Who’s the big cheese around here?

Gatt talks, WTO tariffs and trading partnerships all sound a bit remote – at least they do to me – until, that is, – I start to wonder where we’re heading with our grip on global climate change, atmospheric pollution, biodiversity loss, food policy, the obesity crisis; zoonotic pandemics, and feel free to add any other candidates. The official government line on all this is to stick its fingers in its ears and shout lalalalalalalalala as loud as it possibly can. Scientists?? pifflewaffle; we know what we think and we think what we know! The great joy of knowing the answer before you’ve even formulated the question is the amount of time it releases for doing more fun things.

Anyway, I listened to a programme on the radio last evening about Flann O’Brien’s novel “The third Policeman” and whilst thinking about bicycles (if you’ve read it you’ll know!) I remembered a theory I formulated many decades ago when I was studying ceramics. My lecturers, with the exception of the saintly David Green (the rest deserve to remain anonymous) regarded my interest in the science and technology of firing clay and decorating with glazes as a dangerous diversion from the main task of being creative. I simply couldn’t understand how I was supposed to create anything without the knowledge of the chemistry and the physics that made things possible. The alternative was the opposite of creativity because it limited you to flicking through magazines and catalogues and making things with readymade ideas and readymade materials. I paid for my interest with a drinker’s degree but with some grasp of what you could do with mud and fire.

So my theory was simple. The sum of human knowledge is accessible from any single point you might start out from rather as a bicycle wheel is supported and rendered strong and functional not by a single spoke but by a multitude of spokes radiating from the centre. A pHd in the study of one spoke will leave you as powerless as when you began. Beginning with hand made ceramics at the centre of the hub I was able to explore chemistry, physics, history, industrial and domestic design, the economic geography of the Midlands; geology – of course – and the evolution of industrial ceramics; and that’s not to mention Chinese, Korean and Japanese ceramics through their history and bearing in mind the religious cultures in which they were situated. Altogether a marvellous complement to the business of creatively expressing the idea of being human through mud, fire and human hands.

It seems to me that the same bicycle wheel analogy can be applied to any or all of the challenges I outlined in the first paragraph. Yes I’m an allotmenteer but also I’m a cook, a writer, a parent, a partner, a shopper and a human being struggling to discover how best to be human in this strange century. So all the old disciplines come back again, because to understand what’s going on it’s not enough to follow a single spoke. We need sound grasp of all of them if we’re to deal creatively with the challenges – otherwise, as my argument suggests, we are chained to endlessly repeating old and (as we now know) ineffective solutions.

What would an ecologically virtuous form of traditional mixed farming and local food chains actually look like

Let’s take cheese as a starting point – no surprise there then! The wheel of thunderous raw milk Cheddar or the block of its industrial, cling wrapped namesake share some features but it’s the differences that really count. To take an interest in cheesemaking necessitates taking an interest in farming and demands that we consider the carbon footprint of dairy farming. The two cousins may share a common ancestor but they grew up in different cultures, thriving and failing in different economic structures. They each have roots in many other questions – not least how should we feed ourselves without destroying the earth? What should we do with the waste products? Is it possible to feed the population without resorting to industrial farming with its chemicals? Can we even afford the additional expense of time and human labour if we turn our backs on the feedlot and the intensive dairy operations? Can we afford not to? What would an ecologically virtuous form of traditional mixed farming and local food chains actually look like?

We’ve become so reliant on technological solutions for complex problems that we’re shunting lethal earth-threatening events down the line awaiting the arrival of the uninvented as if technology were like the Seventh Cavalry – always appearing over the hill in the nick of time. The reality is that we’re locked in the cabin of an aeroplane that’s plunging earthwards while the crew argue about which button to press.

There will be ways of changing our bearing and finding a way through the challenges but it will demand the understanding and collaboration of the sociology and economics, psychology, agricultural and horticultural sciences and political structures in order to untangle the threads that have created this disaster. But most of all this can’t be an imposed solution without the input of farmers and the food distribution networks; of consumers and – dare I say – the thousands of workers who depend on ultra processed food production for jobs. A bicycle with a one spoked wheel is suitable only for leaning against walls.

I had a friend who was a keen amateur cyclist and once or twice he tuned my bike wheels in order to remove a kink acquired in a pothole. The sensitivity required as he turned the spoke spanner tiny amounts was amazing. Every twist on one spoke would demand a tweek somewhere else – it took ages; and so it will be as we try to deal with the crises we’re facing. The devil will always be in the detail.

not so much an orchestra as a rather poor beggar playing Annie Laurie on a school fiddle

The crisis of end stage capitalism has infiltrated every aspect of our lives. Basic foodstuffs have been so commodified that they have no relation even to the country, let alone the county of origin. Commodified milk, for instance is often sold at below the cost of production and I remember well a dairy worker telling me that when one chain wanted to depress the farm gate prices they began importing milk from Poland which, by the time it finally arrived was beginning to turn. This doesn’t matter much because, as a result of lobbying pressure from the largest producers, all milk has to be pasteurised to such an extent that the friendly natural yeasts, bacteria and microbes on which regional artisan cheeses depend for their unique flavours are all dead. So then they have to add one or more industrial starter cultures. Unsurprisingly, most commercial Cheddars taste much the same – not so much an orchestra as a rather poor beggar playing Annie Laurie on a school fiddle.

Where the trade agreements come into this is that the big producers have found it easy to crush artisan cheesemakers by imposing regulations that destroy the handmade product. The fightback has been fierce, beginning with the trumped up charge that raw milk cheeses were quite likely to infect you with Listeria. It took a titanic battle to prove that traditional raw milk cheese production – when done properly – is actually less likely to give you Listeriosis because all those naughty microbes are able to create an environment that’s hostile to Listeria. It’s just that you should avoid raw milk cheeses and soft blue cheeses if you’re pregnant or immunocompromised.

I’m sorry to have focused on cheese, but the same thing exactly goes on with cattle breeding – most high yield grain fed cattle are too closely related to one another due to the international trade in bull semen. Consequently many cattle are born sick and need copious amounts of prophylactic antibiotics just to stay alive. Traditional herbal remedies, many used effectively for centuries, have been driven off the shelves because the producers can’t afford the huge costs of testing and registration. In fact, as I’ve been reading about the scandalous results of the actions of agrochemical industries, big pharma and intensive farming and their relationships with industrial and ultra processed food.

