A change of tack

•December 2, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I consulted Tom, an experienced baking friend, about my rye sourdough woes. Tom makes a dense and well-flavoured rye bread with a starter he has nurtured for years. He said that perhaps it was my oven – an electric fan oven – that was causing the problems, in which case there might not be much I could do about it.

We discussed putting a pan of hot water in the bottom of the oven to keep the humidity up, and to stop the crust becoming too tough, but Tom was at a loss to explain the way the crumb sank and separated from the crust. It’s obviously never happened to him!

Tom’s practical suggestion was to try a wheat sourdough, as at least the gluten in the flour would overcome the rising problem. As for Andrew Whitley’s suggestion that rye sourdough was easier than wheat… not in Tom’s experience. So it looks like I will have to roll up my sleeves and get kneading.


Designer Organics

•November 24, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I read a depressing but unsurprising little story in this morning’s paper: people are responding to the impending recession but cutting back on purchases of organic food. Organic food sales are slowing if not falling. Organic food is more expensive than ‘ordinary food’ and people are trying to save money where they can.

It was only a stub of a story, so it didn’t begin to address the price differential the supermarkets charge for ‘organic’ branded goods (some goods which are in fact organic, but not branded as such, are the same price as their non-organic competition).

The article went on to quote some ‘expert’ who said (I paraphrase somewhat) that when times got tough, people adjusted their priorities and that organic food was a fashion statement many people could no longer afford. Besides, the expert added, ‘people now have so many different ways to shop ethically: not just organic, but also fair trade and locally grown’.

Are these principles no more than brands, like Tesco’s ‘Finest’ or Sainsbury’s ‘Taste the Difference’? People are trading down their £10 organic chickens for £3 factory-farmed fowl as if the £7 difference were just the cuddly image.

It’s understandable behaviour if you have been shopping at the ridiculously expensive Borough Market or some of the other farmers’ markets and up-market ‘organic retailers’ in London. Three quid for four decidedly average tomatoes. A 500g bag of ‘hand-made’ muesli for £7! Hand-made? Is there any other kind?

This is the ‘M&S Food’ syndrome at its worst.

An enterprising villager did a bit of research at our local farmers’ market and showed that you can buy food that is locally produced, organic and fairly traded for less than ‘ordinary’ food at the supermarket. My friends who come down to visit are always surprised at how much cheaper the fruit and vegetables are at the farm shop than at their local supermarket.

Perhaps now people are feeling a little poorer, they will look a little more closely at what they are getting for their money. The organic retailers may need a different strategy now the Emperor can’t afford his new clothes.

* * *

P.S. My review of the shelves of my local Co-Op indicates that both the tastiest and the cheapest muesli on the shelves, gram for gram, is the Dorset Cereals range, even though it’s organic (I think) and definitely marketed at the Waitrosey fashionista. It’s a bit rich in fruit and nuts for me, so I eke it out with an extra third again of oats (which makes it cheaper still – although not as cheap as a bowl of hot porridge).

Summer’s lease hath all too short a date

•October 26, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Something to cheer me up on a day of endless drizzle.  We have had a beautiful Indian Summer – and after such a beastly English summer, it was only fair.  Last weekend I had a long walk in October sunshine and watched a stunning sunset just as I came over the brow of the last hill on the way home.

I trimmed the hawthorn hedge in full sun and strong winds yesterday, and earned my fireside aperitif chasing the trimmings as they blew down the path.  But the wind has brought the rain; and to add to the general gloom, we’re back to GMT today so it will be dark in little over an hour.

I therefore make no apologies for this gratuitous strawberry shot.

gratuitious strawberry photo

Sutoroberis, as they say in Japan.

Lambs, logs and goats

•October 22, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Three local ventures have been exciting me this month.

The first is the local community farm, which is about to start selling its first lambs. I went along to a Saturday morning working party in the spring to help erect fencing for the arrival of the ewes, but I’ve been too stupidly busy over the summer to be able to go back again (or even to update this blog). Things are similarly hopeless until December, but I do plan to go back and help again. Honest.

The second is the delivery of several large sacks of firewood (ash logs, chopped, split and ready to burn) which the community farm are harvesting and selling as part of their clearance and conservation work. So together with all the kindling I cut this spring from the garden (lilac, hazel and hawthorn) my wood stove is stocked up for the winter. I’ve stacked it all under a tarpaulin outside. Ash is the so-called king of firewood and can be burned green, although this stuff was probably cut in the spring and looks pretty dry already.

Finally, a little advert went up in the local newsagent’s window for goats. A couple nearby has two herds of goats, in this village and in a neighbouring parish, and they are now offering goat meat for sale. I remembered the fabulous Jamaican goat curry I had when I was a student, and my sister the goat stews she enjoyed on holiday in Guadeloupe, so together with some local friends we may put in an order for a whole one. I wonder if they make goats’ milk cheese too?

No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

•October 13, 2008 • 2 Comments

I thought I’d cracked it with this loaf. Texturally, it was closer to pumpernickel than a raised bread, but at least the crust stayed attached to the crumb!

However, it was a false dawn. Subsequent efforts failed in the same way as before.

I could go round in Beckett-like circles if I persist…


•October 10, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I was at the farm shop last weekend, stocking up for a big batch of vegetable stew to serve me for the coming week. Most of the shop’s weekend staff are teenagers, local kids doing it for pocket money. They are unfailingly polite and helpful, including the new girl that served me this weekend. However, she had to ask me what some of my vegetables were – she failed to recognise spinach and celeriac and I felt like asking her whether she ate vegetables at home.

Frozen spinach is convenient and it looks much darker than the bright green of fresh spinach leaves. So confusing it with chard, say, is not hard to imagine. But celeriac is such an odd looking thing that surely it’s unmistakable. Maybe I was lucky enough to have been introduced to it early – and that my mother adores it (even if my father is indisposed to root vegetables generally).

I use celeriac often – it gives a lift to roasted parsnips and carrots, which I sometimes find too sweet on their own, and it lightens mashed potato. In summer a rémoulade de céleri is a treat. In winter, however, I recommend celeriac and porcini mushroom soup (the recipe is in the New Covent Garden Soup Company’s Soup and Beyond). It’s both hearty in flavour and easy on the waist…

Little by little

•October 8, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I’ve changed my rye flour source, in the hope of resolving the problems I was having with my sourdough loaves, which would come out of the oven with a big hollow between the thick crust and the sunken, compressed layer of dough. The new source is organic Wight Rye (from the Isle of Wight). I think it’s still stone-ground, but if so it looks more finely milled than the last batch.

The new flour seems to absorb much less water. I used the same quantities and found that the final dough was extremely slack – it was quite a job to scoop it up in my hands from mixing bowl to baking tin. It looked much smoother too – more like tahina than hummus.

I was fairly cautious on the proving times. It was a warm day and temperatures in the conservatory were in the mid 20’Cs. I left the production sourdough (about half the final quantity) for about 6 hours, at the end of which it was pretty frothy, and then let the loaf rise in the tin for barely two hours, after which it had risen by about a third.

The loaf came out of the oven with a crust which was much smoother, almost shiny on the underside, and slightly paler. I was excited to see that the crust had risen in the oven, rather than remaining horizontal as the previous loaves had done. The crust was starting to split along the sides and ends of the loaf.

However, on cutting it open, the improvement was only slight – there was still the hollow between crust and crumb. I am taking a little encouragement, as the crumb had risen a little too, and the hollow was smaller than before.

I’m a bit confused as to what exactly the problem is. The troubleshooting guide says that the splitting along the top is due to insufficient proof, but that the sinking dough is due to the rye starter having fermented too much!