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.

I abandon all my principles to bake a blimp.

My excuse – do I need to make excuses? – was that I was worrying that my aged supply of dried yeast was beginning to play up. There’s not much that can go wrong with a loaf after all. Water, salt and a bit of olive oil are vanishingly unlikely to give problems so it’s almost always down to the yeast or the flour. I’ve had dried yeast give problems before and so when I open a tin I always write the date on the lid because the use-by date really is important. With flour, it’s usually 100% wholemeal that gets problems – apart from weevils that will get into any flour if you leave it uncovered. Wholemeal flour, kept in a warm and damp place – i.e a kitchen – will occasionally go rancid, which is why I never buy it in large quantities.

So yeast then. A few weeks ago, and bearing in mind the possibility of a second wave of the Covid pandemic I stocked up on yeast by buying a 500g pack of professional bakers yeast online. This morning I decided to test it because there were absolutely no instructions on the packet, and so I just made a white loaf in exactly the same way as normal – 500g flour, 350mls water, 15g salt, 15mls oil. But staying in experimental mode, the flour I used was part of the 16Kg sack of commercial white that I managed to buy off a local baker during the shortages. I’ve already said, it made a perfectly good sourdough and an OK yeast bread. If I say that the brand name was “Tornado” it may be a clue to what it was especially good at.

The mixture was so fast it almost doubled in size while it was sitting in the bowl for 1/2 hour before I kneaded it. The kneading was harder than usual because it felt quite tight. So much of breadmaking expertise is in the hands, and I could feel the difference. In the first proving it went completely bonkers while we were up at the allotment, so it was more than ready for the second rise, in the tin. This can be bad news because the dough can be exhausted if it’s left too long and you don’t get the spring in the oven. In this case, though, it was barely forty five minutes and it was fighting its way out of the tin again. I’ve never seen a meaner batch! So I slashed it and it opened cleanly like a flower; this is a really good sign. In the oven and with full steam it just went on growing – so bags of spring there. It’s cooling down now but I can’t wait to cut it – I fear it may be very open textured, but from the outside it looks just like the white bread of my childhood!

If I’m absolutely honest I was rather pleased. We spend so much time knocking white flour and yeast bread – perhaps we forget that most people want their bread to be neutrally flavoured so they can spread stronger flavours on it. But the take home point is that there’s a direct trade-off between speed and flavour. ‘Though I say it myself, my 24 hour sourdough method will make far better flavoured bread than this – but that’s not the point. The fun of baking at home is that you get to make bread exactly the way you like it to be. I love all kinds of bread and it’s great to be able to make a range of shapes, tastes and textures – just like you’d find in France for instance.

So I’m not going to get sniffy about commercial flour and yeast – if that’s what you like go for it and enjoy it. Then you won’t have to inflict tooth breaking, gum shredding pain on your partner as they try to reduce your finest razor crusted doorstop to a swallowable condition. Tomorrow morning I’m going to make toast with this one – just on the point of being burnt – and eat it with slices of butter. We shall eschew all jams, marmalades and spreads in favour of life threatening indulgence, just this once.

On a gloomy day with rain threatening we had a few hours on the allotment but the rewarding bit was cooking zucchini al forno for the first time this summer. I also found a marvellous YouTube video on grass identification by made by a real enthusiast who goes by the name of “Dr M”. He teaches at the University of Reading and if I was eighteen again I’d be banging on his door to join one of his courses. Anyway in case you’re interested here’s the link – but I’d advise you to make notes, it’s really worth it.

Don’t food photos always look messy? Mine always do anyway. This is supper before it was coated with parmesan and fresh breadcrumbs and baked in the oven. The lumpy things that look like potatoes are actually hard boiled eggs. It tastes lovely – honestly!

Zucchini al forno – from a recipe by Patience Gray in “Honey from a Weed”

If I told you I’d have to kill you!

This is really an extension of the posting on May 25th – “The flavour is in the ingredients” – because if ever there was a vindication of slow food and local food networks it’s this. The problem is that I don’t want to give away too many of the details because slow and local also means there’s not very much available; certainly not enough to cope with a sudden rush.

Flours, and I mean bread flours, are very personal and I’d never want to get into the “best X in the world” kind of discussion because slow and local absolutely demands variability. All you can do is keep searching for the ingredient that makes your perfect loaf; and this one I’m pretty sure, is mine. I found a similar one years ago with Bacheldre Mill, when in their early days they produced what I called an 81% flour; a buff white with some but not all of the bran taken out and based on the old wartime “National Loaf” flour; but I believe they were selling up and anyway they stopped milling it.

