Vital wheat gluten and sticky cinnamon rolls

Of the many food fads that have come and gone in my lifetime, one that particularly bemused me is when people took against gluten. Obviously I’m a baker and love bread, so I love gluten and what is does for us. What riled me was the sense that many people didn’t even know what gluten was. What is gluten? It’s protein. Or more specifically, two proteins: gliadins and glutenins. How bad is wheat protein?

If you have coeliac disease*, your body cannot handle gluten, so obviously it needs to be avoided, but for most of the rest of the population, it represents the protein component of bread, the staff of life. Derived (usually) from wheat grain it’s what gives bread its structure, while the main part of the grain, the starch, the carbohydrates, provide the bulk, the energy.

When I first encountered seitan in health food shops in Rome, it was around the time the anti-gluten fad was at its height. Seitan is another high-protein meat-alternative alongside the soy bean-based tofu and tempeh, but is made from wheat – specifically wheat that has been processed to remove the starch, leaving mostly the gluten. In its dried, powdered form, this is called vital wheat gluten.

Although I’ve eaten a fair amount of seitan, somehow I’ve managed to miss baking with vital wheat gluten. With another lockdown in England now, and the schools closed again, we need treats to get us through, especially as this lockdown comes at the hardest time of year – the dank, grey months after Christmas. So I wanted to make some cinnamon rolls.

The recipe is from the 1993 baking classic The Bread Book by Linda Collister and Anthony Blake. They got it from a Kansas champion baker called Viola Unruh and it includes an optional tablespoon and a half of vital wheat gluten. Intrigued, I bought some online, something that wasn’t really an option back in 1993. I’m glad I did. I work with a lot of different doughs, and working this it didn’t feel particularly different to other relatively low hydration, enriched doughs. But the resulting buns had a chewy, moist crumb, not at all crumbly, indeed like the sort of crumb achieved by professional bakers in commercial products.

I plan to experiment with vital wheat gluten more: I’ve just used some in my standard, feed-the-family bread and it seems moister, and I plan to add a tablespoon next time I do brioche. In the meantime, here’s the sticky cinnamon rolls recipe. I’ve revised it slightly, ie standardising all weights in grams and adapting the method slightly. What I haven’t changed is the addition of a cream/muscovado sugar mixture to the tin when you’ve nearly finished baking to add a totally over-the-top sticky sauce to the finished bun. Oh boy. A long way from healthy.

Makes 15 buns

7g active dried yeast or 15g fresh yeast**
115g water, warm
5g caster sugar
4g fine sea salt
50g unsalted butter, diced
50g caster sugar
280g water, hot (around 65C)
680g strong white bread flour
15g vital wheat gluten
1 egg, beaten, around 45g

Filling
85g unsalted butter, softened
85g muscovado sugar – light or dark. I used a mix
12g cinnamon, or to taste

Caramel topping
200g muscovado sugar. I used light muscovado
115g double cream

1. Grease a roasting tin, around 30 x 22cm, and line with parchment. You’ll also need a lightly greased baking sheet, preferably one without a lip.
2. Activate the yeast by adding to the 115g water with the 5g of caster sugar. Leave to froth up.
3. Put the 50g of diced butter, 50g of caster sugar and 4g salt in a mixing bowl, or the bowl of a mixer if you’re using one. Pour over the 280g of hot water and stir, until the butter has melted.
4. Add 230g of the flour to the mixing bowl along with the vital wheat gluten and beat to combine.
5. Add the yeast mix and beaten egg and beat to combine.
6. Cover and rest for 10 minutes.
7. Add the remaining 550g of flour and bring to a dough, either in a mixer or by hand. As it’s fairly low hydration, you’ll achieve a fairly manageable soft, smooth dough that’s not particularly sticky.
8. Grease a clean mixing bowl, put the dough in and leave to rest. After about an hour, give it a stretch and fold.
9. Cover again and leave to prove. After about an hour, give it another stretch and fold.
10. Cover again then leave to prove until doubled in size.
11. Meanwhile, make the filling by creaming together the 85g of softened butter, with the 85g of muscovado sugar and the cinnamon.
12. Turn out the dough and stretch it into a rectangle, using a rolling pin if you prefer, about 35x50cm.


13. Spread the cinnamon filling over the dough rectangle, then roll it up from the long side.
14. Measure the length of your sausage (fnar) and divide it into 15. Mine came to 15 slices at about 6m each. Cut these pieces.


15. Put the slices, in a 3×5 grid, in the prepared roasting tin.
16. Cover and leave for a final prove, until doubled in size. This will depend on the temperature, but should take around an hour or so.


17. Preheat your oven to 180C.
18. Put the rolls in the oven and bake for around 30 minutes.
19. Meanwhile, make the caramel topping by mixing the cream and muscovado.

20. When the rolls are baked and a nice golden brown, take them out of the oven and turn them out (and over) onto the lightly greased baking sheet.
21. Pour the caramel into the roasting tin, then return the rolls to it –with the tops on the bottom so they’re sitting in the caramel.
22. Bake for another 10 minutes.
23. Allow the rolls to cool for a few minutes, then remove from the roasting tin and allow to cool.

24. To serve, pull them apart and have a cloth ready to wipe any messy children. They’re lovely warm, but also last well as they’re so rich and slathered with sugar and dairy.

So good. So badly photographed….

* Or significant gluten sensitivity health issues.
** If you can source it in sensible quantities. I prefer using fresh, and used to be able to get it – lievito di birra – in small blocks in supermarkets in Italy. It’s not sold in convenient small blocks in British supermarkets. It’s not sold in Britain supermarkets at all, or at least not in my experience. I used to get it from a health food shop, but they do it in bigger lumps now and I don’t like to waste it. So I’ve resorted to active dried yeast (ADY) again. I talk about yeast types here.

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Frustingolo Italian Christmas cake

This Christmas cake is specifically from the Marche region of eastern central Italy. It’s similar to those other dense, nutty, fruity Italian Christmas cakes – panforte from Siena, which is probably the best known, and pangiallo from Rome, which I got to know while living there. All of them are of a very ancient form – no chemical raising agents, no fancy sugar craft. Indeed, the very first cakes humanity concocted would have been of a similar format – dense discs that combined dried fruits, nuts and honey for sweetening. I called them “primitive cakes” in my post about pangiallo.

