Foods

How mum’s death inspired barrister to become a baker – after mastering a fish pie

Olivia Potts was a 25-year-old criminal barrister at the start of what was expected to be a stellar career.

Then her mum died suddenly from a stomach ulcer haemorrhage at home in Sunderland.

In her laugh-out-loud, cry-your-eyes-out new book A Half-Baked Idea, Olivia tells how the shock convinced her she needed fewer courtrooms and more macaroons in her life. So she ditched the bar to become a professional wedding cake baker.

Here, in an exclusive extract from the book, she explains how cooking helped her deal with her grief.

When my mother died, I was cooking. I was not a cook. I did not cook. I ate high-street-chain sandwiches, supermarket filled pasta and more takeaway kebabs than I was comfortable admitting.

My rare, haphazard forays into the kitchen led to fallen cakes, burnt biscuits and stringy stews. But I had recently started dating a man – a man who was very keen on cooking, and whom I was keen to impress.

One weekend, he suggested we cook together for friends. And I thought: “Oh God, that sounds like a terrible idea”. But I said: “Sounds great.” So I found myself in a kitchen that was not my own, baking a cake alongside a man I didn’t know. Meanwhile, 275 miles away, my mother was dying.

I’d spoken to my mother earlier that day on the phone. I’d told her about this man, and what I took to be his faults – he wasn’t sure he wanted children and he’d returned to vegetarianism, something I had inexplicably taken as an affront.

“Don’t worry, darling,’ Mum had replied. “Bring him home to meet your mother, I’ll point out your child-bearing hips, and feed him my shepherd’s pie. That’ll sort him out. When I met your father, he was wearing a blue velvet dinner suit. You can change anything.”



Olivia Potts with her beloved mum

 

I’d laughed and told her it would be a good story to recount if we ever got married. She’d yawned and we’d said goodbye to one another.

I didn’t know then what I would know 16 hours later. That yawn was a death knell, a swan song, a yawn – so commonplace, so trivial – that meant she wasn’t getting enough oxygen. A yawn that said she was dying. Later, I would replay that conversation, that yawn, over and over again.

Her body was preparing itself for what would happen over the next few hours. I hadn’t even asked how she was, though I did promise to call the next day with a postmortem on the supper. The irony would only occur to me later.

It was on February 10, 2013, that my mother Ruth Anne Potts died. And for me nothing was ever the same again.

I could give you any number of bits of trivia about my mother. She was terrified of flying, but loved trains. She was allergic to shellfish and penicillin. She collected blue glass bottles.

She could whistle like no one else I’ve ever met. She loved lemons in every guise.

She was heart-stoppingly scary when angry, with a shouting voice that could halt tanks or rhinos in their tracks. Gone with the Wind was her desert island book, and I suspect her luxury would have been 20 Silk Cut and a lighter.

My mother was my best friend. Does that sound trite? Rose-tinted? Maybe. But it’s true.

After she died, I felt so f***king lonely. The only person I wanted to talk to about my grief was her. She’d lost a parent prematurely, she’d understand. Maybe she was the only person who would understand. I couldn’t talk to Dad or my sister, Madeleine. I couldn’t bear to hear the grief in their voices. I feared betraying the grief in mine.



Olivia Potts with her mum Ruth, who loved pub grub like ham egg and chips

 

When we spoke, I kept it as light as I could. I ignored the Mum-shaped elephant in the room. My boyfriend, Sam, was wonderful, as were my housemates, but they were always going to be somewhat removed.

The only person who could help me was the one who was missing, and however much love and support people gave me, all I could focus on was how alone I felt. She was my person, and she was gone, and she was literally irreplaceable.

My mother gave me many things, but an education in cookery was not one of them. She liked eating rather more than she loved cooking. She loved cheese scones, moussaka, and bolognese pizza, which was exactly what it sounds like – meat ragu on a pizza crust, and a non-negotiable part of our order when we got takeaway pizza.

When she was ill, she became obsessed with clementines and, before then, she was obsessed with tuna pate – tuna anything, really – and cherry tomatoes and Marks & Spencer BLTs. Also fig rolls, dry white wine, and Marmite.

She was incapable of going to a pub for tea and not ordering ham, egg and chips, more so if it came with a ring of pineapple, which in the kind of pubs we went to it always did.

She loved baked beans beyond all reason, even cold. “Sneaky beans”, she’d call the spoonful straight from the tin, before heating the rest.

Puddings were obligatory on Sundays, but always shop-bought. Pancakes happened once a year, and were clearly something done for my and Maddy’s benefit, rather than for the joy of it.

Baking was simply unheard of. When I was six, she gave me an Usborne cookery book for my birthday, perhaps not fully perceiving the role she would have to play in the execution of the recipes.