Meanwhile I’ve tried all sorts; organic if I could get it, but most of it came from imported wheat. They said that only the Great Plains could grow the kind of high protein wheat that bakers need. Well they would say that wouldn’t they. For my part I’ve learned that too much protein is a bit of a no no with sourdough if you want that lovely open textured crumb; and often I’ve resorted to adding cake flour or spelt flour to get the best results. Over the past months of the crisis I’ve gratefully worked my way through a sack of commercial “Tornado” white flour and it’s been perfectly good. The sourdough made with it always tasted better than the yeast bread even when I slowed it right down. So don’t knock the big millers too much even if their only virtue is consistency.

But I’ve kept my ear to the ground – so to speak – and finally I’ve found a flour that ticks all the boxes: organic, stoneground, locally grown wheat, small producer; and the result proves beyond doubt that slow and local can also be unequivocally better as well.

I don’t advertise here and in any case I don’t want to compromise my supply but the big point is that wherever you live there are almost certainly local millers and local farmers who could work together to produce flour that’s fresher, good to bake with, good to eat and doesn’t need driving and shipping around the world. One of the blogs I subscribe to is a cooperative food group up in North Wales where they’ve taken exactly this approach and it seems to be working.

The loaf in the photo is my perfectly standard “everyday” loaf. The starter is about 10 years old and is fed (when I can get it) with dark rye flour. It’s a 24 hour bread from start to finish and it’s very un-temperamental, keeps well and toasts beautifully. There’s nothing difficult or secret about making good bread it’s 99% common sense once you’ve got the hang of it and, as I’ve said before, sourdough especially and bread generally thrives on a bit of neglect. I would be prepared to sell the pyrex bowl in which I’ve been proving dough for 53 years if someone made a suitable six figure offer. I know the internet is groaning with pictures of loaves made by the sort of people who call themselves master-bakers after standing next to a bread machine for ten minutes, and it’s true there are a lot of master-bakers around on the internet, (fear not, I shall eschew the double entendres immediately).

So give it a go; check out a farm shop or food co-op near you and you could be baking the kind of bread for a pound that you used to pay a fiver for.

Benign neglect makes the best sourdough

Isn’t that a trixie photo? – artisanal looking sourdough bathed in summer light with a geranium filled window box in the background. It has all the authentic marks of the dreaded Lifestyle Blog; aspirational; sensitive; Laura Ashley.

If this was a mind map there would be two lines emerging from the photo. The first would take you to a box that explained that this was the loaf that flew close to the wind. We were almost out of bread yesterday and I’d forgotten to start the batter the previous night – it’s a bedtime job at the Potwell Inn. So I started it early yesterday morning, wondering how the new timetable would work out. Around two in the afternoon I added the main body of flour with the salt and a little oil; left it for twenty minutes and kneaded it. Then, just before we went to bed, I knocked it back and put it in the banneton overnight, knowing that if it was too warm in the kitchen it would flow over the sides and ruin. But when I woke, the domed top had just risen a centimeter higher than the edge and the banneton was full. Nice one! So into the oven and in half an hour it was done – full steam, 240C for ten minutes and 180C for twenty minutes more.

I think we tend to overestimate the effectiveness of our input into breadmaking. I’ve been making bread for sixty years if you count my first teenage attempt with cake flour and dried yeast (not a show stopper). If I’ve emerged with one lesson it’s not to worry too much and to stop fiddling about. I know the magazines are full of arcane advice about making sourdough but really, it needs no leylinesand no magic incantations and you can make it with pretty well any flour that you can lay your hands on. Some work better than others – I’ve never successfully made 100% wholemeal sourdough – it’s always reminded me of the Grant Loaf that was fashionable in the sixties; heavy as lead and about as much fun as a Methodist prayer meeting. The choice of ingredients for bread is more of an ethical decision.

what’s the point of showing bits of your dull life in a blog?

Dave Pole, The Potwell Inn

But the second line on my mind-map would lead to the question – what’s the point of showing bits of your dull life in a blog? Well firstly, life is not a bowl of cherries, or indeed strawberries because we didn’t have any cherries on the allotment – and a certain degree of dullness is to be expected in life, so as Socrates might have said if he hadn’t been forced to drink hemlock for the crime of not being dull at all – suck it up, it’s good for you!

