The marmalade making left a few stragglers – so what about preserved oranges? We’re familiar with preserved lemons, but when I saw this recipe today I thought I’d give it a go. It’s virtually the same as the recipe for lemons. It was suggested that it needed 700g of salt but I couldn’t see any way of getting it in so I cut that bit back. We’ve had runner beans, which have almost no natural acid, salted far less fiercely. I also added bay leaves to the mix becuase I like them. We’ll see in a couple of months – but I’m already thinking about smoked duck breast with some kind of sauce or relish made with preserved Seville oranges. I hate wasting things so it was quite a relief to find a way of using up the surplus. In the past I’ve made so much marmalade it’s started to crystallize before we get around to eating it, so this year I’ve been careful only to make sufficient until supplies come in again next January.
So here are this season’s hopefuls in order of their capacity to create fear, or (looking on the bright side) to cure minor infestations of intestinal worms. As I mentioned the other day, we’ve dropped Pearls and Jalapenos off the list because even in last year’s sunshine they didn’t get all that hot.
- Hungarian Hot Wax – 1,500 – 15,000 SHU
- F1 Apache – 70,000 – 80,000 SHU
- F1 Romital – 100,000 – 150,000 SHU
- Habanero – 100,000 – 350,000 SHU
- Bhut Jolokia – 1,000,000+ SHU
This, naturally, is a high risk strategy because knowing as little as I do about growing chillies the deficiency in heat could be down to a corresponding deficiency in the allotmenteer and next season could lead to heat and generosity on an epic scale as I’ll need to give them all away. All I know is that I was quite comfortable eating the F1 Apaches straight off the plants. But chillies seem to have become a bit of a man thing with its own secret lore and language, a bit like carp fishing I suppose. I don’t doubt that there are secret chilli clubs where seed is exchanged under vows of secrecy and feed is prepared on the night of the full moon using bats’ blood and Cornish seaweed – only Cornish will do it, they say.
I have not yet told Madame about my plan and since she only reads this blog infrequently I’ll wait for the loud “WHAT???” Meanwhile news from an old friend in Tasmania who says he’s pretty sure they’ve suffered the hottest weather since records began. The photo he sent showed his house surrounded by smoke from bush fires and although he says they’re in no danger it must be a worry. He asked if it was making news here in the UK? Well yes it is, but I’m not sure it’s being connected to climate change. This week we’ve heard about unprecedented ice melt in Greenland – am I worried? I most certainly am, almost as worried as I am about the world leaders who are doing nothing about it. Do they imagine their wealth will go on protecting them when the crops fail and the mass migrations away from the flooded coasts take place?
I’m amazed that two Potwell Inn regulars have suggested their favourite marmalade recipes already, although the difference is more in the preparation than the ingredients. Mags emailed with her favourite approach and then today Rose suggested hers. The common factor was that they both involved cooking the fruit whole and then removing the pips and pulp. In Rose’s recipe – or rather Mrs Beeton’s – the pulp is returned to the pan without the chopped peel after cooking whole for 2 hours. The two hour cooking period is common to almost all the recipes I’ve seen. In Mag’s it’s returned in a muslin bag which makes it easier to remove than the Beeton recipe which needs straining. Again all recipes require the removal of the pips.
I’ve never cooked the fruit whole before but I have to say it simplified the whole job and made the peel much easier to slice finely. Apart from that, today I used golden granuated cane sugar because Madame (and me too) like the colour which doesn’t seem to affect the flavour noticeably. So far as setting is concerned I’ve been setting by temperature for the last couple of years because it’s more reliable for me. 104.5C Seems to do the trick for pretty well any jam, but if you prefer the wrinkle test (or you can use it better than me), I’m sure it’s just as good. Right at the end I chuck in a glass of whisky or brandy if there’s some in the cupboard. But I’m amazed that marmalade generates such recipe loyalty – I think we all know that almost whatever recipe you use it’s going to turn out better than the rather tasteless commercial product.
Beyond that we’re still recovering from the viruses but we whizzed across to the garden centre to get some seed sowing compost. While we were there I ‘accidentally’ bought some seeds for Bhut Jolokia chillies which can ripen to 1000,000+ Scoville units. It’s by far the hottest chilli we’ve ever tried to grow – Oh Joy! – and thanks for the emails.
It’s inevitable when you make bread regularly that just now and again you’ll get a batch that refuses to play. This isn’t just a problem with home baking – I can remember many occasions when we lived in a large village that still had its own bakery, and occasionally there would be a queue outside the door because Brian (the baker) was having problems with an overnight batch. You could hardly blame lack of experience in his case because he’d been baking in the family business since the days when he delivered the bread to the outlying hamlets in a horse and cart. A dud batch can affect anyone.
In my instance yesterday it was entirely my own fault because I didn’t feed the starter as I usually do, 24 hours before mixing the sponge. Cue for a sluggish fermentation that really never caught up and a dense loaf that just felt wrong at every stage from kneading onwards. It still tasted alright but fell short in every other respect.
