Category Archives: Discussion

Abyss Brewery and the English – ok, my neighbourhood’s – pub and brewery landscape

If you like British pubs, you’ll be fully aware of the tragic rate they are closing, unable to afford the running costs and compete with cheap supermarket booze even before Covid made things even harder. So it’s always great when somewhere new – somewhere new and selling excellent beer – opens up. Especially if it’s in your neighbourhood. Especially if it’s in your neighbourhood, which historically had plentiful pubs and breweries.

Such is the case for me with Abyss Brewery + Tap, which is not only a ten minute walk from my house, but is also bringing life back to part of Lewes, East Sussex, which has a strong brewing heritage. Indeed, it’s a great example of small town English industry coming full circle. As such, this blog post is hyperlocal, but it’s also about a situation that potentially has echoes across the rest of the country.

Abyss is located in a commercial estate in the South Malling area of Lewes. Along with the Cliffe area, South Malling was historically a separate borough to Lewes itself, over the river Ouse. These days it’s all one authority, but as South Malling is my neighbourhood, and I’ve long wondered why we don’t have any pubs here, in this post I thought I’d concentrate on the beer history of Cliffe and notably South Malling.

Covid Crowdfund
Abyss itself did start over the river, in the cellar of the Pelham Arms pub at the top of town. Andrew Mellor, who is the co-founder of Abyss with his old friend Andy Bridge, leases the pub, and back in 2016 they started brewing there. This is remarkable given that the pub is tied to traditional Dorset brewer Hall & Woodhouse. Briefly, their brews proved popular, so they expanded the old Black Cat brewery at Palehouse Common, near Uckfield in the Weald. Then, in late 2020, they stated a Crowdfunder, and within two months had raised £30,000 to enable them to move into their current site – formerly the malthouse or malt store of Southdown Brewery. Clearly people were crying out for more decent beer, more Abyss. I do wonder how much of that crowdfunding came from locals like myself crying out for a local.

Although their renovation and installation work was slowed down due to Brexit and Covid-related supply chain issues, they were able to open in summer 2021. Prior to that, I’d enjoyed their brews in the Pelham, and more recently had their fresh draft delivered during the lockdowns and Covid restrictions of the 2020 and 2021. Finally being able to go to the taproom was great, especially as not only do their have great beers, but there’s also Mexican streetfood care of Carlito Burrito, who has a restaurant in Brighton. It’s a wonderful revitalisation of the area, though a very different beer experience to what would have happened here in the Southdown days!

Days of yore
Harvey’s is the only historic brewery in Lewes (indeed, in Cliffe) to survive, but there were many others*. Harvey’s has the John Harvey Tarvern in Bear Yard, and the Bear Yard Brewery operated there in the 1700s. In 1817 it was sold to Thomas Wood and Thomas Tamplin. Tamplin was younger brother of Richard, who founded Tamplin & Sons in Brighton in 1821. Tamplins became a huge operation for its time, though it was itself bought by London-based Watney, Combe & Reid in 1953, before brewing ceased at its Brighton Phoenix facilities in 1973. (Watneys didn’t last much longer: 1979. But I digress. Even further.)

John Harvey was a wine importer who brewed at Bear Brewery by arrangement with Wood. When Wood died in 1838, his sons Alfred and George Wood took over, before they in turn were replaced by their brother-in-law Edward Monk in the late 1850s. The operation itself became known as Edward Monk & Sons. Meanwhile, Harvey bought the nearby Bridge Wharf site in 1838 and although the story was troubled, with various family members dying young, in 1881, their fantastic Victorian gothic new premises were built – which is where they brew to this day.

Meanwhile, Southdown Brewery had been established in 1838 by Alfred Hillman and Thomas Street. I believe the nearby Thomas Street is named after him. Surely convention should have dictated it was named Street Street? Anyway, at the end of this street is a building with a fine Victorian neoclassical facade. This was formerly Southdown’s “counting house”, its offices, and is now a Grade II listed building. This grandeur indicates Southdown fared well, though an employee, William Gresham-Wiles, died in 1863 from falling into a tun.

Southdown was bought in 1895 by Augustus and Thomas Manning. Their expansion included buying the Hope Brewery in East Grinstead (founded in 1844). Thus it became Southdown & East Grinstead Breweries Ltd. Southdown & East Grinstead also bought Monk & Sons in 1898. Just to continue with the dangers of brewing, in 1900, another employee, Herbert Bunce of Lewes, was squashed by a brewery traction engine, used for carting beer, while loading from the Southdown & East Grinstead stores in Cuckfield. (The full story is here.)

Fire and direliction
A few winters ago, I helped a friend demolishing a collapsing shed on his allotment in the Coombe, a fabulous valley in Wildlife Trust land to the east of Lewes. I was thrilled to find this sign. Love the idea of “Family pale ales and stout.”

