If I told you I’d have to kill you!

This is really an extension of the posting on May 25th – “The flavour is in the ingredients” – because if ever there was a vindication of slow food and local food networks it’s this. The problem is that I don’t want to give away too many of the details because slow and local also means there’s not very much available; certainly not enough to cope with a sudden rush.

Flours, and I mean bread flours, are very personal and I’d never want to get into the “best X in the world” kind of discussion because slow and local absolutely demands variability. All you can do is keep searching for the ingredient that makes your perfect loaf; and this one I’m pretty sure, is mine. I found a similar one years ago with Bacheldre Mill, when in their early days they produced what I called an 81% flour; a buff white with some but not all of the bran taken out and based on the old wartime “National Loaf” flour; but I believe they were selling up and anyway they stopped milling it.

Meanwhile I’ve tried all sorts; organic if I could get it, but most of it came from imported wheat. They said that only the Great Plains could grow the kind of high protein wheat that bakers need. Well they would say that wouldn’t they. For my part I’ve learned that too much protein is a bit of a no no with sourdough if you want that lovely open textured crumb; and often I’ve resorted to adding cake flour or spelt flour to get the best results. Over the past months of the crisis I’ve gratefully worked my way through a sack of commercial “Tornado” white flour and it’s been perfectly good. The sourdough made with it always tasted better than the yeast bread even when I slowed it right down. So don’t knock the big millers too much even if their only virtue is consistency.

But I’ve kept my ear to the ground – so to speak – and finally I’ve found a flour that ticks all the boxes: organic, stoneground, locally grown wheat, small producer; and the result proves beyond doubt that slow and local can also be unequivocally better as well.

I don’t advertise here and in any case I don’t want to compromise my supply but the big point is that wherever you live there are almost certainly local millers and local farmers who could work together to produce flour that’s fresher, good to bake with, good to eat and doesn’t need driving and shipping around the world. One of the blogs I subscribe to is a cooperative food group up in North Wales where they’ve taken exactly this approach and it seems to be working.

The loaf in the photo is my perfectly standard “everyday” loaf. The starter is about 10 years old and is fed (when I can get it) with dark rye flour. It’s a 24 hour bread from start to finish and it’s very un-temperamental, keeps well and toasts beautifully. There’s nothing difficult or secret about making good bread it’s 99% common sense once you’ve got the hang of it and, as I’ve said before, sourdough especially and bread generally thrives on a bit of neglect. I would be prepared to sell the pyrex bowl in which I’ve been proving dough for 53 years if someone made a suitable six figure offer. I know the internet is groaning with pictures of loaves made by the sort of people who call themselves master-bakers after standing next to a bread machine for ten minutes, and it’s true there are a lot of master-bakers around on the internet, (fear not, I shall eschew the double entendres immediately).

So give it a go; check out a farm shop or food co-op near you and you could be baking the kind of bread for a pound that you used to pay a fiver for.

Note to Dominic Cummings – when you make a mistake, own up.

So yesterday I posted about a misidentified plant, calling a wall lettuce a nipplewort. In the great order of things it’s probably not that important, but I’ve corrected the posting and here’s the reason why I was wrong. From a distance – like for example the photo on the right of the group – it would be easy to misidentify a plant, which is why it’s all the more important to get close up and personal, and here are some of the reasons why this really is a wall lettuce plant.

  • Flower isn’t remotely like nipplewort which has a larger dandelion type flower. This flower is small and has distinct petals.
  • The plant is not hairy
  • Parts of the stem have a purplish colouration.
  • The leaf shape is different.

So by way of reparation I decided not to eat my hat but at least to re-wax it after a wash because it got too disgusting even for me to wear. This is a highly therapeutic activity for two, with Madame wielding the hairdryer and me on the tin of old-style Barbour wax. It’s not a Barbour hat at all, but it’s some sort of waxed cotton so it got the luxury treatment while I bathed in the memory of the smell of my old Solway jacket that fell apart decades ago.

