Chocolate beetroot cake (vegan)

As my previous post patently indicated I’m not a vegan. But I am keen to keep building a repertoire of good plant-based bakes for when vegan friends visit, or just because reducing reliance on the environmentally problematic meat and dairy industry makes sense.

Not that consumer choices really make that much difference in the grand scheme of things. If only we had a political system where our elected representatives genuinely got on board and introduced the far-reaching environmental and energy policies we need, right now*. I’m deeply cynical that anything meaningful will come out of COP26. And deeply worried for the future. What a world we’ve created for our children.

In the meantime, as humanity continues to fail to galvanize in the face the climate emergency*, I’ll continue baking.

Anyway. In the same way carrots make for a nice, moist classic cake, beetroot does a great job of creating a moist, one-of-your-five-a-day, chocolate cake. I do chocolate beetroot muffins already, but this is another option. You can ice it with a (vegan) butter cream too. I had a little vegan margarine left so just added a layer of raspberry jam and choc butter cream in the middle, using some Chococo baking drops my mum had given us a while back.

I’ve had this recipe a while and originally used soya milk, but it’s a lot easier to get more vegan milk alternatives these days, and we always have oat milk. We prefer oat milk, and there are a couple of places in town now where you can get refills**.

400g vegan “milk”. I’ve used soy and oat.
30g white wine vinegar
200g vegetable oil
425g plain flour
75g cocoa powder
11/2 / 6g teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 / 4g teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
180g caster sugar
About 2 medium beetroots, peeled and grated. That is, about 300g before peeling, 250g peeled.

1. Oil and line two 20cm sandwich tins. Alternatively, use one larger tin if you don’t want a layer cake, say 25cm round or bundt.
2. Preheat the oven to 180C.
3. In a large bowl, combine the oat milk, oil and vinegar.


4. Sieve together the flour, cocoa powder and raising agents.
5. Add the flour mix, pinch of salt, and grated beetroot to the bowl and stir until well combined, with no patches of dry flour.


6. Pour the batter into the tins and bake for about 40 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean.
7. Cool in the tin for 10 minutes then turn out and leave to cool on racks.
8. When cool, decorate how you like. As well as a filling, I dusted the top with cocoa and icing sugar. Previously I’ve done it and served it with a vegan chocolate custard made with soya milk, sugar, cornflour and cocoa.

It’s a pretty good cake. This particular one I made then fed to four kids after school. They ate it without batting an eyelid. We didn’t mention the beetroot. One thing I would say about a cake such as this compared to a non-vegan one is that it’s crumbly and not as rich. Butter and egg yolk give a fatty richness that I’m still working on finding with a vegan cake, plus they’re also better binders.

As I wrote this blog, I found out that the sister of my sister’s boyfriend in Sydney is an accomplished vegan baker called Lancey Morris. She has a page on her site about egg alternatives. I know about a lot of these things, it’s just learning how and when best to utilise them. I’ll be visiting Lancey’s site a lot in future I suspect.

* We galvanized to face Covid-19, producing a vaccine in record time. Even in the face of all the nonsense, lies, misinformation and false news (ie not news). The climate and environmental crisis (of which Covid is a factor, the result of our rapaciousness exposing us to more zoonotic organisms) is sadly accompanied by an even bigger barrage of lies and misinformation. But there’s some deeper psychology at work that seems to be stopping us from doing what we need to do. We’re a bizarre species, seemingly so determined to indulge in epic self-harm.
** Refills are expensive compared to just getting more in Tetra Paks from the supermarket. As with so many ethical food decisions, you pay more to do the right thing, which is a hard sell when so many people are suffering financially anyway. I did struggle with why oat milk refills are expensive – the producet itself mostly just oats and water, not expensive ingredients. But supermarkets have the economies of scale on their side, and sell diary milk as a loss leader – totally unrealistically price to keep customers loyal, but drive farmers into worse and worse practices trying to make a living themselves. Likewise they can offer Tetra Paks of oat milk, say, at a lower price than the small refill shops. Our agricultural and food supply chain is so riven with problems, even before Brexit and Covid made things even more difficult and expensive. Anyway, for us, avoiding some Tetra Paks at least means we’re using less wasteful packaging. It’s hard to even recycling Tetra Paks. Our local council doesn’t include them in kerbside recycling, and even if a carton recycling option is available to you, it’s a false economy. Tetra Paks and similar laminated cartons are made of such an awkward mix of foil, card and plastic, “recycling” them is arguably pointless. It’s highly energy inefficient to transport them to specialist recycling facilities then disassemble them. Even when they’re broken down, the resulting materials can’t all be recycled anyway. The Tetra Pak company does have environmental corporate social responsibility policies, but when its core product is so problematic, can such policies really compensate? Or is it just more corporate greenwash?

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Pear tarte tatin

For those not familiar, a tarte tatin is the pastry equivalent of an upside-down cake. Fruit is caramelised in butter and sugar, topped with pastry, baked, then inverted to serve. It’s a format that is forever associated with Stéphanie and Caroline Tatin, the Demoiselles Tatin. These sisters ran a hotel in France in the late 19th century and the story goes that Stéphanie accidentally invented the tart when she cocked-up making a traditional apple tart one day.