Southdown & East Grinstead had 93 tied houses (pubs) by the time it was sold to Tamplins in 1924. The buildings were bought by agricultural machinery firm Culverwells in the 1940s, who then sold up in 2005. The maltings and other brewing buildings on Davey’s Lane fell into partial dereliction. In the 20-tens (or whatever we call that decade), some were converted into overpriced flats – “the Old Brewery Apartments”, which at least saved the buildings, a wonderful piece of our industrial heritage, from demolition**. There’s a photo gallery of the building’s previous state (with even more ranty blog post than mine) dated 2015 here.

Tamplins was also the destiny of the fourth brewery operating in Cliffe and South Malling in the 19th century. South Malling Brewery was built in 1821 by Alexander Elmsley on Malling Street, then an important commercial and residential road, now largely treated as a bypass by the authorities, with constant speeding traffic. In 1866, it burned down. This seems to be a fairly consistent theme – brewing involved a lot of heating, and that heat in the 19th century was provided by burning stuff (latterly, more efficient but still risky coal-burning steam engines). There’s a reason Tamplins’ brewery in Brighton was called the Phoenix – Richard Tamplin had bought the nearby Southwick Brewery in 1820, only to see the (thatched) building burn down. Hence the name of his replacement buildings in Brighton.

Anyway, Elmsley’s brewery was rebuilt, becoming South Malling Steam Brewery. Old photos show another handsome Victorian industrial building, where Elmsley operated as not just a brewer but also a wine and cider merchant, maltster and agent for other breweries before he died in 1875. Malling Steam Brewery became part of the Tamplins empire in 1899.  The brewery itself became the County Town mineral works, making mineral water, before it too burned down in the 1960s.

Trends, and bucking them
Adajacent to the brewery building was a pub at number 123 Malling Street, once known as the Wheatsheaf, then finally Cleo’s nightclub, which closed in 1976. I believe this had been tied to both the South Malling Brewery and another local brewery, Beard & Co, but is also long gone, simply leaving its name to a modern residential development, the adjacent Wheatsheaf Gardens, gateway to the abovemention Coombe.

Similarly long gone is the Tanners Arms, later Elmsley’s Brewery Tap, at 135 Malling Street. Any of these boozers could have been my locals if they’d survived, as I live just up the road. Meanwhile, in Cliffe, were the Hare & Hounds (38-40 Malling Street) and Foresters (aka Rose & Crown, 30 Malling Street), while further up Malling Street at number 63 was the Rock Inn, and then at number 163, closer still to my house, was the Prince of Wales, which closed in the early 1990s.

Aside from a bar in part of what is now the community centre and children’s centre, the closure of the Prince of Wales then a few years ago the working men’s club, left South Malling – developed since the 1950s into a substantial residential area – without a boozer until the opening of Abyss. So thank you Andrew and Andy.

There may be a tragic trend of pubs closing in England, but thankfully here in Lewes, we have new craft beer bars (like The Patch), breweries (like Beak) and taprooms opening at a wonderfully trend-bucking rate.  Many of these places, opening in industrial buildings, have something traditional pubs can’t always offer – space, which has proved invaluable during Covid restrictions. The stories of pubs closing are sad, a great loss to our traditional culture, but are we also seeing a transition? After years of the brewing trade being dominated by massive multinationals, we seem to be seeing a return to the local, which makes sense on many levels, not least because it’s madness to expend energy shipping a product that’s basically water (transformed by skill and fungus) all around the world.

The story of all these breweries indicates how local booze consumption once was, and now we’re seeing a revival of this taste for the local, and shunning of the generic beers of the multinationals. I hope it’s a trend that continues across the country, as it’s great for local trade and great for the consumer.

* I’m not talking about the ones over the river in Lewes itself, but they included Ballard & Co, Bell Lane, Southover; Verrall & Sons, Southover High Street; Castle Brewery/ Langford, Castle Gate. The Maltings (built 1854-56) of the latter, later sold to the nearby Beards, is extant, on Castle Precincts, just round the corner from the Lewes Arms. I was lucky enough to get a look at the malt kilns in the back a few years ago, but of course I can’t find my photos now. They were pretty gloomy.

** I believe architects and developers are increasingly realising that the more sustainable option for housing and building generally is to re-purpose existing buildings instead of expending vast amounts of energy on demolition and pouring more concrete (as cement is such an environmentally costly material). As this thinking progresses,  hopefully it’ll mean saving more of our architectural heritage.

 

Bibliographical note & acknowledgements

As well as various online resources, for this piece I’ve also drawn from various local history books. These include:

The Chronicles of Cliffe & South Malling 688-2003AD by Brigid Chapman

Lewes Through Time by Bob Cairns

Lost Lewes by Kim Clark

I love local history books like these, with text descriptions and photographic records of how things once were, so thanks and acknowledgements to all, if any of the writers ever happen up my blog.

