I abandon all my principles to bake a blimp.

My excuse – do I need to make excuses? – was that I was worrying that my aged supply of dried yeast was beginning to play up. There’s not much that can go wrong with a loaf after all. Water, salt and a bit of olive oil are vanishingly unlikely to give problems so it’s almost always down to the yeast or the flour. I’ve had dried yeast give problems before and so when I open a tin I always write the date on the lid because the use-by date really is important. With flour, it’s usually 100% wholemeal that gets problems – apart from weevils that will get into any flour if you leave it uncovered. Wholemeal flour, kept in a warm and damp place – i.e a kitchen – will occasionally go rancid, which is why I never buy it in large quantities.

So yeast then. A few weeks ago, and bearing in mind the possibility of a second wave of the Covid pandemic I stocked up on yeast by buying a 500g pack of professional bakers yeast online. This morning I decided to test it because there were absolutely no instructions on the packet, and so I just made a white loaf in exactly the same way as normal – 500g flour, 350mls water, 15g salt, 15mls oil. But staying in experimental mode, the flour I used was part of the 16Kg sack of commercial white that I managed to buy off a local baker during the shortages. I’ve already said, it made a perfectly good sourdough and an OK yeast bread. If I say that the brand name was “Tornado” it may be a clue to what it was especially good at.

The mixture was so fast it almost doubled in size while it was sitting in the bowl for 1/2 hour before I kneaded it. The kneading was harder than usual because it felt quite tight. So much of breadmaking expertise is in the hands, and I could feel the difference. In the first proving it went completely bonkers while we were up at the allotment, so it was more than ready for the second rise, in the tin. This can be bad news because the dough can be exhausted if it’s left too long and you don’t get the spring in the oven. In this case, though, it was barely forty five minutes and it was fighting its way out of the tin again. I’ve never seen a meaner batch! So I slashed it and it opened cleanly like a flower; this is a really good sign. In the oven and with full steam it just went on growing – so bags of spring there. It’s cooling down now but I can’t wait to cut it – I fear it may be very open textured, but from the outside it looks just like the white bread of my childhood!

If I’m absolutely honest I was rather pleased. We spend so much time knocking white flour and yeast bread – perhaps we forget that most people want their bread to be neutrally flavoured so they can spread stronger flavours on it. But the take home point is that there’s a direct trade-off between speed and flavour. ‘Though I say it myself, my 24 hour sourdough method will make far better flavoured bread than this – but that’s not the point. The fun of baking at home is that you get to make bread exactly the way you like it to be. I love all kinds of bread and it’s great to be able to make a range of shapes, tastes and textures – just like you’d find in France for instance.

So I’m not going to get sniffy about commercial flour and yeast – if that’s what you like go for it and enjoy it. Then you won’t have to inflict tooth breaking, gum shredding pain on your partner as they try to reduce your finest razor crusted doorstop to a swallowable condition. Tomorrow morning I’m going to make toast with this one – just on the point of being burnt – and eat it with slices of butter. We shall eschew all jams, marmalades and spreads in favour of life threatening indulgence, just this once.

On a gloomy day with rain threatening we had a few hours on the allotment but the rewarding bit was cooking zucchini al forno for the first time this summer. I also found a marvellous YouTube video on grass identification by made by a real enthusiast who goes by the name of “Dr M”. He teaches at the University of Reading and if I was eighteen again I’d be banging on his door to join one of his courses. Anyway in case you’re interested here’s the link – but I’d advise you to make notes, it’s really worth it.

Don’t food photos always look messy? Mine always do anyway. This is supper before it was coated with parmesan and fresh breadcrumbs and baked in the oven. The lumpy things that look like potatoes are actually hard boiled eggs. It tastes lovely – honestly!

