After a lifetime of being up at 5.30am we’re now a lot gentler on ourselves, and I generally get up at 7.00. When we were both working full-time, Madame would leave the house at 7.00am and then I would have a couple of hours to think, read and write before the random demands of the day commanded my attention. But now those precious couple of hours have settled into a new routine where I get up and make tea for us both, and then I head for the kitchen or my ‘study’. As long as I supply occasional coffee and stick my head around the door now and again Madame is happy to read while I get on with my thing which is noodling around.
It’s surprising how much time it takes to feed the sourdough starter, check all the seedlings and make sure they’re happy, strain and feed the kefir and, on bread days, knead dough. Then there’s reading and planning and working out what’s needed on the allotment and what we need to eat most urgently.
Allotmenteers live by a rather different set of food rules because – if we’re not going to waste the things we’ve grown – we need to even out supply and demand either by eating more of the vegetable in surplus, or by preserving it in some way against the day when there’s none of it to be had. In late summer we look at the enormous purple sprouting broccoli plants that have occupied their inordinately large patch of ground for an eternity, and wonder why we bother. We’re inundated with all the good things the autumn can give us and we find it hard to fast forward to a day like today when we’re longing to have the first taste.
Although we’ve still got kale, savoy cabbages and red cabbage in the ground they represent last season and the broccoli is a foretaste of new, tender growth. But that leaves the problem of what to do with the laggards of the last season. The answer today is to cut one of the larger savoy cabbages and make sauerkraut. Yes, as Madame pointed out, you normally make it with gigantic summer cabbages that weigh 25lbs and need a whole barrel to themselves; but I don’t see why you shouldn’t make a couple of pounds with a Savoy and see what happens. After all, theoretically, you can ferment anything with enough carbohydrate in it to get the process going. So I’m off to the allotment this morning to check whether the drip watering system in the greenhouse worked earlier on, to take the temperature of the hot bed (they’re like children, you know), and to cut the cabbage and bring it back to the kitchen.
My wonderful cistern watering device needed a tweak first thing because I’d attached the supply strip to the wrong side of the cork and there was too much of it submerged. This hi-tech gadgetry is very demanding! The weather here at the Potwell Inn in beautiful, but difficult for us gardeners because it combines growth inducing warm days with frost at night – a potentially dangerous combination, but yesterday we had our first picnic of the year on the plot. Being at the bottom of the slope we get less direct sun than our neighbours at the top but on the other hand we’re protected from high winds by the same trees that take our sun. The worst problem is that we’re in a frost pocket which demands attention to our earliest crops – we use a lot of fleece. As we left we noticed that the site was busy with allotmenteers but there wasn’t a lot of work going on. It was catchup time – another of the hidden benefits of growing things.
It’s inevitable when you make bread regularly that just now and again you’ll get a batch that refuses to play. This isn’t just a problem with home baking – I can remember many occasions when we lived in a large village that still had its own bakery, and occasionally there would be a queue outside the door because Brian (the baker) was having problems with an overnight batch. You could hardly blame lack of experience in his case because he’d been baking in the family business since the days when he delivered the bread to the outlying hamlets in a horse and cart. A dud batch can affect anyone.
In my instance yesterday it was entirely my own fault because I didn’t feed the starter as I usually do, 24 hours before mixing the sponge. Cue for a sluggish fermentation that really never caught up and a dense loaf that just felt wrong at every stage from kneading onwards. It still tasted alright but fell short in every other respect.
In the past I’ve lost a batch through using out-of-date yeast and even well out of date flour. Sometimes being thrifty just lands up wasting time and money. The weather and the temperature can have a huge impact and the smaller the batch the bigger and more rapid the effect can be. A large batch can withstand sitting in a cold draught for ten minutes where a small, one loaf batch will plummet in temperature. Too much salt will slow a fermentation right down and spoil the flavour anyway and then, keeping a benevolent but not fussy eye on the way things are going can prevent a loaf from blowing. Sourdough, being a slower method, won’t be hurried whereas adding extra yeast to a yeast bread can speed things up at the expense of keeping quality. The same goes for sugar which is quite unnecessary in sourdough anyway. I’m sure any of these variables could be eliminated with a pile of measuring instruments but I’d never bother. Mistakes are a great teacher.