If panforte means “strong bread” and pangiallo means “yellow bread”, I’m not too sure what frustingolo means. The verb frustare means to whip or to lash, or, less violently and more related to cooking, to whisk. As it’s a very dense mixture, you don’t whisk it though, you laboriously turn it with a wooden spoon or silicon spatula. My old friend, Italian teacher and philologist Giammarco suggests the cake’s name instead derives from the adjective frusto, meaning well used or worn out, but also used to mean un pezzetto, a little piece.* So I suppose in the sense of little pieces of nuts and fruit.

Anyway. I saw a recipe first in a cookbook by Anna del Conte but hunting around for more I found more Italian recipes online, which included chocolate. I love chocolate. I’m not the biggest fan of Christmas fruit cakes, so adding chocolate was surely essential.

I give some procedural method, but frankly it’s just a case of adding everything and mixing well. You may be able to see in the pics I included some pecans – I didn’t have quite enough walnuts, and pecans are more of a treat anyway. It’s not a strict recipe. You can adjust the spices or ground coffee if you wish, and use other nuts or fruit depending on what’s in your store cupboard. You can also include a shot of brown spirits if you like. There’s a certain amount of QB here – an Italian recipe term meaning quanto basta, “how much is enough” or “just enough” or “as required”, ie just adding until the mix feels right.

300g dried figs
100g raisins
150g blanched almonds
150g walnuts
100g breadcrumbs (dried)
50g pine nuts**
60g dark chocolate, ideally 80% plus cocoa solids
Zest of 1 orange and 1 lemon
125g wholemeal flour
2g cinnamon powder
10g cocoa
100g caster sugar
80g honey
15g ground coffee, to taste
About 150g strong coffee, espresso, QB
Olive oil, QB
Rum or brandy (optional)

1. Heat the oven to 160C and grease and line with parchment a 22cm loose-bottomed round tin.
2. Melt the chocolate in a bowl over simmering water.
3. Soften the figs in hot water then drain and chop roughly.
4. Put the figs in a bowl with the raisins and mix.

5. Roughly chop the walnuts and combine with the pine nuts, the honey, the sugar and the peel.
6. Add the melted chocolate, coffee powder and the breadcrumbs.
7. Sieve together the flour, cocoa and cinnamon and add to the mix too.
8. Add the lemon and orange zest.


9. Soften the mixture with strong coffee, adding more or less as necessary, and some extra virgin olive oil. Aim for a stiff mixture, rather than a batter, mixing everything well. Add a splash of brandy or rum if you like.
10. Put the mixture in the prepared tin and bake for around 1 hour 20 minutes, until nicely browned.
11. Cool in the tin for about 10 minutes, then loosen and invert to cool completely.

12. To serve, you can decorate the top (formerly the bottom) with some more nuts or candied fruit and/or sprinkle with icing sugar.

 

 

Footnotes
* Giammarco explained frustare comes from the Latin fustis, meaning stick, rod or cane. Whereas frusto comes from the Latin frustum, meaning a little piece, a lump.
** Ideally Italian or European from Pinus pinea (the stone pine or umbrella pine) if you can get them, not Chinese ones from Pinus armandii (the almond pine or Chinese white pine). I couldn’t, and they’re considerably more expensive – but as with any expensive ingredient, it’s a treat to be used sparingly and doubtless better environmentally. I’m seriously mistrustful of Chinese agricultural practises, seeing as they supply much of the world with just about everything these days, and intensively intensive agriculture is one of our worst mistreatments of the planet: degrading and destroying soil that took millennia to develop; nuking it with toxins that end up in animals, rivers and the ocean; deforestation, etc etc etc etc.

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Only With Love brewery visit

Back in March 2017 I visited Little Goldsmiths Farm, in the East Sussex Weald, to witness the birth of Holler Boys brewery. That brewery lost its “Boys”, moved to Brighton to create a wonderful taproom, which then became Unbarred Brewery taproom, and Holler founder and brewer Steve Keegan moved on.

Over the intervening years, Steve, a keen footballer, got involved with Lewes Football Club. He plays for Lewes FC’s Vets team, where he met Roger Warner, a former player for Charlton’s youth squads, who had a career in technology and digital marketing but was also a home-brewer, making a batch every Christmas. Both are now LFC board members. As part of their involvement with both football and beer, one recent project they undertook was to create a “Drive Thru” beer shop at the Dripping Pan, Lewes FC’s ground, so people could safely stock up on quality, local craft brews during lockdown.

Socially driven business
The Craft Brew Drive Thru represents an ideology Steve and Roger are bringing to their new brewery, Only With Love, which I’ve just visited – back at Little Goldsmiths Farm, in a bigger space in the same former cow shed where Holler started back in 2017. With the Drive Thru, they brought together the football club, a community organisation, with several breweries. The shop itself helped raised funds for the club. As Roger says, “Community organisations need to partner with commercial organisations to make stuff happen”.

Roger is enthused by this model of “socially driven businesses”, citing Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia as among the biggest, best-known examples. Another plan they have to help raise funds for the football club is the creation of a lager, brewed by Only With Love but branded for the club, sold in the club bar and local shops. They plan to extend this model of collaboration and fundraising to other local organisations, putting “10-15 per cent” of Only With Love’s profits back into the community. They also plan to connect with the brewing community, offering help, advice and facilities to brewers wanting to expand their ambitions.

The Only With Love boys, Roger Warner and Steve Keegan

Tech specs
Only With Love’s facilities not only feature a brewery for ales and lagers, but they’re also producing kombucha and they even have their own canning line. As Steve puts it, they’ve “really upscaled the level of geek” with the new operation, with investment in analytical equipment key alongside the investment in the brewing equipment. For the latter, they have a capacity of 14,000 litres (14 hectolitres, or 85.5 UK beer barrels) in shiny brand new tanks. The plague year hasn’t had many upsides for businesses but Steve and Roger scored with their new brew kit. A Birmingham company exhibited it in March, just before the lockdown started, then couldn’t sell it for its normal £80,000 price tag. Instead, Only With Love got it for half that. It’s good stuff to boot. “It’s the best brew kit I’ve ever worked with,” says Steve.

