Mr Yeast

I call Dad ‘Mr Yeast’. As well as bread, he makes bitter, stout, and wine (elderberry and elderflower). I grew up looking forward to the sweet-sour malty smell which would seep up the stairs once or twice a year, as Dad stood over a huge pan in the kitchen stirring his Boots bitter-making kit mix, the sugar crunching away as his spoon circled slowly round the bottom of the pan. I assume it was sugar. He used to make a little stout, mainly for Mum (who drinks it in thimblefuls), but I think he’s finally given up, as she clearly prefers Guinness.

I wouldn’t have you think we are a family of alcoholics – it’s purely medicinal, you understand. Apparently elderberries have five times the level of anthocyanins of blueberries (the latest superfood). So I blame Dad’s druidic Welsh forebears.

Dad’s elderberry wine is an inky and alcoholic red, markedly sweet and gently tannic, which keeps very well. A real teeth-stainer. I don’t know if he’s ever measured the alcohol level. If he has, I’m not sure I want to know the result. The 1991 vintage was legendary – elderberry, blackberry and damson, if I remember – and approaching a ruby port in intensity. We laid it down for special occasions but I think the last bottles have been drunk now. Pity – it would probably still be drinking well. Some years aren’t so good: it depends on the weather. If it’s a bit too sharp, he doctors it with just a drop or two of neat Ribena.

Dad makes less elderflower wine, as Mum doesn’t like white (a fact the rest of us deplore until there is a bottle of champagne to be shared). In truth the elderflower wine is usually a bit sharp, but it makes an excellent and refreshing spritzer, perfect on a summer evening. Or it can be dosed with a drop of elderflower cordial to knock off the rough edges (he used to make cordial too, occasionally). Perhaps it’s worth trying as a kir – the French solution to inferior dry white wine! Sometimes it’s slightly petillantkir royale, alors!  His white is less successful than his red, which is eminently drinkable, albeit quite sweet.

Dad uses a small amount of ‘grape kit’ as a base, so there’s a residual ‘grape’ fruit which prevents the elderberry in particular from being horribly acid, inky but without body. He used to produce several cases of wine a year. Now he’s in his late seventies he has scaled down his production but is still producing.

This slowdown has pleased Mum, as it has reduced the amount of storage space in the house given over to kegs, barrels, bottles, crates and demi-johns with their air-locks gurgling companionable little burps of carbon dioxide. I remember the sound – usually on a hot late-summer evening – of a plastic cork or cap popping out in the garage, and Dad disappearing to hunt down the fugitive stopper. There was a lot of yeast gently working away in one part of the house or another …one was never quite alone.

Mum gets peeved – quite unreasonably, when you consider she drinks her fair share of the stuff – when Dad takes over the whole kitchen for racking. I was always fascinated with this process. It was as close as our arty family got to home science experiments. One barrel full of fermenting fruit was up on the kitchen table, and an empty one was on the floor. A siphon with a glass umbrella-hooked tube resting on the bottom of the upper barrel was connected to a clear plastic tube which trailed over the barrel’s side and down into the lower barrel, the tube ending with a little tap at its lower end. Dad had to suck hard on the siphon to get the liquid to start coming from the top barrel, without getting a mouthful of what at that point was rather sour red juice. He didn’t appreciate being interrupted at this point, especially as his eyesight is poor and it was hard for him to see when the wine was finally on its way down the pipe (this was invariably when Mum would come in).

After he retired, Dad made bread by hand for several years, until Mum bought him a bread-making machine. I’m not sure to this day whether this present was given out of concern for his frozen shoulder or for the feebly-constructed kitchen table, on which he used to pummel and pound the dough twice a week. Either way, Mum reclaimed her kitchen.

The machine loaves are lighter and more consistent. They consistently have a hole in the bottom where the dough hook goes. I am nostalgic for his hand-made loaves. They were slightly denser, and I think they tasted better. Perhaps that’s nostalgia.

I sometimes detect a slightly diminished sense of pride in his handiwork, but he nobly refuses to feel emasculated by the machine.

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~ by jobes on March 25, 2008.

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