Not content with that, I finally managed to contact Shipton Mill and arrange to collect enough flour to get us through the next expected lockdown; so as soon as I’ve finished this, we’re off on a scenic jaunt across North Wiltshire and Gloucestershire to the mill, where I’m told our flour will be waiting in the back of a white van with the invoice. No people, no contact – oh so dodgy sounding!

If this posting is a bit episodic it’s because I hardly slept last night after reading about the behaviour of a bishop I once worked under who’s just been found out for making a racially stereotyped entry in a reference which prevented someone from getting a job. Having been at the sharp end of a bit of C of E bullying myself, I couldn’t sleep for thinking about what might still be lurking in my personal file, but now mercifully I no longer have to deal with the venality and ambition.

Below is a photo of a ladybird larva. If you see these on your plants rejoice and forswear the spray; their voracious appetite for blackfly more than grants them an amnesty.

The Potwell Inn will not be returning to normal

Pottering around in the kitchen this morning after an uplifting moment with Naomi Klein I came to one of those moments of clarity where the way forward suddenly seems clear. We don’t have to go back to normal. I was just opening the tub in which we keep the bread flour and I noticed we’d used more than half of the 16Kg bag that we managed to scrounge from a local bakery when everything went crazy. So my thoughts turned to getting some more – this lot was bog standard ‘improved’ bakers’ white flour which has kept us going with the help of a bit of spelt flour for flavour, but my favourite flour has been unavailable for months. It’s organic for a start, less mucked about and uses more locally grown wheat. It’s crazy to have to dilute the protein in Canadian wheat flour with low protein cake flour when you can get it off the field with the right proportions.

Plenty of people are trying to reduce their daily lives in ways that do reduce their consumption. But if these sort of demand-side emission reductions are to take place on anything like the scale required, they cannot be left to the lifestyle decisions of earnest urbanites who like going to farmers’ markets on Saturday afternoons and wearing up-cycled clothing.

Naomi Klein “This Changes Everything” 2014

I take your point Naomi – but we have to start somewhere, and with democracy in its present perilous and ineffective state as a client of big business, there aren’t a lot of alternative ways of changing things than through consumer pressure and community action.

So there I am in the kitchen pondering about flour and making up a sourdough batter for tomorrow and I thought – we don’t need to go back! Maybe we should be more like my mother who, having endured food rationing during the 2nd world war, always kept a larder full of emergency rations. No more queueing, no more waiting like sheep being herded to a slaughterhouse in order to buy things we don’t need and food that’s making us obese and killing us with the promise of uninterrupted pleasure. No I’m not some kind of Savonarola, I’d just like for the earth to continue for our grandchildren’s delight and not as a smoking post-industrial slag-heap. I don’t want to go back to supermarkets whose produce is driven, container-shipped and flown from the poorest of producers to the wealthy world just so we can buy ever more chemically preserved and processed junk food while we choke on the air that’s been polluted by the getting of it to our tables.

The shortages and deprivations of the Covid 19 pandemic are not responsibility of some remote god, they’re a foretaste of what’s coming if we don’t mend our ways and it’s in this sense that the personal becomes political. There’s no technological Seventh Cavalry waiting over the hill to save us – to borrow a line from World Organic News we have to save the earth one cabbage at a time. We don’t have a functioning test and trace programme at the moment, but then – we don’t have a coherent food security policy either because it’s all been subcontracted out to the big four supermarkets; we don’t have a coherent renewable energy policy or sustainable agriculture policy neither do we have any policy for reducing dependence on cars and lorries by improving public transport nor do we have any leadership or political will to fix these problems. We behave like the alcoholics who are always going to stop drinking after one more glass.

I’m bound to say that the deprivations we’ve experienced personally during the lockdown are not related to toilet rolls, paracetamol tablets and avocados. It’s been not seeing our children and grandchildren close enough to hug them and smell their hair, not striking up conversations with random strangers and worrying constantly that no-one in government seems to give a damn what happens to us.