The canning line can do 700 an hour or 1,500 litres in a day, which is comparatively slow but Steve says they can test more as a result and as such get less wastage. That analytical equipment means they have firm control over cleanliness, CO2 levels and dissolved oxygen levels (which can be problematic, affecting flavour and shelf life). At the back of the brewery is the Booch Room, where Steve is currently fermenting kombucha in 220 litre tubs, though he’ll soon be scaling up to 1,000 litre containers.

Steve and his booch

The production of kombucha makes for a fascinating contrast with brewing beer. Although both involve the management of yeasts, it’s a very different process. Steve got a bit technical for me at this point, with the sugar percentage, gravities, and how you manage both the yeast and bacteria in the mix. For those who don’t know – still – kombucha relies on a jelly-ish scoby, “symbiotic combination of bacteria and yeast”, to convert sweet tea into a delicious no- or low-alcohol drink, which can be flavoured and adapted according to the inclinations of the brewer.

Steve – who says their kombucha has an alcohol level of 0.5%, “the same as a ripe banana” and therefore qualifies as a soft drink – is producing Lemon Lifebuoy, a lemonade-like pick me up, and Kickstart Kombucha, the classic. Steve’s been making kombucha for about a decade, and honed his knowledge with a trip to California, where it’s popular (naturally). When I first tried kombucha at Old Man Mountain, where I lived in New Zealand in the mid-90s, it tasted like a fizzy pear drink, but every one is different – as indeed every palette is different. Silly of me to not try some OWL booch.

Beer for the people
I have tried their initial three ales, though, and can happily report they’re of the reliable Keegan quality. Their initial offering is: Dance Every Day, a 3.8% Pale Ale; Let’s Go, a 5.7% IPA; and Love Bug 5.8%, a New England IPA brewed in collaboration with Cellar Head Brewery in the Weald. Next up, they’re going to be doing a 4.5% (ish) session IPA; a 4.5% Pilsner-style lager; and a 6% Porter style dark beer, “quite strong but easy drinking”.

Their business model is based on cans and kegs, but they will also be doing some cask. It’s a very different business model breweries launching in 2020 have had to work with. Lockdown and the plague year in general have made us change our buying habits. Breweries cannot simply pass their wares to a distributor to supply pubs and bars, instead they have to work more directly with customers. “It’s all about the customer” now, with Roger driving local deliveries around himself, or a courier taking next-day delivery orders all over the country. Within a week of launch, Only With Love beer has gone as far as Aberdeen. Roger also talks about “other non-traditional outlets” – like their own Drive Thru.

What happens next year, and whether those kegs and casks can make their presence felt in a more relaxed pub experience (I hope), is unknowable, but for those of us lucky to live in Sussex, Only With Love is another amazing addition to the remarkable brewing scene in this segment of southern England. With both my wife and my kids breaking up tomorrow, we’ll be able to relax a bit more at home, and I shall certainly be opening some more cans of Only With Love. Including these exclusives – like a hip DJ’s white label vinyl, a no label beer direct from that most dynamic of cow sheds.

Only With Love’s site.
And their Instagram.

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Only With Love new brews news

Anyone with a keen eye for British craft beer will recognise the design style of these new beers from Only With Love. It’s by Billy Mather, the illustrator who also played a key role in the branding of Holler, previously Holler Boys, the now subsumed brewery I covered here and here. The founder and brewer of Holler was Steve Keegan, previously of Late Knights in south London. Late Knights and Holler were both purveyors of very fine beer, so I was very excited to get a ring on the doorbell just now and a delivery from Roger Warner, Steve’s partner in new brewery operation Only With Love, which launched this week.

With the plague and the Brexit shambles it’s been a grim year but somehow the brewers in this neck of the woods – in and around Lewes, the county town of East Sussex, in the south of England – have been bucking the trend of social and ecomonic freefall. Not only did Danny Tapper successfully launch The Beak brewery and taproom back in August but now we’ve got Only With Love, who are offering not only fine beer but also kombucha, that mystery drink fermented from a jellyfish-like SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) growing in a sweet tea mix.

Futhermore, another great local brewing operation, Abyss, have just successfully crowdfunded to get started on a new taproom with Mexican streetfood that’s not only in Lewes, but even in my part of town, somewhere that’s been sorely lacking in drinking options since traffic-based restructuring of the town killed off its pubs and, more recently, the working men’s club. It’s really exciting, as frankly, the past few years in Lewes it’s felt like developers have been killing all the opportunities for artisans, creatives and small businesses by snapping up all the available spaces and turning them into unaffordable housing, with not a jot of thought for the shape of the community.

Anyway, I was planning to get to Only With Love for a brewery visit and proper write-up, but was hit by a vile snot-cold at the start of the week. And in this era, no one wants you sharing your germs with them, especially in a brewery – a place of carefully managed microbial activitiy – during its launch week. I’ll hopefully get there soon, so watch this space.

During lockdown and the plague year in general, I’ve been trying not to have any booze on weekdays, but I may have to crack open some Only With Love tonight.

 

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Ciastka miodowe, Polish honey cookies for St Nicholas’s Day, 6 December

Tradition is always changing. It’s fluid, not set in aspic like some people who see themselves as traditionalists and conservatives may believe. Just think of St Nicholas, the saint whose feast day is celebrated on 6 December and who morphed into Santa Claus.

Little is known of St Nicholas. He was of Greek descent and may have been born in the Roman period in 270 and died in the Byzantine period 70-odd years later. He was a bishop in Myra, now the small town of Demre on the south coast of Turkey. It was a long, baffling journey from there to the red-and-white clad fat man so beloved of children and soft drink advertisers today. As for traditions associated with St Nick, previously, in the Netherlands, his gift giving – or tellings off – occurred on the night of St Nicholas’s day. For most of us, that tradition shifted to Christmas Eve.

For the same reason, however much it pains me, I need to accept now that most people don’t even know or care that the Twelve Days of Christmas were from 25 December to 5 January. Although it’s been driven by modern commercialism and consumerism, the Christmas period has now moved forward, with many now celebrating from late November, then giving up between the second day of Christmas (Boxing Day, St Stephen’s Day) and the seventh day (New Years Eve, St Sylvester’s Day). People were especially desperate to get their decorations up this year as Covid-19 has been so tough. But even without Covid, the tradition has changed.*

Nice and spicy does it
Many cultures made a spice cookie or cake or even steamed pudding as part of their St Nicholas day celebrations. I’ve done the Dutch speculaas here before but here’s a Polish one. They include honey and various spices and are as such related to other European Christmas period cookies, notably lebkuchen. Basically they’re all gingerbread. These ciastka miodowe do not contain any butter, and the only fat comes from egg yolks. As such, they’ve got quite a solid crunch. Verging on hardtack.