With one aborted attempt at profiteroles – which ended with us tipping what looked a lot like dried prunes into the bin – any possibility of a burgeoning passion for baking was snuffed out.

Because she didn’t relish it, I think of her as someone who couldn’t cook. This is unfair. She had learnt how to cook through necessity when she was a teenager, when her mother had a hip operation. And some things she did brilliantly.



Olivia Potts in her chef’s whites after her career change

 

I know I’m not alone in making this assertion, but my mother made the best roast dinners in the world. Her Yorkshire puddings, as befits a Yorkshire woman, were second to none, her roast potatoes were superlative, and her carrots, blitzed with criminal amounts of butter and black pepper, were exquisite.

The stuffing and gravy both came out of a packet but, for whatever reason, I’ve never been able to get them quite as good.

I loved her vol-au-vents, filled with a mixture of tinned tuna and Campbell’s condensed cream of mushroom soup, which were as delicious as they sound disgusting. I never appreciated how old-fashioned they were until I turned up to a New Year’s party in my early 20s with a tray of them to a room of confused faces.

She made leek and potato soup, coq au vin, beef bourguignon, and a Greek-style pasta bake topped with cheese and yoghurt and eggs, which blackened as the savoury custard cooked, filling the house with its cheesy scent, drawing the family from to congregate around the oven door.

Mum was very much of the “life’s too short to stuff a mushroom” school of thought. My mother was part of that generation that came of age in the 70s, and fell in love with supermarket convenience. The speed and ease which was once only the realm of Fray Bentos pies suddenly became possible for moussaka! And spaghetti carbonara! And, above all, fish pie! She had a peculiar theory that it was acceptable to buy even basic items, if you knew how to make them. Almost every week, she would buy a prepared fish pie. According to her, this would be a great moral failing if she couldn’t make a white sauce. But since she could, it wasn’t a problem.

According to this line of reasoning, you only had to succeed at any time-consuming or difficult culinary feat once. Only a fool made a white sauce or pastry or custard on a regular basis.

I therefore grew up in a culinary no-man’s land, thinking both that people who couldn’t cook were uncouth, and that people who did were try-hards.



Olivia has shared her story in A Half Baked Idea

 

My mother never got round to teaching me how to make a white sauce – or rather, I never got round to asking her. This left me in the first camp – the uncouth one – with no one to teach me. In many ways, it was this that spurred me into action – I would have to teach myself.

I recognise that, against the tragedy of suddenly losing a parent, losing their limited culinary knowledge may feel like a footnote.

But I didn’t dare think about the bigger stuff. So this became my focus. For the first few weeks, I’d survived on supermarket pizzas. Instant noodles. Baked beans (it’s what Mum would have wanted, although I still can’t stomach them cold). A rotation of three ready meals picked up on my way home from work.

But one night, a fish pie mix caught my eye – lurid yellow haddock, pale pink salmon, and smooth white cod. I put it in my basket and carried it like a talisman around the supermarket.

What else did I need? Milk, probably. Potatoes, I was sure. Cheese. One by one, and helped by a lot of guesswork, I filled my basket.

When I got home, I unpacked my haul, and set myself in front of our electric hob. Armed with a Googled recipe and a wooden spoon I tried to teach myself to make a white sauce.

First, a roux, something I would have been hard-pressed to describe. But melting butter and sizzling flour into it wasn’t so hard. I found a whisk belonging to Rachel, my housemate, in a kitchen drawer, and stirred milk into the mixture, expecting lumps, but, to my surprise, finding it become silken.

Halfway through the recipe, I could see that – bloody hell – I’d made a white sauce! On my own! I then realised two things: first, I could do this and second, I had always hated fish pie.

Mum never understood my dislike of fish pie. I wasn’t fussy. But fish pie was the exception. I’m not sure whether my mother would collapse in laughter or tears if she were to learn the first proper dish I tackled was, of all things, fish pie.



A fish pie was the first thing Olivia made after she lost her mum (stock image)

So I stood over the stove, admiring my sauce, while pondering the fact that I was committed to making and eating a dish I had hated for 25 years, which for reasons I couldn’t unpick had suddenly become terribly important to me.

I spooned the sauce on to the fish. I mashed the potatoes, spread them on top, and put the dish into the oven.

And then I ate the pie. And it was delicious. But more importantly, something strange had happened. The act of making – and eating – a meal with my own two hands had anchored me. Calmed me.

I hadn’t climbed out of my grief bath, exactly, but it was as though someone had poured in a kettle of hot water. So, maybe not the next day, or the day after that, but some time later, I continued cooking.

  • Extracted from A Half Baked Idea: How grief, love and cake took me from the courtroom to Le Cordon Bleu by Olivia Potts, published by Fig Tree at £16.99. Copyright © Olivia Potts 2019.
Show More

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button
Close