The commodification of the food chain in order to drive down prices is the principal engine of almost every challenge we face. Cheap ultra processed food makes us sick while it drives ecological and climate devastation and, worse still, is the fact that it’s only cheap because we the longsuffering taxpayers subsidise it; throw money at it. There’s only one way forward and that’s to turf out governments that refuse to take this problem seriously; to bear down hard on the industries that spend billions on lobbying (more than 500 fossil fuel lobbyists were members of official delegations at COP26! – let alone the big pharma and agrochemical lobby), and to regulate fairly to protect and promote sustainable agriculture within local food chains. If we were to remove the subsidies for junk food and apply them to genuine producers we’d see the price differential close dramatically.

Do I sound cross? ….. you’ve no idea !!!!

If it ain’t broke …

Proved on a couche cloth and supported by a couple of rolling pins.

Being a conservative (with a small C) kind of person, I can get absurdly attached to the way we do things round here, and after a couple of successful outcomes with loaves, for instance, I have to almost force myself to try something different. There has to be a strong reason for me to change; and happily a strong reason came along just at the very moment I’d grown a bit tired of circular bannetons which I’ve been using for years after an even longer period of using nothing but tins. You may call it boring, but for me it’s a way of taming an unforgiving and unpredictable world. Of course I know perfectly well that the fact there’s a familiar shaped and flavoured loaf on the table with some home made marmalade at breakfast time – doesn’t guarantee that the roof won’t fall in by lunchtime, but ….. well most of the time it doesn’t!

So it was the impossibility of cutting two slices the same size from a circular loaf that finally pushed me towards the sandwich maker’s friend, a broadly rectangular loaf that yields lots of similar sized slices. Nothing else changed at all; same recipe, same proving time, same baking times. However it wasn’t all that simple to achieve because clinging to the lifebelt of a banneton I bought a rectangular shape without thinking through the obvious problem of getting the dough out of the banneton and on to my improvised peel without at some point turning it over. The resulting loaves were fine tasting but looked like baboons bums by the time I’d deflated them by clumsily handling them. And so I bought a linen couche cloth to line the banneton so I could gently lift the risen dough out and slide the peel underneath it. Nice theory but there was one problem. I’d got very used to producing soft, sticky doughs and baking them on a cast iron griddle plate heated to 240C – smoking hot – so that they wouldn’t spread out and pancake in the oven. Even in the short time it took to transfer the loaf from the couch cloth to the peel, my infant loaves were spreading like regency ladies when they removed their corsets. Good fortune intervened when I had to knock out a couple of batches of morning rolls and I discovered that proving them on the couche cloth firmed the outsides and bases just enough to make it a breeze to transfer them to the oven; and if you could do it with rolls, I thought to myself, why not a whole loaf? I just needed to make the dough a tiny bit stiffer.

Consequently the familiar everyday loaf has suddenly mutated and changed its shape. The slashing was a bit iffy and needs to be a touch deeper next time, but given the new shape it occurs to me I could bake two or even three – side by side – if I could lay my hands on a larger cast iron sheet or baking stone. Then I’d probably need to get a proper peel instead of my improvised cake tin base, because the rectangular loaf overhangs the tinned sheet by about three inches. You see how this baking business sucks you in! before you know where you are you’ve graduated from the occasional recreational loaf to full fledged addiction and the purchase of quite unnecessary accessories like waxed cotton aprons. Luckily Madame has an abundance of common sense which she shares with me whether I like it or not.

I’m perfectly prepared to admit that my loaves would rarely win a beauty contest, but on occasions that we give in to the temptation of a shop loaf we’re almost always disappointed. As I wrote a couple of days ago; when style and ease of manufacture triumph over flavour, food declines. I’m always reading that bread makes you fat, but our experience suggests that the better the quality of the food we buy or prepare, the less of it we actually eat; and in any case when bread making, a little extra time can mean you are able to incorporate more wholemeal flours. 100% wholemeal sourdough can be very hard to bring to life, but our everyday bread has a combination of wholemeal wheat flour, dark rye flour and also strong organic white flour. It tastes, as I’ve said before, like the granary and wonderfully complements a piece of raw milk farm Cheddar. Expensive, yes of course, but the bread comes in at a third of the shop price and the cheese is so well flavoured you need much less of it to satisfy your appetite. It’s junk food – sugar, salt and fat combinations that make us overeat, then makes us sick and overweight. Am I sounding a bit evangelistic? Sorry!

Properly made bread is good food – we can’t emphasise that too much. The process of milling and then fermenting grains outside the body enables us to easily digest a truly amazing source of carbohydrate, protein, vitamins and minerals. Wonderful stuff even if – like me – after years of exploration you’re still wandering around in the foothills!

Organish? – not all turtle soup and silver spoons

Found on the green yesterday – bluet?

Another trip to the farmers market yielded a chastening surprise at the weekend. We were in something of a hurry because we we expecting a family visitation to celebrate our son’s birthday and so we sold our souls and picked what looked like a healthy looking bakery stall and stocked up on padding. Not – I should add – the indispensable thin sliced industrial white (only used for summer pudding at the Potwell Inn), but sourdough loaves bearing all the imprints of banneton and human labour and with a corresponding price tag.

Being a regular home baker myself, I expect to make better bread than most bakeries simply because my time and experience come free of charge. There are no rents, rates or wages to find each month and if the loaves are a couple of hours late coming out of the oven, nobody dies or goes bust. So what can you say about bread that looks exactly like the real deal but lacks any single distinguishing feature? With bread, and almost any other artisanal food you could name; time equals flavour. Bread that’s rushed through the process in a few hours will never, can never develop the full flavour of the wheat or rye. It might look like the real thing; the crust bursting with energy, the crumb textbook, the rise prodigious but without time – and I mean lots of it – it will never taste of anything and be fit only as a platform for something that does taste delicious. Good bread, cheeses, pickles and ferments are all the same in their demands for time and human judgement.

There used to be a Chinese restaurant in Bristol whose menus were masterpieces of brevity. “Steamed fish”, for example was a whole carp, steamed on a bed of aromatic vegetables – wonderful. It was always honest as well; no item on the menu was buried under a landslide of adjectives. You either liked chickens’ feet or you didn’t with or without the anointing of such words as luscious, velvety or exotic. There’s a huge Chinese supermarket in East Bristol that will sell you a box of frozen pork cervix. Please don’t feel obliged to buy them on my account!

