Hyperactive walnut plait

•July 22, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I was given a recipe for this on the back of a leaflet from a new local deli.


I was a bit surprised about the quantity of yeast – 14g instant yeast for a 1lb loaf.  The dough didn’t take much kneading to be silky smooth – one of the few loaves I’ve made where I haven’t been fed up with it staying stuck to my fingers.  After knocking back the dough, the recipe said it should be left to prove for an hour, but the yeast was so active that this was far too long.  I soon realised this, and put the oven on, but by the time it was hot enough the dough was starting to sag with over-proving, and my plump little plait was looking a bit flabby.

It was tasty (so it should be, with all that added butter and salt) but was slightly dry – overcooked? – and I wonder if a shorter proof might have prevented this.  I’ll make it again but perhaps with less yeast, and with a closer eye on the rising speed.

Walnut loaf baked

The recipe was originally from Paul Hollywood, a local baker who supplies Harrods (!), via the monthly newsletter I get from Karl’s in Canterbury.

Karl’s is a new deli which sells all sorts of British and imported goodies (including some rather nice wines) and serves a range of interesting coffees and too-tempting pastries which you can enjoy in the seated area round the back. They do light lunches too, but I’ve not tried one yet –  I stop there for a coffee when I’m shopping and usually manage to leave with some olives or coffee beans.  The shop has a welcoming feel – sort of rustically contemporary – and the owners are friendly, knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their wares. I do hope they manage to ride out the recession: they’re a great addition to the town.

The recipe:

400 g wholemeal flour

100 g white flour

14 g instant yeast

300 ml water

14 g salt

50 g butter

190 g walnuts

40 ml walnut oil


Happy New Year

•January 15, 2009 • 1 Comment

I saw an awful lot of modernisme architecture in Barcelona; and lots of Gaudi, naturally, for whom nature was an enormous inspiration. Perhaps I was just hungry, but I spotted all sorts of food in his works…

The famous Crema Catalana

The famous Crema Catalana

Casa Batllo

A head of garlic

Casa Batllo fish scales

fish scales

Park Guell

...building ornaments that reminded me of Mr Whippy ice-creams

Palau Musica Catalana

...and most surprisingly - cauliflower florets!

Happy New Year!

Café Olé!

•December 30, 2008 • Leave a Comment

My eternally bargain-hunting mother recently bought two pairs of trousers from Primark for under a fiver. Her high street foray was so economically successful and so thoroughly exhausting that she treated herself to a coffee in town afterwards. There is something seriously wrong in a society where a cup of coffee costs more than a pair of trousers.

*      *      *

“I’ve never had a bad cup of coffee in Spain”, said my cousin recently, “and I’ve never had to pay more than a euro for it”.

The first time I went to Spain I was self-catering and hardly noticed. The second time, touring around Castilla & Leon, I enjoyed the coffee but I was so blown away by how cheaply one could eat at restaurants that the price of a café con leche didn’t strike me as remarkable. We regularly had three course meals with wine for under €10.

This time, in Barcelona, I really felt I was in an expensive city (and not just because sterling had fallen 25% since my last visit). I had expected it to be more expensive than provincial Spain but perhaps slightly cheaper than Paris, and that a two course dinner and a glass of wine would cost me around €15, but I was finding the typical price was nearer €17-€20.

I was probably eating in an expensive district – in a couple of grubbier parts of town and more basic establishments I paid €12, but the quality was variable: delicious lentil soup and grilled sardines at one; very greasy and extraordinary turmeric-coloured battered calamari at the other.

My cheap hotel didn’t offer breakfast – which, generally being an expensive disappointment, I would have eschewed in any case – so I explored the local coffee bars that line the same streets as the tapas bars and restaurants that open much later in the day.

Four mornings in a row I managed to have a cafe amb llet (Catalan for a latte) and a croissant for under €2 (£1.60 at the time – now approaching £2). I will bend my cousin’s rule to allow for Barcelona prices. I drank lots of coffee during my stay but I never paid more than €1,70 and usually under €1,20. The €1,70 was in a terrifically classy café with an intimidatingly elaborate cake display (reader, I refrained).

I don’t think there was a coffee that I didn’t enjoy, except perhaps the one on the train back to France, although even that was far better and cheaper than the usual UK train coffee. Okay, you get at most 200ml for your money, but it’s good stuff and it works – why do you want more?

In a London coffee bar you’d probably be paying more than £2 for the coffee alone, forget the croissant. The UK’s adopted super-size culture means it’s hard to get a take-away coffee on the high street that is less than half a pint in volume, as if the size is somehow supposed to justify the price.

