Even in the best regulated households – and the Potwell Inn isn’t one by a country mile – days and weeks can pass when routine jobs like feeding the sourdough and the kefir get pushed aside by seasonal emergencies like fungus hunting and holidays from the allotment. Not that any of these derelictions go unnoticed. The kefir, so long as it’s tucked away at the back of the fridge, will survive as many as six weeks, and as long as you give the grains a wash – they’ll be the size of chickpeas – and feed it properly for a few days, it’ll come back to life. I have an entirely non-scientific approach to figuring out whether food is dead and dangerous. If it stinks, or if there are moulds actually growing on it it goes into the recycling. I remember one neglected kefir culture that smelt so evil – think dead sheep – that I had to throw away the container as well.
However the sourdough starter is a different matter. It’s an old friend that sprang into spontaneous existence maybe fifteen years ago and has done well ever since. Mine hasn’t got a name – I think naming starters leads to disappointment; but it does have a unique smell – no, perfume. Mine smells of apples – what does yours smell of? Starter sniffing is a dangerous game because if you criticize someone else’s they can take it badly, as if you’d said their child was ugly.
But a couple of weeks ago I opened the container and there was something wrong. Not dead sheep by any means, but faintly sulphurous. It was pretty obvious that my neglect had starved the starter to the point where some of the yeasts had begun to decompose. An idea of how to save it came into my head by way of the weekend spent looking at Welsh apples. Madame, in the distant past, was a small part of a research station team growing virus free apple bud-wood. They achieved this by growing the shoots faster than the virus could travel through them. Consequently the grafted buds were virus free.
So would it be possible for the remaining lively yeasts to outgrow any usurpers and dullards while eliminating the dead ones altogether. I started an intensive care programme of feeding the starter every day with its favourite organic dark rye flour, each time throwing just over half of the old starter away. Very gradually the sulphurous smell disappeared and the apple perfume came back. It started bubbling more fiercely than ever as well – good news! After a week of reliable bubbles I made a loaf yesterday and the result is in the photo. My impression is that the renewed starter is better than it was before I let it escape, and so the kitchen now feels content again. I also made 12 lbs of green tomato chutney during the day – enough to keep us going for a couple more years.
Grumbling about the misdescription of allotmenteering and natural history as being necessarily therapeutic has become a bit of a theme for me at the Potwell Inn, and I feel it’s time to balance things up a bit. Last weekend, in the Observer, there was a fascinating piece written by Jay Rayner, who’s a proper food writer, unlike me, about the film director, actor and foodie Stanley Tucci – centred around the cooking of an Italian dish known as a timpano – which originates from Calabria where his grandparents were born. Great article by the way, but one thing led to another and so we watched the film of the dish – “Big Night” and then, because Tucci was acting and directing, we watched “Julie and Julia” – his film about Julia Child whose two volumes on French Cooking were fundamental to my own cooking journey; oh and then we watched “Pig” which was the most dark and philosophical film about truffles you’ll ever watch but nothing whatever to do with our hero. Naturally we bought Tucci’s latest book as well so you can see the way we, at the Potwell Inn, pull the shutters in late autumn and console ourselves by thinking about and cooking food.
Meanwhile, and because the allotment has been too wet to get on to, I’ve returned to some serious experiments with bread. Among the many false dawns of hope and grace in my life the consolations of bread baking have never let me down – not in fifty odd years. Sourdough was late on to the scene for me, probably because until it became fashionable again in the US it stayed firmly below the media radar. Then, of course, everything changed, except that whenever I saw the subject mentioned it was always in the context of huge difficulties and arcane practices that put the whole thing beyond reach – until, this is, I gave it a go myself.
There are other posts here on the subject of getting a starter going; and after getting bored with dancing naked under a full moon and collecting stones of divers colours whenever there was an R in the month I made the elementary discovery that when you mix flour and water in a pot and leave it exposed on a window ledge it will sometimes, but not always, ferment in a helpful way. But it was always very hit and miss and I was too busy to do the groundwork until one day I started a controlled experiment. I’d already figured out that flour and water were the only necessary ingredients although the initial starters used bottled – ie non chlorinated water to give the yeasts a leg up in the first week. So all I did was mix a starter with each of about half a dozen flours I had in the cupboard for yeast loaves, tended them all equally for six weeks, and selected the best performing – ie the most lively starter; discarding the rest.
And the winner was – dark rye (which I could have found out in almost any book, but I’m stubborn like that). The downside of dark rye is that it’s very – well, dark and coarse and so it can make an 80% white loaf look surprisingly like wholemeal. The other thing is that it’s got a remarkably strong (and beautiful) flavour that can sometimes overwhelm the foods you’re eating with the bread. In the end, this half pint container of starter has kept us in delicious bread for at least the last ten years.
I should say that the final arbiter in the matter of crust and crumb experiments is Madame who loathes having butter run down into her armpit via the large and overrated holes in what’s come to represent the gold standard sourdough loaf. She loves butter almost as much as Julia Child did) – and so like all sensible cooks, I bake bread the way my customer prefers. For a couple of years the go-to recipe has included (all organic) wholemeal wheat flour, hard white flour (for the elasticity) and dark rye in the starter and as a final addition during kneading. That gives us a loaf that keeps down to the last slice and tastes lovely – OK it tastes like the granary floor, which in my world is the highest compliment! But it is a beast of a flavour and anything less than strong home made marmalade, or a mustard, marmite and parmesan sandwich is likely to be overwhelmed.
