Off to Shipton Mill for a sack of flour today – which is what passes for a day out during a lockdown. Buying flour in bulk (well, 25Kg anyway) is a bit of an event in my book- it confers a feeling of confidence about coping with the post brexit food shortages that are surely on their way, and helps me to feel that after 50 years of practicing I’ve moved up a rung on the baking ladder. Not so my son, because once – when I struggled down to his pizza shack with a sack of Italian flour, he told me he gets through five a week of them at least. Ten years ago I’d have been driving across to Berkeley to see my old mate Dick England who set up a mill there, where I could see the milling going on and soak up his expertise – how he allowed the grain to ripen properly before he’d mill it and why a millers’ thumb was better than verniers and microscopes for assessing the quality of the flour. In fact, for him smell, taste, feel and even sound were all part of the process. Dick was a singer too, a rare tenor whose voice you could recognise anywhere, cutting through a choir in a way that was thrilling to listen to but extremely annoying to conductors. Anyway, Dick passed away some years ago and most of the time, if I can get it, I use Shipton Mill because it’s local and excellent quality and they don’t mind letting punters like me go and collect a small order. Collecting has become something of a cloak and dagger affair since covid began. I ring them and make the order, pay for it and they give me a time slot; then I turn up at the mill at the appointed time and look for a white van in which my order has been placed. It’s the ultimate covid compliant handover that feels like a spy swop at Checkpoint Charlie and with the added advantage of a wander around the Cotswolds through scenery I’ve known since I cycled around there as an eleven year old. Those were the days.
On the way the way there we spotted an old bottle kiln sitting incongruously by the side of the road near Luckington. The Cotswold landscape is mostly limestone – known as cornbrash and which is used for walls, buildings and even roofs where every course of stones is a different size and has its own name. That was something I learned from a long conversation with a retired roofer in the pub. One of those memorable evenings. As for the kiln, I had no idea there were pockets of clay in Wiltshire large enough to exploit but the evidence was before us. When we got home we found a reference and it turned out that this one was the last survivor of a bank of three and had never been fired.
What came to mind was a thought that so many of the truly important skills are embodied, exercised through all of the senses and deepened by constant practice. It’s almost impossible to describe in words when a dough is just right. Of course you can stick to a recipe as long as your ingredients are standardised, but using local flours, for instance, the protein content and workability can vary from batch to batch, depending on the season and the weather. The recipe is – so to speak – in the hands and fingers. And so with clay, which will sing if you know how to do it. I even knew a plasterer once who could advance or retard the setting of a bucket of mixed plaster as if by magic.
Last night we watched a TV programme on the restoration of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It was marvellous to see how many women were among the engineers and specialists at the top of their professions; and it was also pretty awesome to see young carpenters learning how to cut the new roof timbers from trees they’d felled themselves by hand. The timbers are selected by shape; curved pieces for curved shapes, making them as strong as steel. At one point there were three young people standing next to one another on a huge baulk of timber, finishing the curve with nothing but adzes and hand axes. I could almost smell the oak chips flying off. My own grandfather was a carpenter and would talk about his days as a bottom sawyer in a saw pit, when he was young, with flakes and sawdust falling into his eyes and his back half broken by the effort. He was the same; he could cut a complex joint by eye and actually came out of retirement in his early 70’s to help restore a medieval timber framed building in Bristol. As we watched these fortunate apprentices I asked Madame if it was too late for me to learn a new craft – OK so you know the answer to that one!
Why is it we so undervalue these skills. Anyone who can count to twenty without taking their socks off is applauded; everything is subject to examinations and tests which skew value towards assessable targets, while a decent gardener will understand how plants talk to us and what they are telling us if we will but listen. How do you assess how a compost heap is going? By touch and by smell.
Young chefs often fail to taste their food, and if they do, but they smoke – which is extremely common it seems – they habitually overseason their food. Experience, texture, smell, visual appearance and taste are far more important to food than photographs and recipes. Like so many working class kids of my generation I first learned to cook good food from Elizabeth David, without any detailed recipes and glossy photos. Then, later on as we travelled in Europe we would spend hours tracking down dishes and discovering whether I’d even got close. Frankly some of my bodges were a good deal less anxiety provoking than the real thing – local delicacies can be a bit in yer face if you know what I mean. My first genuine andouillette (tripe sausage) in a motorway service station near Lyon was a reminder of precisely the bits of the animal I least wanted to think about, and my order of a feijoada near the old market in Lisbon attracted a crowd of waiters as it was served up. Apart from the tooth that had fallen out of what I think was a pig’s jaw, it was marvellous – well, character forming anyway. The market is now a foodie destination but I doubt if you could order feijoada there – too peasant by half; and in another Lisbon restaurant I had to almost fight a waiter to get what I’d always known as stone soup which is basically boiling water, raw garlic and raw egg. “You won’t like it!” he said. He was right. One of my favourite things is to try to recreate something wonderful that we’ve eaten, without a recipe but just a memory. Careful, thoughtful eating often gets you surprisingly close.
I once knew a drystone waller – Herbie Curtis – who was asked by someone how much he charged – “£100 a yard” he said. “That’s a lot of money for a pile of stones” the enquirer said. “Well” said Herbie – “It’s a pound for the stone and £99 for knowing what to do with it”. Yep – that just about nails it.