We’re so accustomed to supermarket photographs of fictionalised farmers surrounded by their happy animals (my chickens are soooo free range they even have a community centre and a table tennis team) that we don’t so much buy nourishment as lifestyle narratives, and of course this means that we rarely get to taste the real stuff. Of course you can bake bread that looks like the loaves in the latest edition of Country Life but I fear that a splash of sourdough starter for flavour accompanied by a good deal of conventional yeast, a short warm rise and a lot of steam is what we usually get. Worse still, our palates are so habituated to bland food, we find fully flavoured properly made food overwhelming, even unpleasant. Just as a treat I bought in some really good cheeses for the family to try on Saturday. Apart from me, nobody liked them – their loss, my gain I suppose but what a shame to live in a world of bland, grey flavours when you could experience the orchestra of a well made Cheddar. Sadly, in marketing food, all too often more creativity is expended on the promotional material than on the product.

Anyway, there’s been more than food alone on our minds this week. The campervan roof light has been leaking recently and after a few abortive emails to local repairers we made contact with the company that built our van and they immediately agreed to repair it yesterday. The snag was that we had to be there when the workshop opened and it was on the far side of Dartmoor. So it was a 4.00am alarm and then a drive down to the banks of the Severn to collect the van from its storage facility, and then driving down the motorway in what still felt like the middle of the night. There’s always something exciting about night driving and by 7.00am we could see the first intimations of sunrise as the sky took on a faintly damson flushed with peach hue to the east, with a three quarter waning moon in the sky above and the Somerset levels frosted in the first really cold night of winter. We arrived in good time and after three hours the van was restored and we drove north with Dartmoor to our left, looking ravishing in the clear blue skies.

More about rats

I was turning the compost heap last week and, one after another, three large and very sleek rats abandoned ship and scooted off up the path. One of them went in the general direction of Madame – who was weeding – and a piercing cry went up – an eeeeeeeoooooaaaaaaach – sort of noise. I don’t know about the rat but it scared the living daylights out of me. I think it’s as much the unexpectedness of their appearances that’s the most unnerving thing.  They have a tendency to sit the disturbance out until there’s no alternative but to bolt.  I’ve had one jump right over my shoulder on one occasion. We’ve got a trail cam on the plot and we’ve filmed cats, mice, foxes, squirrels and badgers, but it’s the ubiquitous rats that trigger the camera more often than any of the others. 

So are there so many more this year? Without the benefit of a proper survey, I’d say that without doubt this year has seen the largest infestation we’ve ever seen.  It’s not quite Hamelin but it’s almost impossible to drive past the entrance without disturbing two or three, and there can be very few allotmenteers who haven’t seen a few at least. They have a prodigious capacity to breed, and therein lies one possible solution to the problem. It’s entirely natural for populations to grow to the point where disease, overcrowding and food shortages drive the population down again. It’s a possibility but we shouldn’t hold our breath.

It’s said that the lockdown and the closure of the restaurants and fast food outlets led populations of rats and gulls alike to look for food beyond the city centre and, I suppose, we’re providing it. I’ve read that the gulls hardly bred at all in the first lockdown although they certainly seem to have recovered well by now. We’ve tried just about every conceivable way of discouraging them and there’s no single answer. I suppose not composting kitchen peelings and veg waste would be a start but it would be at the expense of our compost heaps.  You can always see when they’ve paid a visit because they dig distinctive tunnels in the upper surfaces and often have toilet areas where you can see their droppings.  We all know that rats can be carriers of leptospirosis so at the very least we need to be meticulous about wearing gloves and observing personal hygiene when handling compost.  They don’t like being disturbed and they won’t enter very hot heaps – which is an encouragement to turn heaps regularly and work them hard.  55C plus a yard fork will put the most determined squatter off. 

I’ve never made bokashi but it’s said that rats don’t like the strong taste and smell of fermented waste.  Kitchen waste can be converted in a wormery so that there’s little left of any interest to the rodents.  Traps, to my mind, are a waste of money because rats are clever little critters and once they’ve been activated they’ll never go near them again.  We won’t use poisons because we love the other creatures, and secondary poisoning is a real issue with rat poison and slug pellets alike.  Ask yourself why there are no hedgehogs on our allotments? 

And that leaves barriers – fine chicken wire wrapped around wooden heaps and tight fitting lids because they’re great climbers. But they’re also great tunnellers so the chicken wire needs to be brought out horizontally at the bases of heaps as you might do when fox-proofing a chicken run.  One final suggestion which we’re testing at the moment is to fill any tunnels with wire wool and ram it in firmly with a crowbar. Apparently they are greatly averse to chewing through it! – and who could blame them? 

What doesn’t work? Gardening lore is about as useful as Old Moore’s Almanac so ignore the advice that they don’t like citrus peel because they do, as do the worms as well. And there’s one more tactic which does absolutely nothing to reduce numbers but it can transform our relationship with rats. Actually they’re very clever, very resourceful and often quite handsome animals. If we’re serious about wildlife gardening then we don’t get to choose the cuddly bits and slaughter the rest. This year we managed to keep the badgers off most of the sweetcorn with a ring of steel; but the rats simply moved in and took their place. We would see them swaying at the top of a plant nibbling away happily. But we managed to harvest about half the crop and enjoy it. We don’t moan when the bees eat our pollen or the birds eat our seeds so maybe the rat too should be considered part of life’s rich tapestry and a perfect supper for a hungry fox too. 

Shopping mindfully – does it cost a fortune?

We’ve been creeping up on this decision for many months now, and because we’re quite passionate about shopping sustainably and locally, it seems like a good time to have a look at the pros and cons. In truth the decision to seriously cut back on supermarket shopping was forced on us as our weekly delivery became more and more random. Substitutions became the rule rather than the exception; the supermarket started to charge for deliveries and since we were largely shopping organic anyway the step up to local was less of a hike than it might otherwise have been. However there’s no doubt that sourcing as much of our food locally involves a hefty premium. Our son also pointed out to me – very sensibly – that for many working families there’s neither the money or the time to commit to the kind of shopping that we’ve tried to initiate for ourselves. Cooking all our food from scratch is a luxury that very few people have and I’m completely sympathetic to anyone who just can’t stretch to it. We treat the allotment almost like a job but when the lockdown eased we noticed that many keen and new allotmenteers simply couldn’t put the hours in any more. We know what that feels like having both worked full time (I mean 60+ hours a week), for decades. Now we’re retired we can do it and although it won’t save the earth we’re pleased to do our bit.

Let’s look at some specifics. If you’re not a vegetarian and you enjoy chicken, you could probably buy a small roasting bird for around £3.50. You certainly wouldn’t like to see the horrific conditions it had spent its entire life under and so you could go for an organic one at roughly twice the price. Such a small bird would probably feed two generously and produce a reasonable stock afterwards. Buying a larger bird makes much more sense because you can do so much more with it. A large, free range organic bird is going to cost something like £12 – £14; again twice the price of the value range bird. Both types, however, will have been filled with the maximum amount of water and, in the most egregious cases, chemicals – to “improve the customer experience” .

