A quiet start to the day in the kitchen does more for the soul than a week of mattins

I was padding around the kitchen until a moment ago, rehearsing a kind of ritual. It’s enormously comforting – especially when the nights are dark and long – to spend a while in a fixed routine as the day cranks into life. I’m always up early, long before Madame surfaces. Those two hours in the kitchen are the anchor; the point of departure and the landing stage for everything that happens later. I make builder’s tea for both of us before I start and take a mug in to Madame who may or may not wake up. Later I’ll make strong coffee, empty the dishwasher, make up muesli or sometimes a smoothie, strain the kefir, add the second batch of flour to the overnight starter if it’s an everyday bread day, sort out a pile of tablets, capsules and supplements ready for breakfast. Every day I wonder if I really need to be taking them all but when I asked our GP neighbour if I could stop taking them he replied “only if you want to die” – OK point taken. Although most of me is extremely healthy but there are parts that need propping up; so I swallow the pills so I can pretend to myself that I’m still 35. Madame reads while I shuffle things around in the kitchen – at this time of the day it’s my kitchen – occasionally she’ll call me and we’ll talk about the book she’s reading, or the latest covid figures, or today a recipe for arancini that evoked memories of hot summers and cicadas and we stopped talking and were quiet for a while, remembering. Sometimes in a burst of energy I’ll start a stock on the stove or prep something for lunch. There’s something comforting about wrestling the uncertainties of the day in the dark; clearing a space and a structure – a palisade against the phone, the post and emails.

A kitchen is more than a small room with a cooker in it. It’s a place of contemplation, a laboratory, a library, a scene of triumph and disaster. It’s the tap root of the household conjuring nourishment from cupboards, fridges, baskets, boxes and shelves. It’s an alchemist’s den and in our case an indoor greenhouse. The pots, pans and tools were accumulated over decades but they’re not merely functional because I can remember exactly where and when I bought each piece of kit – like the day I winced when I saw the price of the chinois I’d unhooked from the display above the stairs in Kitchens; the blue cast iron patė mould I bought one Christmas for the big family meal. The cazuelas I found in the remotest corner of a shop in Bath – cheap as chips. There’s nothing extravagant in the kitchen but everything is the best quality we could afford at that moment – not that there’s ever any danger of saying “I’ve got everything I need”. Having the right tools is the difference between easy success and a failed struggle against the ingredients. I’ve even got a barding needle for goodness sake! -how outrė is that?

Cooking is a kind of ascetic discipline. I mentioned a couple of days ago that we were holding the prevailing covid gloom at bay by watching cookery programmes. There’s a particularly good series on Netflix called “The Chef’s Table” – we binge watched three of them last week and like all the best programmes it made me want to cook. Coincidentally I’m reading the second of two biographies of Elizabeth David at the moment – when I read the first I had to entirely recast my image of her, and this newer volume has done little to change my mind. There is almost no point of contact or similarity between our two lives, so I am profoundly grateful for her books which introduced me to an integrated understanding of cooking within its cultures; but I know that if we’d ever met we would have hated one another.

the soft underbelly of fine dining is its complete dependence on wealthy patrons

But the TV documentaries, while they were inspirational in the way they presented the work of the chefs, drove home the point that the soft underbelly of fine dining is its complete dependence on wealthy patrons. We could never in our wildest imaginings have been able to afford to eat in their restaurants. Later, after watching Michel Troisgros at work I searched for the cost of a meal in his restaurant and it was just over £500 per person; part of which expense must be accounted for by the fact that at one point a dish of salmon and sorrel was being plated up by no less than four chefs working in choreographed harmony without tripping over one another.

When our son was looking for a commis chef’s job after catering college, his head of department said to us – “He should go to Stephen Markwick – he puts all his profit on the plate.” Cooking at that level is inherently expensive but my goodness it was in another league from anything I’d ever managed. I’ve never dared to make Markwick’s lovely fish soup, although the recipe is there in one of his books; mainly because I’d almost certainly be disappointed with my efforts. So much of cooking is instinctive, built into the fingers and the reward of constant practice. Our son spent a couple of years in that kitchen and he’s shared a great deal of what he learned there with me – little things like how to push a tomato puree through a chinois with the back of a spoon. There are techniques in the kitchen that it’s all but impossible to learn without being shown – then they’re often blindingly obvious.

