Meagre Bread

Our common food is no longer our daily bread, apparently; I’m not sure whether we should be alarmed by this. It depends who they’re polling, I suppose. Personally, I eat bread all the time. I eat it when I should, nibbling on the impeccable bread selection which precedes the stately procession of the tasting menu at The Sportsman; I eat it when I shouldn’t, using a stale end to transfer the last smears of carbonara sauce into an already full stomach. When I need food, I eat bread. Nothing calms the stomach like a cheese-and-cucumber sandwich from the petrol station shop. Now it seems this puts me in a minority. As I said, though, it depends who they’re polling.

It could be pernicious clean-eaters eschewing bread for its gluten; it could be people getting all their carbs from elsewhere, from porridges and pastas and potatoes; it could even be those so in love with bread they buy one impeccable loaf a week, and save it for their Sunday. Good bread – real bread, or as it used to be called, ‘bread’ – is expensive, as it should be. Good ingredients are expensive, good labour is expensive, time is expensive. If good food is out of the reach of many, then there are many other things which should be changed, rather than degrading the staff (and indeed the stuff) of life to the point where it barely nourishes. Nearly half of everything baked in the UK is thrown away, for example, a shocking waste which would be considered a crime in other cultures.

Bread in Islam is considered a symbolic food, a synecdochic representation of all nourishment as it comes from God, as it is also, I suppose, in Christianity (our daily bread being hopefully not just bread); they tend to take this more seriously, though. Walk old streets in Morocco and you will see stray khobz stuffed between buildings and in cracks in walls, saved from the street and awaiting charitable redistribution; like the feet of angels, it can not touch the base earth. More prosaically, Istanbul, for all its problems, feeds its populace from subsidised and strictly regulated bakeries, as London used to do. Buy bread from anywhere in the city and it will match in price and quality. The responsibility of government to ensure the poor do not starve has been steadily shrugged off in the so-called developed world.

Even with good flour, bread doesn’t cost that much to make, if you make it yourself, but it is hard, and it takes a long time, which is why we’ve always got bakers to do it, a strange group of people who scuttle about at all hours, covered in flour and little bits of dough. I like making bread, but I lack the skill and the patience to do it every day. I certainly can’t make as much as I like to eat, at least when it comes to sourdough. This sort-of focaccia is a good alternative when I want something fresh-baked, though. The initial rise is so accelerated it seems you’re watching it in time-lapse, and it tastes good, too.

CHICKPEA BREAD

1 tin of chickpeas

1 tsp honey

160g cold water

1 packet dry yeast / 15g fresh

260g strong white flour

14g salt

15g extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp caraway or cumin seeds

 

Empty the tin of chickpeas into a saucepan and bring to a boil, then blitz smooth with the honey and cold water. Let it cool to blood temperature, then blitz in the yeast. Tip the whole mush into a bowl.

Pour the flour over in a layer, then sprinkle over the salt, drizzle over the oil, and, I don’t know, throw in the spices. Leave in a warm place. In about 20 minutes it should have risen significantly; there will be deep cracks in the flour layer with chickpea porridge bursting through.

Beat everything together with a wooden spoon, and use this same implement to knead it – it’s too sticky to do by hand. Just use the spoon to drag up one side of the mix and fold it back down into the middle, a few times until it starts to resist and feel alive. Put the dough in a greased skillet or baking tray to prove for an hour. Heat the oven as high as it’ll go.

When the hour is up, bake the loaf for half an hour, turning and perhaps drizzling with more oil halfway through; it won’t rise a huge amount in the oven, but it will be soft and springy and golden, and, of course, sound hollow when you tap the bottom. Let it cool for 5 minutes before tucking in, for appearance’s sake.

Humblebrag

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It seems to have become the thing, when receiving an award, achieving some ambition long-worked-for or completely out of the blue, to declare yourself ‘humbled’. I’m not really sure what this means. I am humbled by the sublime majesty of the Adirondack peaks, the wild Atlantic, or the North Norfolk coast; I am humbled when I eat the food, say, of James Lowe or Stephen Harris, or read W.G Sebald or MFK Fisher, and realize I may never work with such simple grace. When, on the other hand, the restaurant at which I work is named the 80th best in the UK in a prestigious and well-respected list, I am far from bloody humbled. Why should I be? I am QUANTIFIABLY better than you – or at least most of you. I don’t know why it’s not considered acceptable to instead declare yourself ‘distended with drunken pride’, but there it is; etiquette, I suppose.