If you love the River Wye as much as we do, you may have seen that the water in some parts has become so loaded with nitrate and phosphates it’s become eutrophic – dead in plain English – almost certainly caused by intensive free range organic industrial chicken producers on the banks of the river – precisely the premium products that supermarkets sell. So at this point you’ve got two perfectly sensible choices – firstly to abandon chicken (probably all meat eating) out of respect for the environment – OR to eat much less of it but source it locally from farms you know, or have researched. A large chicken from a local organic and free range farm – dry plucked – cost us £22 last week – and yes I had to stifle a gasp when the butcher told me the price. However, when roasted there was no shrinkage; it genuinely tasted like the chickens we had as an occasional treat as children, and it served us for four meals as well as providing enough stock and pickings to make two days worth of soup and to flavour another dish of pommes boulangere. Looked at in that way we think we can afford to buy a chicken maybe once a month instead of once a week as we have in the past. We’ve now tried three local butchers offering high spec free range and organic meat and the same kind of markup in cost but also in flavour applies. A joint of free range Gloucester Old Spot pork belly will instantly demonstrate the reason that cheap supermarket pork will never develop a proper crisp crackling – the added water makes the skin irredeemably soggy and wet.

I have the greatest respect for anyone who chooses not to eat meat on ethical grounds but vegetarians and vegans also have to think through the production processes because in organic, all that glisters is not gold. We haven’t quite reached the scandalous excesses of the organic industry in the US, but with the present regime in power here, it’s only a matter of time. As I read recently, it’s not so much the why, but the how of farming that needs to determine our choices. Since we’ve always been hard up, we’ve always managed on the cheapest cuts and avoided high priced follies like fillet steak. The question “can I afford it?” applies as much to the production as to consumption. If the outcome of eating any meat at all is to destroy the environment – and I think there are very powerful arguments to counter that view – but if it were so, then we’d have to turn to high spec, organic and local vegetables, grains and pulses. Turning to cheap imports of industrially chemicalized soya going into industrially processed food would simply compound the problem.

The same kind of argument applies to many of the other staples of our diet. We can easily source good eggs that sit up in the pan, full cream milk that’s three or four days fresher and makes the best kefir ever because it’s pasteurised slowly at much lower temperatures and isn’t homogenised. We’re blessed with an abundance of wonderful local cheeses that are so well flavoured you only need a half the quantity to cook with. Welsh rarebit or plain cheese on toast cooked with Westcombe Cheddar is a revelation. We have local flour mills and several market gardens who deliver by bicycle! and we have one of the oldest farmers’ markets in the country within easy walking distance. We’ve even got a local organic cooperative that sells all the dry goods and cleaning materials. I’ve already written enough about the meat. So I’ll answer my own question – does it cost a fortune – with this reply. Either way round it either costs the earth or costs the consumer a a bit more – you choose!

But there’s another positive to local sourcing – you get to know (and are able to ask questions of) the producers. Our farmers’ market is a stable (no pun intended) community of stallholders and more often than not you’re talking to the producer, or a member of their family. When did you last do that in a supermarket? In the last two weeks I’ve had conversations with two of the best cheesemakers in Europe the second of whom told me yesterday that the cheese I’d just bought, (Merry Wyfe), had won the top prize in an international competition only last Saturday. The regular trip to the market is quite a bit more expensive but the food is better for us and better for the earth, and it’s fun to stand and chat – we never haggle! – and the range of foods is tremendous – Go weep Waitrose when you see the edible fungi. Oh and the supermarket bill is much smaller – maybe 50%.

So how can we afford this on our pensions? Well we make other sacrifices, for instance we rarely – maybe once a year – eat out and our holidays are home brewed in our 12 year old campervan apart from by the generosity of friends who let us use their cottage in Snowdonia from time to time. I think we’ve been to the pub once in the last 2 years. A period of sobriety is as good for the bank balance as it is for the liver. I used to brew our own beer but I’m afraid we enjoyed drinking it too much. We’re a family of chefs and cooks who love growing, cooking and eating together, and a wander around the market is a timely reminder that we’re not the only people who choose to live this way and we could be a powerful voice for change if we organised like the French farmers do!

The stallholders aren’t rich, they could almost all make more money doing something less demanding; but they’re passionate about what they make and sell and, even more importantly, they’re the vanguard movement of local sustainable living. If we didn’t have them there we’d have to invent them. They’ve had a marvellous opportunity to extend their off farm sales during the past 2 years of covid and they are the spearhead of a movement to undo some of the damage done by industrial farming – but only as long as we support them – even just now and again for special occasions; but better still on a regular basis that gives them the confidence to grow their businesses.

And finally, if you don’t live in Bath, and none of these structures exist where you live – there could never be a better time to start some of them.

Marmalade crisis strikes the Potwell Inn

I suppose running out of marmalade would be fairly low on the agenda as COP26 falls through the wormhole that is Boris Johnson’s mind and into alt reality territory where anything can be true as long as you want it to be, and Bobby Ewing will still be pumping oil after all.

But here, in what we cling to as the real world where in January – as a result of the lockdown – we were unable to make marmalade because we couldn’t get any Seville oranges, and the cupboard is now bare, of marmalade at least. In my fragile frame of mind something as trivial as marmalade can loom large and grey. However this is also a season where some pretty hard work on the allotment takes place. For much of the year the management of the compost heaps means turning one of the bins at a time; but this week we needed to move the contents of all four bins – amalgamating the leaf mould with the finished compost, refilling the empty leaf bin with this year’s leaves and then turning the active heap into the adjoining bin. I reckon that involves forking, shovelling and wheelbarrowing approaching 1.5 tons of decaying plant material. The upside is having up to a couple of tons of black gold for free every year.

I’ve discovered over the years that there’s nothing more likely to send the black dog away into the wilderness than having some sort of plan; the only obstacle is taking the first step. Going back into the gym was one part of the plan and doing the compost was another. If there’s a downside to turning compost it’s the lingering smell of an anaerobic heap which penetrates your clothes and takes up residence in your nostrils. Letting the air in to a heap is essential to prevent this from happening, but it’s not always possible to do it in time to head off the stench. The rule is – if you can smell the heap it needs turning and shaking up. Yesterday’s active bin was on the edge of becoming a nuisance and by the time I’d moved it all into the empty bay next door, the previously mentioned penetration had occurred. I didn’t notice it until I sat down in the armchair to rest my aching muscles, but such is the power of the stink, it seems a couple of molecules of whatever it is could clear a lift in ten seconds. So that meant my overalls and shirt had to go into the wash even though they looked perfectly clean. The hard manual work, though, had exactly the desired effect on the black dog which withdrew – at least for a few hours.