It’s probably hokum, and such a pastry format may have existed beforehand, but an inverted, caramelised apple tart became the signature dish of the Hôtel Tatin.

These days, there are numerous variations on the theme. I’ve done savoury versions using onion and beetroot. But my mainstay became a pear version, thanks to the fact that in our old house we had a prolific pear tree. I planted a pear tree in our garden when we moved here to Lewes about 10 years ago. I pruned it a few years ago, and it had a year off fruiting last year, but this year it had 30-plus healthy pears, despite only being an unsubstantial thing less than two metres call. A good height for my seven year old to help with the picking.

You can make a tarte tatin with shortcrust or puff pastry, but I prefer the former, especially when it’s made with the addition of ground almonds.

I think I could have packed more fruit into this version, and it’s not exactly elegant. But frankly, it’s delicious – butter, sugar, caramelised fruit. So good. My pastry skills are basic, but when you tuck the pastry in and it bakes, it creates possibly the best bit of the whole concoction – thick bits of pastry coated in caramel.

For the pastry
200g plain flour
30g ground almonds
30g caster sugar
Pinch of fine salt
100g unsalted butter, chilled and diced
1 egg, lightly beaten
A little cold water

For the fruit and filling
About 1 to 1.5kg pears, ideally slightly under-ripe. Comice, Williams, Conference are all good.
115g unsalted butter
200g caster sugar

You will also need an ovenproof pan or skillet. I use a cast iron skillet 26cm in diameter.

1. First, make the pastry. This is very easy in a food processor. Put the flour, ground almonds and sugar in the bowl the whiz briefly to combine. Add the butter and whiz until it looks like breadcrumbs. Add the beaten egg, then a little water. Not too much. Just enough to create a firm dough. If you don’t have a food processor, rub the butter into the flour until it resembles crumbs then stir in the sugar and ground almonds. Bring to a dough with the egg and a little water, if necessary.
2. Wrap the pastry and leave in the fridge until you’re ready to use it.
3. For the filling, slice the butter thinly and arrange on the bottom of the pan.


4. Sprinkle the caster sugar in a layer over the butter.
5. Peel, half and core the pears. I used a melon baller to core them, but you can use a teaspoon if you don’t have one.
6. Put the pear halves in the pan, core side down, rounded side up.
7. Put the pan on a medium heat and cook, melting together the butter and sugar, which will then start to caramelise.


8. Meanwhile, heat your oven to 220C.
9. When the butter/sugar mix is starting to caramelise, roll out the pastry to a rough circle a little larger than the diameter of the pan. Timing this is tricky, and I think I took mine off the heat a little early. You don’t want to burn the caramel, but you want your fruit nicely tinged.
10. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the bubbling to subside slightly before covering the fruit mix with the pastry.
11. Tuck the edges of the pastry into the pan and prick all over with a fork.


12. Put in the oven to bake for around 20 minutes or until the pastry is nicely browned.
13. Take out of the oven and allow to cool a little.
14. This is the tricky bit. Run a knife around the edges of the tart then invert it onto a large plate. Some of the fruit may well stick, so just carefully ease it out of the pan and put it back in its slot in the pastry.
15. Serve warm or at room temperature, with a blob of thick cream or vanilla ice cream. Try not to agonise about the calories or cholesterol.

Oh, and although this was delicious, I think I could have packed more pears in. You can also put the fruit the other way up, so you have the rounded bits upwards when you turn it out. The Roux Brothers do it that way with apples in their classic Roux Brothers on Patisserie. Prue Leith and Caroline Waldegrave, meanwhile, in Leith’s Book of Baking, do thick slices of apple. An image search online shows many variables. Frankly, such arrangements are up to you. All delicious and indulgent.

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Eating biscuits at the lost village of Balsdean

Chocolate dunking biscuits

A few days ago, I made this batch of biscuits. They’re a variation on a recipe by Justin Gellatly for “the perfect dunking biscuit” found in his book Bread, Cake, Doughnut, Pudding, but I fancied adding cocoa. Cos, well, chocolate. They’ve got a great snap, and dunk well, but I took them on a walk with my friend Alex. We ate them on the site of Balsdean, a village or hamlet*, that is now lost, or at least gone.

If you’re a bit of a map geek, like me, every time you visit somewhere new, you need a map, preferably (in the UK) a 1:25,000 OS map, plus its digital download counterpart these days. On holiday in Dorset earlier this year, I loved poring over the map and seeing the italic font used by OS for post-Roman archaeological sites, saying “Medieval village (site of)” , “Church (rems of)”. The English landscape is littered with these. It’s fascinating to muse about, then investigate, what actually happened to these places. Why do some villages survive, grow and swell into towns or cities, whereas other fail or fade away?