Serving staff can’t understand why you would only want a Regular when you could have a Large for only 20p more. Note: there is no Small.

Some smaller places give ordinary sized cups, but coffee from little independent corner cafés is pretty hit and miss. Sometimes it’s excellent, like at the Italian deli en route to my office, but sometimes it’s really quite unpleasant. Away from the chains, it’s not always outrageously expensive – but quality seems to bear little relation to price. At least with Starbucks, Caffè Nero, etc, you know what you’re getting, even if you don’t like it much. But who would have thought consistency could be so expensive?

It’s only coffee, after all, not wine: seriously fine wine is beyond the means of mortals and even half decent stuff can cost much more than ‘everyday wine’.  Admittedly, some coffees are better than others, but the trade price can’t vary that widely with the brand.

In which case, it’s surprising how bad coffee can be in the UK, especially when it’s consistently good in Spain at two-thirds the price.

Jobes & the Giant Peaches

•December 22, 2008 • Leave a Comment

“Half rotten ere you be half ripe”

Those continental food markets are so tempting. The produce is displayed so attractively: ripe fruit in smooth skins and bright colours like a plump cleavage in a ball gown. I fell for it at La Boqueria, Barcelona’s most famous covered market, on La Rambla and thus even more a mecca for tourists than London’s Borough Market.

I saw a pile of enormous peaches – the size of grapefruit – and bought a couple for more euros than I’d like to admit. You aren’t allowed to feel the fruit first to see if it is ripe, but I assumed that was to protect the fruit from a manhandling by a million tourists and that the market vendor would pick me out some ripe ones.

My juicy pair were as hard as cricket balls. I left them in my hotel room for three days to ripen. All that happened was that their skins got bruised from where I’d been checking for signs of softness, and by the day I left – when I had planned to have them for breakfast – they were looking rather sorry, and the bruises were going brown, so I decided I’d better eat them rather than risk keeping them any longer. The epidermis was soft (on the point of rotting) but the flesh was still hard, woody and with none of the generous, wet sweetness I had been looking forward to for days.

A nice pair

They ended up in the bin, I’m afraid. I was so disappointed, as I’d been enjoying delicious Spanish peaches in the UK all summer. My food miles ethics falter when it comes to peaches, especially as I know the peach tree in my garden is unlikely to produce anything ripe enough to eat.

Peaches in November was a silly idea. I wouldn’t have dreamed of buying peaches in February, so why November? Holiday folly. Serves me right.

Homage to Catalonia: The Flan & Anchovy Train Tour

•December 18, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I’ve just returned from a short holiday in Catalonia. My walking trip plans fell through when it transpired that I was the only person who had signed up for a week’s hiking in the Massif Central in mid-November. Wimps, the lot of you!

So Plan B was hurriedly assembled to make best use of the non refundable train tickets I had already booked: two days in Paris visiting a friend, three days in Barcelona, two days in Collioure (the St Ives of France, if you will), and half a day in Narbonne en route for home.

I did the whole thing by train, which I found more civilised, less hassle, and – from where I live – no more expensive and considerably more convenient than the misery of departure lounges, no-frill airlines, baggage carousels, hand luggage restrictions and extra charges for pretty much everything.

This was the Flan & Anchovy Train Tour, and the trains were as consistently good as the food and drink. Barcelona was surprisingly mild (I dined outside, admittedly in my winter coat). France was colder – the Tramontane blew in 60mph gusts from the north, and even rocked the train carriage as we waited at Port Bou on the Spanish border – but the skies were a deep cloudless blue and the quality of light by the Mediterranean was magical. After two lousy British summers, the strong seaside sunshine was profoundly uplifting.


The train journey from Collioure to Narbonne was an unexpected treat. The little stop at Rivesaltes was a feast for the eyes, a blue sky above snow-capped mountains rising behind vines that had turned a brilliant autumn yellow and were growing out of the terracotta red earth. We crossed salt marshes south of Narbonne where the track narrowed until it seemed the train was flying over the sea. The marshes were full of flamingos, fishing with their upside-down pink heads. They were not enjoying the wind, which was kicking up white horses even in the lagoon, any more than the sparrows that had been tossed about by it in Collioure.