I have this same recipe in two books: Feast Day Cookbook by Katherine Burton and Helmut Ripperger and Cooking with the Saints by Ernst Schuegraf. The former was first published in 1951, so it’s likely the source for Schuegraf’s 2001 book. Either way, the recipe has been repeated all over the internet. Do an image search for ciastka miodowe and there are plenty that vary in style from Schuegraf’s stipulations. Which is good, as it means I can cut out the cookies with my kids and give them some freedom choosing the cutters.

I was hoping to ask about these with the one Polish parent I know at my kids’ school but with Covid queuing regulations, school gate chit-chat isn’t quite so easy as it once was.

Anyway. I’ve dragged this recipe kicking and screaming into SI units of measurement, or at least grams instead of cups and all that silliness.**

130g honey
100g caster sugar
1 whole egg
2 egg yolks
500g plain flour
6g baking soda
4g ground cinnamon
2g grated nutmeg
2g ground ginger
Pinch ground cloves (ie less than 1g – cloves are so pungent I go easy with them; if you love the flavour, add more)
Pinch salt

1. Warm the honey together with the sugar. I weighed them straight into a stainless mixing bowl which I can then warm on a low setting on an induction hob, but otherwise use a pan.
2. When you have separated two eggs, save the whites for later and beat the yolks together with the whole egg. This mix will be about 85g.
3. Add the beaten egg to the honey mix and beat well.
4. Sieve together the flour, baking soda and spices and add the pinch of salt.

5. Add the sieved mix to the honey and egg mix and combine, first with a spatula or wooden spoon, then by hand to form a fairly dry paste. Do not overwork it.
6. Wrap the dough then leave to rest for at least 4 hours or overnight.
7. Preheat the oven to 180C.
8. Lightly whisk some of the saved egg white. You don’t need peaks, just froth it up a bit.


9. Choose your preferred cookie cutters – round, stars, flowers etc. If you have young children, they may have strong opinions about this. My five year old baking assistant was keen on hearts.
10. Roll the dough to about 5mm thick.
11. Stamp out shapes and put them on baking sheets lined with silicon mats or parchment. (Or not, if you have well seasoned trays like mine.)


12. Brush the cookies with some of whisked egg white.
14. Bake the cookies for about 10-15 minutes, depending on how aggressive your oven is. Until nicely browned.


15. Cool on a wire rack.

The Burton-Ripperger recipe adds a blanched almond to the top of each cookie before baking. This is optional, and absent from most of the images online from Polish sites.

Happy St Nicholas’s Day!

* Even here in Lewes, East Sussex, England, the most important tradition is Bonfire night – or more accurately, the Bonfire Season, where the various bonfire societies of the town and other villages and towns of Sussex, over a period of several weeks parade around, burn stuff, blow stuff up and stage wonderful pageantry, my favourite part of which is the tabs, tableaux, large papier- mâché effigies that skillfully satirise figures from politics and public life. My least favourite part of the celebration has been Lewes Borough bonfire society’s tradition of dressing up as “Zulus” – white people in blackface. The costumes may have been spectacular, but the blackface and imperial implications are a tradition that was long past its sell-by. Modern society doesn’t need this public racism. Although there was no Bonfire season this year due to Covid, I believe Borough has finally called an end to the blackface tradition. As I say, traditions change, whether organically or by necessary edict after years of campaigning by anti-racism groups.
** I’ve just bought a second-hand copy of a wonderfully comprehensive book called A World of Cakes. Quite excited to try some of the recipes, but not only does it use US cups, the author, Kyrstina Castella, can’t even decide how to list butter – she uses both sticks (which at least can be given a clearcut weight) and tablespoons. How do you measure butter accurately in tablespoons?!

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Lekach honey cake

Back in the first 2020 lockdown, when most shops were closed, markets weren’t operating, supermarket delivery slots were like gold dust and actual visits to supermarkets were nerve-wracking disease roulettes, we started getting food deliveries from other sources. One was a catering supplier recommended by a friend. Somehow I managed to over-order honey.

Usually, I like to have two types of honey in the house – good quality local stuff and cheap commercial stuff for use when making big batches of granola and to satisfy the sweet tooth of my son on Sunday mornings, aka “jam day”, when we’re allowed sugary stuff with our toast, pancakes or porridge.

The good stuff I’ve had the past few years has been from my friends Karin and Alex, who keep bees in their garden just across town from where I live.

When I realised I had this surplus of honey, all starting to crystallise, I thought I’d better make honey cake. Most cultures have their own variations on honey cake – after all, aside from dried fruit, it was the main sweetener available before the rise of the sugar trade*. Looking in my cloud recipes, my cookbooks and searching around online, I came across numerous honey cakes, including the Jewish lekach, traditionally made for Rosh Hashanah. Aside from the religious and ritual elements, Rosh Hashanah is essentially a harvest festival – its origins in the ancient agrarian societies of the Near East, where taking in the harvest was a logical time to mark the end of the year; indeed Rosh Hashanah means “the head of the year”.

Karin is a great baker, from a Czech Jewish heritage, as well as a bee-keeper, so I asked her about lekach. Instead, she recommended medovnik, a Russian and eastern European honey cake. I will try that one of these days, but when I was round at their house – I work for Alex’s food business, Kabak – I found a recipe for lekach in their copy of Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish Food. According to Wikipedia, the Hebrew name for the cake is ougat dvash, literally “honey cake”, with the word lekach being Yiddish, and from Middle High German lecke, “to lick” – appropriately, given that my five-year-old daughter was keen to help cook and was ardent about licking the bowl after we’d made the batter but wasn’t terribly interested in eating the actual cake.

Obviously lekach would be better if made with good quality honey, and Roden’s recipe says to use dark liquid honey, but it worked fine using up my cheapo honey – after I’d put the bottles in hot water to soften up the crystalisation. The very presence of so many sugars – honey and refined – as well as spices and dried fruit and nuts makes it clear this is a feast day cake, but that’s not so say it can’t be enjoyed at other times.