The reasons are many: a wave of the plague may have depopulated a place to the point where it simply couldn’t continue to exist, without residents to work the land. Something similar happened near here to Hamsey, where the original site of the village now consists of just a church and a barn. Or it may have been lost to changing landscape, crumbling sea cliffs for example, such as Dunwich on England’s East Anglian coast. Another factor may be changing technology. An interesting example of a village dying due to technological change close to (my) home is Tide Mills.

Tide Mills, on the Sussex coast between Newhaven and Seaford, came into being fairly late on, when the landowner decided to use the tidal range to grind grain. A tide mill was built and used between 1788 and 1883, grinding wheat for flour (just to get this post back to my blog’s main theme for a second), in combination with a wind mill. When steam power arrived, the tide mill became obsolete. Despite being clean and green! Not really concerns in the 19th century, other than among Romantic poets. The main concern was it was hard to maintain, so more expensive than a coal-fired steam mill.

The village’s railway station was closed in 1942, three years after the final residents had been removed. During the Second World War, the site was used for street fighting training. Today, you can still see the remains of many buildings. Which is a lot more than can be said for Balsdean, which was cleared of its remaining populace then used for artillery and tank training in the war. There are some amazing before and after photos on this site. The manor looks very fine. People would pay a pretty penny for a place like that in these parts these days.

It’s a very peaceful spot now. Despite something of a howling wind on the Downs’ exposed flanks during our walk, among the trees at Balsdean we had a quiet moment to enjoy the biscuits and try to picture the village and its church. To the modern, historical conservation-oriented mind, the intentional shelling of a Norman church** is boggling but the world was a very different place in 1942. The Battle of Britain in 1940 may have forced the Nazis to postpone Operation Sea Lion, their invasion plans, but Britain was still besieged. Today, all that remains of the church is a pile of stonework and a small plaque marking the location of the altar.

It’s a place that’s clearly inspired people, including the Brighton band Grasscut, who created a musical extra-urban pyschogeographical journey around the area with tracks on their 2012 album 1 inch: 1/2 mile. They even hid “in the environs of Balsdean, a single, utterly unique Grasscut artefact”. Clues to its location can be found in this track, A Lost Village. Which sounds intriguing, much like Kit Williams’ famed book/treasure hunt Masquerade from my childhood.

If you’re interested in visiting Balsdean, for the walk, for the history, or to look for Grasscut’s artefact (assuming no one’s found it), strangely it isn’t marked with “Medievel village (site of)” on the OS map, but here’s the What Three Words spot where the various lanes met in the centre of the village is, with an OS grid reference of 378058, while this is the site of the church.  Switch to satellite view and you’ll see more lumps and bumps and evidences. If you like funny English place names, Balsdean is where Balsdean Bottom meets Standean Bottom, just south of Castle Hill Nature Reserve, not far from the South Downs Way southwest of Lewes.

As for the biscuits, they helped us on our way, and I’m going to keep tweaking the recipe. I’ll post it here when I’m satisfied.

 

 

 

* A hamlet is  a small village, which etymologically quite likely comes from ham, meaning home or place of residence, and let, a French diminutive. One dictionary definition says it’s a village without its own church. So technically Balsdean wasn’t a hamlet, as it had a Norman church.

** This informative site gives some more detail about Balsdean from a 1990 source. The church, or chapel, had fallen out of use as a place of worship by the late 18th century, becoming instead a farm building. So it wasn’t quite so shocking to shell it into a pile of rubble.

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Zucchini or courgette chocolate cake

Chocolate courgette zucchini cake

This one came highly recommended by my sister, who lives in Sydney, Australia, and is currently languishing in a Coronavirus lockdown. Such things as chocolate cake have been essential in getting us through lockdowns and the pandemic in general. Chocolate and cake are two such reliable morale boosters.

I’ve been meaning to post this for a while, but as anyone with small or particularly demanding children will know, it’s hard to get much done in the school summer holidays. In England, they last about six weeks, but it might as well be sixty-six, or six months.

We’ve had another weird climate crisis summer here. We had a drought in southern England earlier in the year and summer was skewed into May and June. Then when it was the actual summer holidays in July and August, it was mostly mild and purgatorially grey with occasional downpours. Now the kids are actually back at school, the sun is out again. Our crop of courgettes, aka zucchini, has been a bit weird as a result. Small courgettes would arrive, then be ravaged by slugs and snails. A few would suddenly swell into more marrow-like beasts, which are less tasty, more watery, and not so good for this recipe.

Water content
Indeed, working with vegetables in cake recipes can be tricky due to the variations in water content. I found the bigger courgette-marrows still worked OK if you put the grated veg in a tea towel and squeezed out as much water as possible. I also tweaked and standardised the recipe my sister sent me into grams. She discovered the cake via a local bakery but it may have originated with this US blog, so thanks Sally.

Anyway, overall this is a delicious, rich chocolate cake, and like a good carrot cake, you’re not distracted by any particularly vegetably flavours.

Decoration freedom
I’ve made a few versions, one covered with a butter cream, then another just sandwiched with some butter cream. The latter was a more practical option as I took it on the first step of Coat of Hopes, a climate action pilgrimage. Our friend Barbara Keal and collaborators are walking from Newhaven on the south coast of England to Glasgow in Scotland for COP26. Their goal is to try and raise awareness and put pressure on world leaders to do more about the climate crisis.