In the past I’ve lost a batch through using out-of-date yeast and even well out of date flour. Sometimes being thrifty just lands up wasting time and money. The weather and the temperature can have a huge impact and the smaller the batch the bigger and more rapid the effect can be. A large batch can withstand sitting in a cold draught for ten minutes where a small, one loaf batch will plummet in temperature. Too much salt will slow a fermentation right down and spoil the flavour anyway and then, keeping a benevolent but not fussy eye on the way things are going can prevent a loaf from blowing. Sourdough, being a slower method, won’t be hurried whereas adding extra yeast to a yeast bread can speed things up at the expense of keeping quality. The same goes for sugar which is quite unnecessary in sourdough anyway. I’m sure any of these variables could be eliminated with a pile of measuring instruments but I’d never bother. Mistakes are a great teacher.
The season for cod roe seems to have come and gone without me spotting any at all but as for marmalade I had an email from Potwell Inn friend Mags who had read my piece a couple of weeks ago. She tells me she boils the fruit whole for 2 hours before removing the pulp into a muslin bag and slicing the peel. She says it’s less time consuming and in any case makes better flavoured marmalade with less sugar – so tomorrow I’ll give it a go and report back on the results. The new batch demands another dozen new jars – I really thought we’d never have to buy another jar or lid but somehow all this preserving and pickling has used them all.
As I was writing yesterday I promised to have a go at listing some of the books I’ve been most helped and influenced by in developing the Potwell Inn. It’s not in any sense exhaustive and I’m perfectly sure there will be many excellent books left out because I didn’t bump into them, but they’ve all been helpful and inspiring and that’s the measure I apply to all things. Does an art exhibition make me want to draw or paint? If it does, I’d say it was a good one.
So I’m starting with the picture of a (well past its prime) sprouting broccoli leaf that I plucked from the compost heap in desperation, one Saturday morning, because I had to take something to paint to a botanical painting short-course. It took me a couple of weeks to finish the painting during which time I absolutely fell in love with it. I’m only using it here because it illustrates perfectly the theme of all the books I’m talking about – rotting. Given a quick swill and shoved into a pot with salt this leaf could have been, would have been sauerkraut. There’s no secret ingredient or technique that could have added anything to the fact that this leaf is being totally leafish in spontaneously returning itself to its component parts in the great botanical breakers yard we call compost. Fermenting merely inserts ourselves into that process and adds an extra stage, that’s to say, eating it.
So to begin at the beginning, Michael Pollan is one of my favourite food writers and his book “Cooked” has a wonderful section on fermenting in all its bacterial glory. The whole book is an inspiration but today I’m talking about fermentation and this book is a must-read as far as I’m concerned
Pollan pays tribute to Sandor Katz who’s written a number of books, but the one I’ve got here in the Potwell Inn Library is entitled “The Art of Fermentation” and it’s good. What more do I need to say? I’ve tried several of the recipes and what I discovered is what he would have told me to my face if I’d been to one of his workshops – please yourself – make what you enjoy eating. This book covers every possible kind of fermentation including pickles, kefir, sourdough and alcohol as well as kimchi and several ferments whose products smell like a dead sheep in a ditch but taste better with the windows open.
What happens when all this knowledge and expertise is taken up by a chef whose restaurant is so beloved by wealthy foodies that you need a two year wait and an Oscar to get a booking? Well you get “The Noma Guide to Fermentation”, one of my Christmas presents so I haven’t yet had time to do much more than give it a quick read. It’s a beautifully printed book, but somehow it loses something of the frontier spirit in its obsessive control of the process. Vacuum pumps, Ph meters and temperature controlled cabinets aren’t my style, and in any case the Potwell Inn has only limited space and appetite to indulge an appetite for lacto plum-skin chips. Nonetheless no writer can expect to exercise the same control over their readers as they do over their recipes, and in that spirit I’ll plunder the book shamelessly for any ideas that take my fancy in the kitchen. I’d recommend it in any case for its enthusiasm and, if you like to cook to impress in a laboratory, it’s definitely for you.
More down to earth in every way is Diana Henry’s book “Salt Sugar Smoke” which deals with fermentation along with the other methods of preservation and does so on a smaller scale. Of three ways of fermenting cucumbers we tried this year, hers was closest to what we were hoping for. Kylee Newton, in her book “The Modern Preserver” has a few fermenting ideas but if you’re only interested in fermenting you wouldn’t want to buy the whole book.
Finally I got hold of a rather quirky but pioneer oriented book called “Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning”. It’s a compilation of recipes by a group that calls itself ‘the gardeners and farmers of Terre Vivante’. If I say that one of the recipes for sauerkraut demands 55lbs of cabbage you’ll see that this book is compiled by residents of “la France profonde” – or at least profonde enough to deter anyone from popping out to the shops without a tractor and a VHF radio. But I like it very much and, once again and in the spirit of glorious anarchy that we hope characterizes the Potwell Inn as it once inspired the Whole Earth Catalogue, it’s well worth buying for the ‘between the lines’ wisdom it contains.