I know when I’m down because otherwise enjoyable jobs get neglected. The sourdough starters aren’t fed, the kefir sulks in the fridge and I can’t be bothered to do anything about it. So the good news was that after a discussion with Madame we decided to drop the experimental white sourdough project and go back to the old everyday sourdough bread recipe based on a dark rye starter; 250g of stoneground wholemeal wheat flour to make the batter and then after 12 hours adding 300g organic white strong flour, mixing it (it’s very sloppy at this stage) and adding enough dark rye flour to bring it to a kneadable consistency then 10 mins kneading a rather soft and sticky dough, and transferring it to a banneton seasoned with rice flour which has no gluten and releases the risen loaf easily. All this, then yesterday evening, and foolishly, I left the loaf to rise in the only room in the flat with heating turned on. I have to say that this is an extremely lively dough, and so – resisting the temptation to peep during the night, I woke at 6.30 and the exuberant dough had overflowed the sides of the banneton and was making its way onto the table. Luckily I was able to fold the billowing belly back into the banneton; slash the top and transfer the loaf into the oven (240C for 10 minutes then 180C for about 25 mins more). Sourdough evangelists will notice that I don’t give this loaf a knock back and second rise – mainly because if you leave it too long the acidity builds up rather more than we like. It’s dead easy and takes 24 hours from start to finish with no more than 20 minutes of actual work. I hardly dare say that there’s no ur loaf lurking out there virtually beyond Plato’s cave. Cooking is just the best way of making exactly what you like eating – end of!

Old? Moi??

Any way, this morning we were back at the gym and after a 20 month layoff I finally did a 10K row with no more serious repercussions than an aching bottom. All that’s left now is to work on reducing the time! The black dog has gone off with his tail between his legs. I hope he goes up to the allotment because as I was turning the live heap yesterday three very fat rats beat a hasty retreat; one of them provoking piercing screeches from Madame who was weeding nearby. We have a real problem with rats across the site at the moment but I won’t use poison and they quickly get wise to traps. Disturbance seems to be the best way of upsetting them.

Oh and I have a new project forming in my mind. Having sourced some farm fresh milk that’s only pasteurised at low temperatures and which, ironically, we buy from a slot machine in Green Park Market; I think we’re (I’m) in a position to have a go at making some some cheese. Madame will say it’s the thin end of the wedge, and I wish that could be true – but I’m thinking of the soft and smelly end of the spectrum. My cheese library is growing rapidly and it seems this rotting business filled the whole of the day yesterday. From compost heaps to bread and kefir and – hopefully – cheese; the beloved fungi, bacteria and yeasts of the earth, knowing nothing of black dogs or Boris Johnson, continue to transform our lives for the better.

Blessed are the cheesemakers

Smoked Westcombe Cheddar, Duckett’s Caerphilly and at the front, Westcombe Cheddar.

This is a bit of a catch up post for a multitude of reasons which would have to include the loss of British summer time, dark nights and 36 more days to be endured before the winter solstice gives us something to celebrate. I find it impossible to write when the black dog pays a visit and so there have been a few weeks now when it’s been hard to turn on the laptop. Madame and me have talked a lot about it and we came to the conclusion that spending almost two years on our own much of the time is at the heart of the problem. All of the groups and societies we belong to have effectively shut down; so no lectures, talks, classes and field trips; no galleries or markets and very few human interactions. The real world has shrunk to a first floor flat and the allotment – and it hasn’t been good for us – and then, just for pudding we have to live in a corrupted and feeble democracy; the obvious failure of COP 26 to honestly address the issues; and the inflationary effects of brexit.

These black dog episodes always come to a climax and so, having had flu jabs and covid booster doses we (truthfully Madame) decided to confront the beast head on and do something about it. That something really amounted to getting out and rejoining the human race; and so a week ago we went to the Saturday Market; raced around looking for a particular cheese – of which much more later – and scuttled home like anxious mice. Why does going to the shops feel like an act of defiance, I wonder? – or perhaps it’s the hordes of unmasked people who seem not to have noticed that there are still 1000 victims a week dying from covid.

The Potwell Inn strategy also included trips to the recently expanded and independent Toppings bookshop – which ought to be sufficient reason for coming to Bath because it’s huge! we reinstated the daily 5 mile riverside walk and re-joined the gym. If the gym sounds a bit unlikely, well sorry, but ever since I took myself into a gym for the first time 20 years ago I’ve loved it. There’s no finer antidote to the black dog than forcing yourself to achieve hard targets, and while Madame swims I prefer to occupy the rowing machines in a quiet corner away from the grunters, and row a 10K in as near to a wholly unachievable 50 minutes as I can get. Yesterday, on my first row since lockdown began, I would have struggled to do it in 60 but it was so good to be back. As any endurance athletes will know, there’s a moment in a long and hard workout where there’s a sudden release of endorphins into the bloodstream – so much so that in my running days I used to call one particular part of a run up Nightingale Valley in Clifton Gorge, the Lord’s prayer moment; so predictable was the rush. My knees are too shot for that malarkey these days!

And then Madame, who has taken charge of the re-entry programme, dragged us back to the bookshop where the strangest series of coincidences began to unfold. I should say that any Jungians would say they’re synchronicities – which sounds a bit more portentous. On our first visit last weekend they were still awaiting the arrival of some bookshelves, they said, and so we rather galloped around, avoiding the freeloaders with their gratis fizzy – searching for the natural history section which wasn’t there. After a quick email we discovered that the promised bookshelves might take a week or two. I said well, we’ll pop back when it’s quieter anyway. So yesterday we popped back. I’m a terrible impulse buyer of books. I know it and so I’ve learned to pick the book up, put it down and walk away and see if the magnetic field draws me back for a second or third time (depending on the price of the impulse). This was a two visit temptation called “A cheesemonger’s history of the British Isles” by Ned Palmer. Madame, who had been looking elsewhere, spotted it under my arm and said ‘oh I saw that one, I was going to get it for you‘ – which I took as her permission to lash out.