Climate change deniers like to claim that environmentalists want to return us to the Stone Age. The truth is that if we want to live within ecological limits we would need to return to a lifestyle similar to the one we had in the 1970’s, before consumption levels went crazy in the 1980’s

Naomi Klein – “This changes everything”

The other reason that it’s important to write about everyday life, as we try to live it at the Potwell Inn, is that it’s essential to oppose shroud waving politicians and their puppeteers with the truth that we can live rich and rewarding lives without neurotic consumption. We can live the very richest of lives, enjoy the best of food and remain sane, healthy, connected and spiritually alive with surprisingly little by way of material wealth. If I had any ambition at all for the Potwell Inn blog it would be to try to convey, through thinking aloud about our lives here, that saving the earth by changing our way of life, isn’t about deprivation and self-denial at all. It’s essential to explode the myth that we can only live fulfilled lives by becoming indentured slaves to consumption.

And I also think there’s an important distinction between showing off and inspiring others to give it a go too. The underlying reason for getting so evangelistic about it is that I’m not convinced that people will change their lives because we present them with any more, or any new, facts about the global ecological disaster that’s unfolding. The scene in the New York diner in “When Harry met Sally” when the woman on the next table says – ‘I’ll have what she’s having’ is a brilliantly funny way of expressing an important aspect of the human personality. We’re far more likely to adopt new behaviours when we’ve seen them modelled in some way. I know that growing vegetables hardly competes in terms of arousal, but my point is that the deepest ways of teaching and learning always focus on modelling the new behaviour – or to get slightly more philosophical about it, virtues are habits.

So let’s be honest about it, the Potwell Inn is a rather subversive school of virtues, the virtues that are being destroyed by our present way of life; and baking a loaf of bread or growing garlic (which I’m coming on to) has very little to do with nutritional values and everything to do with human thriving.

This is the row of garlic we planted in the autumn – it’s a variety of softneck garlic called Early Purple Wight – and it’s done well in this exceptional spring, although it needed a lot of watering. Garlic dislikes being waterlogged and being dry in equal measure, so finding the sweet spot in the middle is tricky. So far, so horticultural: but lifting the first bulb is a big moment, and when a crop does well, as this one did, there’s an unmatchable sense of occasion. Madame took the bulb and peeled back the first outer layer to see what we had and the most wonderful fragrance filled the air, and then,when we got it home we peeled it properly and the whole flat suddenly smelled like Southern France. It went straight into a red wine marinade, of course.

The first bowl of strawberries straight from the allotment, the crust of a sourdough loaf still warm from the oven and spread with butter and home made marmalade; a glass of the elderflower cordial we made last week; the first new potato – sweet and waxy; lettuce so crisp you can snap it; sugar snap peas straight from the vine and eaten raw; these are so much more than simply food – although they are simple food.

Our lives are all the richer when, rather than grabbing what we can from the earth like thieves, we live sacramentally; when growing and eating food becomes the outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace to borrow a phrase from an old Christian catechism, and if that sounds a bit religious I’d say that my non-theistic borrowing is very far from heretical.

If the environmental movement is to achieve our aims, we have to move the game from endlessly rehearsing scary facts and data and stop shouting at people and start modelling great human lives. If rewilding the earth is to become an act rather than an aspiration we have to adopt another borrowing from faith language – the idea that virtuous lives are caught and not taught.

This is a cornflower – an almost extinct vagrant driven from its natural habitat by our agricultural greed and surviving on occasional handouts from local authorities who enjoy a bit of greenwashing as long as its cheap. It’s eking out an existence on the riverbank here in Bath until someone complains about the weeds and orders in the strimmers. Meanwhile we can exult in its quite unnecessary extravagance and perfection while they refill the mowers with petrol. That’s what’s got to change.

Cornflower

Taking stock & making stock

When we took on the first half-allotment four years ago almost exactly, I don’t think we’d considered at all what a big part it was going to play in our lives. We’d always grown things in a series of different houses and allotments –  you’d probably have described us as ‘greens’ for many decades, but over the years the sense of urgency has increased and where once we were content to have a few home-grown treats off our various gardens, by the time we moved here it seemed apparent that growing some of our own food was about to become a necessity. We had much less money once we retired, and there had been straws in the wind when relatively minor events like a bit of snow, or a petrol strike had brought the country to its knees and seen the shops emptied, and especially after the 2008 financial crash we felt that the system could no longer be trusted. Insecurity was becoming embedded in our lives and there was a growing sense of cognitive dissonance between the world as we and our children were experiencing it, and the world as it was being sold to us by politicians and their friends in the media.