I haven’t written much about sourdough because it’s such a densely populated field it probably needs a section to itself – although, if you’ve been paying attention to this blog, you’ll know I’m a bit sceptical about much of the advice on the topic that I’ve seen. So just to finish, some pictures – taken over the course of last season – of the kind of fermenting that was going on at the Potwell Inn.
I never for a single moment thought I would be writing this, but last summer, on the basis of no more than a mention in a biography, we salted some runner beans just to see what would happen. Here at the Potwell Inn we read a lot of books – I mean a lot of them – and among them was the new biography of Patience Gray entitled Fasting and Feasting written by Adan Federman – and so when, in a passing remark, her son Philip said he actually preferred the taste of salted beans to their fresh counterparts, we were unable to resist.
On July 15th we were in the midst of a glut of beans, but all of our attempts to freeze them in the previous season had met with failure. The result was always slimy and flavourless whether we blanched then first or just froze them in freezer bags or, indeed froze them in vacuum packs. Honestly, there was nothing to lose.
Patience Gray, if you haven’t read “Honey from a Weed” was one of the greatest and least remembered cookery writers of the 20th century, originally outselling even Elizabeth David. In mid-life she moved to Puglia in Southern Italy and lived, with her sculptor husband Norman Mommens and they lived as frugally as the local peasants lived, all the while collecting much more than recipes. Her book is an exploration of a whole way of life and you really should read it.
So in July we salted a couple of pounds of beans and shoved them at the back of the larder. Until today. I was cooking meat balls and feeling uninspired when suddenly the beans came to mind. We’re a bit short of preserving jars and so I thought we’d try them and if they were no good we could throw them away and use the jar for something else.
So as per instructions in another book I rinsed them and soaked them in fresh water for a couple of hours and then cooked them (without salt) for ten minutes. So what was the result? Well they were not as good as fresh beans but – and this is important – if we were marooned, as they were, both in the UK during the War or in Puglia during the winter, then they would be more than acceptable. I was amazed at the fact that they had kept their colour and texture and tasted, if not exactly as fresh beans would, they tasted good enough in a different way.
So there we are – a successful experiment at preserving without using the freezer. From many points of view it makes sense and we shall certainly revisit the technique next season. As for books, we’re both avid readers and collectors of books and I was wondering if there would be any mileage in adding a new category to the Potwell Inn site? How about “The Potwell Inn Library”? – a chance to list and even review some of the books that have been most help to us on the allotment, in the kitchen or at just being human. Keep an eye open.
I think I might be a bit of a perfectionist. I had three hours on the allotment this morning while Madame cultured the cold I was good enough to share with her last week, and so I took this photo of the bed I dug today so I could show her when I got back to the flat. But what do I see when I put it on the screen? Any sensible person might have paid attention to the neat bed and its readiness for planting up in the spring. All I could see was the tiny bit of couch root at the bottom left hand corner that I’d managed to overlook. Pefectionism is a blight and it’s often accompanied by being unable to choose between several almost identical course of action. Should I drive the pegs for the boards into the paths or the beds? There’s much to be said for either course of action and I’ve wasted hours wondering about it.
Madame takes a more laid-back view of things and is quite happy to snooze on the little patio I made, while I pace up and down worrying. Today I made up my mind I was going to do something about it. I’d rather be like Terry up at the top, who spends as much time sitting in his shed drinking coffee as he does actually doing things. In fact our shed has turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. Since it got so full of – things – it’s impossible even to step into it, but I made a flask of tea and resolved that I would take a break now and again just to contemplate the fruits of our labours and dream of next season. Three hours later Madame rang me on the mobile and asked if I’d enjoyed the flask. Well actually I’d completely forgotten about it and then I felt embarassed at being so lame about taking a break so I put the tools away, since I’d finished all I wanted to do, and perched on a kneeler drinking the tea in a penetrating wind and feeling that I ought to be experiencing a lot more pleasure than I was actually having. I seem to lack the zen like gift of contemplation that seizes nearly everyone else on the site. So then I picked leeks, parsley and Brussels sprouts for supper tonight and came back to the flat.
I mentioned a few days ago how sometimes trying to be as self-sufficient as possible can become a burden, but to be honest the real burden is beating yourself up over things that don’t matter all that much. Often, when I’m in that frame of mind I make stock. It may sound weird but there’s something very comforting in making the ultimate comfort food. The fridge feels empty if I haven’t got a couple of pints of home made chicken stock ready to add its pixie dust to the everyday. Chicken soup is – like the joke – an antibiotic for all faiths and none. It’s hard to imagine not feeling better after a bowl of it. Today I was using up the remains of the last stock chicken to make a chicken and leek pie sauced in a velouté enriched by stock and cream. Yes they ought to make it illegal but they haven’t yet so tonight Madame will be raised from her lethargy and will feel immediately better.