Our summer might have been choppy, but a lot of people round the world have had unprecedented temperatures, wild fires and floods. I was chatting to a friend in Rome and they’d been to Puglia, the heel of Italy, where it tipped towards 49C (120F). These are highest temperatures ever recorded in Europe. Humans simply cannot function with these extremes, let alone grow food for ourselves. Something comprehensive, assertive and right now desperately needs to be agreed at COP26, but I’m preparing myself to be deeply disappointed.

Coat of Hopes walk, Newhaven

For the cake
250g plain flour
62g cocoa powder
6g baking soda
3g baking powder
3g fine salt
200g vegetable oil
175g granulated sugar
130g soft brown sugar
4 eggs, at room temperature
80g sour cream or plain yogurt, at room temperature
6g vanilla extract
350g courgette, coarsely grated
180g dark chocolate, chopped into chips, or chocolate chips

For the icing. Halve these quantities if you just plan to use a filling:
280g unsalted butter, softened
400g icing sugar
65g cocoa powder
3g vanilla extract

1. Preheat the oven to 180C.
2. Grease two 22cm round tins. Ideally deep tins but basic sandwich tins seem to work OK.
3. Sieve together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and baking powder into a large bowl. Add the salt.
4. In another large bowl using a handheld or stand mixer, beat the oil, granulated sugar, brown sugar, eggs, sour cream or yoghurt and vanilla until combined. Add the courgette.
5. Pour into dry ingredients and beat until completely combined. Stir in the chocolate chips.
6. Pour batter evenly into cake tins. Bake for around 35-40 minutes or until the cakes are baked through. Test with a skewer. If it comes out clean, it is done.


7. Allow cakes to cool completely in the tins on a cooling rack.
8. Make the icing by beating the butter until soft. Sieve together the icing sugar and cocoa then add to the butter along with the vanilla. Beat until smooth.
9. Ice the top of one, make a sandwich, then ice the top and sides. You can level the tops if you like a perfectly flat cake, but, really, why waste the goodness? Or if you’ve just made half the butter cream, just fill and sandwich. You can then dust the top with icing sugar. It’s not as indulgent this way, but certainly less messy taken on the first five miles of a 400 mile-plus (700km-plus) pilgrimage.*

 

 

* I do see the irony of talking about making an indulgent chocolate cake, featuring politically and environmentally problematic ingredients like chocolate, while mentioning involvement with a climate action. But being part of the movement to prevent total environmental and climatic meltdown isn’t synonymous with being entirely ascetic. The way I see it, breaking away from fossil fuels and generally improving our footprint on the planet is a profound moment for economic recovery and social health. The opportunities for growth and employment are huge in the green energy industry, education, sustainable housing (retro and new build), improved travel and transit infrastructure, better agricultural practices etc etc.

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Chocolate chip yogurt ring cake, ciambellone

This is my take on Rachel Roddy’s chocolate chip and yogurt ring cake, which is her take on another recipe found on Nigella Lawson’s website, which is itself a version of a teatime cake made in many an Italian household, a ciambellone (big ring shape). Or indeed similar to a cake make in the Ukraine, and probably other places. All recipes have heritage, they ebb and flow between cooks and countries.

I love the ring shape, but must admit I hesitate before using my aluminium ring tin, which Rachel gave us when were living in Rome in 2013. I can be a bit slapdash greasing and flouring it, and fail to create a satisfactory non-stick. Then my cake sticks. Then I get cross. Luckily, it worked well this time – I brushed the tin with melted butter and oil, then floured it liberally.

Anyway, when eating this cake, we’ll think of Rachel, who is poised to publish her third recipe book, An A-Z of Pasta: Stories, Shapes, Sauces, Recipes. Hopefully I’ll get a copy soon, and try some of the recipes. We’re a pasta family, and I have made fresh pasta with the kids, but Rachel’s books should give us some great ideas for getting it right, and matching sauces well.

Rachel does her recipe using a 125ml yogurt pot, using it like American recipes use cups. I like grams. I grew up in the weird British 70s and 80s when we used grams and ounces and feet and metres…. in fact, we’ve still not made any firm decisions about metrication nationally. But I have. My parents’ factory, where I worked as a youth, did everything in millimetres, and I did a lot of hitchhiking in New Zealand, where how far I plodded down highways, how far I had to go, was in kilometres. Then we lived in Italy, which, despite being a country possibly even more tied to tradition that Britain, seemed to be able to cope with properly metricating.

This is a great recipe. Many cake recipes are prissy and can be a bit unreliable. But this is one of those ones that’s forgiving and easy – basically chuck everything in a mix, though I sieve the powdered ingredients together first to homogenise them. It also lends itself to changes – use vegetable oil or olive oil (Rachel does the latter, as, you know, olives grow in Italy, whilst here we grow a lot of rapeseed); use 100% plain flour, don’t bother with the cornflour; leave out the lemon zest or change it to orange; add cocoa; add nuts or fruit or whatever you like.