The book I still need is The Inns of Lewes, Past & Present by LS Davey. When I get that, I may have to update some things here. Or if anyone wants to correct inaccuracies, please do!

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Filed under Ale, beer, Breweries, Discussion

The hydration of enriched doughs

From that title, you’ll probably be able to tell if this post is for you. There’s no two ways about it: it’s one for bread geeks.

It was the feast day of Santa Lucia on 13 December, and I made my Santa Lucia crown, pictured above, with ravening children. This is an enriched dough, flavoured with saffron, made into a ring shape with two braids, and decorated with icing, sprinkles and candles. The sprinkles aren’t exactly traditional, but it’s what my kids like.

Making it, I felt my recipe still wasn’t quite right. The dough made for a delicious cake, like a super-brioche, but it was a bit soft and didn’t hold its shape well when braided and formed into the ring, or crown, shape. This got me wondering about the hydration of the dough.

Hydration and bakers’ percentages
Dough hydration is the proportion of water to flour, expressed as a percentage. So my standard loaf is made with 750g of water to 1000g of flour: that is, 75% water to 100% flour or 75% hydration (750 ÷ 1000 x 100 = 75). With the Santa Lucia crown, it’s 250g liquid (water and milk) to 500g flour, so I just kinda vaguely assumed it was about 50% hydration. But it’s obviously not as it’s so soft and sticky, due to the eggs and butter, and their water content.

Professional baking recipes use bakers’ percentages* along these lines for all the ingredients. This means giving the proportion of the different ingredients as a percentage of the flour (eg 6g salt to 1000g flour is 0.6% salt; 6 ÷ 1000 x 100). I used to include bakers’ percentages on some of my recipes (eg this challah recipe), and I thought I’d done a whole blog post about them, but I can’t find it, so I guess not. Maybe another day. If you really get into baking, and then really get into percentages and hydrations, you’ll be able to find all sorts of resources online, spreadsheets and calculators and whatnot.

Basic, real bread, is of course just water, flour, salt and yeast, so working out the hydration is easy. But how does the hydration work with enriched doughs? How do you work it out when the recipe includes not just flour and water (and yeast and salt) but also milk, butter and eggs? Working out the bakers’ percentage of milk in a recipe isn’t the same as knowing the percentage of water in that milk. So working out the hydration of the dough is another level of complexity. Read on.

Wondering about how my Santa Lucia crown dough handled also got me thinking how it compared with my brioche recipe, a quintessential enriched dough, and whether I could tweak the former so it’s more manageable like the latter. So here’s an attempt to compare both doughs: by doing their bakers’ percentages and working out the hydrations. I’ve probably lost readers who aren’t bread geeks by this point.

Fats, colloids and water percentages
So. Water is obviously 100% water. But what about milk? Vaguely remembering my O-level science, cow milk is a colloidal suspension of fat and protein molecules in water. Googling around, the consensus is that it’s 87% water.  This will vary with whether it’s full-fat or skimmed or whatever, but let’s go with 87%. Egg, meanwhile, is about 75% water.

It gets a little more complicated with butter, as there’s more variation. Most European butters are higher fat content, less water; indeed, EU law says they need to be more than 82% fat, and some are as much as 90%. I’ll admit I don’t buy posh butter, but both the supermarket brands of unsalted butter I have are 83% fat. Factoring in about 1% protein, let’s go with 16% water.

So:
Milk 87% water
Egg 75% water
Butter 16% water

Also, eggs. Eggs have shells. Domestic recipes don’t usually give egg in a weight, just “2 eggs”. But I know the eggs I use contain on average 55g of white and yolk.

Now, I hope I can handle the mathematics, as I’m a little out of practice.

Here’s my Santa Lucia crown ingredients (excluding glaze etc):
250g strong white bread flour
250g plain (all-purpose) flour
125g full-fat milk
125g water
6g active dried yeast
2 eggs, that is 110g egg
3g salt
50g butter, softened
120g caster sugar
A few sprigs of saffron, about 1g

Here’s a table. Column 1 is bakers’ percentage (as it’s half plain, half strong flour, the 100% total flour is divided in two), 2 the above ingredients in grams, 3 is the quantity of water in those ingredients in grams, and 4 is the percentage hydration. I worked out the figures in column 3 by dividing the wet ingredient by 100 then multiplying by the percentage water content discussed above. Eg the milk, 125 (g of milk) ÷ 100 x 87 (percentage of water in milk) = 21.8. Combining the figures in column 4 gives me the total hydration of the dough, ie the total water content of the recipe as a percentage of the flour (100%).