So I wondered what would happen if I made another starter using only light rye flour because all of the original white flour starters had been slow and bad tempered. So beginning with the original master, I began feeding the experimental starter then I used the light rye starter with white flour to make a batter and discovered that it worked really well – not quite as energetic as dark rye, but less rustic, paler and more genteel in its fermentation. Then yesterday I took the first loaf out of the oven (pay no attention to size in the photo; the darker loaf is the end crust because we’d eaten the rest, and the two loaves, baked in the same banneton were broadly identical in size. My only thought was that the “white” loaf could easily have coped with a longer second rise in a bigger banneton because it was still quite energetic.
All this is not so much to show off but to demonstrate that there’s really nothing complicated about sourdough; however the variables in play stack up really fast. What flours? what starter? how much or little salt? oil, butter or no fat? how long to ferment the batter? one or two rises? what starting and what finishing temperatures? with or without steam? The interplay of all these variables can send you screaming to a recipe book to take away all the pain; but honestly, most of the variables remain unaltered and even the difference between summer and winter can change the timings. The take-home point is that baking has huge consolations so long as you don’t for one moment imagine that there’s a right or a wrong way to bake bread. Over the years you get better; you develop a sixth sense through your hands in the dough and as you watch the rise – which is always faintly miraculous.
Michael Pollan wrote a marvellous book entitled “Cooked” which uses bread as an example of cooking with air. To accompany the book, a film appeared later following the same framework of elements – earth, air, fire and water; and in the section on bread he talked about the way in which sourdough transforms the flour which – if you ate nothing else would cause you to starve – into bread which is one of the few complete foods – doubling in size and food value along the way. The best thing about the new loaf was that Madame really liked it and so – in a larger banneton, a longer second rise and a few artistic slashes it will become the new everyday bread unless I miss the old growler recipe too much.
The term everyday bread deliberately references the daily bread in the Bible because it shares the same shape shifting quality. In fact the Greek word that’s used in the Lord’s Prayer and was translated as daily bread (I think) by Miles Coverdale, back in the day – is epiousios and no-one knows what it actually means, and so I’ve always thought of it as meaning something like “give us today the around and about us things we need”. Those things that promote our emotional and spiritual lives as well as meeting our material needs. The King James bible wisely recognised that bread is just such a thing; food, consolation and joy all in one transitory moment. I reckon that’s a genius bit of translating!
Finally all the elements of the the experimental three sisters planting are in place. In the centre there’s a winter squash called Crown Prince which is a great keeper and big enough to feed the whole family. Around the squash are Painted Mountain corn, and growing up through the greenery are the borlotti beans. How it will grow is anyone’s guess. Breaking with tradition slightly, the elements were all sown and brought on separately and then planted up together as soon as they looked strong enough to cope with the competition. Being a bit belt and braces about it we’re using a patch of ground we’ve never grown anything in before and we’ve got more of each of the elements growing separately around the garden, so whatever happens we can rely on some sort of harvest. I really hope that the three sisters planting will work out well because it’s such an efficient use of space, but we’ll see and I promise I’ll report back as the season goes on.
The polytunnel strawberries are finished now and have started to throw runners, and so we’ll be pegging the runners into small pots tomorrow and increasing the stock for free. I’ve done it many times before and it’s an amazingly easy and profitable way to go for a bigger crop. The six plants of Malling Centenary were a very cheap, end of season offer and with the usual TLC we’ll have had a small crop this season and as many as a couple of dozen plants to share between the tunnel and an outdoor bed next year; and that makes competition for space greater than ever.
I had built a raised strawberry bed during the winter but the plants I ordered never materialised and the bed has been commandeered for a crop of leeks and onions because it’s so easy to cover with hoops and insect mesh. The allotment is a picture at the moment – our little outpost of paradise – and for the first time we’ve got a small supply of cut flowers to bring back to the flat. We’ve even got three varieties of lavender growing – I’m not sure how that happened – like most addicts we can’t pass a plant sale.
As for sourdough, I wanted to write a little bit about the relationship between the starter and the dough. When I first made a sourdough starter more than ten years ago I experimented with a number of different flours and followed a number of different routines. It quickly emerged that the leader in every respect was no more complicated than a batter of water and dark rye flour – no added apples or anything like that – left on the windowsill and neglected until it started to froth up. My only concession to faffery was to use bottled water rather than the heavily chlorinated tap water we had at the time, but since the first few months I’ve just used tap water which has made no difference at all.
So my starter was born and raised on dark rye flour and since then I’ve tried many different mixtures of wholemeal and white organic flour to make the loaves. My everyday bread recipe changes a little almost every time I bake it.
However, during the lockdown the rye flour was unobtainable because so many people started making their own bread. The millers simply couldn’t scale up their operation fast enough. So I used wholemeal wheat flour to feed the starter for some months until the dark rye became available again and it worked reasonably well – if rather slowly. When I finally started feeding with dark rye once again, the starter almost shouted “thanks mate” – bubbling away on a new lease of life. So I wondered what would happen to proving times if I added just about 100g of dark rye to the loaf recipe. What happened is that the proving time in the banneton is reduced by as four or five hours; the bread lasts longer and is altogether livelier with good structure. Unlike most bakers I don’t go for the open textured loaves full of holes because Madame doesn’t like the way the butter on her toast runs down her sleeve when the bread is properly French! The French texture is easy enough to achieve if you add a proportion of softer (lower protein) flour to the mix, but it doesn’t keep as well.