Now our youngest son too is a chef who’s worked all over Europe and occasionally we cook together as well. It’s always a joyful experience, especially when he calls me ‘chef’. We often land up cooking Italian because it’s so much fun, and it gives us the chance to let the allotment vegetables shine. Cooking makes me feel human, and yet professional kitchens can be the most dehumanising places on earth. Bullying, shouting and intimidation, tantrums, low pay and impossible hours are all too common; and don’t even mention the drinking and drugs. Our youngest was shouted at so much by one well known chef that he shaved his hair off and had “I’m the boss” tattooed on the back of his head. That didn’t go well.

And so, like our oldest son, I became a cook and not a chef. After many years of practice, and with the culinary gods behind me, I can put food on the table day by day that we could never afford to eat in restaurants. One of my favourite challenges is to try to recreate something we once ate on holiday. Occasionally I get a picture in my mind of something I’ve never tried to do. At the moment I’m trying to work out how I might make a single leaf of savoy cabbage into a wrap for a vegetable stuffing – like a vegetarian faggot. I mentioned this on the phone to my son earlier and he waved away my enthusiasm with “oh yes we used to do that at college”. I just love the way that Massimo Bottura made a whole dish out of the crunchy bits at the edges of a lasagne. I was inspired by his sense of fun – like a dish that looks exactly like a painting by Jackson Pollock.

– even a miss is something of a triumph

So doesn’t that make me presumptuous – to put myself and the three star greats in the same sentence? Well who cares? you might as well aim high and then – well – even a miss is something of a triumph; after all I’m not expecting anyone to pay for my food, and too much of the emphasis in mid level restaurants is on presentation rather than substance. Not only that, it seems that almost all of the great chefs learned their love of cooking from their mothers or grandmothers – who didn’t learn their skills from Escoffier!

We diminish cooking by dismissing it as a domestic art, and anyone who disdainfully uses the term amateur to describe those of us who cook for love has entirely missed the point. Baking bread, making preserves and pickles, putting good food on the table using produce from the allotment has a kind of earthy completeness. It can be life affirming; a way of caring for the people you love – but it can also be dreadful. I remember someone who mistook a grim attachment to peasant food for style, by boiling a sheep’s head with a bayleaf and presenting it to us unadorned on a plate as an hommage to simple values. Her partner begged us to eat as much as we could to save him from a week of sheep’s head sandwiches. When she’d picked off all the bits that wouldn’t make you gag she smoked a cigarette and flicked the ash on to her plate as if she’d somehow penetrated the heart of regional cooking. Not so easy I fear!

Sitting here now as the sounds of the day intensify, car doors slam down in the car park; cyclists and pedestrians pass the flat and we can hear the house waking up through the resonant concrete floors; I reflect that quiet start in the kitchen does more for the soul than a week of mattins – is that some kind of secular proverb?

asparagus autumn biodiversity chillies climate change climate emergency compost compost bins composting coronavirus covid 19 deep ecology earth environment environmental catastrophe environmental crisis Extinction rebellion field botany food security foraging garlic global heating growing chillies herbal medicine homelessness Hotbeds intensive farming locally sourcing lockdown lost gardens of heligan meditation no-dig potatoes preserving raised beds rats recycling rewilding Sourdough species extinctions sustainability technology water storage weeds wildflower meadows

Great Bread Race declared void as both contenders collapse

Surely, I thought to myself as I surveyed the ruins of the race; in the story of the tortoise and the hare the point of it all is that the tortoise wins, thereby providing invaluable material for ten thousand dreadful headteachers’ talks. But life and art are not quite the same thing and grim reality – like the brown rat – is never more than a metre away from any point on earth. Yesterday it visited the Potwell Inn kitchen.

Theoretically – and I realize that’s a dangerous word – theoretically, a bread baking contest between an industrial high protein flour whose proud boast is:

A smooth free flowing white flour that shall be free from hard lumps or foreign matter. The flour shall be free from any off taints or odours shall have a neutral cereal taste

  • and an organic, stoneground, off-white bread flour with impeccable UK sources and designed for long fermentations – ought – to be a no-brainer BUT – in the memorable phrase from my first ever ethics lecture – “You can’t make an ought into an is” – and that’s a fact!
  • I’ve developed a soft spot for the industrial flour during the months of the shortage when it was all I could get. Baked with Allinsons dried yeast it was reliable and always produced a useable white loaf, and with my sourdough starter it would make a serviceable and better than ‘neutral’ sourdough loaf. The problem came when my old supply of modestly adequate home baking yeast ran out and I bought some scarily fast professional bakers yeast. It was exactly like asking the two naughtiest boys in the class to sit together at the back. Isolated from one another they were both tolerable, but working together they become a nightmare of disruptive behavior. I’m absolutely not (lawyers’ demand) absolutely not accusing anyone of adulterating their products with steroids, or genetically modifying them using DNA from racing weasels but I have my suspicions.

