A bit of a cathartic clearout of the Potwell Inn larder

When we were at art school we usually got temporary Christmas jobs at the Post Office. While Madame sorted post I did a delivery round during the day and then at night I worked on Chippenham railway station, loading the mail trains with sorted mail. Every night we fought hand-to-hand with the guard who wanted to sort the mailbags as they came on to the van, whereas all we wanted to do was to get them on there and clear off to somewhere warm. We would stand on the platform with the bags loaded on to a trolley and then the moment the doors opened we would hurl them into the van so fast that the guard would be buried under the pile, cursing us furiously.

I was reminded of this because there comes a time, every season, when we realize that we need to prepare for the onslaught of produce which invariably ripens all at once but in an unpredictable order so – as has happened this year – the glut of aubergines has overtaken the courgettes and there’s no sign of any ripening tomatoes. Ideally we’d prefer them to ripen slowly but simultaneously so we could turn at least some of them into ratatouille which freezes pretty well. There are four – no – five alternatives as the crops come in. Eat them fresh; store them for a short period in the fridge but eat them before they go mouldy; freeze, bottle or preserve them in some way to last the winter; give them away to deserving neighbours who – if it’s courgettes – will secretly feed them into the recycling bin; or feel overwhelmed and give up even trying until they’re only fit for the compost heap. This has, for the third or fourth successive year, been a difficult season for growers. After months of drought I’m considering adding another 1000 litres of rain water storage – just in case. I checked the tanks today and it’s surprising how a day and a half of heavy rain can replenish them – but I need to build a sloping roof over the compost bins to increase the harvesting area.

There’s also the issue of jam jars and here, I confess to a rather silly obsession with uniformity. We have tall jam jars, shorter honey jars and then a whole collection of very lovely looking imported Italian ones in different shapes and sizes. The thought of bottling a single batch of jam in a variety of different jars would stop me in my tracks. However, we always make too much jam (and jellies, chutneys, pickles and preserves), so rather than chuck the elderly batches out I order another box of jars and then we preside over a large quantity of – say – strawberry jam of different vintages. Being human we eat the newest first and so the ancients gradually get paler and paler, possess less and less flavour and sometimes even the sugar begins to crystallize out. I once saw a jar of marmalade in a convent labeled as “King Charles the Martyr” – it rather put me off!

So every few years we have a cathartic clearout of the larder – which extends across three rooms and the garage and we spoon large volumes of anonymous gunk into the recycling bins so the jars can be reused. Washed and sterilized they gladden my obsessive heart as I ponder what to do with them next. So this week I’ve made redcurrant jelly – which we add to mint sauce and other sauces; and Tayberry jelly. The Tayberry is a cross between a raspberry and a blackberry and eaten straight off the vines it’s very tart; but cooked and strained through a jelly bag the pips are all removed and it makes the kind of jelly that sells for nearly £10 a pot in a classy delicatessen. This Tayberry was only planted three years ago and it suddenly produced a decent crop of what a Greek scholar might describe as “wine dark” fruit (that should add at least a couple more quid to the value. So this year we’ve done 20lb marmalade, and about 10 lb each of damson, redcurrant and Tayberry, with blackberries and blackcurrants in the freezer waiting their turn. This is where the problem originates.

Then, the tomatoes will start to flow and they’re the backbone of the kitchen when it comes to sauces, ketchup and passata. The plan is to get all this done before September. Our Borlotti beans took us by surprise because I failed to read the packet or to remember that nano means dwarf. So ours are thriving at ground level, being towered over by a tall set of bamboo canes which they have no need of. Madame is suggesting we sow the proper variety underneath the canes and hope they make it. It’s a risk because dried borlotti are another kitchen staple.

This morning after sulking for a fortnight since our holiday during which it wasn’t fed – the sourdough starter finally gave it up and frothed energetically like an excited spaniel – so I started a loaf that I’ll bake tomorrow evening. 36 hours is a long fermentation but it allows the full flavour to develop. Life is good, but whether I’ll still be saying that after winding the passata machine for hours and hours is another thing. But when winter comes and if I’m feeling sorry for myself I just need to open the cupboards and look at all the food we’ve grown and I’ll cheer up!

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.