The season for cod roe seems to have come and gone without me spotting any at all but as for marmalade I had an email from Potwell Inn friend Mags who had read my piece a couple of weeks ago. She tells me she boils the fruit whole for 2 hours before removing the pulp into a muslin bag and slicing the peel. She says it’s less time consuming and in any case makes better flavoured marmalade with less sugar – so tomorrow I’ll give it a go and report back on the results. The new batch demands another dozen new jars – I really thought we’d never have to buy another jar or lid but somehow all this preserving and pickling has used them all.
Here at the Potwell Inn I bake sourdough bread about three times a week during the winter when the timetable of starting the sponge first thing in the morning fits best of all with our timetable, although we might have to slow the final rise down a bit (24 hours later) if we need to be at the allotment early. That’s more of a problem in the summer when it’s warm all night, and so I bake a little less often. Regularly baking bread soaks into the warp and weft of kitchen life and becomes much more than the sum of its parts.
Although dough thrives on a bit of neglect, it also demands attention to detail. My recipe has evolved over the years since I first tried it, but it’s unforgiving of mistakes. On Christmas Eve I was in a rush and added a bit too much salt, for instance. Salt really inhibits the dough, and although the loaf was OK there was an undertone in the flavour that diminished its appeal. Getting the right hydration can cause problems too if you don’t pay attention. Different flours take up different amounts of water and so you can only know if it’s right by the texture of the dough. All the books say the dough should be as soft as you can manage but if you try to make bread with a dough that’s just that bit too soft, when it comes out of the banneton it will flatten out like a cowpat. I try to adjust it so it’s just – but only just – sticking to the table but pulls off easily with the aid of a scraper. If it’s too easy to knead – ie too stiff – it will be easier to handle but it won’t be able to rise to its full glory. There are other tricks I play but that’s not really what I want to write about today.
Because there’s always something else going on. Ten minutes kneading can become a meditation, with the everyday mind quietened by the purposeful movements of the arms, hands and body. I remember reading once that religiously inclined French people would make the sign of the cross over the new loaf before cutting it. For all the visits we’ve made to France – which is a determinedly atheist country for the most part – I’ve never once seen that action, but it stuck in my mind because it suggested that, religious or not, the new loaf should be treated with special respect because it provides so much of what we need. It feeds us in the process of baking and it feeds all equally in the eating. Flour, water, salt, and a little oil along with the ferment which is a kind of gift because you can’t make it, only accept it as a gift. If I can shamelessly steal a religious concept, baking bread is a sacramental activity because the loaf becomes:
The ‘outward and visible sign of the inward and invisible grace”.
Which, if you think about it could equally apply to any number of activities like growing an allotment, cooking, brewing beer, writing to a friend or even darning a torn sweater! Did you know that the familiar phrase “daily bread” is the best that all the scholars have managed in 2000 years when they attempted to translate the little Greek word ‘epiousios’? I like to drag it out of retirement in our weary culture and translate it as relating to the things we really need in order to flourish, bread being among them but also the almost spiritual practice of making it and sharing it with friends and loved ones. It’s being fully human, there on a plate in front of you.
Some years ago we were in Uzès where – as is almost universal in France – you could buy brilliant bread. There was every shape, size, flour, yeast, baking method and texture you could imagine so it was a good place to think about what constituted a good loaf, and I don’t mean a Good Loaf in the sense that there might be some hierarchy of goodness only known to the connoisseur. I just mean the bread I like best, and it was in Uzès that I began to realize that the eyes could seduce you into buying something that was nowhere near as good as it appeared. There were loaves a metre long and weighing 3 or 4 kilos that the baker would cut you a piece from. There were loaves with crust like razor wire and there were tooth snappers, and the bread you most lusted after was often pretty indigestible or stale by teatime. Afficionados and people who write books on this subject will purse their lips and inspect what they like to call the crust and the crumb for its adherence to their particular prejudice. They may comment learnedly (and loudly) on the merits of the true San Francisco sourdough and you may well feel that there must exist, somewhere in Paris, a standard perfect loaf in a glass case alongside the standard kilogramme. This elevation of an ordinary domestic skill to the level of high art not only inflates the price but sets up as a standard a highly specific style that stifles all alternatives.
