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

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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.

You have to eat your peck of dirt

But not eating it won’t help you live longer

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It was my turn to prep the veg tonight.  We’d brought back a red cabbage, the last of the summer broccoli, carrots, beans – the usual suspects at this time of year – and they all went into the sink for a swill.  Generally we give the leaf veg a quick soak in salted water so any beasties float to the top – a couple of well fed slugs surfaced tonight. The carrots had got a mild attack of carrot fly and rather than reject them all I cut the iffy bits out – you probably know the score.  We cut any green bits off the potatoes but unless they’re green right through we eat the rest. Blackfly, whitefly, caterpillars we see them all and we try not to cook them, but if one or two slip through the net we don’t worry.  It’s an organic allotment and we don’t inundate our crops with chemicals, we just take the pests off. We don’t peel if we can help it and we don’t even scrub them with abrasive pads because ……

everybody needs to eat their *peck of dirt before they die –

Some are so fearful of dirt and bugs that I’ve even heard of people spraying lettuce with antibacterial spray but sadly the converse of the proverb isn’t true at all.  Not eating your peck of dirt might impoverish your immune system of challenges and make you less resistant to infections – I remember our GP saying years ago that we all washed far too much and then got skin problems. If the evidence of the Potwell Inn kitchen is anything to go by, we’re wading through an invisible soup of micro-organisms every day.  We use them to make bread and pickles and to preserve food for the winter. Our kefir helps to keep our gut healthy and it’s everywhere apparent that our immersion in the creatures with which we’ve evolved is, by and large an essential part of remaining well. I was reading this week that even the somewhat messy events of our birth can give our immune sytem a head start.

By way of a caveat I should say that there ae some micro-organisms that should be avoided.  My particular bitter experience has given me a useful aversion to campylobacter, which I’ve had three times – probably making me a candidate for the Darwin award. In every case I’d eaten processed chicken which I’d barbecued badly — that’s to say on the outside of the grill and in a strong wind. Yet another reason for thinking carefully about cheap meat! But a bit of ordinary dirt, or the occasional accidentally boiled caterpillar doesn’t pose an existential threat nearly as great as a kitchen full of chemicals and a careless chef.

And just to add an amusing postscript to my solemn pronouncements on sourdough loaves, I mentioned at the weekend that I’d started a loaf to cheer myself up after the theft of our coldframes. In my haste I forgot to put the usual 20% of soft plain flour into the mix, and so I was hoping that the resulting loaf would prove my theory that what’s needed is to lower the protein content of the flour a bit in order to get that sought-after open texture, and provide me with a ‘with’ and ‘without’ side by side photo so I could brag about my scientific method. However nature stepped in and I seem to have created two almost identical loaves. Ah well, I’m not as clever as I thought – as if I didn’t know that already!

*And if you were wondering, a peck is 1/4 bushel – but we all knew that didn’t we?  In American dry measure it’s 8 quarts, which is a lot to eat all at once so it’s probaby best to spread the load over a long healthy lifetime.

 

 

When in doubt – cook!

Well it took a bit of time to get going, but we spent the day with our family – sons, partners and grandchildren to celebrate a seventh birthday with Sunday lunch, birthday cake and presents; junior membership of the RSPB, inexpensive binoculars, a microscope; you get the picture – no pressure whatever.  Our son (not the proud dad one), who’s a bit of a prankster in these matters, had to be persuaded to drop the idea of a (pregnant) rabbit or a mixed pair of African snails, but there’s always another year!  No one ever quite captures the quiet joy of getting along together or the dubious pleasures of  “here comes the farmer” accompanied by screams of pleasure and “again Grandad”. Families don’t always work, and ours has had its share of ups and downs, but when fair family weather comes along it’s worth celebrating.

Home again in the relative silence of the flat, I weighed out the tomatoes we picked yesterday ready for another big batch – probably 10 litres of what we call “Hazan number one” – a sauce so good you could eat it without the pasta. Just now that might be a relief because we’ve had pasta for supper three nights on the trot, testing out freezable recipes for rainy days. I’d love to increase our repertoire to a dozen sauces because they can be used to beef up vegetarian recipes without the beef.  Pru Leith does an excellent vegetable stock in her “Vegetable Bible”, and I’m slowly being convinced that the move towards eating less meat doesn’t in any way mean sacrificing rich flavours.

Then, the nuclear option for cheering myself up – I started a sourdough loaf that will be ready to bake in just over 24 hours. The sight and smell of a newly baked loaf is one of the most cheering sights in the world – simple but life enhancing. If they knew how good this feels they’d tax it or make it illegal.

Do feel free to pass on the message!

 

Sourdough? – bring it on!

