When my Great Uncle Bob passed away, it was truly one of the saddest days of my life. I loved that man. I loved everything he was and every single thing he stood for. I loved his humour and his quick wit; his demeanour and his sincerity. Everything about him was on face value, you earned his smile and his wink, his hand shake and attention. He was a great man. I found his funeral pamphlet going through some stuff today, and it made me smile.
My earliest memory of Bob goes way back to an age when the whole family spent Christmas together. Summer days were stinking hot and the nights were not much cooler. Days where games of back yard cricket in the G Marts huge back yard and British bulldogs were the bomb. Bindi-eye’s jammed in our feet and drive you crazy itching from the stinging nettles beside the fence. Bob would be watching over us, leaned back in a chair, leg up leaning on something while chewing a match stick. He was observant and never missed a thing.
He was a rotund shaped man with huge round, fat head. To Bob, his head was the trade marked ‘Abbott Head’ also known as a ‘puddin’ head’. He loved any big, fat round head, and would remark about a few of our kids having one. For years I thought it was odd that he would mention it and thinking about it now, I guess to him he saw his breeding; the fat round head was who he was, and who we are.
Bob was for many decades the local baker in Rainbow, a well-known and well-loved local, resident and friend. To us he was Bob, the bloke who made the best fucking Chocolate Éclairs in the World, our uncle who loved shooting foxes and skinning rabbits; feeding his twenty chooks and walking his foxy terriers; he was the town story-teller and joker, never short of a word to say and never scared to say what needing to be said.
In my later years and after Bob had retired from the bakery, I was lucky enough to be handed down his Choc Éclair recipe and more so the method that went with it. It’s a recipe many know but can’t replicate, only Bob could make them just right. So the day he offered to show me his recipe I jumped on it. The kitchen in his home was small and warm. A cosy place to create a miracle on a plate. He had all the ingredients on the bench ready to go, his apron tied around his big belly and a cap on his fat head. God I loved that man. He made me smile just looking at him. He had an awkward charisma that just held you focused on him, awaiting his next word. His recipe includes a fair amount of storytelling and lots of laughing while trying to be serious.
We started by measuring the eggs, this called for an un-level window sill and a fucking BIG measuring jug. With the jug sitting on the window sill he cracked the 20 something eggs one after the other until they reached the 10 fluid ounce mark on the jug. Which probably means that it’s not actually 10 fluid ounces as its sitting on a sill with a serious degree of un-level going on. Moving from the eggs he melts the Fairy Margarine in a pot on the stove with the required amount of water. While this is melting he measures out his flour placing it into the old winding sifter that’s sitting on two sheets of newspaper on the bench. Running the flour through the sifter into the paper he explains that this next part you need to do really fucking quick and aggressively. He strides over to the stove and brings the bubbling pot of ‘fluffy’ melted margarine to the bench, lifting the paper with the flour, he pours the flour into the pot. Quickly and roughly he stirred like fucking crazy with a wooden spoon while puffing and looking out from under his craggy brows, he laughs about how this is the most important part. Let it cool right off he puffs, spreading the rue out onto the bench to cool to tepid. He potters at the sink washing the pot as the rue cools. Adding eggs one at a time and whisking with a flat whisk he smooths the mix into a beautiful silky batter, ready for the HUGE piping bag he has spread open and waiting.
The oven is already heating. The tray he uses to cook the éclairs on is hand-made, black, shiny and really heavy. Bob believes that this tray is the secret to getting the bottoms perfect and stresses the importance of not ever washing the tray in soapy water, nor the piping bag full of the mix he is squeezing onto the tray. These perfect lines of batter, all the same length and width, in perfectly even rows, one after the other… clearly the 30 years in the bakery made for his perfection. It was truly a delight to witness.
He pops the tray into the oven and closes the door softly. Striding back to the bench he says, we cook them until they’re “dried out, browned and not frizzling”.
Watching the whole cooking process through the oven door, I am thinking to myself I am so fucking excited to see this all unfold. One really doesn’t appreciate just how special that moment was for me, watching him bake the most recognised recipe he ever baked. Then watching him whip the cream and mix the chocolate icing ready for them to cool enough to ice. Icing them first was essential, then you slice in half, long ways and pipe in the cream.
Pancreatic cancer took Bob from us, and it took him quick. It was secondary to Bowel cancer undiagnosed I think. When he found out he had it, he made light of it. Commenting in jest that if you have ‘white stools’ (say stools with an extended ooo) then “get ya back passage checked!” He faced it head on and laughed through it as much as he could. He fought as hard as he could and what upset him more than anything else while facing death was that he would miss his Grand-daughters grow up. He loved those girls like nothing else, and by God he was a fantastic Grandfather.
The last time I saw Bob, was at my Granny’s house. He dropped in for a cuppa and fresh dog turd, “straight off the grass out the back”. As he was leaving that day, for the first time ever, whispering in my ear as he hugged me goodbye, “I love ya Nom”.
I knew, that day I would never see Bob ever again. He knew it too. I never saw him in hospital, I couldn’t go, but I called. Not sure he knew it was me, but regardless, he was never forgotten. He will always be remembered and treasured, My Great Uncle Bob.
Make sure you turn the teapot twice clockwise and once anticlockwise!