It’s all in the fingers

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.

Trench warfare at the Potwell Inn allotment

The sticky end of the unwanted grape vine

Regular readers of this blog may remember our ongoing struggle with underground streams on the allotment. In many ways we’re very fortunate to have a stream percolating somewhere beneath our feet that is able to supply water to the roots of any our plants with the means to access it. But it cuts both ways when we get very wet weather and the water table rises to about a foot beneath the surface; the clay/loam soil is desperately liable to poach and so many plants hate having wet feet.

The grape vine was on the allotment when we arrived. In fact the whole site is populated by genetically identical black grapes, all of them planted in the heyday of the Italian restaurants when a team of waiters and chefs took over plots and grew food to remind them of home. The very last of them died just this year and well into old age he still browsed our allotments as if he and his friends were still running them. I once saw him take two carrier bags of ripe figs off an allotment that used to be theirs. They would also pick many buckets of grapes to make wine which is, or was, reputed to be pretty good. We’ve got a vine on each side of our plot and one of them looks after itself with a bit of pruning in the winter, and gives us a good crop of small, sweet black grapes rather spoiled by over large pips. The other vine has always functioned better as a windbreak and screen, producing copious growth of leaves and shoots but never setting a decent crop of grapes. We made 25 litres of wine from the other vine a couple of years ago, but there wasn’t enough sugar in the grapes so it was very ‘thin’, lacking in flavour, and in the end we poured it away. When we decided to stop drinking alcohol 18 months ago it removed one of the reasons for growing these small grapes. Ironically our present allotments are on a site thought to have been a vineyard in Roman times.

So when we rationalised the fruit cage this autumn we decided to dig up the less successful vine to make space for a redcurrant, and today I attempted to dig it out. After a nominal first foot it was clear that the reason for unsuccessful growth was that it’s had its feet in water every winter. In the end I had to give up because the hole was filling with water within minutes and the stump appeared to be sucking itself deeper and deeper into the soil as I squelched around it with a spade and crowbar. I was experiencing the legacy of the wettest October on record – which leaves a question mark over replanting a redcurrant bush there. At the very least the patch will need a lot of grit incorporating to improve drainage. I might be able to redeem it a bit by diverting rainwater from the adjacent row of compost bins into more water butts. The council turned off the water supply today so I’m glad we’ve got about 1000 litres stored already. Over recent years we’ve experienced problems early in the year before the site supply is restored, because we’ve been blessed with fine dry weather.

While I was getting hot and muddy, Madame planted another two rows of broad beans to stand over winter. She was planting them in a bed that we’d augmented with some bought-in topsoil that had an even larger clay component than our own ground and which I had to dig a whole bag of grit into today before she planted it up. In the fruit cage the winter pruning is almost done now, and on the veg plots the garlic is growing steadily as are the peas which are always a bit of a gamble. If they survive the weather and the mice we’ll have an early crop next year. The brassicas were mostly planted on a bed that was well fed with our own compost and now the early purple sprouting broccoli are almost as tall as me. Let’s hope they’re as productive of shoots as they are with leaves.

The rats have returned to the compost heap since I drove them out by turning it repeatedly; so today I had to set one of the powerful spring traps baited with crunchy peanut butter. Hopefully greed will overwhelm their caution and I can get rid of them before they breed. We do have a lovely but rather wild cat on the site but even he can’t eradicate them all on his own. I say a quiet prayer to bring on the hungry peregrines, buzzards and kestrels and multiply the stoats and the owls!

I was thinking during all these labours about the strange way we misrepresent the allotment as if it were a haven of peace, tranquility and rest. An organic allotment may not have anything like as high an energy footprint as a non organic one, but only if you discount the gigacalories of human toil that goes into replacing the chemicals, pesticides and nitrate fertilisers and the very considerable financial expenditure on bringing the soil back into condition. One survey I read claimed that an allotment can be ten times as productive as an equivalent sized plot of farmland – which can only be true of a very intensively managed allotment. Once a plot becomes a significant contributor to the household food supply, it becomes a place of work – good creative, skilled and satisfying work but work nonetheless. I’ve been reading Chris Smaje’s book “A small Farm Future”c Chelsea Green Publishing and I was interested to see (Page 106) a chart that placed gardening in the same category – high labour input + high productivity – as the conventional arable farm. The difference is that the energy input is mostly human toil rather than fuel, fertilizer and chemicals. It’s a great book, well worth reading and presenting a well argued case for small farms and locally sourced food chains. So while I’m in the mood, here are three books I’ve learned a great deal from:

  • Chris Smaje “A small Farm Future” – Chelsea Green Publishing
  • Dieter Helm ” Green and Prosperous Land” – Collins (an economist’s view)
  • Simon Fairlie “Meat – A Benign Extravagance” – Chelsea Green

I could add many more, but these three are extremely practical, albeit quite polemical contributions to the debate about the future of food production. One thing’s for sure; this is a debate we’re going to have to engage with whether we like it or not.

And finally we’re off to the flour mill tomorrow to get 25Kg of stoneground wholemeal flour. I was expecting to be turned away but lockdown part deux hasn’t had the same impact on flour supplies as the first round. It’s an excuse to drive 20 miles along the Cotswolds in the most beautiful scenery, so Alleluia – life feels good. This morning after our saintly breakfast of home made muesli, I had a slice of the first loaf of everyday bread and the first teaspoon of marmalade (also home made) in four months. Oh joy!

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.