I overheard a young bloke in the supermarket the other day explaining to his girlfriend that one particular brand of something or other was better ‘because it was higher in protein’.  Most of us who have struggled to bake a sourdough loaf that looks and tastes like the ones that go for £3.50 at the local ‘artisan’ bakery, have turned instinctively to higher protein flours.  Protein is the ingredient that turns into gluten and gluten is the stringy substance that gives the loaf texture; holds it all together.  If you’ve ever tried to make bread with ‘soft’ (low protein) cake flour you’ll have seen the result is far from satisfactory – it tastes like cake – drrr.

Industrial bakers like high protein flours because, as someone in the industry once said, ‘it’s the cheapest way of making water stand up’. But most industrial bread is densely textured and fine grained.  The enviable artisan sourdough of our dreams has a much more open texture whilst still maintaining strength and texture.  The answer is so simple it’s almost unbelievable. The best way to get a loaf like the ones at the bakery is to substitute about 20% of the total high protein flour with soft ‘cake’ flour. I can’t give exact figures because it will depend on the particular bread flour you have, but trust me I’ve experimented for years and this does the trick.  When you see sourdough loaves advertised as containing ‘three flours’  it’s probably nothing more secret or complicated than the mixture of high and low protein flour in the main mix with the small amount of rye flour in the starter. What the soft flour does is to weaken the gluten to the exact point where it will allow the big bubbles to develop.

I’ve totally given up on the idea of 100% wholemeal sourdough.  Maybe I’m thick, but every time I’ve tried it, (dozens), it’s come out like a doorstop. If you believe that eating nice food is a foody distraction, and if you can afford to get your snapped off teeth crowned regularly that won’t be a problem. I remember the ‘Grant Loaf’ from the 60’s and 70’s.  It was certainly a bit of a statement then, although modern bakers seem to be claiming to have invented it. They’re not trying to do it with soft wholemeal flour, though.

This loaf takes about 24 hours from start to finish and the best advice is to leave it alone as much as possible. Of all those hours, I don’t suppose the actual amount of kitchen time amounts to more than an hour, and that includes baking. It’s made with organic flour, tap water, seasalt and a tablespoon of olive oil and the levain was started years ago with a little bit of rye flour and whatever it was that blew in through the window.  The biggest downside is that it tastes so good we eat a lot more of it than we should.  There is a slight glimmer of hope, though.  It seems that white sourdough bread has a similar GI (glycaemic index) to wholemeal, i.e. it doesn’t make your blood sugar skyrocket.  Naturally the homemade jam on it does but hey! …

 

Welcome back, old friend

IMG_5274The oven, having been pretty much out of action for a month has been repaired and this was the first sourdough loaf I’ve been able to bake during that time. Judging by the amount of spring and the look of the crust, it hasn’t been heating properly for ages and consequently the steam function wasn’t working either. Terry, the repair man, hadn’t tackled one like this before but with a combination of laptop, owners manual and persistence he dismantled the door and replaced the broken part. And so the household routine and the proving/kneading regime harmonised once more so that with very little effort the loaf was started early yesterday morning and the loaf came out of the oven around mid-morning today in time for us to go up to the allotment until 5.00pm.

This is an absolute mongrel of a recipe involving rye flour, bread flour and soft cake flour along with a little sea salt, a tiny bit of olive oil and a starter that I made years ago and just keeps going. After experimenting for years this, finally, is a loaf that Madame really likes and so we don’t waste any and it’s never around long enough to go stale. Coincidentally it also makes the best panzanella ever during the summer when we have plenty of basil and tomatoes.

This principal, of growing and cooking things we really like seems to me to be one of the best justifications for the Potwell Inn kitchen. Bearing in mind that I was five when post-war rationing finally ended, I simply didn’t have any exposure to any imported vegetables and fruits.  I was 21 before I tasted garlic and so my life in food has been one revelation after another. Our children take food diversity for granted and their generation (two of them are chefs) has evolved ever more baroque affectations to tickle the palate.  But for me Escoffier was always right – “Faites Simple” should be a battle cry against ornamentation, and so I’ve always preferred the simplest ways of preparing the best quality ingredients, and if we can grow them ourselves that’s even better. Fortunately I’m a cook not a chef and so the Potwell Inn kitchen has an exclusive clientele of two most of the time and occasional guests now and then.  And if anyone turns up their nose because there isn’t a cold smoked quail’s egg balanced on top of three game chips and trio of sausages, they don’t get asked back!

So with bread under the belt, as it were, we were off to the allotment where the pea netting was put up, the potatoes were ridged up and a good deal of potting up and transplanting was done. It’s been an exceptionally dry year so far and although we’ve had a couple of soakings, I was surprised when I was planting out young lettuces at just how dry the soil is.  It’s lovely that we can enjoy the warm sunshine but it’s odd to be needing to water quite as much as we do.

Meanwhile the coldframes and greenhouse are full of young plants looking for a permanent space to grow in and the asparagus is throwing up more and more fronds. We shan’t take any more this year but feed it up and mollycoddle the bed in the hope of even greater rewards next season.