So when we signed the first and then the second agreements on our two small plots, we felt that with the aggregate of 250 square metres – a British standard allotment plot – we’d be a good deal safer if the economy tanked. At that stage it was a conceptual move rather than one driven by an immediate threat.  The brexit vote and then the election of the new government did nothing to allay our fears that the future was darkening by the day, and yet never once did it occur to us that the occasion of the collapse would be an escaped virus leading to a pandemic. That was truly left-field.

Until very recently, growing your own has been a kind of lifestyle choice – in fact many allotment and cooking blogs are categorised as lifestyle blogs. Home grown vegetables,  and kitchen gardens tended to feature alongside gingham tablecloths and wicker shopping baskets at the homes and gardens end of the coffee table trade. Bread baking – especially the sourdough loaf – lined up with all manner of artisanal products as forms of conspicuous consumption among the hipster classes. It was all very ‘let’s pretend’ as head scarves worn 1940’s style with dungarees became fashion items allowed us (yes I mean us) to toy with the idea of wartime austerity conditions without actually having to put up with them. For a while offal became the latest trend in high end restaurants and you could show off to your friends by demonstrating mastery over removing 200 tiny bones from a breast of lamb before stuffing it with truffles and gold leaf.

And now it’s happened and everything has changed. Over the past 50 years 65% of the land given over to allotments has been sold off by local authorities for housing development or to be turned into parks – both extremely important social needs, but suddenly allotments are back in vogue because the cracks have opened up and the shelves are empty. The pandemic has demonstrated that our way of life has become so hollowed out that it no longer functions under stress. Four years ago when we signed our first lease you could barely give allotments away and now you’ll probably have to wait for years to get one as they work through the recently extended lists, and those who have taken them on for the first time have to cope with the closure of garden centres and shops and the seizing up of the seed supply chain.

Waking up this morning into a different world was a bit of a strange experience. There was sourdough batter proving in its warm spot on the stove exactly as it has done for years, but I was painfully aware that we’ve only got 1 Kilo of flour left and no idea how to get any more – we may, we may not, but whether this is the last loaf for a while lies outside my control. The freezer was stuffed to capacity but probably 50% of what was in it was only put there because we couldn’t think what to do with it back in the day.

And so I did what I often do when I’m troubled about something, I decided to spend a day on the stove. First up – and wheeze of the month – I decided to take all of the soft fruit out of the freezer, mix it all together and make a batch of jam under the label “allotment jam”. It contains redcurrants, whitecurrants, blackcurrants, raspberries and gooseberries, all picked last year, and it smells lovely. We (I) tend to make far more jams, preserves and pickles than we could possibly eat, but the boys like them very much. However even this simple idea led to a mini crisis, because I’d run out of honey jar lids.  Four years ago I bought a big batch from a wholesaler and proudly boasted that I’d never need to buy another lid – until today, that is. A quick scout around the internet revealed that the mighty Amazon have them at 10 (yes ten) times the price I could get from an old contact in the bee supplies business – so guess who I placed the order with!

Next, from out of the freezer,  came a load of old chicken bones and a bag of unidentified material I think may be pigs cheeks, bought because they were there on display at a time when I had no time.  The freezer can be a bit of a dustbin if you’re not careful. We had all the veg I needed to make stock apart from fresh herbs and leeks and so we went to the allotment and gathered some of each.  Once again, the takeaway point is that the leeks I collected were so small you wouldn’t be able to give them away at the supermarket.  As I’ve mentioned before, they didn’t do well last year, but dug, washed and trimmed they smelt better than anything you could hope to buy and they, and all the other ingredients are simmering away slowly on the stove, along with some more rhubarb. Bread, soup, stock and pudding all in hand.

This whole change of context has changed the way everything feels. In times of shortage, anything we can muster and make something from becomes that bit more precious. Intellectually I’ve known for years that our western way of life is unsustainable, but this painful lesson has taken us back from our focus on the detail to show the bigger picture.  Climate change, global extinctions, dirty air, poisoned land, polluted water, poverty, sickness and obesity are not discrete challenges that we can tackle one at a time when we get around to it – they’re one unified and terrifying challenge.

Yesterday we found the remains of a chicken on the allotment, almost certainly killed by a fox. I could see at a glance that it was (had been) a domestic bird because the remains of its crop were stuffed with maize. The condemned prisoner had enjoyed a hearty meal! Today when we went back every trace of the maize had gone; almost certainly eaten by a fortunate mouse.  The last of the feathers went on to the compost heap. That’s how nature works; endlessly recycling herself with no creature taking more than it needs or can find nearby, until – that is – we came along and tried to take it all.