Now I love cheese more than is probably good for my heart, which needs no additional provocations from me. I took the book home and read the first third before bedtime; learning a great deal more than I’ve ever known about my favourite food. Fast forwarding to this morning, we went back to the Saturday market in search of the anonymous cheese stall that sells the best cheddar I’ve ever eaten – it reminds me of the way it used to taste before pasteurised block cheeses dominated the market. The stall only shows up irregularly – well, first and third Saturdays we discovered today. There doesn’t seem to be any sign advertising the company or the names of the cheeses – you just have to ask. So I’m there in the queue, and when my turn comes I buy a big piece of the favourite and smaller ones of a smoked cheese and a Caerphilly which also reminded me of the best Caerphilly I’ve ever tasted and which our grocer in Clifton told me was a “failure” that he’d bought cheaply because it wasn’t crumbly enough to qualify as a proper Caerphilly. The Caerphilly I bought today was exactly that experimental failure from thirty years ago, and it’s still just as delicious. So with my cup overflowing already I asked the young woman on the stall where the cheeses are made. “Westcombe Farm” she said, and a small explosion went off in my head. I’d just accidentally bought two of the finest unpasteurised cheeses on the market – not because of any prior knowledge or fawning write ups in foodie magazines, but simply because they tasted so good. The Potwell Inn tastebuds were vindicated! At that moment the maker himself – Tom Calver – turned up on the stall and I was reduced to a pitiful state of wordless admiration. Enough! you cry and I hear you.

The final synchronicity came as we feasted eclectically on the bits of cheese, porchetta, arancini and Indian street food we’d bought at the market. Life doesn’t get much better. I was (intolerable rudely) googling an article on Westcombe Cheddar when I had to ask Madame “who do you think is Tom Calver’s partner?” – “go on” –” It’s your hairdresser!” Drum roll for Mr Jung please.

“It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;”

Gerard Manley Hopkins – from “God’s Grandeur.”

Bath looked exceptionally beautiful today. The long slow decline of summer vitality in the trees and plants finally issues in this great finale as the last of the lifegiving sugars are drawn down to winter roots, and the brief days of impressionistic colour give way to winter sculpture. It feels like a kind of relief; like standing at the graveside of the season, or perhaps better – a rowdy wake – after a long rage against the dying of the light. And that’s enough poetry for now!

On the allotment we watched the strange behaviour of three magpies who were working together to harass a rat that was beginning to look pretty rattled by the experience. It’s not something we’ve ever seen before and, dare I say? it was good to see that the ubiquitous rats have at least one predator species aside from foxes and cats. We also know that there are peregrines buzzards, kestrels and red kites occasionally in the locality but their quarry seems to be the (plentiful) pigeons for the peregrines, and smaller rodents for the rest. Our rats are absolute porkers, fed on the fat of the leftovers mistakenly put into compost heaps and the fallen grain from bird feeders.

Stuck in a southwesterly atlantic airflow, the skies have been bringing pulses of heavy rain all week and there have been floods across the country. Our son had to make a long detour to escape flooded roads after his half term holiday up in Snowdonia; and in up Cumbria two of the lakes have been temporarily joined into one by floodwater. A perfect metaphor for the beginning of the COP26 climate conference. It just doesn’t seem that the will is there at governmental level to address the threat properly – I hope I’m wrong but I fear for the worst.

After what seemed like a week of full-on cooking we took a break today and dropped in on Toppings – a local independent bookshop that’s just moved into a much larger premises that used to be the Friends Meeting House. In honour of the opening they were handing out glasses of free fizzy and while we could see no sign of what used to be a good natural history section, Madame found for me the newly published biography of an artist, John Craxton, who we were both interested in; and then when we got home I clicked on what’s been a five year search for a biography of John Minton that was only available secondhand at just under £300 – and found two copies going for £20. Christmas has come early! However we also dropped in at the farmers’ market in search of a particular cheddar cheese and drew a blank. The stallholder only appears infrequently, but whenever he does I buy a small piece of his locally made Cheddar cheese because the flavour reminds me so strongly of the way cheese used to taste in my childhood – you know, wrapped in cotton scrim the threads of which you sometimes had to peel off; rich and ripe like apples and autumn. Flavours are always difficult to describe but supermarket cheese tends, these days, to be awarded a number where one means you’d be better off eating the bag it came in, and five is so artificially fierce it takes the skin off the back of your throat. It’s not about strength at all, as far as I’m concerned, it’s about depth – which is very different and relates to all sorts of factors that could never be reproduced in a factory. Scientific cheesemakers are very clever, with their temperature, pH measurements, artificial rennet and atmospherically controlled warehouses; but there are so many other factors, and you’re reduced to using slippery terms like terroir that are commonly employed as a way of inflating the price. To quote Michael Pollan once again, “you are what you eat, eats” – and the depth of flavour of cheese relates to the grass that the source of the milk – be it cow, sheep or goat – is fed on; what season it is and whether the milk was taken in the evening, the morning or mixed together. One of the nicest goats cheeses I ever ate was while I was walking in the Aubrac Hills in France with my middle son, and we stopped off at the farmhouse where it was made. We ate it with a penknife surrounded by the sounds of the herd.

Not being a cheesemaker, and lacking the funds to taste everything I like the look of, I can’t say with any authority what constitutes good or bad except by using the ordinary everyday common senses that come with being human. No experts needed, just a few treasured memories and the willingness to trust your own judgement.

Eating above my pay grade

I can only think of three ways of being able to eat fine food most of the time: being born filthy rich; being fiercely ambitious and earning a pile yourself; and finally- teaching yourself to cook. Mulling over this thought today a quotation floated into my mind from heaven knows what remote corner of my memory.

When the painter was in funds he put mushrooms, fried eggs or tomatoes on top of the cheese; being very young when he evolved this recipe, he often smothered the cheese with fried onions, but this would be too much for most digestions

Recipe for ‘painter’s toasted cheese’ from Elisabeth Ayrton’s “The Cookery of England. Published in 1974.

Michael, if you hadn’t guessed, was Elisabeth’s painter husband, and the book isn’t so much a recipe book but a work of serious historical scholarship covering many centuries of cooking. What I loved about the quotation from the moment I first read the book decades ago, was the tremendous encouragement it gave me, knowing that there existed other people who understood and loved good food but were often reduced to cheese on toast when funds were tight. Most creative people; artists and writers particularly, would understand the challenge. If you love the thought of eating well on a cheese on toast income, you need to roll your sleeves up and get cooking.

Many years later, and with two of our sons working as professional chefs (the other is a fine cook too) I’m all too familiar with the cheffie tricks and shortcuts that make the provision of good enough food, night after night from a small kitchen – almost tolerable. If you want to pay for the kind of dishes you read about in the food porn magazines, you’d better get a better paid job – but it might come as a surprise that the best way of all is to forget about restaurants, because you so often come home thinking to yourself ‘I could have cooked that better for a third of the price’ – and remind yourself that the other 2/3 of the price of a meal out is to pay for the owner’s Porsche and all those well trained staff fussing over you.