And so I don’t want to go back to normal. I want to go forwards into a more sustainable, kinder, more forgiving and much more caring world. Naomi Klein’s book was published in 2014 – that’s six largely wasted years ago. To go back to the metaphor of the alcoholic I used a little earlier (and I don’t have a down on alcoholics, I recognise all all the symptoms in myself) – do we have to wait until our livers are completely and incurably damaged to stop killing ourselves?

  1. and apologies for misspelling Naomi Klein’s name twice when this was first published. Should have waited for my breakfast!

In flour again.

Much gratitude to my son for arranging it, and his mate the baker who, between them, came up with a 16 Kg bag of bread flour that should see us through the lockdown. It’s perched on a chair in the hallway at the moment but I’ll get it into a food bin first thing tomorrow because flour gets infested with tiny moth caterpillars incredibly quickly.  Baking with a new flour is always a bit of an adventure until you’ve baked a few loaves because they all behave quite differently.  My old mate Dick England who had his own flour mill up in Berkeley on Severnside, always reckoned to leave the new wheat to ripen for a while before it was fit to mill and make bread with. It’s strange how even potatoes have their seasons as well.  The man who ran the Regal fish and chip shop in Hotwells would shut down for several weeks as the new season main crops came in because he didn’t think they were good to make chips from.

So new flour and new adventures demanded a celebration and I made a Dundee cake for our tea breaks on the allotment. It was hot today and we worked for around five hours setting up  a new bed for the peas.  We’re growing a traditional variety called Alderman which we tried last year.  In our haste to be greener than thou, last year we tried to grow them on jute nets, but they were so prolific and heavy they just tore the nets down – so this year they’re going to be grown up sheep wire attached to some strong poles. While I was doing the civil engineering bit, Madame was busy sowing and potting up – it’s a very busy time of the year both on the allotment and at home where we made a start on replacing the spring window boxes with their summer equivalents. They’ll be mainly geraniums this year because the garden centres are all shut and we won’t be able to buy ridiculously expensive bedding plants to supplement our own.

The asparagus bed is so nearly there, it’s frustrating, but the early spears were deformed by the cold nights so we’re hoping that a spell of warm nights will give us our first proper feed. Our son went off to get some beer for the beer traps.  Slugs are a menace and at least we send them off happy.  Last year’s very unscientific experiment seemed to indicate that they’re real ale buffs – they much preferred the expensive brews to my cheap stuff from Aldi.  Tonight Jo dropped off four cans of bitter for a pound.  I’m not optimistic. We sent our best numbers off with Marston’s Pedigree Ale but it cost about tenpence a slug.

Taking stock & making stock

When we took on the first half-allotment four years ago almost exactly, I don’t think we’d considered at all what a big part it was going to play in our lives. We’d always grown things in a series of different houses and allotments –  you’d probably have described us as ‘greens’ for many decades, but over the years the sense of urgency has increased and where once we were content to have a few home-grown treats off our various gardens, by the time we moved here it seemed apparent that growing some of our own food was about to become a necessity. We had much less money once we retired, and there had been straws in the wind when relatively minor events like a bit of snow, or a petrol strike had brought the country to its knees and seen the shops emptied, and especially after the 2008 financial crash we felt that the system could no longer be trusted. Insecurity was becoming embedded in our lives and there was a growing sense of cognitive dissonance between the world as we and our children were experiencing it, and the world as it was being sold to us by politicians and their friends in the media.

So when we signed the first and then the second agreements on our two small plots, we felt that with the aggregate of 250 square metres – a British standard allotment plot – we’d be a good deal safer if the economy tanked. At that stage it was a conceptual move rather than one driven by an immediate threat.  The brexit vote and then the election of the new government did nothing to allay our fears that the future was darkening by the day, and yet never once did it occur to us that the occasion of the collapse would be an escaped virus leading to a pandemic. That was truly left-field.