Keeping going

IMG_20200321_214235

As promised, a few ideas on staying sane later; but first – and this isn’t a showoff, when I make a discovery, usually not remotely original or clever but just something I never figured out before, I like to share it in case someone else can use it. And so a sourdough tip. I’ve sort of known this for ages but this loaf so perfectly demonstrates the point that I’ll share it now.

Everybody loves a crusty loaf I’m sure, and most of us slash the top of our risen dough before baking. This little trick just helps you to choose what you want the crust to look like. I don’t like the kind of crust that looks a bit like a breaking wave on top of the loaf; it looks great but it’s often very sharp and can be positively dangerous to eat when it’s baked hard. In old money this is often described as a crusty or when it’s rectangular, a split loaf. I prefer the crust in the photo, it looks just as impressive in my view, but it’s less lethal to the mouth and it’s the kind of crust you get on what’s known here as a coburg. The choice between breaking wave and a smoother crust is controlled by the angle of the slash.  If you want a loaf like the one in the photo – and this is a bit counterintuitive – you need to slash the dough vertically, straight into the top, as much as an inch deep. To get the wave look with the raised slash, you cut the dough diagonally at, say, forty five degrees or even less. Try it and see for yourself.

Which takes me neatly to survival mechanisms while we’re all doing our best to avoid social contact because it can be really boring stuck indoors. Why not spend some time learning to bake? If you’ve always wanted to make sourdough the best suggestion I can make is to ignore all the witchcraft and ley-line stuff about making a starter. It couldn’t be simpler, you just mix a couple of tablespoons of rye flour light or dark, doesn’t matter – with enough water, (tap water will do), to make it the consistency of double cream.  Leave it uncovered for a few days in a warm place and it will start to bubble a bit. You don’t need to buy fancy starter kits because – trust me – the very air we breathe really wants you to make sourdough. And then once it’s working well – frothing up – you can throw half of the starter away or give it to a friend, top it up with a couple of tablespoons more rye flour and more water. When it comes to making the bread, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s River Cottage recipe is as good as any but expect to add or subtract a little flour depending on the brand you bought. And don’t worry it’ll taste fine – don’t overbake it.  I bake it in my steam oven for 10 minutes at 220C and twenty at 180C – that’s half an hour altogether, but it will differ according to your oven – that’s it. If you really want a blow by blow recipe and method, email me on the link on this page and I’ll send it.

And that was a very long winded way of saying use this unexpected gift of time to do something rewarding, because achieving a lifelong ambition really makes your day. We have a lovely breakfast each day using our own bread and preserves.  We read a lot more and we tend hundreds of young plants or go to the allotment where everyone understands the 2 metres of separation rule. I can’t begin to express how a few hours of gardening can compensate for our restricted lives.  The sun shone today and I was able to fill the water butts from the storage barrels.  Madame sowed seeds and I planted cabbages and rhubarb chard – almost everything is under fleece because of the cold nights. We swerve between feeling optimistic and then moments of real panic at the thought of what may happen.  It’s a bereavement for sure, to lose all our freedom, but the sight of so many (mostly young) people crowding the parks, markets, mountains and beaches in defiance of all the advice was a chilling sight.

My final time enriching wheeze is to play back all my botanical photos in a slideshow and try to name them all as soon as they come on-screen. I know I’m a complete propellerhead but there we are.

Be safe.

What have William Cookworthy, my everyday sourdough and organic chemistry got in common?

 

This is not a pub quiz question since it’s so personal no-one else but me could possibly know the answer.

Just for the record, the answer to my silly question is ‘time and temperature’. Actually thanks to David Green, one of the most inspired teachers I ever had, I’ve had William Cookworthy cluttering up my mind for decades in a more or less heroic sort of way. I don’t suppose many people, with the exception of museum curators and porcelain collectors have ever even heard his name but he’s the archetypal eighteenth century rags to riches and back several times Quaker entrepreneur. He was born in Plymouth and was apprenticed to an apothecary in London, but had no money for the coach so he walked there!

To cut a very long story short, back home and supplying ships, he got interested in making porcelain – everyone was at it at the time because there were vast fortunes to be made and lost, and if you could get it right you could become wealthy. He could import one essential ingredient, kaolin i.e. China clay, from America, but it was expensive and without the benefit of any geological maps – William Smith’s first geological survey wasn’t published until 1815 – Cookworthy found the mineral on Tregonning Hill in Cornwall. I went there once hoping to find some China clay, and it was just another gorse covered Cornish hill but I remember the smell of coconut from the warm blossom and the sound of stonechats interrogating the earth. 