You may of course prefer doing it with a pot, in so, go back to Rachel’s version on The Guardian site. Go for it! But if, like me, you prefer baking when everything is in grams, you’ve come to the right place.

150g plain full-fat yogurt
130g vegetable oil (plus some for greasing)
3 eggs (about 175g of egg)
220g caster sugar
6g vanilla extract
zest of ½ unwaxed lemon (I’m a grams purist, but this much zest won’t even weight 1g)
100g chocolate chips (you can of course add more if you’re that way inclined)
175g plain flour
75g cornflour
8g baking powder
Icing sugar (to serve)

1. Prepare a tin – either a 22cm springform greased and lined, or a well greased and floured ring tin.


2. Preheat the oven to 180C.
3. Sieve together the flours and baking powder.
4. Beat together the wet stuff, zest and sugar, then add the chocolate chips.


5. Beat in the sieved flour until it’s all mixed into a loose batter.


6. Pour into the prepared tin.
7. Bake for 30-35 minutes until a skewer comes out clean. Note, if you’re using a round tin instead of a ring tin, it will take longer to bake, as the heat will take longer to penetrate the centre. So more like 45-50 minutes.


8. Cool in tin for 10 minutes then turn out to cool completely. Good luck with this bit if you struggle with aluminium ring tins like me.


9. Serve dusted with icing sugar, while browsing Rachel Roddy’s A-Z of Pasta.

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Wild garlic focaccia

Wild garlic focaccia

When I was a little kid in the 1970s, I was intrigued by the copy of Richard Mabey’s 1972 classic Food for Free on my parents’ bookshelves. But I also loved actual shopping with my mum. I remember walking down the high street of my home city, Winchester, her carrying a wicker basket and us visiting actual grocers, bakers, fishmongers and butchers. But Sainsbury’s had also arrived, and they were soon gone. Put out of business. Times changed.

I loved the supermarket too, fascinated by the variety and such things as hazelnut flavoured Mr Men yogurt. So we weren’t exactly food foragers, but my mum is knowledgeable about plants so could often identify things in hedgerows and woods on family walks. Like most people, we foraged blackberries, but while I did learn that rosehips had been used to make a vitamin-rich syrup during the privations of World War 2, for us at primary school they were more important for crushing up and sticking down the back of other kids’ shirts as itching powder.

Foraging, like baking, is of even more popular these days. And spring is when, among other things, the wild garlic appears. Wild garlic, like blackberries later in the year, is an entry level foraging plant, it’s easy to identify and can be plentiful. We met up with some old friends the other day, for our first pub garden get-together in who knows how long, then took the long way home afterwards. Dom took us to a favoured wild garlic patch, importantly away from the main dog toileting route. A strong garlic flavour is good. A dog wee flavour, not so much.

Wild garlic tends to grow in cool, shady places in deciduous woods and close to streams. Your nose may well help you find it. It’s so pungent, in principle it’s hard to confuse. Though it does grow alongside lords and ladies1 (Arum maculatum), whose young leaves can look similar at a glance but are a very different shape when inspected. And don’t smell of garlic. But they are also toxic, so take care.

Fresh wild garlic - washed

Food for bears
Wild garlic is a wonder. Even its Latin name is great – Allium ursinum, bear garlic. Do bears like it? They’re smart omnivores, so it wouldn’t surprise me. We hunted them to extinction in Britain though, so it’s not something I’ll ever see here. The common name I grew up with for wild garlic is ramsons, which apparently derives from the old English hramsa, and may be related to the Greek krómmyon, meaning onion.

Anyway. We got a lot on that jaunt with Dom and family. I say a lot, but it was actually only two small nappy disposal bags, which were buried at the bottom of our backpack (unused), a legacy of the kids’ younger days.

If you have a lot of wild garlic, you may well need to process it. Years ago, when we still had an airing cupboard, I dried it, but found it lost its flavour. Fresh, it makes a good pesto, whizzed up with nuts, oil, grated parmigiana and seasoning. It’s also good for a simple pasta, just roughly chopped, softened in olive oil and combined, perhaps with a squish of lemon juice. You can also use it to make the Middle Eastern coriander condiment zhoug (thanks to my friend Alex, owner of Middle Easten food business Kabak for that one). Another way to process it was suggested by Dom: wild garlic butter. Just chop the garlic leaves fine, then combine it with softened butter, form into a roll, then freeze in greaseproof paper. You can then cut slices off to cook with, using it in lieu of normal garlic in recipes.

Focaccia variations
This year, I had another thought – wild garlic focaccia. As with every idea, it’s already out there on the internet, but I just used my basic focaccia recipe and added some wild garlic whizzed up in a food processor.