Anyway, that’s the conclusion that Madame and me reached when we first moved in together and, every day, passed a classical French restaurant that boasted the sort of dishes I had to look up in my (then new) copy of French Provincial Cooking. Since then, the skills and the knowledge have grown and now growing our own vegetables and cooking all our own food has become a way of life, and when I don’t know how to do something, one of the boys will know exactly how. I have still never tried to cook calves brains, however, and it’s not a bridge I want to cross. I will have a go at most things and occasionally come well and truly unstuck – like I did with the andouillette I bought in a French motorway service station and which tasted and smelt of colon; oh and a raw seafood salad in southeast France that gave me toxic shock and my first encounter with complete fasting as a cure.

What this means, of course, is that the greatest challenges of the present anthropocene age are a bit less frightening to us than they might otherwise be. For instance it wouldn’t break my heart if I never ate another fillet steak because I can’t remember the last time I tasted one. Very occasionally we share a single sirloin steak but circumstances have taught us how to get the best out of the cheapest cuts.

What has changed irrevocably for us is that once we decided that wherever possible we would only eat locally farmed, organic produce our food bill increased and even the cheaper cuts of meat got a whole lot more expensive. That’s the downside I suppose, but the upside is that the flavour really is better. Less can be more it seems – for instance, if you’re a cook, you will almost certainly recall trying to brown chunks of meat before casseroling them – and watching glumly as a copious amount of added water seeps out and broil the chunks to an unsavoury looking grey colour. Supermarket pre-packed meat is especially prone to this and it’s because the processors are allowed to inject up to 10% water into their products – allegedly to make them more acceptable to the customer. So already 10% of your cheap meat is water, and it gets worse when you start to add in the environmental costs of intensive farming which have often been subsidised by the government – i.e. by the taxpayers, you and me. In fact if the environmental costs were added to the total the ‘expensive’ meat would almost certainly be cheaper than the cheap meat from the supermarkets and if you only eat meat occasionally you get the best of all possible worlds, while the world gets the best of all possible inhabitants.

Compare this kind of adulterated industrial meat with the locally produced pork shoulder we bought on Wednesday for a dish including shallots and cider. Browning the meat was a total dream – no fuss and lovely results. The meat in the finished dish hadn’t shrunk to half its original size so we could have probably bought less; bringing the price down again. You just have to be careful how you buy food. Our chosen suppliers get only one chance and if they try it on we don’t go back. We do the research, visit the websites and make some exploratory purchases because not everything with a locally produced label is perfect. Cheese is a particular example and although our local supplier of blue cheese is brilliant, ironically the Cheddar cheeses are very variable and some of them taste extremely mass produced in spite of their price – and Cheddar is only twenty miles away!

But we don’t cook simply in order to help the earth or save loads of money; we cook since we’re greedy and love eating good things – and this is the only way we can do it; the way we’ve had to do it all our lives, because the wealthy parents and highly paid jobs seem to have passed us by. The lifestyle changes that we need to embrace seem to us to be a far better way of being human than the stressful, dog eat dog, and endless slavery of vulture capitalism. Buying locally means we get to know the producers and we are becoming part of a whole new community of shared values. Come on in – the water’s lovely!

More sourdough experiments, bread and butter pudding and Cornish pasties – well, it was raining outside.

Softly softly sourdough

Madame and me are blissfully happy in almost every respect except when we’re not; and the red lines are so clearly charted that we rarely stray into “a conversation” accidentally – which doesn’t preclude the use of red line crossing as a provocation. The Potwell Inn is extremely compact; lacking any West Wing to escape to in the event of a clash, so mostly – and after over fifty years practice – we defer to one another’s blind spots. In return for not noticing her shockingly expensive hairdressing bill, Madame turned a blind eye to shiny new objects in the kitchen, and “oh no, I bought that years ago” books; and until we retired on the same day six years ago it all worked rather well. Nowadays with far less to live on, extravagances are a bit more negotiable.

However; we have never come to a single mind on my breadmaking, or perhaps it’s just that I get bored very easily so I’m always on a mission to try something new. The latest venture is to bake a soft, toastable sourdough in a tin, just the right size for sandwiches. I wrote about the idea a few days ago and since the weather has been awful I’ve had time to do a few preliminary trials. The soft texture seems to be largely a matter of adding some full cream milk to the liquid and substituting butter for oil in the recipe. Apparently the reason it’s so hard to toast sourdough bread evenly is that it lacks sugars to brown under the grill. I didn’t know that toasting is another maillard reaction, although when you think about it – it must be. So I guess a bit of lactose might help in that capacity – I really don’t know; but I do know I don’t want to add any sugar. These adjuncts (as brewers call them) can easily undermine the distinctive flavour and texture of sourdough.

The next consideration is the tin. Having spent years and pounds working up perfect textures by means of expensive bannetons yielding the traditional dome shaped loaf; the disadvantages become more irksome. However you cut a circular loaf, each slice is a different size; and at either end you’ve got a lump of crust ideally suited to snapping off teeth and lacerating the insides of your cheeks, and which – because they’re the smallest slices – dry out shockingly fast. We’ve never thrown them away because at the Potwell Inn, waste bread is always turned into breadcrumbs for coatings and stuffings.

Regularity comes at a price, and this week I bought a commercial sized sandwich bread tin that only just fits diagonally into the oven. I’ve long since given up on non-stick pans because I often start loaves at 240C which is 20 degrees higher than Teflon can survive before flaking off. Heavy duty aluminised steel pans are the way to go; and don’t forget that they need seasoning before use. I once made the mistake of seasoning rather thin bread tin with olive oil which turns into a sticky mess at high temperatures. Now I use rapeseed oil which is far better, and I’m pleased to say the first experimental loaf dropped out perfectly. Well seasoned steel is the ultimate cooking surface. I’ve got a galette pan that weighs a ton but was as cheap as chips and which never ever fails me from the first pancake to the last.

The thing about sandwich sourdough, for me at least, is to preserve the fullest possible flavour. Experiments this week seem to show that a 36 hour low temperature fermentation is the way to go. The dough feels alarmingly sticky and wet, but if you trust your instincts you’ll discover it’s surprisingly easy to handle and doesn’t stick to the table nearly as much as you’d think. The finished result is a soft, slightly springy slice.