Another thing about which I find myself decidedly un-humble is that I have finally, two years after seriously starting, succeeded in making sourdough bread good enough – with that crust which crackles just-so as you squeeze it – to sell in the restaurant. Two years is just about as long as I’ve ever worked at anything (well, apart from my degree, but I’m not sure I count reading Jack London as work; he certainly wouldn’t have), so I consider this a justified result for my effort, which consisted largely of doing the same thing over and over again until I got good at it – the final step missing from all pastry and bread recipes – as well, of course, as stealing advice and techniques from whoever I could, including monks, Prussian princes, long-dead writers, and, on occasion, bakers.

As the adoption of these techniques, and the various pieces of equipment they require, which demands a certain amount of time, money, and practical experience, would form the bulk of any recipe, it would be largely pointless for me to write one down here; the only changes I have made from my last bread post, anyway, have been to adapt the flours, to add a secret improver, to alter the constituents of the starter, to make a wetter dough, and to change the equipment and therefore the process I use in almost every respect, so you might as well just follow that one.

I think, anyway, that it does’t much matter which recipe you follow. The important thing is to stick to one, and to stubbornly follow it again and again until the bread which comes out of the oven is perfect in every respect. Feel humble if you like, but it makes me feel alive.

Act Natural

I’ve been reading a lot about natural wines recently. This style, as distinct from organic winemaking, which bars chemical intervention in the vineyard, requires a more or less additive-free approach to the brewing process itself, barring added yeasts, sugars, and various other chemicals and techniques which have become standard in the industrial wine trade. While I wouldn’t call myself a fanatical convert – for one thing, I’ve barely tried any natural wines – it’s certainly been interesting to learn about the various practices which are allowed, and frequently used, in even very high-end wine making.

The wine industry, more, perhaps, than any other part of the food industry, is a large, efficient, modernised engine which still masquerades as small-scale, artisanal, somehow, in essence, natural. Much is made of terroir, of vintages, of the vast differences which aspect and soil and wind make to each bottle; but when yeast can be added to practically guarantee a certain body and mouthfeel, when wine can be physically ripped into its component parts to correct levels of sugar, water, alcohol, how much can terroir matter? The various DOP groups exist more to guarantee a certain quality and adherence to a sort of imagined local style than to actually ensure local individualism.

The real triumph, in fact, of modern winemaking – as with industrially brewed beer – has been the slow annihilation of variance from the norm, the sad reliance on weather and air – in other words, quality control. Even bad wines, now, aren’t really bad. They might be bad for you – the high levels of sulphites allowed in industrial wine can cause health problems – and they are certainly bad for the environment, especially in France, where their natural tendency to shoot or poison anything that moves is given free rein in vineyards; then again, they never claim not to be. The assumed ‘natural’ component of winemaking is much more nebulous than that.

Part of the current ‘clean’ ‘natural’ eating movement is a railing against processed foods, which is patently ridiculous. Nearly everything which ensures the continued existence of our species is processed in some way. As yer man (citation needed) found when he tried to live like a chimpanzee, we simply aren’t good enough at chewing to live off raw foods; without cooking and further processing, we would die. Bread, for example, is heavily processed, the base ingredient dried, ground, fermented, and held at various temperatures before consumption; because of this, it is pretty much a complete food, the staff of life, rightly holy to various cultures. The problem with industrially-produced bread is not that it has been processed, but that it has been processed very badly, with little reference to taste or nutrition.

The same could be said of wine, of cured meats, of cheese and of pickles. All of them have undergone a heavy process of industrialisation, resulting in a product which is much worse for you than it should be; but I don’t think that necessarily means the idea of industrialisation is bad. Cheaper, larger scale food production can only be a good thing, right? Maybe not. Maybe it’s inevitable that industrialisation throws out the good parts, the ferment, the yeast, the bacteria; perhaps, though, the success of natural winemakers, of raw-milk cheesemakers, who combine traditional techniques with a scientific understanding entirely born of industrial food processing, points a way for today’s artisans to feed us all.