What we know as focaccia in Britain is more specifically Genoese focaccia, a white, somewhat soft tray baked bread containing a decent amount of olive oil. They bake it with salt, olives or herbs like rosemary. I’ve asked one Italian friend if they eat Allium ursinum over there, and he says yes, but not often. Which surprises me, as they have a strong foraging culture there. Even our local market in Rome would sell a misticanza2 of mixed foraged greens – foraged weeds – including dandelion leaves and whatnot. In the 1960 film Two Women / La ciociara, starring Sophia Loren as a shopkeeper who flees WW2 Rome to her native village in the mountains with her daughter, there’s a scene where the villagers are foraging the fields for any misticanza, any greens they can eat to keep starvation at bay.

Anyway, here’s the recipe. Use the basic recipe – with whatever editions you like – at other times of the year when wild garlic isn’t available.

Makes one large, 1kg, loaf

Ingredients
360g water, tepid
6g active dried yeast or 12g fresh yeast
585g strong white bread flour
9g fine sea salt
60g extra virgin olive oil

For the wild garlic paste. (I’m not going to be my usual precise self for this bit, as it’s flexible.)
About 80g wild garlic, a nice big handful
A few glugs of extra virgin olive oil
Good pinch of coarse sea salt
Add some chili flakes if you like some heat

Plus some more extra virgin olive oil

Method
1. Put the water in a mixing bowl (or indeed the bowl of a mixer, if you prefer) and add the yeast. Leave it to froth up.
2. Add the flour, salt and olive oil and bring to a dough.
3. Knead until smooth, by hand or in a mixer.
4. Leave 10 minutes or so and give it another quick knead.
5. Leave half an hour, then stretch into a rectangle and fold into thirds.
6. Leave the dough to prove until doubled in size.
7. Stretch the dough out and put in an oiled baking tray. I use a rectangular enamel one that is 25x35cm, 5cm deep.
8. Leave the dough to rest and prove a bit more, for about 15 minutes.
9. Make the wild garlic paste in a food processor – just squash the leaves in, with a few glugs of extra virgin olive oil and a good pinch coarse sea salt. Whizz it up to a coarse paste.
10. Smear the paste all over the dough, pushing in your fingertips to give the bread its distinctive cratered surface and disperse the garlic.
11. Cover and leave to prove one last time, until doubled in size.


12. Preheat your oven to 220C.
13. Give the bread another drizzle of olive oil then bake for around 20 minutes, until golden.
14. Remove from the oven and drizzle with a bit more olive oil, so the bread is nice and moist.
15. Cool in the tin for 10-20 minutes then remove. Eat warm or later on. All that oil means it stays soft well for a few days.

Like many parents, I struggle to get anything green into my kids’ diets. I’m somewhat baffled by the seemingly innate resistance to any brassicas for example. It’s purple sprouting broccoli season in England now, and that veg is such a delight – sweet, and you’d think child-friendly with its small, tender heads. But no. The kids did, however, love this bread. The big one (increasingly big this year) absolutely scovered3 the stuff.

Wild garlic focaccia

1 Just look at the Wikipedia page for all the wonderful common names for this lily. I grew up calling it lords-and-ladies or cuckoo pint, but there are numerous other names.
2 In Oretta Zanini de Vita’s book The Food of Rome and Lazio, she lists “Arugula [rocket], wild chicory, rampion, salad burnet, wood sorrel, borage, wild endive, poppy greens and other bitter greens” for Misticanza Romana.
3 Our family portmanteau word that derives from “scoffed” and “hoovered”.

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Horse, grain, stone, bread

 The Waterers' Shire team at work

Obviously, I love bread, but what particularly excites me is making bread with a story. So when I got an email from British grains and pulses seller Hodmedod’s1 mentioning Flour by Horsepower – flour ground from grain grown with heavy horses – I was sold. Heavy horses are just awesome creatures. And I love to think of that food narrative: field, heavy horse, grain, millstone, flour, bread.

Anyone who knows me in person will at some point have been regaled with reminiscences of my experiences in New Zealand-Aotearoa. On my first visit, in 1990, I ended up living at Newton Livery, a small farm owned by Stephen McGrath in the stunning, sand-fly infested Buller Gorge. Stephen, who died in 2020, was something of a legend, a formidable figure with blacksmith’s shoulders and big beard. He influenced numerous young travellers like myself, introducing us to his idiosyncratic lifestyle – which hinged around his love of heavy (or draft) horses, specifically Clydesdales.

Heavy horsepower
The Clydesdale breed was favoured for export to New Zealand in the late 19th century and prevails there, though for those of us living in England, we’re more likely to encounter Shires. For example, before the plague, here in Lewes, East Sussex, local heritage brewery Harvey’s had a Shire-drawn dray delivering beer around town one day a week2. Both Clydes and Shire are absolutely magnificent breeds, which can weigh up to a metric tonne3 and have extraordinary energy, pulling power and charm. In some ways, I wish I’d been able to maintain more contact with them over the years. So buying the Flour by Horsepower was one way I could feel some contact, however vicariously. Specifically the Shires of Fiona and Jonathan Water, who grow the grain using the horses at their farm Higher Biddacott.

