June 14, 2020
Julie Jones is credited for creating ‘the most beautiful pastry on Instagram’. But it was her mother’s diagnosis of dementia and a desire to find an activity they could share together that inspired her passion for baking
Many of us have turned to baking to help us through the COVID-19 crisis – as sales of flour and yeast demonstrate. But Julie Jones had already discovered the power of pastry to soothe and heal. After working in office jobs, she retrained as a chef at the age of 30 and dreamt of working in fine restaurants, but she put her new career on hold when her mother, Joyce Armstrong, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of dementia. Instead, Julie cared for her mum and growing family (she has three boys) at home in Carlisle.
Baking became a part of their routine, a way to keep the children entertained and her mum happy and calm. Julie began sharing pictures of life and baking on her Instagram feed casually at first, but over time her pastries evolved and became a phenomenon on social media. She has since written two cookbooks, won ‘Best Instagram Feed’ in Observer Food Monthly’s 2018 awards and worked with Jamie Oliver. Julie now runs a supper club and classes in Cumbria.
Joyce died in October 2019 and Julie’s latest book, The Pastry School, is dedicated to her.
Baking with Mum after her diagnosis of dementia was an impulse. We used to make cakes such as Victoria sponges together when I was young, when Mum handed down the skills she’d been taught by her own mother, my Nan. One day, when Mum was particularly agitated and anxious to go outside, I said we’d bake a cake together as a way to distract her. For that hour or so she was calmer, and baking soon became a part of our family routine – Mum, me and my three boys, the youngest of whom was only six months old and would be in his bouncer in the kitchen.
Mum couldn’t recollect recipes or follow instructions, but if I put a sieve in her hand and some flour and a bowl in front of her, she would know what to do with them. We made simple things – a Swiss roll, hot cross buns or a sponge cake. When we were baking, all the repetitive questions – ‘Where’s Ged [my stepdad]?’ or asking for the handbag that was already on her lap – stopped. Mum developed a very sweet tooth with her dementia. When we were baking, the whole afternoon would be calm and then we’d enjoy eating what we’d cooked together. It meant we made new and happy memories, even when her dementia was getting worse.
The artistry in my pastries began to develop in 2015, when Mum was sectioned and taken into care. I would bake alone at night when the kids were in bed, as a way to soothe and comfort myself when I was going through the heartache. I found solace in the kitchen, and I began posting my pastries on Instagram and writing about my experiences. My followers grew and I was connecting with other people in similar situations, caring for someone living with dementia. They would send me messages and that helped me to feel I wasn’t alone. I’ve had people from all over the world send me photos of their version of my mum’s carrot cake.
When Mum first became poorly, we didn’t know what was wrong. She stopped eating, although she had always been someone who loved to cook. When you walked into her house, she wouldn't settle until you had something on a plate in front of you. She lost four and a half stone and we were so worried. She would forget that she liked foods and would pull faces like a child when I tried to feed her. One day I found a tin of lychees in the cupboard and for a while they were the only thing she would eat – she loved the sweet syrup and the soft, easily digested fruit. Eventually, her appetite returned, the depression lifted and she learnt to enjoy her food once again. I created my Lychee and Violet Craquelin Choux in memory.
Mum hardly spoke for two years, but then she would say something meaningful and relevant completely out of the blue. I used to lie beside her on the bed and take a photo of us together. After I won the OFM award in 2018, I was doing that and videoing us on my phone. She turned to me and said, ‘I’m just so proud of you’. It’s amazing I captured her saying that.
Baking has an incredible ability to connect. I went to bake with the residents in Mum’s care home – we made Anzac biscuits and one woman was really getting into it. I shared a photo and her daughter messaged me on Instagram, saying her mum hadn’t moved one arm in years but she was using it in the photo. She was amazed.
Creating pastries, writing books and teaching my classes, it’s all been accidental. I’m thankful and it’s lovely that something positive came from a situation that was so sad. Mum and I were always close but we developed a new relationship during her last years. I tell people to appreciate and embrace the person they love at each stage. I always said, this is my mum now. I love her for who she is now.