A New Lump

Where does yeast come from, asks Elizabeth David in her quietly impressive work on bread and yeasted baking, out of the everything? Yes, is the simple answer. Wild yeasts float and permeate and surround us, settling and breeding where they find food, moisture and the conditions of their tiny lives; the act of collecting, taming and cultivating them to serve the specific purposes of man has been the work of millennia. In Middle English yeast was known as goddisgoode, God-Is-Good, because of the mysterious ways in which it works its benefits to mankind; until quite recently, we hadn’t got much further in understanding it. Now, of course, every kitchen and artisan bakery has their own culture of wild yeasts, among other entities, in the form of a sourdough starter or mother; more precisely, this is known as a SCOBY, a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, to include the lactobacillus whose fermentation provides the sour part of the equation. The balance between these two factors, maintained and controlled by careful feeding, regulation of temperature, and culling of the livelier elements, is what gives each sourdough starter, also called a ferment or leaven, its particular character. It is undeniable that sourdough yeast provides a crust and flavour quite unlike, and in many ways far superior to, that created by commercial yeast, and the rhetoric (there is always a lot of rhetoric) around sourdough bakeries is that of proper, traditional, real, old-fashioned and true baking – the implication being that immediately prior to the invention of sliced bread in 1928, every village and street-corner bakery, every farmhouse and country home, had their own carefully nurtured sourdough culture; naturally, the facts are more complicated.

Time and again the emphasis in David’s narrative is on the avoidance of sourness and excessive fermentation; rather than keeping their bacteria alive, the protagonists, from ancient Egypt to modern Britain, discard excess starter, keeping perhaps a little dough aside for the next batch. Sometimes, though, they start afresh each time. The story of bread-making, in tandem with the rest of human progress, is thus not that of preserving wildness but of the steady elimination of the wildest aspects of it to leave only what is useful. Strange, half-live leaven was Biblically associated with corruption, both bodily and moral (see, for example, I Corinthians 5), and therefore looked on with, at best, suspicion, particularly in Protestant countries; that weird yeasty funk was filled with sourness, rot, taint, the creeping horror of the natural – was filled with the devil. I AM LEGION – WE ARE MANY could be the haunting scream of a teeming sourdough culture, invisible yeast and bacillus working as one. The good bakers of old England took no chances, and got their yeast from the breweries, while those households which continued to use home-made yeast did so despite rather than because of its sourness, which was kept in check but accepted as a fair price for the superior depth of flavour and texture achieved. Even this limited and somewhat hidden tradition had died out by the time David came to write her history; she describes home-made barms (only very occasionally does she use the now-ubiquitous term sourdough, and then to describe an inferior, rustic bread) as one of those lost tastes, alongside perhaps sylphium and dodo, flavours lost to the march of progress. In her businesslike fashion, she wastes no time mourning this apparent total break in the thread of tradition – admirable, perhaps, but she does consequently miss the fact that the tradition was alive and well elsewhere. Our artisan bread bakers of today take their cues not from the narrow field of the English farmhouse kitchen, but from the cuisines of Poland, Germany, of France and Italy and particularly America, which has refracted all of these into its own traditions. Things survive in immigrant cultures long after progress or turmoil have destroyed them at home, kept alive if only by force of nostalgia, and sourdough (I assume the word came to us from America) soon found its own niche, with an amenable ecosystem (the most common lactobacillus is named after its home city of San Francisco) and suitable attendant mythology. The Alaskan gold prospectors kept pouches of wild yeast round their necks through the long grey marches, a portable miracle-worker to help them eke more sustenance out of their long-stashed dry stores; old hands of more than a season were known as sourdoughs.

Although it’s been a long time, for most of us, since we had to rest so heavily on the staff of life, we still make bread do much of the symbolic work of food. Our daily bread, our bread and butter, the bread of heaven – its ubiquity was such that it could readily be used as a synecdoche for all sustenance, which is still how it is largely understood in much of the Islamic world. Wasting bread is a sin to many Muslims, and if a loaf is dropped you might see it retrieved, kissed and blessed, before being stashed in a nearby nook in case it should be needed; as is likely, given that quantities of bread are consumed at every meal, as they are also across the Mediterranean and most of Europe with the odd exception of Britain, which, as already noted, lacks what we might call a real baking tradition. It’s strange that the current generation of bakers, who really are doing something quite new in trying to raise the average quality of sustenance by such a degree, should so insistently define their work as old-fashioned or traditional. Like the Taoist acolytes who muddied the waters of history by ascribing all their insights to Lao Tzu, they hide real ability under the bushel of tradition; which is odd, when on the other side of the scale, you see countless food bloggers, writers and broadcasters continually talking about my this and their twist on that, constantly boasting originality – or perhaps it isn’t odd, but it is nevertheless a fact. If you consider what you do a craft, and if you look back into its long history as a craftsperson should, then everything you make will always be new and different, because it will always be imperfect; and it will always be the same, because it is all a part of the same process which started thousands of years ago. Each object, each meal or figure or painting or sentence, is only the local expression of that process, and as such is under constant threat of alteration, always a work in progress; that, anyway, is my view. I couldn’t tell you what bakers think.