In Narbonne, I stood on an excavated section of the Via Domitia, a roman road extending through southern France and Catalonia into Spain. My holiday reading had been well chosen: Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France. Robb offers a fascinating domestic, rural and socio-economic history of the varied, inhospitable and often unknown territories of France before the 20th Century and how people travelled across them, whether on journeys of discovery, flight, communication or economic migration. It’s an immensely enjoyable book full of remarkable details, offering an alternative history of a France far removed from Paris, kings and emperors, revolutions and grands projets.

People have travelled this route for the past 2,000 years – probably long before that – and now I was travelling it too: the thought made me shiver. You don’t get that with Easyjet.

Pain au levain

•December 7, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I’m a competitive perfectionist who doesn’t like being outwitted, especially by a bunch of single-celled organisms, so it was with regret and frustration that I gave up on the rye bread. I will try again when my wounded pride has recovered.

I turned to the next chapter in Bread Matters to try my hand at pain au levain – the wheat flour yeast-culture equivalent of the rye sour, as far as I understand. Andrew Whitley’s book says the culture is more temperamental than a rye culture, although I haven’t found this to be the case so far.

I’ve made three loaves using this method, and each time the culture has bubbled up nicely over the course of a week, and the mini pots of leftover starter in the freezer have been successfully revived for the next bake.

The kneading stage as ever left me feeling flustered and infuriated. I gave it a good fifteen minutes of pulling and pummelling but the dough remained sticky – mainly to my fingers and the work top – and although it became smoother and more elastic, it never really achieved the silkiness that I knew I should be aiming for.

I was trying to follow the advice that wetter was better, and that a dry dough made a tough loaf, and fought my desire to add lots more flour. This desire was easier to resist once I realised I’d put the flour back in the cupboard and couldn’t get it out without getting very sticky dough everywhere. Nonetheless, I wanted to scream with frustration that the more I kneaded the more dough stuck to my hands. I seriously began to wonder whether I was obsessive-compulsive about having clean hands. I do wash them quite a lot. But only when I think they’re dirty… hmmm.

Anyway, after 15 minutes I decided that enough was enough and let the loaf prove. I turned the proved but slack dough onto a tray for baking, where it promptly spread out like an oval cushion. I need not have felt dispirited by this, as the finished product turned out beautifully. The crust was a little tough but the crumb had large, randomly spaced bubbles and the flavour was good. It was delicious toasted. It was quite a flat shaped loaf – the cushion rose but it was still a cushion – and, if I half close my eyes and look at it sideways, it could almost be something one might see in a bakery.

Success at last!

First attempt at pain de campagne

First attempt at pain de campagne

P.S. The third time I made the loaf, I gave into temptation and added more flour to make the dough mixture less wet. I also baked it in a loaf tin so I could have sensibly shaped sandwiches. The loaf crumb was much more dense. I wouldn’t say tough…exactly.

Eating the garden

•December 3, 2008 • Leave a Comment

It’s been so miserably wet this summer that I’ve not been as attentive to the garden as I should have been. The peach tree failed almost entirely – it produced one small, green fruit, more almond than peach. It was pruned last winter, so I was hoping for a good crop, and indeed it blossomed well this spring: unfortunately, it came into blossom just as the only snow of the winter arrived – in mid-April! Not surprisingly, the bees decided to stay at home rather than go pollinating.

The pear trees at the local fruit farm flowered at the same time – it was an extraordinary sight, the blossoming orchards lashed by blizzard – so I was surprised and not a little jealous to see them cropping so well this autumn. But pears are better suited to the climate. Even in the heatwave a couple of summers ago, the peaches were never quite ripe enough to be eaten, other than in chutney.

However, the garden has not been entirely barren. There are another couple of Jerusalem artichokes in the ground again for this winter; there were five pink fir apple potato plants, now finished, which only produced tiny tubers as the slugs had stripped the leaves and stunted their growth; the nasturtiums are still flowering and their leaves and petals continue to zing up my green salads; and once I finally got it going, the flat-leafed parsley has thrived (so I’m eating tabbouleh like anything).

I grew a couple of troughs of salad leaves, which were great until they bolted… I always wondered what rocket flowers looked like, and now I know.

salad leaves

salad leaves

I also grew some sorrel, as it’s not the sort of thing you find very often even at the Farmers’ Markets. It never cropped in great amounts (maybe I need to plant more next year), so sorrel soup never materialised, but again it went into green salads and all sorts of other dishes, where it added a gentle tang.

It’s hardly self-sufficiency, and pretty modest by anybody’s reckoning, but still very satisfying. I only wish I had time to do it properly, instead of struggling to squeeze it into scarce, spare hours and feeling oppressed by the weeds that I can only chase back every few weeks…