Was it luck or a sharp eye with Cookworthy?  It was said that he got the idea from watching tin smelters patching up their furnaces and asked the tinners where they got the clay from. China clay is very pure and free from metal oxides and so it didn’t stain the porcelain or add impurities to the tin. The purity meant it could be taken to previously unattainable temperatures. My personal connection is that Cookworthy eventually bought a share in the Bristol Pottery which, when I was a child, was known as Pountneys and our next door neighbour, Jim French, was a glaze dipper there –  a beautiful illustration of six degrees of separation. 

The early porcelain makers soon discovered that the secret of making it was that both time and temperature were involved, and they were instrumental in much of the early research into minerals – there’s an amazing display of various ores in Truro museum. If you have a small propellor emerging from the top of your head – like me –  you’ll love it, just don’t take your children.

Why is there such a fantastic array of minerals all made from the same basic stuff? Once again, aside from whatever metal oxides and impurities were around at the moment the molten rock emerged from the core of the earth it all depended on time and temperature – how fast did it cool and how long was it in some kind of active phase? What happened to it over the millions of years that followed, was it washed into the sea by erosion, or pressed by the movement of the earth so that it changed its entire structure? That’s why copper can be extracted from a whole array of different minerals. Why did China clay come to be so pure? – I’ve no idea and I don’t suppose William Cookworthy did either, it just worked.

So why bread then? I can produce a batch of morning rolls in two hours by hand.  I suspect that sliced bread, made using the Chorleywood process takes half that time.  A slightly more respectable home made loaf could be done inside a working day, and soda bread in an hour.  But my everyday sourdough takes at least 24 hours and it could be allowed to take more, because breadmaking too is a time and temperature process. We like crusty bread because the crust is often the only part of the loaf with any flavour at all.  But when you leave a sourdough to ferment for 24 hours so many subtle processes are going on that every crumb of the bread is both healthier – white sourdough has roughly the same GI as wholemeal bread – and every crumb tastes rich and round, and is full of the flavour of ripe grain berry. Worth waiting for.

Where’s this all going, then? Well that just leaves my uphill struggle with organic chemistry.  I was getting totally bogged down in the sheer number of compounds out there.  It seemed that every species of herb had dozens of them with unpronounceable names, and it wasn’t until I thought about pottery minerals earlier that an answer of sorts popped into my  my mind, for instance in garlic, alliin reacts with allinase to make allicin, the bit that does you good. Why does it do that?  because when you crush it, the reaction takes place……. and why does it do that? ……… because it can!

Isn’t that so wonderful it could bring you to your knees? The fact that at the atomic level these simple molecules have atomic spaces on them and so like an unimaginably complex lego set they can combine into ever larger and more complicated molecules which might just be the ones we need to make good bread, good porcelain or a cure for human diseases. The time might vary from nanoseconds to aeons, and the temperatures from the icy cold of space to the heat of the sun, but out of these elementary particles emerge the ten thousand things and from the ten thousand things comes the zen saying:

That the self advances and confirms the ten thousand things is called delusion That the ten thousand things advance and confirm the self is called enlightenment. Ten thousand things represents the entire world.

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A single flower from a hyacinth shot with a macro lens. Pure poetry.

 

 

Mindfulness makes better bread (and doctors)

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Mornings are my  time. I love pottering around in the kitchen and, of course, it’s the time for kneading the sourdough. Over the years I’ve learned a lot about making bread and one hard lesson, when I was new to the game, was to leave things alone.  I was always prodding, poking and fiddling about with the dough at the time when it most needed leaving alone. But paradoxically I wasn’t paying the kind of minute attention to it at the right time either.

Recipes are essential, but they’re only the start – because it seems every batch of flour can be subtly different from the last in the amount of water it will need to reach the right consistency. So my recipe suggests adding 300g flour to the batter before kneading. In reality it might need anywhere between 320g and 360g to be right for my ‘everyday’ loaf. How I arrive at the exact amount is by trial and error.  300g will give a basic but very sticky mix, and for the first couple of loaves from a new batch I just add flour as I knead.  As time goes on I’ve got a pretty good idea how much I’ll need – today it was 340g, which was spot-on. Clearly different brands of flour can make an even bigger difference.

