When Diana Holba turned 66, she sat down in the canteen at work with pen and paper to write “the absolute classic list: what do I want to do?”. By then she had been working at the Environment Agency for nearly 20 years and planned to retire in a year. By “retire” she means “stop working at full-employment-type thing”; she hates not being busy.
Anyhow, the answer written in different words on every line of her list was “food, basically”. It is her longstanding love.
Over the following year, Holba, who is now 73, cooked takeaways for collection on Friday nights from her home in Aston, Hertfordshire. The queue was so long that her neighbour thought the council had installed a new bus stop.
She “saved every bit of that year to buy a catering oven and a classic bread dough maker”. Before long, the bread began to take over, and in 2015 she attended “a gathering of bakers” organised by the Real Bread Campaign in London. Arriving late, she found the lecture hall full, and squeezed herself into a workshop “by default”: how to start a microbakery. For Holba, “It was the classic lightbulb moment. I was going to be a baker.”
After a short course – two full days – and a couple of months practising at home, she began to sell loaves and herself became a bread instructor, delivering classes from her kitchen. If that sounds fast, she says, “it was. But if I want to do something I’ll bloody well do it.”
Holba loves bread. “It’s 6,000-plus years old,” she says, “yet in so many countries, it’s the first thing on the table.” And then there is the smell. Not so much of the bread out of the oven, but of the dough itself. “It’s beautiful. It sort of takes you somewhere.”
When she was a child, money was tight, and travel, or being taken “somewhere”, was not possible for Holba. Yet at the same time, she felt “very, very rootless”. Although her childhood was happy, she didn’t feel at home, and grew a sort of wired-in wanderlust. By 16, she had been “to 12 different schools, lived in 15 different houses”. In all of them, there was bread on the table – “a white loaf, with a bread knife, cut into slices”.
At art school, Holba met her future husband, Max, who is Polish, and her world enlarged. His father owned a delicatessen and at their family home there was bread on the table, too, but this time it was Polish rye. Holba thought Max’s mother “the most amazing cook. Her cooking opened the universe for me.” She learned that food could be transporting.
When Holba became a mother in her 20s – to three boys – Friday nights were theme nights. Chinese, Indian, Turkish, Mexican: she cooked them all. “Although at the time I was not well travelled myself” – she did not board a plane until she was 31 – “I was determined that my children would really appreciate it,” she says.
This custom sounds like a precursor to her Friday night takeaway business, when she would ask her customers, “Right, where are we going this week?” Maybe for Holba, bread fused the wanderlust and the homeliness. “Just four ingredients (flour, water, yeast, salt). But it’s so therapeutic. There is something very atavistic in dough,” she says.
It has a transformative power, too. You can do “incredible things”, she says, with a basic white dough – her favourite loaf. “People really start to connect with it. I haven’t had anybody in my classes who hasn’t in one way or another changed their opinion of themselves.”
So what about Holba? How has bread changed her? “I’m much more confident,” she says immediately. She has recently moved to Cambridgeshire, where she plans to get her bread “out into the community” of Buckden next spring. “Also,” she says, “I think I’m probably happier. I feel … what’s the word? Fulfilled. To a far greater degree.” It’s not that she previously felt unfulfilled, she insists. But bread has leavened her own capacity for fulfilment. “I’ve got a life skill. I’m learning, learning all the time.”