So yesterday when we were in danger of running out of bread, I started a rapid white loaf which I ‘knew’ would be ready hours ahead of the organic sourdough I’d kicked off the previous morning. Usually the sourdough takes around 24 hours. But something was up. While the yeast bread raced ahead and doubled in size as I answered the phone, the sourdough batter had produced a couple of sulky bubbles and then sat still and mournful on the stovetop. It didn’t even smell right – a developing loaf has a distinct and rather lovely smell; sharp with apple notes as a hipster wine-taster might say.

So I had a bright idea to kick start – or rather re-start the sourdough by putting it in a cool steamy oven for an hour. The recovery was not spectacular and by this time the dough had absorbed a good deal of extra water.

People often say they don’t have time to bake bread and I always reply that it doesn’t take much active input, but you do need to be there at the critical moments. Yesterday my capacity to recognise a critical moment deserted me entirely. While the blimp metastasised and set up mini loaves all over the kitchen, the sourdough looked more dead than alive. However, in the boom and bust economy of the modern bakery, the white loaf – which looked marvellous in the tin had, in fact, blown and the moment it hit the fierce steamy heat of the oven, collapsed with heat stroke. My sweat lashed face was etched with disappointment! (And if that doesn’t get me into Pseuds Corner there’s no justice in the world). [my superego is telling me that there’s no justice in the world].

All my hopes were vested in the Shipton Mill loaf by this time, but it was cowering at the bottom of the banneton like an orphan sheep. So I did what all good farmers do and moved it to the cool oven, not sadly an Aga, but the Neff which was still cooling down from the Beast. After 36 hours the orphan loaf was creeping up to within an inch of the banneton top, but its steam immersion had given it a cracked surface through which I could see some very slack dough, and I wanted to go to bed anyway so I slammed it into the oven where it immediately pancaked. Half an hour later it was all over. I had managed to waste an entire day making two terrible loaves, one of which I hope will be sponsored by our dentist given its capacity to break teeth. He usually sponsors Easter eggs in schools but with the schools all closed by the pandemic he’ll have a bit of money left in his ‘income generation’ account.

So what’s the best flour, then? The 11.5% protein in the white flour is really too strong to make the best sourdough bread, and in any case I’d rather use organic flour. The specifications for the organic Shipton Mill flour come as close to my ideal as possible but after a dozen loaves I’m still finding it a bit temperamental. I think it works best when the starter is really fired up. My starter yesterday hadn’t been fed for a couple of days. With many bread flours that wouldn’t matter too much but maybe this one needs all conditions to be ‘just so’ to give its best results. Equally we left the kitchen window open during the time the batter was fermenting – perhaps the slightly lower temperature – maybe a cold draught – hampered the fermentation. Or perhaps the organic bread was just sulking because it was sitting on the stove next to a non organic loaf with steroid rage. Or – and I hadn’t thought of this – maybe the Potwell Inn lucky layline has moved …. heaven forfend!

Meanwhile, and at the risk of sounding dreadfully old fashioned, may I recommend Elizabeth David’s magisterial book “English Bread and Yeast Cookery” published in 1977 which, in its quiet way, is packed with precisely the same wisdom that was rediscovered to great fanfare forty years later by artisan bakers – except in her book it’s backed up by extensive research and attributed sources! My copy is falling apart and the paper is turning yellow. Here and there it falls open to a heavily stained recipe. A few black and white line illustrations are all there is to go by, but it manages to encapsulate a whole baking culture stretching back into history. Wonderful stuff; but I wonder if, when writing her book, she had bad days too in the relatively small flat in which she lived and presumably tested her ideas. Last night I called upon her ghost for a word of comfort; she – sitting at the corner of a small table, glass of wine in hand and me – surveying the ruins of a no-brainer bet.