Roden says you have to make it “at least three days in advance”.

2 eggs
200g caster sugar
125g vegetable oil
250g liquid honey
2 tbsp rum or brandy
125g warm strong black coffee
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
Pinch salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp powdered cloves
Grated zest of 1 orange
300g plain flour, plus extra to dust
50g coarsely chopped walnuts or slithered or flaked almonds
40g raisins or sultanas

1. Grease and line a 22cm cake tin with baking parchment; alternatively use two 24x13cm loaf tins or even a bundt tin.
2. Preheat the oven to 180C (lower if you have an aggressive fan).
3. Beat the eggs and sugar together until pale and creamy.

4. Beat in the oil, honey, brandy and coffee.
5. Sieve together the flour, raising agents and spices.
6. Add the salt and orange zest to the sifted mix.
7. Gradually add the flour mix to the wet mix, beating well to create a smooth batter.
8. Dust the fruit and nuts with flour (to prevent them sinking to the bottom) then add to the batter.
9. Put the batter in the prepared tin(s).
10. Put in the oven and bake for 1 1/4 hours for the big one or about 1 hour for the loaf tins. You want it firm and brown on top and a skewer to come out clean.
11. Allow to cool in the tin for 10 minutes then turn out.
12. When totally cool, put in a tin and leave for three days.

Obviously, leaving a cake for three days is tricky when you have children and greedy people like me in the house. It was delicious on the day, but better when left before cutting, like many ginger cakes and fruit cakes; like them it also keeps well. The best technique for saving it for three days is to hide it. Then set a reminder on your phone so you don’t forget where you’ve hidden it.

* And of course the slave trade that accompanied the growth demand for sugar. The slave trade is something I think about a lot more these days as an adopter whose children have some African-Caribbean heritage – some slave heritage. We joke about having a sweet tooth, but as the European sweet tooth – sugar addiction – grew, so did the slave trade, and the accompanying horrors and abuse. Britain might be a mismanaged, fading entity now, but in its imperial heyday, much of that wealth – exemplified by those solid buildings and monuments that give London and other cities much of their character to this day, those old maps where red covered a large portion of the globe, the abiding wealth of some families – came directly from sugar, from centuries of industrial scale slavery, from man’s inhumanity to man.

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The Beak Brewery and taproom, Lewes

It’s been a tough year in many respects thanks to Covid-19, and the brewing and pub trade has taken some serious knocks. Lockdown closures and subsequent restrictions and curfews have resulted in substantial job losses and falling sales. For the big chains – Wetherspoons*, Greene King, Marstons, Fullers etc ­– sales are down about a third on the same period last year. As for already struggling independent pubs it’s not looking good for that particular cornerstone of British conviviality.

All of which makes it all the more impressive that brewer and food writer Danny Tapper successfully open a brewery and taproom in the midst of lockdown.

The Beak, based just outside the East Sussex county town of Lewes, opened its taproom just after the long lockdown eased in August 2020. We hiked over the Downs with the kids (it’s child- and dog-friendly) on Saturday 15 August and enjoyed a sunny afternoon sitting on benches in the carpark of an industrial estate, drinking Danny and brewer Robin Head-Fourman’s beers and eating food from a pop-up by Kitgum of Brighton.

Danny Tapper

“We signed a ten year lease two weeks before lockdown”, says Danny with understandable bemusement. They were setting up the brewery in March 2020, just as the country shifted into the new reality of lockdown. “It was a big leap of faith.” Not only given the pandemic, but also the fact that, after a fruitless search for a rural location for his brewery, Danny had visited “this not very inspiring industrial unit” in Cliffe Industrial Estate. Although it’s only a 10-15 minute walk from the centre of Lewes, they had no idea if people would come, walking via a busy road (in desperate need of a toucan crossing) to an industrial unit.

The site, however, is actually rather special. On a sunny evening, the magnificent chalk cliffs behind the brewery radiate light, while gulls, corvids and even peregrine falcons wheel around. On a more practical level, as the other businesses in the estate are generally closed over the weekend, there’s room for Beak visitors to spread out, with socially distanced tables on the shop floor and in the carpark, under shelters as necessary. “A space like this has been a blessing during lockdown,” says Danny.

New brews

For anyone who knows British beer, particularly in the south of England, Lewes is renowned for its strong brewing heritage. For years the town has been synonymous with Harvey’s. The Beak offers a very different experience – a young microbrewery compared to a heritage brewery (which dates itself back to 1790); kegs and cans versus casks and bottles; a craft beer outfit versus a real ale one (though that’s painfully reductive, and personally I prefer to say “real beer” for anything not brewed by the industrial giants). But their relationship seems cordial, you can’t  argue with choice and variety and historically Lewes had a dozen or so breweries.

Most of all, Danny’s business had an agility that’s enabled it to prevail against the Covid odds.

Although the taproom offers a great social experience and enables visitors to develop a bond you don’t get when simply buying a beer from the supermarket or even a pub, 85 per cent The Beak’s business is in direct sales, mostly in the form of cans.

Danny and Robin’s output is currently from three fermenters, each able to produce 15 barrels or 2,000 litres. So a total of 6,000 litres (or 60 hectolitres), which equates to around 10,000 cans. Danny started homebrewing in his early twenties, before switching to nomad brewing so he could produce commercially. He created The Beak brand in 2016, and says previously he’d “probably do in a year what we do in a week here.”

Of the beer they brew, kegs are mostly used at the taproom and a few other local venues, like The Patch and Depot, where Danny first met Robin, who was working at nearby Burning Sky. Danny says the taproom sells about 700 pints on a Saturday. Most of the rest of the beer is shipped around the country – to London and Leeds (where Danny used to be based), Brighton, Manchester, Bristol, Newcastle. During his nomad brewing days, Danny not only worked with various renowned breweries, like North Brew Co, Partizan, Beavertown, Burning Sky and Northern Monk, he also personally drove around doing his sales and deliveries, creating a network. As a business model, it was a “great way to build a brand, but a crap way to make money.” 