Ingredient 1 Percentage 2 Quantity (g) 3 Water (g) 4 Water %
White bread flour 50 250 0 0
Plain white flour 50 250 0 0
Milk 25 125 108.8 21.8
Water 25 125 125 25
Yeast (ADY) 1.2 6 0 0
Egg 22 110 82.5 16.5
Salt 0.6 3 0 0
Butter 10 50 8 1.6
Caster sugar 24 120 0 0
Saffron 0.2 1 0 0
Total 1040g 324.3g 64.9%

So I now know my Santa Lucia crown recipe is around 65% hydration. Alternatively I can work this out by totalling column 3, dividing this by 500g, the flour weight, and multiplying this by 100, giving 65%, give or take a decimal point. I just wanted to include column 4 so those percentages were writ large. It’s probably overkill… for the two people reading this post. This hydration isn’t that high, so I should be able to mould it better.

Moving on, here’s my brioche recipe.
90g full-fat milk, warmed
25g caster sugar
10g active dried yeast (or 15g fresh)
400g strong white bread flour*
5g fine salt
100g butter, softened
4 medium eggs (220g), beaten

Here’s another table:

Ingredient 1 Percentage 2 Quantity (g) 3 Water (g) 4 Water %
White bread flour 100 400 0 0
Milk 22.5 90 78.3 19.6
Yeast (ADY) 2.5 10 0 0
Egg 55 220 165 41.3
Salt 1.25 5 0 0
Butter 25 100 25 6.3
Caster sugar 6.25 25 0 0
Total 850g 268.3g 67.2

So the hydration here – either worked out by adding up the figures in column 4, or by 268.3 ÷ 400 x 100, is 67%, give or take a decimal point again. Surprisingly slightly more than the Santa Lucia recipe. Though they are somewhat different, with the brioche getting more of its liquid content from eggs and having more butter. I find this brioche dough easier to mould but that may well be as it has a higher butter content. I rest it in the fridge until the butter has firmed up more. Perhaps I will tweak my Santa Lucia crown recipe next year, and give it a rest in the fridge to firm up the butter. We can resume this fascinating discussion in a year. Here’s another pic of the Santa Lucia crown, cut open.

 

 

 

* Where you put the apostrophe is debatable. I like to think they’re the percentages of many bakers, not just one, hence bakers’ percentage instead of baker’s percentage. But I don’t suppose it matters much. Anyway, the reason professional bakers use this system is to scale up recipes but I’m not going into that here. The purpose of this post was to get my head around hydration of enriched doughs, and compare two recipes.

 

 

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Filed under Baking, Cakes (yeasted), Discussion

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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Filed under Discussion, Misc, Travelling

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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Filed under Baking, Discussion, Flour & grain

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

The lords of bread

Many of my posts here include a bit of etymology. I love a bit of etymology. I’m currently reading The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal OBE (etc), arguably the UK’s foremost and most popular writer about linguistics.

The entry about the word loaf tickled me. The origin of the word is the Anglo-Saxon hlaf.

Prof Crystal writes “The head of the household was seen as the person who provides bread for all, a hlaf-weard, literally a ‘bread-warden’… A lady was originally a hlæfdige, ‘bread-kneader’.” I love this idea in relation to my contemporary household – where Fran is the breadwinner and I’m the bread-maker. No medieval gender roles for us.

Crystal continues with this intriguing bit of linguistic evolution: “Hlaf-weard changed its form in the 14th century. People stopped pronouncing the f, and the two parts of the word blended into one, so that the word would have sounded something like ‘lahrd’. Eventually this developed into laird (in Scotland) and lord. It’s rather nice to think that the ‘high status’ meanings of lord in modern English – master, prince, sovereign, judge – all have their origins in humble bread.” Despite bread’s demonisation by popular orthorexia and debasement by the Chorleywood process, it’s also nice to think of people making real bread today as food lords.

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A baking lesson from videogame The Witcher 3

For those of you not in the know about the huge swathe of culture known as videogaming, The Witcher 3 is an award-winning bestseller where you have involved adventures in a fantastical open world. This is a genre that is getting increasingly sophisticated, with vast, detailed environments populated by innumerable characters and creatures. A few years back, I wrote about the pleasures of exploring the world of Skyrim, notably following its resident foxes. The Witcher 3, which I finally got for my birthday back in September, isn’t quite so good with its ecology, but there I did encounter one wonderful detail recently. Not about wildlife, but about food. The sort of thing that really chimes with me and my baking obsession.

So, your character, Geralt of Rivia, is attending a wedding celebration (while possessed by a ghost, no less. You probably don’t need any more detail). At the wedding, a mysterious character you’ve previously encountered makes an appearance. He’s called Gaunter O’Dimm, and he’s magical, knowledgeable and powerful. He talks about wishes, and I assume from his surname he’s some kind of djinn, or genie. I’ve not finished the game yet, so I’m not sure (and may never be). In this particularly scene, what nature of beast he is isn’t important – it’s his thoughts on baking.

