingers too. Raluca can obviously juggle. Right now she is reading three books at the same time, during the only spot of silence in her long, flour-streaked days; one chronicling the history of Turkish sweets; Michael Pollan’s Cooked, a book about children in Romania; and, obviously, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, she adds – suddenly bringing up the total number of books on her nightstand.
I wonder if she ever takes off, then. Yes, Sundays are her only ‘non-floury days.’ She gets roped in to make the occasional cake or two, and in some anonymously famous cases, 200 individual baguettes for the coveted Oxford Food Symposium. She stayed up all night at the shop and baked 200 loaves, of which 120 were sent to the customer who requested. Later, he contributed to her word-of-mouth campaign, and thus, her organic growth. This, I am sure contributes to her quiet air of confidence. We are nearly finished with the cheese. She packs a large bag for me to take home, and I accept with little hesitation. I leave this yet-to-be-discovered Marvel Superhero to bake through the lunchtime rush.
After getting home I remove the bread from its paper packing and, using a large bread knife, cut it in large slices. I toast the bread in the oven and remove garlic roule from the fridge. The aroma is explosive and predictably draws out my roommate from her room. We eat the warmed bread straight off the sheet pan, breaking occasionally for cheese. This, P tells me, is the kind of bread we were hoping to have in Paris but didn’t. I agree, baguette crumbs sprouting from my mouth.
Irrational fear, when given time to prove, can double as irrational hate. My naive brushes with bread baking have been the few sore, sunken spots in my baking trajectory, usually dotted with evenly spaced moments of glory. Sprightly, smelly yeast has been known to die under my inefficient thumbs. It has propelled enough self-doubt. Will I really be able to write a book about baking, that my mother is already excited to purchase copies of, without a chapter on breads? Why can’t I recognise overly-moist dough from scraggly, dry ones after months of classical French training? Why haven’t they made a movie about Nigella Lawson already? This self-doubt eventually became thinly-veiled contempt. ‘I don’t really care for bread,’ I’ll say, eating a few slices and obviously referring to baking them versus eating them. Obviously.
Raluca’s calming presence in her frenzied kitchen and life leaves me with the kind of sense of optimism a runner gets right before the race begins, or the jitters that come from drinking too much coffee. Obviously, I can win the race. I can feel it in my bones. I open my cabinet and hunt for the yeast, opening and closing the tin to eat more of this bread. I am unafraid of being the baker who can’t bake bread anymore. I don’t need to stick to the rules. There is no system – which is a system in itself. She has assured me; the proof is in the pudding.
Roshni Vatnani is a current MA student in Creative Writing at The University of Westminster and former pastry chef who enjoys reading, writing, eating and all other creative forms of procrastination. Despite intensive training and tears, she cannot bake bread to save her life. Her culinary heroes include, and are limited to, Nigella Lawson.