Not only was the flour made from grain grown on a farm worked with Shires, that farm is in north Devon, another place that’s been significant in my life. I had an aunt in Barnstaple, but more importantly I spent 20 years visiting my parents in the area, and Fran and I even got married in Pyworthy, near Holsworthy, a mere 25 miles (40km) as the crow flies from Higher Biddacott. I do wish I’d heard about it sooner, so I could have visited when life took me to that part of the world more frequently. As well as growing grain, owners Jonathan and Fiona Waterer have a B&B and run courses, where you can learn to drive heavy horses.

They’ve farmed at the 40 hectare (100 acre) Higher Biddacott since 1996. Fiona says, “We farm organically and are moving towards regenerative agriculture all with our horses.” Jonathan is a life-long heavy horseman, Fiona saying, “he has worked horses since the age of 10 on his father’s farm. He finished school, went to agricultural college and then ranched out in Alberta, Canada. He returned to Exmoor in 1982 to a small hill farm. In 1996 we moved to Higher Biddacott and on both farms he has used horses. They are his passion and he trains many horses for other people as well.”

The Waterer Shire horses

Flour with history and flavour
I’ve used a lot of different flour in my time, including heritage and local varieties (eg here and here). But with my connections to Devon and heavy horses, I’m really pleased to have discovered Flour by Horsepower, stoneground from the Waterers’ grain at Shipton Mill.

This year, the Waterers’ wholemeal flour is available in two types, made with Squareheads Master or French landrace wheat. We’re likely to see different varieties from them in future now they’ve established a relationship with Hodmedod’s. “We have just finished tilling our Spring wheat and oats,” says Fiona. “We also have some winter wheat in the ground. We have YQ [Yield/Quality4], Mulika and Wild Farm grain varieties of wheat.” All of which lend themselves to organic and regenerative practices.

For my first bake with Flour by Horsepower, I used the Squareheads Master. “We’re very excited about the flavour,” says Fiona. “I use it 100 per cent for a savoury pastry as the ancient grains are not as strong as modern wheats.” That is, they’re lower in protein that what we in Britain mostly use for bread-making these days. I will do some pastry at some point as I’ve got a great recipe from my other Buller Gorge mentor, Nadia Jowsey, but first I made bread.

Squareheads Master is a grain that was developed in the 1860s, from selective breeding of landrace varieties. As such, at the time it was revolutionary for its higher yields. From our modern point of view, however, after the 20th century’s intensification and heavy, frequently toxic industrialisation of agriculture, it is a heritage grain. And clearly one that lends itself well to being farmed with horses in the green fields of north Devon.

When I lived in Newton Livery,  I wasn’t there at the right time for ploughing, tilling and sowing, but did see the horse-drawn reaper-binder in action at harvest time. Until it broke. Stephen could fix anything, but couldn’t get it fixed it time in the weather window we had for harvesting his field of oats, so we did it by hand. Luckily it was a small field, as it was hard work – humans simply do not have even a fraction of the agricultural horsepower of actual horses and a lot of favours were called in to get enough manpower. I wish I’d taken some photos, but suspect I was a bit busy. If and when the plague passes, and we’re back in Devon, maybe one day I’ll see the Waterers bringing in their harvest by horse power. Seeing massive draft horses doing the job they were bred for is a real treat.

Sandwiches in the March sun
Anyway, we just had sandwiches for lunch using my bread made with 50% Flour by Horsepower Squareheads Master flour and 50% Stoates strong white bread, all stoneground, all quality. I used my usual basic bread recipe, leaving the preferment or sponge for several hours to help the flavours develop. I then did a few of my usual, toast-for-the-family tin loaves and one round loaf given a final prove in cane banneton. Cos cobs are cute.

The resulting bread is very good. It’s wholesome and tasty – real grains, milled with stone, result in flour that has a flavour you cannot find with industrially farmed and roller milled grain flours. The crust, with its extra caramelisation and Maillard reaction, is wonderfully nutty, so it’s no surprise Fiona was excited. Perfect for a sandwich lunch in the garden on a warm spring day. Eating the sandwich, I could almost see those Shires steadily working their way across the north Devon landscape.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Footnotes
1 Hodmedod’s are great. They sell all sorts of British grown pulses, grains and flours, including such surprises as British chickpeas and quinoa: did you know they could be grown here? At a time when Britain has isolated itself from the EU, our reliance on China for everything from electronics to tinned beans is questionable, and climate change means that industrialised monoculture agriculture becomes unreliable, the work of Hodmedod’s and its suppliers is essential, finding landrace and locally viable alternatives to internationally sourced foods that will add to British food security, and the sustainability of the jawdroppingly wasteful food production industry.
2 I loved seeing the Harvey’s dray, but it was a bit of a tourist attraction as the Shire team itself wasn’t especially local, but specially brought in. And yet, drays for urban delivery of beer make absolute sense – they use very little fuel (when they’re local), they don’t belch out fumes when stopping and starting, they can pull very efficiently up hills. I’d love to see more, but these days people get so angry about anything that impinges on their perceived rights as a motorist. When I worked for an art magazine in Sunderland in the mid-1990s, local brewery Vaux (which brewed from 1837 until it closed down in 1999; the brand was relaunched in 2019) did indeed still use a dray to supply nearby pubs. Makes me realise how old I am – half a century. I even have memories of being woken by a horse-drawn rag and bone cart in Leeds in the early 90s. Rag and bone men are long gone.
3 1000kg = 158 stone = 2200 lb = just shy of 1 imperial or long ton.
4 YQ, Yield/Quantity or Yield and Quantity, is the popular name for a recently developed crop, bred at Wakelyns Agroforestry by Professor Martin Wolfe and the Organic Research Centre. Hodmedod’s already sell YQ flour and grain and has an informative blurb. There’s also a good discussion of its significance here.