As you approach, an old lady is saying, “But gingerbread’s nowt but honey, flour, eggs and spices.”  O’Dimm says, “I beg to differ madam. You omit the most important ingredient of gingerbread – time.” She responds, “Time? What do you mean, time? An ingredient?” So he explains: “Time gives the proper consistency. Time provides the ideal crunch on the outside, the delicious moistness within.” She then asks, “So how much of this time does it take?” And his discourse reaches its conclusion: “That you will not find in any recipe. You must surrender to your senses… Time, time is the key.”

Now, I’m not sure if he’s alluding to other things, you know, metaphorically, but in literal terms he’s saying something I often say to people who ask me about bread-making, and something I’ve mentioned frequently here too. For example, when talking about what makes for real bread or real beer, I said, “Fermentation time is just too import to neglect or reject. Time is just too important to rush. Time is the defining ingredient for craft bread or craft beer, or as I’d prefer to call them, real bread and real beer.”

In the Medieval-style fantasy world of The Witcher 3, baking – even gingerbread – would involve yeast, or at least a natural leaven. But even with commercial, cultivated yeast, time is arguably the most important ingredient. Use too much yeast and rush the proving and the result will be overly gassy and hard on your guts, potentially leaving you feeling bloated or uncomfortable. Use less yeast and allow for a long prove, and the yeasts will have time to feed on the maltose in the flour, changing the chemical balance of the dough. The resulting baked bread will taste better and easily digestible.

This is on the reasons people have trouble with supermarket “bread”. These industrial products do not respect the time factor. The dough is rushed in the industrial Chorleywood bread process, resulting in indigestible products the Real Bread Campaign and others have referred to as “pap”. Chorleywood is very much at the heart of our troubled relationship with bread these days.

“Artisan” bakeries offer real bread, but it can be so expensive it seems an item only for the well-off. But don’t let this force you to eat pap – how about trying your own baking? People say, “Baking’s too time-consuming.” But this isn’t quite true – I tend to create a sponge, or pre-ferment, with water, yeast and about half of the total flour as the kids are having breakfast. This can then be left for hours, allowing the yeast to get a head start. I then make the dough with the rest of the flour and a dash of salt, then leave that alone for several hours. I usually then bake late afternoon or in the evening.

Baking is more about a little bit of planning and can be fitted in around other activities – you know, work, childcare. It really is best to just leave the sponge and the dough alone for long periods, following Gaunter O’Dimm’s edict about the importance of the ingredient that is time.

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Melachrino cake for St George’s day, 23 April

Melachrino cake

George was born to a Greek family in Asia Minor or the Middle East in the 3rd century and, according to legend, became a soldier in the army of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. When he refused to reject his Christian faith and make sacrifices to the Roman gods he was tortured and beheaded, possibly in Nicomedia, an ancient Greek city now buried under the modern city of Izmit in western Turkey.

Through the marvellous convolutions of history he is now the patron saint of England. His reputation rose via the Crusaders in the 11th and 12th century. He was seen – honest ­– aiding Crusaders at the Battle of Antioch in 1098 and was made a patron saint of soldiers. It wasn’t until the reign of King Edward III in the 14th century that he became England’s patron.

Somewhere along the way he fought and killed a dragon. Dragons are so cool, it became a very popular subject among Medieval and Renaissance artists. In many versions, his shield is adorned with a red cross on a white field. Today, this flag – adopted as the English flag, again via the Crusaders – is mostly rolled out by desperate English football fans before desperate international football fixtures. Or for St George’s day, 23 April. (Or 6 May in the Gregorian calendar used by Eastern Orthodox Christians.)

Widespread patronage
Unsurprisingly, he’s also the patron saint of Georgia, as well as of cities as diverse as Beirut and Milan. He’s also an important figure in Greece, where he also gives his patronage to soldiers. Which is a long way to arrive at this recipe. It’s another one from Ernst Schuegraf’s Cooking with the Saints. He notes that it’s “an old Greek recipe traditionally associated with St George, and given to me by an employee of the Greek Embassy in London.”

Some of the supposedly traditional recipes in Schuegraf’s book have no other presence online beyond people making his, but looking up this one, various versions appear. Some are made with grape molasses instead of all the sugar used here, and oil instead of butter, but all feature a broadly similar combination of ground or chopped nuts (usually walnuts), citrus, spices, and a splash of booze in the syrup.

I’ve had a note in my diary to make this the past few years as I love cake batters featuring nuts, and semolina, and drenched in citrusy syrup. Like my favourite nutty cakes torta Caprese and Sachertorte, it’s made by separating eggs, then using the whisked egg whites to lighten the batter. In this case, there’s also a load of chemical raising agent too. I’ve tweaked the recipe a bit.