Baking times are under review because another aim is to make the loaf as homogenous as possible across the whole slice – and so those beloved lumps of crackling crust that send even super sharp knives sliding off into your fingers, have to go. Neither sandwiches or toast need a hard, thick crust which turns black and bursts into flames under the grill. With a thick baking tin you don’t get the sudden spring that comes from placing the bare dough on a hot iron sheet or bakestone and so I think I’ll give the next experimental loaf a fiercely hot start for about five or ten minutes, and then reduce the temperature considerably for a slow finish with the top of the loaf exposed so it can brown nicely without getting too hard. I’ll use steam right through before I try something different. The big worry is that I’m at the bottom of the last batch of flour and in my experience each batch is just different enough to need adjustment.

But to go back to where I started this post you might recall from a previous post that Madame really doesn’t like the holey texture of the more characteristic sourdough and so for quite a while I’ve been deliberately baking a more closely textured loaf. However she really likes the experimental results and we’ve agreed that the holes can now be conceived of as butter traps and the act of spreading as sealing the slice. I’m more than happy to collude in this helpful change of heart but I’m rather afraid that the latest iteration of the Potwell Inn everyday bread will annoy purists of every stripe – but hey – that’s my primary mission; to annoy purists!

Flour, water, salt and a little oil

Grumbling about the misdescription of allotmenteering and natural history as being necessarily therapeutic has become a bit of a theme for me at the Potwell Inn, and I feel it’s time to balance things up a bit. Last weekend, in the Observer, there was a fascinating piece written by Jay Rayner, who’s a proper food writer, unlike me, about the film director, actor and foodie Stanley Tucci – centred around the cooking of an Italian dish known as a timpano – which originates from Calabria where his grandparents were born. Great article by the way, but one thing led to another and so we watched the film of the dish – “Big Night” and then, because Tucci was acting and directing, we watched “Julie and Julia” – his film about Julia Child whose two volumes on French Cooking were fundamental to my own cooking journey; oh and then we watched “Pig” which was the most dark and philosophical film about truffles you’ll ever watch but nothing whatever to do with our hero. Naturally we bought Tucci’s latest book as well so you can see the way we, at the Potwell Inn, pull the shutters in late autumn and console ourselves by thinking about and cooking food.

Meanwhile, and because the allotment has been too wet to get on to, I’ve returned to some serious experiments with bread. Among the many false dawns of hope and grace in my life the consolations of bread baking have never let me down – not in fifty odd years. Sourdough was late on to the scene for me, probably because until it became fashionable again in the US it stayed firmly below the media radar. Then, of course, everything changed, except that whenever I saw the subject mentioned it was always in the context of huge difficulties and arcane practices that put the whole thing beyond reach – until, this is, I gave it a go myself.

There are other posts here on the subject of getting a starter going; and after getting bored with dancing naked under a full moon and collecting stones of divers colours whenever there was an R in the month I made the elementary discovery that when you mix flour and water in a pot and leave it exposed on a window ledge it will sometimes, but not always, ferment in a helpful way. But it was always very hit and miss and I was too busy to do the groundwork until one day I started a controlled experiment. I’d already figured out that flour and water were the only necessary ingredients although the initial starters used bottled – ie non chlorinated water to give the yeasts a leg up in the first week. So all I did was mix a starter with each of about half a dozen flours I had in the cupboard for yeast loaves, tended them all equally for six weeks, and selected the best performing – ie the most lively starter; discarding the rest.

And the winner was – dark rye (which I could have found out in almost any book, but I’m stubborn like that). The downside of dark rye is that it’s very – well, dark and coarse and so it can make an 80% white loaf look surprisingly like wholemeal. The other thing is that it’s got a remarkably strong (and beautiful) flavour that can sometimes overwhelm the foods you’re eating with the bread. In the end, this half pint container of starter has kept us in delicious bread for at least the last ten years.

I should say that the final arbiter in the matter of crust and crumb experiments is Madame who loathes having butter run down into her armpit via the large and overrated holes in what’s come to represent the gold standard sourdough loaf. She loves butter almost as much as Julia Child did) – and so like all sensible cooks, I bake bread the way my customer prefers. For a couple of years the go-to recipe has included (all organic) wholemeal wheat flour, hard white flour (for the elasticity) and dark rye in the starter and as a final addition during kneading. That gives us a loaf that keeps down to the last slice and tastes lovely – OK it tastes like the granary floor, which in my world is the highest compliment! But it is a beast of a flavour and anything less than strong home made marmalade, or a mustard, marmite and parmesan sandwich is likely to be overwhelmed.

So I wondered what would happen if I made another starter using only light rye flour because all of the original white flour starters had been slow and bad tempered. So beginning with the original master, I began feeding the experimental starter then I used the light rye starter with white flour to make a batter and discovered that it worked really well – not quite as energetic as dark rye, but less rustic, paler and more genteel in its fermentation. Then yesterday I took the first loaf out of the oven (pay no attention to size in the photo; the darker loaf is the end crust because we’d eaten the rest, and the two loaves, baked in the same banneton were broadly identical in size. My only thought was that the “white” loaf could easily have coped with a longer second rise in a bigger banneton because it was still quite energetic.

All this is not so much to show off but to demonstrate that there’s really nothing complicated about sourdough; however the variables in play stack up really fast. What flours? what starter? how much or little salt? oil, butter or no fat? how long to ferment the batter? one or two rises? what starting and what finishing temperatures? with or without steam? The interplay of all these variables can send you screaming to a recipe book to take away all the pain; but honestly, most of the variables remain unaltered and even the difference between summer and winter can change the timings. The take-home point is that baking has huge consolations so long as you don’t for one moment imagine that there’s a right or a wrong way to bake bread. Over the years you get better; you develop a sixth sense through your hands in the dough and as you watch the rise – which is always faintly miraculous.

Michael Pollan wrote a marvellous book entitled “Cooked” which uses bread as an example of cooking with air. To accompany the book, a film appeared later following the same framework of elements – earth, air, fire and water; and in the section on bread he talked about the way in which sourdough transforms the flour which – if you ate nothing else would cause you to starve – into bread which is one of the few complete foods – doubling in size and food value along the way. The best thing about the new loaf was that Madame really liked it and so – in a larger banneton, a longer second rise and a few artistic slashes it will become the new everyday bread unless I miss the old growler recipe too much.

The term everyday bread deliberately references the daily bread in the Bible because it shares the same shape shifting quality. In fact the Greek word that’s used in the Lord’s Prayer and was translated as daily bread (I think) by Miles Coverdale, back in the day – is epiousios and no-one knows what it actually means, and so I’ve always thought of it as meaning something like “give us today the around and about us things we need”. Those things that promote our emotional and spiritual lives as well as meeting our material needs. The King James bible wisely recognised that bread is just such a thing; food, consolation and joy all in one transitory moment. I reckon that’s a genius bit of translating!

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