Planning ahead

Danny says they’re also talking to exporters. He’s got plans. When they set up, they planned to be able to double capacity. They’ve already ordered a fourth fermenting vessel. “It is a big step for us,” says Danny “We didn’t expect it to happen so quickly.” They’re now also opening the taproom on Fridays, with the plans for  “plant-based Indian street food” on offer. On Saturdays, meanwhile, the pop-up food options will keep on changing. Danny says, “we’re mixing it up all the time”.

So while the brewery will have a core range – Lulla 3.5% session table pale, Parade 6% IPA, Strangers 5% IPA ­– Danny and Robin like to keep experimenting. As an agile microbrewery, they enjoy what Robin calls the “scope to be creative”. They “want the beers to be quite playful”. So while Danny has stepped back from the brewing, they work together on recipes. “Like any good relationship, we talk a lot,” he says. For Halloween 2020, for example, they’re using some refurbished casks from the 40s or 50s to age and inflect some Pencil, Beaks’  6% India porter.

Further ahead things get even more exciting, with Danny having ordered a concrete fermenter from Italy. Traditionally these vessels are used for natural wine making. Danny and Robin will be using them for mixed fermentation beers, an equivalent to natural wines. As they’re surrounded by the South Downs National Park, with Southerham Farm Nature Reserve on the hills above those cliffs, they plan to harvest wild yeasts and create a “mother beer” – not unlike a sourdough madre (mother) or kombucha scoby** – for blending using the Solera method.

The mother beer will be something that’s unique to The Beak, and, alongside their use of London Fog yeast, will further define the character of The Beak’s output. Realistically Danny hopes those beers will be arriving in Spring 2021. Watch this space for my coverage of The Beak’s “These Hills Sing” project. And – geographical and pandemic factors willing – try and visit The Beak taproom for a dynamic real beer and fun food experience. And if you can’t make it, order some from the site. “People always want beer,” says Danny “It’s just figuring out how to get it to them.”

The Beak Brewery
beakbrewery.com
@thebeakbrewery
Unit 14 Cliffe Industrial Estate, BN8 6JL

 

 

Footnotes

* I don’t think I’ve visited a Wetherspoons since I worked in London’s Leicester Square circa 1997. It remains a place I’ve no interest in visiting a) given the alternatives and b) given the founder’s frequent obnoxiousness, but in particular his encouragement of Britain’s absurd departure from the EU.

** Scoby means “symbiotic combination of bacteria and yeasts”. For those who still haven’t encountered kombucha, it’s a drink made by fermenting sweet tea that may have originated in Manchuria. I first had at Old Man Mountain, my New Zealand home in the mid-90s. It’s been popular in certain, shall we say, more hippy-healthfood circles for decades.

 

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Pizza to feed the family

pizza

This is the pizza I make for family and friends. It’s rolled out, thin and crispy, and baked in my puny electric oven on baking sheets. I find this approach more convenient to make over the course of a family Saturday, starting with a sponge (aka preferment) in the morning before swimming lessons, making a dough around midday, then bulk fermenting for about four hours.

Much as I’ve enjoyed the certified Vera Pizza Napoletana – “real Neapolitan pizza”– in Naples, I don’t really feel the need to try and emulate the Neapolitan style pizza, with its wide crust (cornicione). And if I’m honest, I always preferred the thinner crust, no-nonsense Roman-style ones we used to eat in places like Ai Marmi on Viale Trastevere and da Remo in Testaccio anyway. This dough does work opened by hand, slid off a peel onto a baking stone, if you favour the round, pseudo-Neapolitan style, but I prefer to roll, bake four at a time, then sit and eat with my family.

Variation on a theme
Pizza is ubiquitous. It’s Italy’s most successful export. And as anyone who’s eaten pizza in various corners of the world will know, it’s changed a lot in its travels*. Even within Italy, and within the diverse regions, and the provinces within those regions, pizza has enormous variety, not just familiar Neapolitan and Roman. It’s fat, thin, doughy, crunchy, round, square, long (alla pala), stuffed (farcita, or scaccia from Sicilian) or sandwiched (pizzòlo, also Sicilian) or pasty-like (calzone) or pie-like (rustica etc), tray-baked (like Palermo’s sfincione), fried (fritta; they loved fried in Naples). Flatbreads have infinite variety. Populations move, cultures hybridise, and the human experience is constantly in flux. The weather changes (now more than ever), ingredients change, processes change. Food, like language, is always changing.

During our time in Rome we also encountered the great Gabriele Bonci, star Roman pizzaiolo. His original hole in the wall pizza place, Pizzarium, located behind the Vatican, doesn’t have a fixed menu, it varies constantly with what’s available. Our very last visit there before moving back to England from Rome, Fran had a pizza with mortadella and Brussels sprouts. Who’d have thought Italians even had sprouts, let alone put them on their pizza? It was inspiring and a long way from the sort of thing that would achieve certification from the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana – and all the more exciting for it.

Sauce and toppings
This post is principally about my pizza dough. For tomato sauce, I often use a very simple one made with a tin of tomatoes, with a dash of dried oregano, black pepper and salt. Sometimes I add a bit of garlic or pinch of chilli. Then I use a stick blender to puree it. Other times, I’ll make a sauce with garlic, basil, a pinch of chilli, salt and pepper in a pan with lots of olive oil, warm that up then add a tin of tomatoes, cook that down, then put the whole lot through a mouli (food mill) to get out any fibrous bits. This is my son’s preferred pasta sauce.

As for toppings – just go for it. Whatever you prefer. This time round I had some local leeks from market for one, roasted first. For another, I bought some taleggio, which I used on a pizza bianca (white – no tomato sauce) with some boiled potato, a good drizzle of olive oil and some sprigs of rosemary from the garden. For my bacon-loving wife, we had some quality pancetta from Beals, renowned charcuterie (or salumi, in Italian) made locally from mangalitza pigs.

My favourite is usually aubergine, sliced longways about 5mm thick, roasted with olive oil and salt and pepper, then add to a pizza rossa (red – tomato sauce), with salty black olives and pecorino – it’s an offshoot of what the Italians would call “alla Norma”, a pasta sauce from Catania in Sicily. We didn’t do that this time. Another one I like is broccoli – cooked to tender, then gently fried in olive oil with garlic and chilli.

My pizza dough recipe
Anyway, this is my pizza dough recipe. Not a whiff of “authenticity”!

It is a 66% hydration dough – ie the weight of water is 66% of the weight of the flour (400g/600g). That means it’s pretty easy to handle, not too sticky.