Give Us This Day

I mentioned last month that I had been getting into baking, particularly sourdough baking, with the qualification that I was pretty new to the whole game – I didn’t, then, feel qualified to offer up any kind of recipe, as all I’d been doing was following other people’s. Well, I’ve made quite a bit of bread since then, with varying degrees of success, and have hit upon a method which seems to work for me. I am in no way claiming this as ‘my’ recipe – I have strong feelings about that sort of claim – but rather a set of minor variations and techniques, suited to my own particular cirmcumstances. It is basically the (handmade, home-baking) techniques of Dan Lepard applied to the (professional standard) recipe of Justin Gellatly.

A few disclaimers – yes, you will need your own sourdough starter, and no, I am not going to tell you how to make it; it is time-consuming, but easy, and you can find a recipe online. Once you’ve done that, the bread still takes two days to make, and probably doesn’t work out much cheaper (certainly not if you value your time) than buying it. That’s not really the point, though. It is deeply satisfying, and freshly-baked sourdough is incredibly delicious. With all that in mind, I find it odd how many baking recipes insist on electric mixers, proving baskets, and so forth – the whole thing’s intimidating enough as it is. Other than the starter, this recipe requires nothing more specialist than your hands and some bowls.

I know all the resting seems like a pain in the arse, but it does make everything much easier. This is a recipe for a lazy, pottering day at home.

 

SOURDOUGH

400g strong white flour

50g strong brown flour

50g rye flour (this mix, as used by Gellatly, gives a great taste, and a satisfying, workable texture to the dough.)

200g sourdough starter

2 big, multi-fingered pinches of salt

300ml water

a little sprinkle of polenta

a splash of oil

extra flour of some kind, for sprinkling

In a bowl, mix together the flours, starter, and water, then stir in the salt until well combined. Oil your work surface; oil your hands, and with them, oil the surface of the dough, which will be quite wet. Turn it out onto the oiled surface, and knead briefly, in ten fluid movements. Oil the bowl and scrape the dough back in. Leave it to rest for ten minutes. Repeat this knead and rest twice more. It should now be fairly pliable and dry.

Now wash, dry and flour your work surface; turn the dough out onto it, lightly flour, then pat out into a rectangle. Fold the top third of this towards you, and the bottom third over that, like a letter. Do the same lengthways, left-hand third over, and right-hand third over that. Flip over, onto the fold, dust with flour, and cover. Leave for an hour. Repeat this for the next three hours.

This process, tedious as it may seem, it what starts the process of fermentation and rising in your loaf. Don’t try to rush it, don’t try and kick-start it by putting it somewhere warm. Sourdough yeast is not the same as commercial yeast, and won’t be hurried along. At the end of the three hours, take a sharp knife and make a deep slash in the unfolded side of the dough – you should see lots of little bubbles within it, like a Wispa. If not, leave for half an hour or so and try again.

When happy with the bubbles, roll your dough into a nice tight ball. Heavily flour a tea towel, then use it to line a nice deep bowl, a bit bigger than the dough. This is your proving basket. Place the ball of dough in it, fold over the rest of the tea towel, and put in the fridge overnight. Yes, overnight. I told you it won’t be rushed.

Next morning, take it out of the fridge, reshape into a ball, and put back in the bowl. Leave at room temperature until roughly doubled in size. This will take at least 3-4 hours, but at least you can get on with something else now. When you’re sure it’s ready (I can never remember how big the damn thing was in the first place; I had to start measuring it against the bowl), preheat the oven to Gas 7/220C/425F. Hot, basically. Sprinkle a tray with polenta, turn the loaf out onto it, and neatly slash the top in a circle or square. THIS IS NOT JUST FOR DECORATION. It will rise weirdly, and won’t have that distinct, chewy crust, if you forget to slash it. Use a good, sharp knife, and cut like you mean it.