So we need to ask ourselves what kind of bread we yearn for secretly and then try to make it. Sometimes I want nothing more than the cheapest and most refined and steam baked white loaf in the shop so I can toast it until it burns black at the edges and then I can eat it slathered with salted butter. Actually that turns out to be suprisingly difficut to make without a small factory adapted to the Chorleywood procees – “the cheapest way to make water stand up” as one wag put it.
But one thing has become canonical for no reason than I can work out. I suppose most people will know that ciabatta was only invented in 1982 in Verona, and that it was only invented in response to the popularity of the baguette. The open texture of the baguette and the even more open (ie full of holes) texture of ciabatta have taken the bread world by storm and so they have become something all home bakers must force themselves to reproduce in every loaf unless they are to live in shame and the fear of a visit from the bread police. But ……
It doesn’t have to be like this. The crust and the crumb are variables you can control if you choose to do so. I feel a certain sense of pride when I knock out a sourdough loaf that looks exactly like the ones in the £35 coffee table book, but then all too often the crust is razor sharp and toothbreakingly hard, and the huge open textured crumb dries out rubbery and then hard as rock in 24 hours. The only way to satisfy the exacting customers (if there were any) of the Potwell Inn (if it existed) would be to bake every day and frankly I don’t have the time – even though I do, in fact, exist!
And so after a good deal of thought and several expensive retreats I wish to announce that I will no longer be a slave to fashion even if my friends stop talking to me. I formally eschew the temptations and allurements of the gospels of Bertinet and Tartine and I loathe and abominate the works of Hollywood and the colour supplements. And if anyone dares to ask me what’s on the menu I shall reply “bread” with a curl of the lip and a toss of the head and I’ll enjoy what I bake with the butter running down my chin and the strawberries coasting across the limpid surface of the toast like schooners in full sail. I know how to live, I do!
I will never make any kind of claim for understanding sourdough because I don’t; and neither would I write any kind of definitive guide to it for two reasons”
- I never seem to reach a point where I feel there’s nothing left to learn, and –
- I hate the way books so often intimidate and make our efforts feel pointless.
On the other hand I well remember leaving art school with a degree in ceramics and remarking to one of the lecturers that it would have been helpful if they had taken the time to teach me some techniques and not left it all to me to find out. So in that spirit I feel it’s OK to share some of the facts I wish someone had told me about years ago. So herewith the Potwell Inn bakery shortcourse, completely free of charge.
- Bread flour – For too long I thought that the stronger the flour (ie. the higher the protein level) the better the bread would be. Not true! The loaf in the photo is made with a third soft wheat flour and only two thirds strong bread flour. Obviously there’s a crossover point where you get a cakey texure but 1/3 to 2/3 seems to work with the flours I use. Should I say what they are? Well no, because anyone can bake beautiful bread using whatever ingredients are to hand, as long as they’re prepared to experiment a bit – which leads me to –
- Complete failure is very rare – Sometimes they’ll slump, and sometimes they’ll stick to the banneton and sometimes they just sulk. But the resulting bread is almost always better than anything you could buy.
- Rice flour I wish I had a pound for every mixture I’ve tried to dust the dough and help it to release. Of all the things I’ve tried, rice flour works best.
- Getting a hot base – feel free to buy a lump of granite or a hi-tech widget made from recycled space shuttle nose-cone tiles, but I use a cast iron griddle for Welsh Cakes that was incredibly cheap and holds a tremendous amount of heat. I never clean it.
- Kneading –You can use a machine but you’ll learn more about the quality of a dough in ten minutes of hand kneading than you will in a year of tiny changes to the recipe. Flour is a natural product and even branded flours can vary from batch to batch. Wholemeal flour takes more water than white, but beyond that, the exact proportions can vary from week to week. It’s easy to add a bit more flour if a dough feels too sticky but it’s horrible trying to add water to a too-stiff dough, so start wet and stop as soon as you can.