I use a blend of flours. I find this gives the best extensibility and doesn’t shrink back in on itself. For the light spelt flour, I either use Sharpham Park or Stoates, British, stoneground. You may have a local variation.

Makes 4 pizzas

400g water
4g active dried yeast (or 8g fresh yeast)
600g flour – 200g strong white, 200g plain (all-purpose), 200g light spelt
6g fine sea salt
20g extra virgin olive oil (approximately)
Extra oil for oiling worktop and drizzling

1. Warm the water, add the yeast. Allow to froth.
2. Add about half the flour, mix well to combine, then cover. Allow this sponge or preferment to get nice and bubbly. Depending on the temperature in your kitchen, this can take anything from half an hour to a few hours. Leaving it gives us enough time to swimming lessons and back.

Pizza sponge

3. Pour in a few good glugs of olive oil, around 20g, and combine.

Pizza sponge with olive oil

4. Add the salt and the rest of the flour and mix well. You can do this with a mixer with a dough hook if you have one.
5. If you don’t have a mixer, turn out the shaggy mass** onto a lightly oiled work surface and knead to bring together.

6. Form into a rough ball then put in a lightly oiled bowl, cover (shower caps are great for this) and rest for about 10 minutes.

2020-03-07 12.40.09

7. Turn out and knead briefly. It should be smoother now, and easier to form into a neat ball.
8. Turn out and give it another brief knead. Rest for another 10 minutes.
9. Give it another knead then return to the bowl, cover and rest.
10. Give it a nice long fermentation. You can give it a stretch and fold if you like. This is a good process for helping the dough structure. Simply turn out the dough onto the lightly oiled work surface, stretch out a rough rectangle, fold one third in, then the other third. (Check out my old post on pizza bianca for more details or this technique.) If it’s rising too fast and you want to delay things, you can also put it, covered, in the fridge.
11. When the dough has doubled in size, turn it out. It should weight just over 1kg.
12. Divide up the dough into four pieces, scaled at just over 250g each.

Shaping pizza dough into balls. Bottom two cut off the main lump, top left is tucked, top right is shaped.

13. Tuck any rough pieces underneath then shape into a ball, ideally by cupping in your hand and making circular motions.
14. On a liberally floured area, leave the balls to rest, covered. Alternatively, you can put the balls in a container, cover it with a lid and leave somewhere cool if you need some more time.
15. I give my pizzas a final prove for about half an hour once I’ve stretched then out, but this is optional. Again, it’s about what fits in with your household routine.
16. On a floured worktop, squash a ball of dough down with the heel of your hand, then flatten out. Roll out to a size that fits your baking sheets – mine are 30cm square. (If you prefer round, go for it. If you prefer using a peel and sliding your pizzas onto a pizza stone, go for it. This dough works well for that too.)

Shaping pizza dough

Rolled out pizza dough

17. Preheat your oven. Mine says it’s 220C on the dial, but it doesn’t really muster much more than 210C.

Pizza dough on baking sheet

18. Top your pizzas, helped and/or hindered by children.

2020-03-07 17.28.53

19. Put in the oven for about 8 minutes, then swap around on the shelves and bake for another 8 minutes or so. Your oven will be different to mine, but you obviously want nice bubbly cheese and some colour on the crust.

2020-03-07 17.46.52

20. Turn out onto boards, slice and dig in.

If we’ve got any leftovers, I’ll happily blast them in the oven again for a few minutes then eat them Sunday evening – the one evening when the kids are allowed food in front of the telly in our house. I love a slice cold too.

* What are your most memorable, weird and wonderful pizza experiences? Whitebait pizza in Hokitika, South Island, New Zealand is one of mine. And the abovementioned sprouts.
** This is a Dan Lepard turn of phrase.

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Filed under Breads, Discussion, Flour & grain, Pizza, Recipes

Ricciarelli – Siennese almond biscuits

When I had my short-lived biscuit stall on a market a few years ago, ricciarelli were my most popular item. Ricciarelli are in the macaron family, kinds of meringue made with beaten egg whites and sugar, and in this case ground almonds. As such, they fit in with the inclinations of those with an aversion to wheat and gluten, of which there are many round here. I also gave this recipe to The Hearth pizzeria in Lewes, and they sold well there for a few years too before it closed down.

Ricciarelli are originally from Siena. Despite me spending two years living in Italy, and indeed doing an art history degree many years ago, Sienna is not a city I know. It’s a place I’d love to visit on a food pilgrimage due to its association with such wonderful baked goodies. Ditto its rhyming cousin Vienna, home to another of my favourite ground almond and egg white concoctions: the Sachertorte. One of these years…

Ricciarelli for Christmas
In Siena, ricciarelli are traditionally made for Christmas. My friend Karin likes me to make her bags every year to give away to her family as presents. I must admit I couldn’t muster the energy to do that this year. December is intense enough with our modern early Christmas hype, never mind the effects of all the pressure on our children. So anyway, I’m sharing this recipe for you Karin! She’s from a Czech family and this Christmas just gone I was lucky enough to experience her lovely plate of traditional cookies. We’re talking about doing a Christmas cookies masterclass next year, so watch this space.

Ricciarelli are distinguished from other almond paste treats by their soft centres, crisp outside and lozenge shape. I’m sure professional bakers in Siena churn them out swiftly but I like to take my time over the shaping, cutting the paste into sausages, lopping this into chunks, weighing these, then using two plastic dough scrapers to form the lozenge. If you do a big batch, this can take a little while, but I find it quite meditative and like the results.

I developed this recipe based on various others I researched. Some call for resting the paste for a day or even longer, but I think it’s fine to rest for a minimum of four hours in the fridge, or overnight.

Some notes
1. You can use whole blanched almonds and grind them, but frankly I think the results are great with ground almonds.
2. This recipe can easily be scaled up and down as it’s a basic ratio of 1 egg white to 100g almonds, 100g icing sugar.
2. Egg whites keep well in the fridge, but it’s best to make the ricciarelli with them at room temperature. So remember to get them out the day you’re baking.

Makes 24

2 egg whites, about 66g
5g lemon juice
200g icing sugar, sieved
200g ground almonds
4g almond essence
2g vanilla essence
Zest of 1 orange (or lemon if you ain’t got orange. Or indeed both is you like the citrus.)