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Fran’s Herman cake

Herman friendship cake

Just to be clear: this was Fran’s project. But as I’m enjoying eating it, she’s given me permission to cover it.

For those who’ve never encountered it, Herman cake, or friendship cake, is a type of apple cake that features a starter not unlike a sourdough. The principle is that you feed up the starter, then split it and pass containers of sludge onto your friends for them to then follow the recipe, and in turn pass sludge onto their friends.

Fran was given it by our friend Martina, another parent at our kids’ school. Seeing as I’m the avid baker of the household, I’m somewhat bemused she didn’t offer it to me. But as I was in thick of home-schooling our five year old and seven year old at that point, nurturing a pot of seething yeasts and lactobacilli as well was possibly a bridge too far for me.

The Herman cake starter isn’t strictly a sourdough. Or not necessarily. I’ve seen recipes online where people create the starter not by awaiting the gentle cascade of natural yeasts from the atmosphere but by making a batter with flour, milk, sugar, water and commercial yeast. Over time, however, this mix is fed (with more flour and sugar) and will take on naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria, and will give off that beery smell familiar to those who cultivate stricter natural leavens.

This type of cake is inspired by an older Amish tradition, Amish friendship bread, which itself would have originally used a true natural sourdough starter. Indeed, all breads and leavened baked goods did before the controlled cultivation and commercial sale of baker’s yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, in the second half of the 19th century following the Louis Pasteur’s advances in the understanding of microbiology.

A few notes:
1. Don’t refrigerate the starter. Just keep the sludge in a bowl, covered loosely with a clean cloth, at room temperature.
2. The final cake ingredients do include baking powder, which seems odd considering you’re using a sourdough-like starter – ie a leaven. But the result is delicious, so I’m not quibbling.
3. The recipe suggests cooking apples, but Fran used desert apples and they worked well. (Gala I believe.)
4. The original recipe also included raisins, but cooked raisins are a sure way to ruin a cake. They’re the devil’s work, like sultanas in the curries we used to have at primary school in the 1970s. Of course, if you like dried fruits in cakes, go ahead and add some.
5. You can add a streusel topping. My mum used to make us a streusel cake when I was a kid, so I’ve taken that element from her old Katie Stewart recipe.
6. It’s quite a big cake. Fran made it in a 23x23cm square tin. I can’t see any reason why you can’t bake it in a round tin, bundt tin or deep roasting pan, depending on what you’ve got at your disposal.
7. I would love to know how the microbiology of a Herman starter differs from that of a classic sourdough (which of course varies a lot too). There is a Herman Project underway looking at the microbial characteristics of different sourdoughs. It’s discussed here, but the link from this MIT page is dead, so I don’t know if it looks at these cake starters.
8. When Fran divided up the Herman starter, each quarter weighed around 300g.
9. I’ve no idea why it’s called Herman. Apparently, “Herman” is an affectionate name for any sourdough starter, though I’ve not heard that before. Presumably in America. Though again, I’ve no idea why that particular name was chosen.

Herman cake starter

So, assuming a friend passes you a container of sludge, here’s the recipe.

Starter
1. The day you receive the sludge is day 1. Stir each day and on day 4 add 140g plain flour, 200g caster sugar and 225g of full-fat milk.
2. Stir each day on days 5 to 9, then add 140g plain flour, 200g caster sugar and 225g of full-fat milk on day 9.
3. Weigh the mixture then divide into four equal portions. Give three containers of sludge away to friends.
4. Keep your quarter for one more day, then you’re ready to make the cake on day 10.

Cake ingredients

300g Herman starter
225g caster sugar
300g plain flour
12g baking powder
3g fine sea salt
155g cooking oil (sunflower or vegetable [ie rapeseed, aka canola] good)
2 medium eggs (ie around 115g, without shells)
10g vanilla essence
2 medium apples, cut into chunks
12g ground cinnamon

Optional streusel topping
50g self-raising flour
100g soft brown sugar
50g butter, melted

1. Grease a 23cm square tin and line with baking parchment.
2. Preheat your oven to 170C.


3. Simply combine all the ingredients and pour into the prepared tin.
4. To make the optional streusel, combine the flour and sugar in a small bowl and mix through the melted butter with a fork. Sprinkle this onto the cake batter.
5. Bake for around an hour, until a skewer comes out clean (-ish). If it’s not baked enough but the top is browning, cover with foil and keep baking.
6. Cool on a wire rack.
7. Enjoy. Or not if you’re a five year old who refuses to eat the cooked apple.

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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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