Zucchini al forno – from a recipe by Patience Gray in “Honey from a Weed”

A stranger on the allotment causes great consternation

I was just settling down to planting out some leeks for the winter when Helen came across with disturbing news. She had been poking about – although that’s not quite how she put it – on a disused plot when she had discovered what she thought might be Japanese Knotweed growing. This would be exceptionally bad news because it’s an incredibly difficult plant to eradicate without dousing the entire site with several tons of agent orange and keeping it under armed guard for six months. The treacherous thought passed through my head – look on the bright side it might be Himalayan Balsam which is almost as invasive but has prettier flowers. So we trekked across to the offending plot and had a look. Thankfully at this point she hadn’t rung the council, although she had mentioned it to the site rep. Anyway, whatever it was it wasn’t either of the nasty plants but I had no idea at all what it was, so I took some photos and promised I’d have a go at identifying it. Later on I had a scout around on the internet and discovered that it’s a golden kiwi vine – Actinidia chinensis. It’s a big and energetic looking plant so we’ll see if it bears any fruit this year; but people plant the wackiest things on their allotments and then when they leave, the next tenants often dig them up for fear that they’re weeds. We’ve seen many mature plants destroyed by newcomers who think they need to cluster bomb their plot and start again. Sometimes it’s a good idea to wait and see for the first year. Our vines and one of the white currants are both incredibly productive and neither of them cost us a penny apart from a bit of work. The same goes for the Lord Lambourne apple that was quickly escaping its espalier form from neglect when we took it on, but after a couple of hard prunings it’s looking the part once again and producing dozens of delicious apples for us.

Anyway, my forensic adventure revealed another useful neglected resource – a rampant patch of post flowering borage, which is a marvellous addition to a compost heap. So later I popped back and took a cut. It’ll grow back and flower again this summer with ease, and so we’ll share the spoils with the bees.

This is another of those transitional times on the allotment when we’re busy taking spent crops out and replanting the beds immediately. I harvested the last of the first earlies, around 28lbs of new potatoes. There’s just one more bed to clear because we like to get them safely out of the ground before the risk of blight. So spuds out and leeks in – that’s what I was in the middle of doing when helen shipped up. They’re lovely looking plants this year so we’re optimistic about a good crop. The peas, on the other hand, have been not been good. They came late and rather erratically and so the pea moth was able to invade before we got to eat them. There were a few pounds but nothing to get excited about – so, sadly, they’ll be coming up tomorrow if the rain lets up, and we’ll get something else planted in there.

One crop that’s totally reliable is the courgette. There are only two of us and we usually have far more than we need. To be honest it’s never been one of my favourite vegetables but growing them turns them into a wholly new treat. Often I sauté them and give them a splash of lemon juice just before serving them – maybe with a bit of finely chopped parsley. Lemon lifts the flavour in a way that salt never can, so it’s a perfect substitute. Another favourite way is to cut the courgettes in lengthways slices, dip them in beaten egg and flour and then fry them. OK it’s a bit of a faff, but then you alternate layers of courgette with pieces of mozzarella cheese and good, rich (home made) tomato sauce, pop in some hard boiled eggs and top it with bread crumbs and bake in the oven. It’s a recipe I got from Patence Gray’s wonderful book “Honey from a weed” – look for zucchini al forno. We cook it with aubergine as well. Finally I’m trying something new today; you might best think of it as an Italian antipasti – courgettes , fried golden brown and then marinaded with olive oil, vinegar, garlic and mint leaves. They’re maturing in the fridge right now.

And on the subject of tomato sauce, we make litres of it every year, along with passata; treating the passata as a base ingredient which almost always needs turning into something else – like proper tomato sauce. I must have been in a hurry last year because while I was checking the stocks today I found about 10 litres of very thin passata and so I tipped four bottles into a pan and I’m reducing it with a couple of onions, a couple of cloves of garlic and a big lump of butter. It’ll sit there simmering very very slowly until I can almost stand a spoon up in it, and then I’ll put on a pan of boiling water for the pasta.

The crops are coming off the plot so fast that it’s a job to keep up; but after a four hour stint on the allotment this morning we unloaded the trug and everything looked so beautiful my tiredness evaporated and I went back to the stove hungry and almost singing. Just occasionally you can feel a bit stale – especially being as confined as we’ve been for months – but the constant changes on the allotment adds enough texture to our lives to keep us upbeat.

And finally, I’ve bought a new hand lens; a 20x achromatic job with LED and UV illumination built in. I was so pleased with its capacity to reveal the smaller parts of grasses I put it around my neck on its lanyard today and tucked it inside my T shirt. When I got home and changed out of my overalls I noticed a strange swelling under my T shirt, around my navel. My God! I thought I’ve got a hernia ….. but it was just the hand lens. No wonder Helen was looking askance at me this morning.

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