Extra icing sugar for shaping and dusting

1. Line some baking sheets with parchment or silicone sheets.
2. Beat the egg whites to stiff peaks.
3. Add the essences to the egg whites at the end and combine. (Use more or less essences, to taste.)
4. Combine the almonds and sugar (sieved).
5. Add dry ingredients and zest to the egg white, combining to form a sticky paste.
6. Cover or bag and rest in the fridge for at least four hours, or overnight.
7. On a work surface well dusted with more icing sugar, form a rope the cut off pieces, each weighing about 20g.
8. Shape each into a into a lozenge or diamond shape. Using a pastry scraper – or indeed two – is ideal. The ricciarelli should be about 10mm thick.

9. Dust with even more icing sugar, to coat well. Really, don’t skimp.

10. Heat oven to 160C.

11. Place the ricciarelli on baking sheets lined with parchment or silicon.
12. Bake for about 15 minutes until only just starting to crisp up and but not colour too much. You want them soft inside, with a slight crunch to the crust.
13. Cool on a wire rack.

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Ginger snap biscuits for Saint Lucy’s Day, 13 December

The secular, consumerist frenzy version of Christmas may start in November or even earlier these days but in the traditional, ie Christianity based, calendar we’re only half-way through Advent. This was the lead-up to the Christmas, from the Latin adventus, meaning arrival, approach, coming – as in the coming of Christ. It was a period of fasting, but some cultures had traditional milestones during Advent – the festival of Saint Nicholas (yes, him) on 5/6 December, and the festival of Saint Lucia, or Lucy, on 13 December – when they could have a blow-out.

St Lucy’s name comes from the Latin lux, meaning light and her feast day is a festival of light in some cultures, but it’s also a festival of treats, breaking the fast – notably in Scandinavia and Hungary. The former, Sweden specifically, gives us saffron buns, the Saint Lucia crown (maybe*) I made a few years ago, and those classic feast day treats ginger biscuits, gingerbread, or a variation thereon. This recipe is for Luciapepparkaka, “Lucia pepper cookies” and is from European Festival Food by Elisabeth Luard (published 1990).

I get all these books, but not knowing the country, I can never, in all honesty, be entirely sure about their authenticity. But frankly, gingerbreads like this exist throughout northern Europe. And, well, authenticity is elusive and a concept I think it’s pointless getting hung up on. From my experiences in Italy, people will make slightly different recipes not only from town to town and village to village but also family to family and all argue theirs are the real deal.

Luard’s recipe – origins unknown – includes whipped double cream and “treacle”. I assume she means black treacle, but you could use golden syrup if you prefer a lighter result. Similarly vaguely, she also says, “brown sugar” – I used light soft brown, but similarly you could go dark or even muscovado if you prefer a less processed sugar. The recipe also called for a teaspoon – a few grams – of ground ginger. This seemed a bit meagre given you’re using half a kilo of flour so I’ve upped it to 5g, a couple of teaspoons.

Luard writes, “This delicately spiced cream-rich mixtures gives a fine-textured crisp biscuit”. I’d say it was a biscuit that’s all about the great snap and crunch.

Note, the dough needs a long rest – overnight, or for at least four hours.

The recipe makes a lot – depending on your cookie cutters. I made about 80 snowflake cookies.

Ingredients
150g black treacle
150g double cream, whipped to stiff peaks
225g light brown soft sugar
500g plain flour
5g ground ginger
Zest of one lemon
Lemon juice

Icing sugar, for rolling and dusting

Method
1. Weigh the black treacle into a pan, then put on the hob on a low heat to soften until runny.
2. Sieve together the flour and ginger into a bowl with the whipped cream, sugar, zest and the treacle.


3. Combine, then add “enough lemon juice to form a soft dough”. I used the juice of one and a bit small-ish lemons.
4. Squidge together into two discs (it makes it easier to roll subsequently), wrap in a plastic bag and rest in the fridge for at least five hours or overnight.
5. Take out the dough discs. They’ll be pretty firm now from their time in the fridge. She recommends another knead, but I found it too firm so went straight to the rolling.
6. Dusting the work surface and rolling pin with icing sugar, roll out the dough – “as thin as a coin”. What coin? What was the optimal coin thickness in the UK in 1990? I’m guessing go for about 3mm.


7. Heat the oven to 180C and prepare baking sheets with parchment or silicon sheets (which I highly recommend as they’re washable and reusable).
8. Stamp out cookies in decorative, seasonal shapes. My mum’s just given Fran some snowflake cookie cutters so they seemed perfect** albeit fiddly.
9. Put the cut out cookies on the sheets and bake for about 12-15 minutes until nicely browned.
10. Transfer to a rack to cool.
11. Serve dusted with icing sugar and accompanied by coffee, hot chocolate or mulled wine. Good for St Lucy’s Day, Christmas itself or any time in the season (that is, until Epiphany, 6 January – the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas).

 

* I’m not suggesting these authors make stuff up, but that tradition, like authenticity, is an elusive idea. Tradition is mutable. Changes to society markedly change tradition. The move from an agrarian to an industrial society in Britain, for example, changed our folk culture as people didn’t live with the seasons of farming any more, didn’t get together to celebrate and sing in the same way any more. Cecil Sharp, let’s not forget, was driving the folk-song revival in his lifetime – and he died in 1924. The intensification of agriculture after the Second World War further changed things, and the ensuing rise of the supermarkets. Our culture became more generic. So these days, for example, our festivals and feast days, especially Halloween and Christmas are taking on the more US-influenced form, or are forgotten entirely.
* I live in Sussex, grew up in Hampshire, and for a decade or so lived in London, all in the south of England. It rarely, if ever, snows in December or at Christmas in this part of the world, at least not in my nearly-half-century lifetime. We occasionally get a bit of snow in March when we’re all desperate for Spring. A south of England white Christmas is even less likely as the world heats up. Yet, we still give Christmas cards with snow scenes, and are determined to perpetuate the myth of a crisp Christmas. Heck, any movie set at Christmas sprays the fake snow around even if the scene is set in the south of England – think Paddington, Love Actually, Bridget Jones etc. And I dread to think of the carbon footprint of all the ice rinks in the south of England at this time of year, their refrigeration systems fighting the generally mild weather.

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