Until very recently, growing your own has been a kind of lifestyle choice – in fact many allotment and cooking blogs are categorised as lifestyle blogs. Home grown vegetables,  and kitchen gardens tended to feature alongside gingham tablecloths and wicker shopping baskets at the homes and gardens end of the coffee table trade. Bread baking – especially the sourdough loaf – lined up with all manner of artisanal products as forms of conspicuous consumption among the hipster classes. It was all very ‘let’s pretend’ as head scarves worn 1940’s style with dungarees became fashion items allowed us (yes I mean us) to toy with the idea of wartime austerity conditions without actually having to put up with them. For a while offal became the latest trend in high end restaurants and you could show off to your friends by demonstrating mastery over removing 200 tiny bones from a breast of lamb before stuffing it with truffles and gold leaf.

And now it’s happened and everything has changed. Over the past 50 years 65% of the land given over to allotments has been sold off by local authorities for housing development or to be turned into parks – both extremely important social needs, but suddenly allotments are back in vogue because the cracks have opened up and the shelves are empty. The pandemic has demonstrated that our way of life has become so hollowed out that it no longer functions under stress. Four years ago when we signed our first lease you could barely give allotments away and now you’ll probably have to wait for years to get one as they work through the recently extended lists, and those who have taken them on for the first time have to cope with the closure of garden centres and shops and the seizing up of the seed supply chain.

Waking up this morning into a different world was a bit of a strange experience. There was sourdough batter proving in its warm spot on the stove exactly as it has done for years, but I was painfully aware that we’ve only got 1 Kilo of flour left and no idea how to get any more – we may, we may not, but whether this is the last loaf for a while lies outside my control. The freezer was stuffed to capacity but probably 50% of what was in it was only put there because we couldn’t think what to do with it back in the day.

And so I did what I often do when I’m troubled about something, I decided to spend a day on the stove. First up – and wheeze of the month – I decided to take all of the soft fruit out of the freezer, mix it all together and make a batch of jam under the label “allotment jam”. It contains redcurrants, whitecurrants, blackcurrants, raspberries and gooseberries, all picked last year, and it smells lovely. We (I) tend to make far more jams, preserves and pickles than we could possibly eat, but the boys like them very much. However even this simple idea led to a mini crisis, because I’d run out of honey jar lids.  Four years ago I bought a big batch from a wholesaler and proudly boasted that I’d never need to buy another lid – until today, that is. A quick scout around the internet revealed that the mighty Amazon have them at 10 (yes ten) times the price I could get from an old contact in the bee supplies business – so guess who I placed the order with!

Next, from out of the freezer,  came a load of old chicken bones and a bag of unidentified material I think may be pigs cheeks, bought because they were there on display at a time when I had no time.  The freezer can be a bit of a dustbin if you’re not careful. We had all the veg I needed to make stock apart from fresh herbs and leeks and so we went to the allotment and gathered some of each.  Once again, the takeaway point is that the leeks I collected were so small you wouldn’t be able to give them away at the supermarket.  As I’ve mentioned before, they didn’t do well last year, but dug, washed and trimmed they smelt better than anything you could hope to buy and they, and all the other ingredients are simmering away slowly on the stove, along with some more rhubarb. Bread, soup, stock and pudding all in hand.

This whole change of context has changed the way everything feels. In times of shortage, anything we can muster and make something from becomes that bit more precious. Intellectually I’ve known for years that our western way of life is unsustainable, but this painful lesson has taken us back from our focus on the detail to show the bigger picture.  Climate change, global extinctions, dirty air, poisoned land, polluted water, poverty, sickness and obesity are not discrete challenges that we can tackle one at a time when we get around to it – they’re one unified and terrifying challenge.

Yesterday we found the remains of a chicken on the allotment, almost certainly killed by a fox. I could see at a glance that it was (had been) a domestic bird because the remains of its crop were stuffed with maize. The condemned prisoner had enjoyed a hearty meal! Today when we went back every trace of the maize had gone; almost certainly eaten by a fortunate mouse.  The last of the feathers went on to the compost heap. That’s how nature works; endlessly recycling herself with no creature taking more than it needs or can find nearby, until – that is – we came along and tried to take it all.