- Sourdough takes up too much time – first make the batter, say ten minutes maximum, and then go and do something else for the rest of the day or night – whichever suits you best. Second, add the final amount of flour, the salt and some olive oil bearing in mind point 5 above and knead it for ten minutes or until it just ‘feels’ right. Let’s say that takes you another 15 minutes. Then go away again for a another 12 hours or so. Third, fold the dough over on itself gently a few times and form it into a ball and put that in a banneton which you’ve copiously dusted with rice flour. That takes another 5 minutes. Leave it for another three or four or however many hours it takes to look perky. Finally turn it out, slash the top and bake it as hot as you can get the oven for ten to fifteen minutes and with steam if you have it. Then turn the oven down a bit and bake for another 30 – 35 minutes. Elizabeth David suggested in her book “Bread and Yeast Cookery” that you’re trying to imitate the falling temperature of a wood fired oven. You have to be there for some of that bit – so let’s say another twenty minutes of your undivided attention. So that adds up to not a lot more than an hour of actual work. If you’re away at work, bake at the weekend or maybe kick the batter off before work on Friday morning and finish baking before lunch on Saturday.
- Have you got a posh steam oven? Yes but for the first 47 years I didn’t and I still made bread. I’ve got a very small and cheap car – priorities I suppose.
- You need to buy a starter – No you don’t. If it smells nice it’s probably OK – no faff, just dark rye flour and water and lots of time.
- Is it a spiritual experience? Only in the sense that you have to be ‘in the moment’. In that respect it’s just like every other craft skill, you have to have a dialogue with the material. It’s not MDF board!
- Why bother? Because £4.00 for a large loaf is ludicrous however big the baker’s beard is, and very soon your bread will taste better than theirs, I promise.
Here we are, back home and that means two posts today with a bit of luck and some time. First off, ‘though, there is the revival of the sourdough starter and the kefir to think about. The Potwell Inn is a plain sort of a place – or it would be if it existed – and here we try to avoid mystification, and when it comes to sourdough starters and their care, there’s enough ordure written about it to keep our allotment fertile for the next ten years. So here’s the key principle: wild yeasts are are ubiquitous – they’re everywhere and they’ll still be there centuries after the last lobbyist declares that chemical X will save the world, thereby ending the world. I’ve only killed a sourdough starter once and that was a deliberate experiment to see how long I could neglect it before it died. The answer was that I couldn’t kill it at all, but under the anaerobic conditions of its container it turned into another life-form so powerfully smelly that I had to throw the container away. Second point is that getting a starter going is so easy you wonder how the hipster artisan bakers have got the nerve to sell the knowledge for £150 a morning. Get some dark rye flour and stir it into some tap water and leave it in a warm place until it starts to bubble (could be days – don’t wory). Then throw half of that away and add more flour and more tap water, give it a stir and keep going like that until it’s ready to use.
So getting back from North Wales means the neglected starter needs a feed because it’s been neglected for a fortnight and it’s sulking. I do use organic flour; my favourite is Bacheldre Mill, but I don’t fuss about water. By all means waste your money on organic single malt virgin water brought over from the Isle of Sky in a coracle but it won’t taste any better. I do not employ holiday starter sitters to stir the infant broth daily, even on minimum wages. I have not scoured the antiques markets for authenic barm pots and neither do I subject the infant starter to any ceremonial prayers or position it on a lay line. Most particularly I would never dream of shelling any money out for someone else’s starter, but if you happened to know where the Potwell Inn is (which for reasons already described would be difficult because it doesn’t exist), but if you should happen to pop by at the back door of the pub I’ll gladly give you a bit. It’s lovely and it smells like apples.
As for the second exercise in controlled rotting, the kefir was in an even more perilous situation because I’d forgotton about it for weeks. You know how it goes with kefir – drinking it every single day for ever would bore you stiff. So it’s been languishing at the back of the fridge waiting patiently for someone to show it some love. Today I showed it some love and I strained it and washed the grains off (with tap water) and and put it in a clean container with more full cream milk. Once again it’s organic milk because that’s what we use. Because I’ve washed it and possibly because the chlorine in the water is a bit of an inhibitor, it will be slow to recover, but it will recover.
The pantry is full of various other vegetable bits and bobs undergoing their own lacto-fermentation and they too will cope with whatever life throws at them. I don’t sell this food so any public health inspectors reading this need not trouble themselves to Google up the Potwell Inn and attempt to pay me a visit, and if I do suddenly expire one day from some unexplained cause it’s vanishingly unlikely that the wild yeast will have done it!