200g unsalted butter, softened
280g caster sugar
5 eggs, separated
1 egg
400g fine semolina
200g plain flour
8g baking powder
6g baking soda
8g cinnamon
2g ground cloves
250g walnuts, coarsely ground or chopped

Syrup
1 orange, zest and juice
1/2 lemon, zest and juice
500g granulated sugar
1kg water (ie, 1 litre)
30g brandy
1 cinnamon stick

1. Grease and line a 25cm cake tin, and preheat the oven to 180C.
2. Cream together the butter and caster sugar until soft and light.
3. Lightly beat the egg yolks, plus the 1 whole egg, then add gradually beat into the creamed mixture.
4. In a separate, clean bowl, beat the egg whites to stiff peaks.


5. Sieve together the semolina, flour, raising agents and spices and add to the mixture. Also beat in the nuts.
6. Beat in a little of the egg white to lighten the mixture slightly, as it’s quite stiff, then gently fold in the rest.
7. Put the mixture in the prepared tin and bake for about 50 minutes, until firm to the touch and a skewer comes out clean.
8. While it’s baking, make the syrup. Combine the sugar, water, zest and juice, and the cinnamon stick in saucepan and gradually heat up to the dissolve the sugar. I used a Sicilian blood orange, which was particularly pleasing.


9. When the sugar is dissolved, simmer the syrup, reducing the mixture by about a third.
10. When the cake it baked, remove from the oven and leave in the tin to cool slightly.
11. Take the cake out of the tin and transfer to a plate or platter with a rim, to contain the syrup.
12. Pour the syrup over the cake and let it soak in. Serve warm or at ambient temperature.

Enjoy, preferably on a sunny afternoon with a lot of friends – it’s a fairly substantial cake!

Melachrino cake

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Crumbs Brewing and the bread-beer relationship

Crumbs Brewing Amber Lager

This blog was founded because of my dual love of bread and beer, two foodstuffs that are linked through their fundamental ingredients of grain and yeast. At some point after humanity settled and began growing crops, we discovered that grain, either whole or ground as flour, underwent a decisive process when mixed with liquid and left – fermentation. The first written record of all this is from ancient Sumeria (modern southern Iraq), the circa 1800BC Hymn to Ninkasi1 – the goddess of beer, or more broadly, the goddess of fermentation. Her followers may well have been responsible for beer and bread.

For centuries, fermentation remained a sort of quotidian mystery. Such was the significance of bread and ale as staples for the masses in Medieval Europe that the unknown ingredient had an almost spiritual nature and was called “Godisgoode”, “God is good” (possibly2). Early scientists thought the process was chemical not biological. The single cell fungi yeast and lactobacilli that fed on sugars and produced carbon dioxide – leavening bread and lending vigour to beer – wouldn’t be understood until the mid-19th century and the work of microbiologist Louis Pasteur.

Anyway. In Lewes, on the second Sunday of every month, there’s a street food market called Food Rocks. Not many people seem to be aware of it, so it needs a bit more promotion – as there’s some good stuff there. I was helping my friend Alex Marcovitch on his stall Kabak, selling delicious Eastern Meditteranean, North African and Middle Eastern-inspired foods. This time round, diagonally opposite us were Chalk Hills Bakery of Reigate, in the Surrey Hills, where I got myself ready for my shift with a delicious cinnamon bun, and Crumbs Brewing, where I met founder Morgan Arnell and “crumb spreader” Adria Tarrida.

Restoring an ancient connection
These two establishments have a noteworthy relationship. It’s one that reconfirms the ancient connection between baker and brewer. Historically, notably in Gaelic cultures, bakeries and breweries would have operated side-by-side, the barm – the frothy surplus yeast – from the brew being utilised by the baker to make a leaven for bread3.

Apparently, in some parts of Europe, the barm method existed alongside the sourdough method. Baker and food writer John Downes gives one Medieval example here: “In England noblemen’s bread, manchet, was always made with the barm method, whereas the commoners’ bread, maslin, was a sourdough.” He continues “Barm bread survived until World War Two and even later in the North of England largely as barm cakes.”

Anyway, as usual I’m getting distracted4. Crumbs Brewing aren’t doing this (yet). Instead,they’re using leftover bread from Chalk Hills Bakery as an ingredient. A few breweries are using the technique, such as Toast Ale, whose website gives the statistic that “44% of bread is wasted”. It’s pretty shocking. Any food waste is a crime. The amount of energy put into growing and transporting food, only for it to be thrown away is bad enough, but in landfills it contributes to the problem of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Morgan Arnell and Adria Tarrida of Crumbs Brewing

Hills to Isle
So the work of breweries like Crumbs is very important. Morgan, who founded Crumbs with his wife Elaine, says they collect any leftover bread, crumb it, and freeze it. When they have 150kg they take it to Goddards Brewery on the Isle of Wight. Morgan says Goddards were “one of the few brewers that was willing to test out our recipe and method, helped by the fact that I grew up on the Island so could twist their arm to help us!”