Open the oven, put in the tray, and splash or spray a little water on the oven floor, closing the door immediately. This, again, is for the crust. Bake for half an hour, then take off the tray, put directly on the oven shelf, and bake for ten minutes more. Turn it down a little if it’s colouring too much. Tap the bottom of the loaf; if it sounds hollow, it’s ready. Cool at least slightly on a rack before devouring.

Sour Soup

The thing about being a chef is never having any free time. A normal working day is at least 13 hours long, not including the necessary wind down into drunkenness after a busy service; days off are spent either catching up on normal life (shopping, laundry, friendships) or else in full recovery mode. This is tolerated because of the mix of monomania and bloody-minded machismo that fuels most kitchens. The majority of chefs are either totally obsessed with food, to the exclusion of all other interests, or else in love with the camaraderie that comes from working long hours in close proximity, masochistically driven to work harder, longer, better. Or both.

 

The problem, for me, was that working full time in a kitchen didn’t give me the chance to indulge my love of food. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it – I contributed to the menu, and had carte blanche when it came to specials, so it’s not like I was ‘creatively stifled’- but the pace and demands of a busy kitchen meant I had no time to try longer projects. I was getting more interested in older, slower processes, in pickling and fermentation and salting and curing, and there was no way I could do that. I couldn’t start making something that would be ready in 5 days, a week, 2 months – it was busy now!

 

Unsurprisingly, then, when I quit to concentrate on freelance catering and popups, I got into preserving straight away. I’ve written before about pickling, and I’ve done a fair bit of smoking and salting, but the most satisfying thing for me has been cultivating a sourdough mother. I’ve always wanted to do this since reading about the psychotic baker Adam in Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential,(“Feed the bitch! Feed the bitch or she’ll die!”) and even more since reading the St John and Justin Gellatly cookbooks, but it always seemed too complicated and time-consuming. Well, I’ve got loads of time now, and it turns out to be not that complicated at all. You just have to treat it like a little pet.

 

I’m not going to go through the actual process of creating the mother – I just followed Gellatly’s recipe, swapping grapes for the rhubarb and adding a little live yoghurt – nor give any recipes for bread, as I can’t pretend to be anything other than an enthusiastic amateur. I will, however, give you an answer to the question “what else can I do with this weird pet bacterial culture?” It’s a good question. It takes quite a lot of motivation and time to make sourdough every day. You can leave your mother in the fridge to go dormant, but that seems a little dull. Luckily, a Pole of my acquaintance pointed me in the direction of this rather odd soup.

 

ZUREK (SOUR RYE SOUP)

This is weird, and needs judicious seasoning. If you like the tangy taste of rye bread, though, this is delicious, warm and filling. Serves four.

You’ll need to feed your starter some rye flour the day before.

VEGETABLE BROTH

2 onions, diced

2 sticks of celery, sliced

2 carrots, quartered

2 cloves of garlic, peeled

a few juniper berries

a few peppercorns

a few bay leaves

Put everything in a pan, and cover with water (a litre or thereabouts). Bring to the boil, and simmer for about an hour. Strain and discard the vegetables, which have done their job.

SOUP

About 150g sourdough starter

the broth

2 tbpsn of chopped fresh marjoram or oregano, or 1 of dried

A big dollop of sour cream

extras

Just whisk the starter into the broth while heating gently, until it comes to a nice simmer. Leave it for about 5 minutes, then add the herbs and your extras. This being Polish food, these should definitely include some sausage – raw smoked sausage, sliced and then boiled in the soup, ideally, although I used Mattessons smoked sausage (sorry, all Poles) – and maybe some bacon too. Any sort of cured pig, in fact, would be good, a savoury hit to counteract the sourness. Hard-boiled eggs and diced boiled potatoes are usual, I think, although the soup is already quite heavy. Greens, cabbage, some parsley, whatever. When you’re done, stir in the sour cream, heat, but DON’T BOIL AGAIN. It’ll split. Season well with salt and plenty of pepper. Serve with beer, pickles, and rye bread.