Frustrating as it may seem, the only way is to gain more experience – it takes time and attention to do it. In my kitchen I judge the consistency of the dough by the way it sticks to the wooden table. If I’m constantly scraping the table it’s too slack. If it’s not sticking at all it’s too firm – you’ll know that anyway because it’s so hard to knead. It’s just right when I stretch the dough, pushing it forwards with the heel of my right hand, while the fingers of the left hand are resting on the back of the dough, ready to make a quarter turn before starting again. The combination of light fingers and just the right adhesion makes the job easy. Too sloppy a dough will stick to the banneton and turn out like a pancake – all crust and no crumb. Too stiff a dough will turn out cleanly but it will have a too dense a crumb. The right consistency will (just) turn out without sticking, and rise triumphantly, the bubbles not being held in by the dough. As a drystone waller I once knew would say to customers who complained about the price – “It’s a pound for the stone and ninety nine pounds for knowing what to do with it!”

Every stage of the baking process prospers when it’s accompanied by minute attention to detail. As any student of Tai Chi or Chinese painting would tell you, true spontaneity springs from constant practice. I love the story of Charlie Parker being blown off the stage by a bunch of far more experienced jazz players when he was sixteen and full of his own importance. They just kept of changing key until ran out  of steam.  His response was to go out and practice until – much later – he was able to go back on stage and blow them off.

Time, patience, practice and multi-sensory attentiveness are prerequisites for good baking and – come to think of it – good medicine as well. I’ve had a minor heart problem for years and I kept going back to the doctors who would do an ECG and tell me that nothing was wrong. They looked at their data – never at me – and told me that it said I wasn’t ill. Over a period of years I never spent more than 10 minutes in the surgery and rarely had any eye contact at all with a doctor.  When we moved here I was advised by a friend to sign up with a practice that trained GP’s because the trainees were often terrifyingly up to date (my friend was a trainer herself). They also get 20 minutes for their appointments rather than 10.  So when it happened again I made an appointment and was assigned to a trainee. 20 minutes later he’d listened to me, he’d arranged for some monitoring via the local hospital and reviewed all my meds. During the 24 hour monitoring period I had four episodes that could have resulted in a heart attack or stroke – and I’d been having them at that rate for years. The technician who looked at the data said that she was always seeing people like me because my problem doesn’t show up on a straightforward ECG. Now I’m taking medication the risk is greatly reduced – just because that inexperienced trainee took time, stepped away from the preconceptions and listened intently to me. Would I prefer a more naturally based regime? – of course, and I’ll do my best to move sensibly in that direction, but for now it’s the pills.

So here’s a thought.  While we agitate constantly for new, expensive technology based medicine, would there be any mileage in training so many more GP’s that they had time to spend half an hour getting to know the big picture of the patients’ lives? That extra ten minutes may have saved mine and given me the time to learn more about making bread. I love the NHS and I feel for the overloaded GP’s who know they’re not giving what they’re capable of because they need more funding. And they also need a new kind of training that develops those scary skills like attentiveness, empathy and appreciation for the whole person ….. oh and let’s have a bit less hostility to four millennia of good old human experience.

 

Ordinary – must clean the hob!

IMG_20191119_092759My mother was very good at the forensic gaze. This morning’s kitchen would have troubled her, I’m certain, but I didn’t even notice that it’s pretty filthy until I put it on the screen. That’s the way of things, I suppose – most of our interiors (mental as well as domestic) would look pretty grubby and a bit random if we were to examine them with the cold eye of a picture editor. But we don’t, and I took the photo to remind myself of the great joys of the ordinary over and against the set-piece strutting that we’d prefer to have you believe about us.

The kettle rarely comes off the hob.  The Potwell Inn, surprisingly perhaps, runs on tea.  Recently we’ve increased our repertore of tea – black tea in the mornings, green tea most of the day and chamomile tea at night.  Since we took a break from the booze we feel better, sleep better and – well – drink tea. The way I make porridge would annoy all purists, GP’s and food faddists – made, as it is, with full cream milk, salt, and eaten with a bit of sugar.  However it lasts all day and reduces fridge-raiding which tends to involve lumps of cheese, so I suppose – on balance – it’s largely neutral. Today the kefir was left sulking in the fridge because it was the coldest night of the season so far and we both fancied something hot.

The loaf of bread is my cover for the grubby hob.  It wasn’t taken out of the oven until late yesterday evening. It was one of those doughs that wasn’t quite right – a bit soft but not at all sticky; not sticky that is, until I came to tip it out of the banneton when it growled at me and refused to budge. After a little stand-off I finally dragged it out, but it left a substantial dollop of dough behind and the loaf itself was far too soft to slash in the usual way, so it had a homeopathic tickle with the knife and went into the oven.  I’ve discovered over the years that making bread needs a similar mindset to making raku pottery.  Letting things be seems to work best. However the whole process involved a good deal of escaping rice flour – which is usually the best for releasing the dough from the banneton – mess which I couldn’t be bothered to clear up apart from a cursory wipe with a cloth before bed.