The longer term plan is to set up in the Surrey Hills too. Morgan writes more about the process of making the beer – their first batch was brewed in April – here on the Crumbs blog. The 150kg makes a 30 hectolitre5 brew, “c 6000 500ml bottles in our case” explains Morgan.

Breadbeerisgood
Suffice to say, the beer is delicious. I wouldn’t really be writing about it here if I didn’t actually like the stuff. It’s called an Amber Lager, and I can kind of see the logic of this naming to help it appeal to lager drinkers. It’s certainly light and refreshing. It’s bottled at Goddards and isn’t bottle conditioned, but its carbonation level is pleasant. To my mind it is more an ale than a lager, and it is indeed made with top-fermenting (ale) yeasts, not bottom-fermenting (lager) yeast.

There are so many craft ales around at the moment, notably dubbed APA and American IPA, which overuse the Chinook, Cascade, Citra, Mosaic hops etc to the point where they’re reminiscent of cleaning products, pine-scented detergent or whathaveyou. Thankfully the Crumbs Amber is more subtle proposition. Morgan says they use Progress hops, which the British Hops Association says, are “an excellent bittering and late aroma hop.” The overall flavour is more about the malt and bread. It doesn’t taste bready per se, but it has a warm sweetness and decent body, without heaviness. Morgan says “The slightly sweet, malty aftertaste is a result of the bread.” He adds that they plan to try brewing with different types of bread and it “Will be interesting to see how brewing with different loaves changes that character.”

It’s a great addition to the SE of England craft brewing scene so I’m very glad to have come across Crumbs at Food Rocks. Good luck to them, and I’m intrigued to try their next beers made with different breads: “dark rye stout or sourdough IPA anyone?”

Notes
1 The full text of the Hymn of Ninkasi can be found here. In English, not ancient Sumerian.
2 There’s some debate. This thread gives a few sources for the term, but it’s not entirely conclusive.
3 I’ve done a few barm bread experiments: here and here.
4 When one is actually paid to write journalistically, one mustn’t get distracted. There’s usually a tight editorial brief and even tighter wordcount. Not so on one’s own blog! Hah!
5 A hectolitre is 100 litres. 1hl is about 0.61 UK beer barrels, or So 30hl is around 18 UK beer barrels or 660 imperial gallons. For Americans, 30hl is 25.5 US beer barrels or 795 US liquid gallons. Good heavens I wish people would standardise things globally. Some might see it as heritage. I love a bit of history, but all these different weights and measures just make life even more flipping complicated. I sincerely hope “Brexit” doesn’t have us going back to shillings and scruples and chains.

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Filed under Breweries, British beer, Discussion, Flour & grain

Some chocolate cookies from Modern Baker

Modern Baker choc cookies

The latest addition to my library of baking books is Modern Baker by Melissa Sharp and Lindsay Stark. They have a bakery in Oxford of the same name, founded by Sharp in part as a response to a health crisis1 she experienced. As such, the book ties in with the recent “clean eating” movement.

The bakery’s “concept is based on good provenance, great tasting food and promoting healthy living”. This is something I’m broadly in agreement with – provenance is hugely important, and I’m also someone who suspects modern industrial food production is at the core of the rise of food intolerance, allergies etc, not to mention diseases like diabetes that can be related to people eating far too much refined sugar in junk food. But at the same time I’m somewhat wary of “clean eating” as it’s so closely related to orthorexia nervosa. There’s a fine line between trying to eat well, and obsessing to the point where you’re rejecting foods perceived as unhealthy. This obsessiveness is orthorexia nervosa, a term coined in the late 1990s to describe a newly identified eating disorder.2

One notable, nay faddish, food issue that’s prevalent now is the virtual demonization of gluten.

The Modern Baker, I’m happy to report, isn’t entirely anti-gluten. And why should it be? After all, gluten is just protein, or indeed two proteins – gliadin and glutenin. If you’ve not seen the Jimmy Kimmel video that exemplifies people’s ignorance about gluten, here it is. The big problem with modern bread instead is fermentation times. Time is the most important ingredient for bread-making, time for the dough to ferment properly. Indeed, Modern Baker emphasises the importance of fermented foods, notably sourdough. “Long fermentation breaks down the carbohydrates and gluten in the grains, so many find the finished loaf is much easier to digest and the nutrients more easily absorbed.”

Wholesome coconut sugar

Natural sugars
Modern Baker is staunch in its rejection of refined sugar – pure white, made from beet or cane. Instead, it uses other ingredients for sweetening: fruit, maple syrup, and where a direct refined sugar substitute is required, coconut sugar. It’s something I’ve not used before, but I’m happy to try new things. The book just got me wondering about the arguments for “natural sugars”.