The ordinary, the homely is the warp of the enterprise of being human and the experiences of the day are the weft.  Together they make cloth – in my case probably some sort of rough old drill and in yours, possibly, evanescent silk. I hacked a crust off the loaf this morning and it was lovely – it was individual; itself. Like Ryokan’s poetry.

It’s 60p for the flour and £3 for knowing what to do with it.

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I’m adapting the reply from a drystone waller I knew, to a suburban incomer who had queried the price of a new wall “because it’s only made from stones”. Of course there are foods like caviar that can cost the earth (in every sense), but for the most part the raw materials cooks begin with are modest. It’s the alchemy of cooking that turns the base metal of the raw ingredients into something a lot better, if not gold.

I was musing on this today as I dried the old Pyrex bowl that I’ve always used for proving bread dough.  It was part of a set given to us as a wedding present, so it’s almost 53 years old and very scratched. All the other parts of the set have been dropped and broken over the years, but this one piece survives  and gets used twice or three times a week. Of course, logically the age or composition of the bowl can have no impact whatever on the rising of dough aside from the sentimental pleasure of using it.  To be honest, if I had an old slipware bowl of the same size I’d use that – but I haven’t got one.  The familiarity of old and trusted tools is only peripheral to the main task, but anyone who’s mislaid a favourite knife will know how difficult the most ordinary jobs can become.

I write a lot about food, but I don’t think I’ve ever written a recipe.  There are hundreds of bloggers who do, and I wish them the best of good fortune, but I can never quite figure out why some things work for me and – more importantly – how to get it down on the page. Take my ragu recipe, for instance.  This may be completely bonkers, but I think chopping the vegetables by hand with a very sharp knife gives a different and better flavour than whacking them into a food processor. Hand chopped onions don’t stew in the way they would if they were processed. It’s just possible that the way I chop them might make a difference, but how would I explain that in words without making cookery sound like nuclear engineering?

There are hundreds of little actons that go together to make a dish.  My mother taught me to judge the right thickness of a Yorkshire pudding batter from the sound it makes – it has to be just the right sound, and even though these days I always use a stick blender I still resort to a spoon to sound out the thickness – flop, flop, flop – perfect. I once asked a man in a Chinese supermarket what was the difference betwen ‘soy superior’ and ‘superior soy’? He simply picked up a bottle of each type and rotated it back and forth in his hand without saying a word. Point taken; it was all in the thickness.

So when it comes to sourdough – which is surrounded by a miasma of completely unnecessary magick anyway – my own recipe is utterly unoriginal, and adapted from a dozen or so books that mostly amounted to the same thing. In fact I change it all the time because I like doing experiments and, with a few exceptions, it tastes better than anything you could buy in a shop. I could be micro-critical of the loaf in the photo, the crust was a bit too thick because I forgot to turn the oven down, but that just gave me an incenive to be more careful. In matters of hydration – the proportion of water to flour – the only proper recipe would have to admit “it all depends”. You can only properly figure that out as you knead (yes I knead: not for me the desperately sloppy sticky method!).

But in my imaginary recipe, how do I express how the dough feels when it’s ‘right’? I always start with the same proportions which gives a sticky dough, and then, depending on the circumstances, I’ll add more flour a bit at a time until it feels right – and feeling right is a whole world of experience. I’ve never watched a ‘real’ baker knead dough, so I just use the same technique I used for clay. I hold the dough with the fingers of the left hand and and then push the mass out, stretching it with the heel of my right hand in a rhythmic movement using my whole upper body.  Then I rotate the whole mass by 90 degrees with the left hand and repeat the stretching action – it sounds much more complicated than it really is. To begin with it’s always too sticky so I use a flat scraper to release it from the table and keep going until the dough forms a coherent mass.  At that point I start to knead in small quantities of flour – a little at a time, and I judge when the dough is right just from the feel and from the way it sticks to the table. At the outset it all sticks horribly, but when it’s just right only the bit under my fingers attaches to the table. The dough, when it’s ready is still sticky but just – and only just – manageable. I sometimes wet my hands to move it into the bowl to prove. I suppose I could work out the exact hydration by weighing everything, but to be honest the composition of the flour can be a bit variable.  I had a miller friend who would not mill flour until he felt it was right – wheat grains have their personalities too.

And then there’s the proving, the moving to a banneton , the second proving and the cutting and baking.  Even what I’ve written makes it all sound so daunting and yet it’s easy – which is why I don’t do recipes. Do it, and then do it again and again and it’ll come right; no magic just experience.