Although the research isn’t conclusive, it’s suggested that coconut sugar has a lower glycaemic index than conventional refined sugar and has more nutrients. Though a quick Google suggests that while is does contain iron, zinc and calcium, the quantities are not significant enough to offer your body much.

It does contain some inulin, a type of dietary fibre. According to this Huffington Post article “clinical research finds prebiotics like inulin support gut health, colon cancer prevention, blood sugar balance, lipid (fat) metabolism, bone mineralization, fatty liver disease, obesity, and immunity.”

As for its “sugariness”, coconut sugar breaks down as 71% sucrose (which is itself a disaccharide formed of a combining of glucose and fructose), 3% fructose and 3% glucose: that is 78% sugar, with the rest made up of fibre, nutrients and antioxidants.

As for its GI, well that measures glucose content, not fructose – which makes up around 39% of coconut sugar. So it’s still sugar, and not great when consumed in quantity. Modern Baker does indeed make this point: “The natural sugars we use are still sugar, however, and they should still be regarded as a treat.” This is very much in line with my philosophy – cakes are a treat, not a staple.

I’m not entirely sold on coconut sugar though. I’m also something of a locavore, where possible, so I struggle with the sugar question. In some ways, I do prefer the idea of supporting British farming and British produce by buying sugars made from British beets.

Although they may well be slightly more refined, and slightly more nutritionally dubious, they’re still from a plant, right? I’m not so sure about buying sugar made from a coconut palm grown in tropical climes and imported here. Indeed, the bag I bought is from Indonesia. Is this another example of a commercial crop that, like palm oil, involves rainforest clearance being replaced by a monoculture?

So while I’ll add coconut sugar to my store cupboard until I know more about its provenance, for the bulk of my baking I’ll stick with conventional sugar, ideally from British beet. In part, frankly, as it’s also more readily available. I call it the Ottolenghi factor. I rarely make Ottolenghi recipes as more often than not I’d be forced to resort to buying exotic ingredients online as they’re not available in small-town England.

Keeping it real
This post is getting far longer than intended. The point I’m trying to make it that while I’m broadly in agreement with Modern Baker about eating well, taking care of your enormously important gut flora, and avoiding the most industrially refined foods, I also need to be realistic about feeding my family, and that may mean a few more conventional, readily available ingredients here and there.

Plus, well, I’m just not as good a baker as the team at Modern Baker. My sourdough never quite seems feisty enough to reliably turn out my weekly bread requirements. By and large, I’m half-way there – from the pics and glossary in the book, I use the same flours as them (Stoates organic stoneground from Dorset) but I still rely on commercial yeast.

Oh, and as a matter of course, I always knock back the sugar quantities in recipes. I even did that here for their recipe modestly called “The ultimate chocolate biscuit”, reducing it by 10%, and the results were still good. Indeed, these are remarkably light, crumbly, moreish biscuits considering they’re made with spelt (Triticum spelta) flour, which can tend towards a slightly heavier result in cakes and biscuits than normal wheat (Triticum aestivum) flour. Indeed, as much as I like to use older, more nutritious wheat varieties in my bread-making, it’s great to discover a recipe where they’re used in really yummy biscuits.

Using a 60mm round cutter, makes about 60 biscuits

170g unsalted butter, softened
180g coconut sugar
Pinch salt
2 egg yolks (that is, about 38g)
60g coconut oil
200g spelt flour3
120g raw cacao4 powder
Cacao nibs

1. Melt the coconut oil in a pan on a hob or in a microwave.
2. Put the butter, coconut sugar and salt in a large bowl and beat until fluffy.
3. Add the egg yolks and coconut oil and beat again.
4. Sieve together the spelt flour and cacao powder and add to the beaten mix.
5. Combine to form a dough with no lumps or dry bits.
6. Bring the dough together, form a disc and wrap in cling film.
7. Put the dough in the fridge and chill for at least an hour, to help it firm up. Modern Baker says it will keep in the fridge for up to five days.
8. When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 200C.

Cut out
9. Roll out the dough to about 3mm thick, cut out, put on baking sheets lined with parchment or silicone.
10. Sprinkle with cacao nibs. Or don’t, if you’ve got fussy kids like mine who reject these lovely additions. Honestly, they’re crunchy, nutty and chocolaty! What’s not to like?
11. Bake for about 12-14 minutes. Watch out for over-baking the bottoms.
12. Leave to cool on the trays then transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling.

Very good. Not sure they’re the “ultimate chocolate biscuit” but there are solid pleasures to be had here. Bravissime Sharp and Stark! One “however”, however – in true toddler fashion, my sweet-toothed chocoholic three-year-old doesn’t like them. Not enough refined sugar and chocolate perhaps? Oh dear.

nfd

Footnotes
1 In her introduction, Sharp refers to her “aggressive, triple-negative, grade 3 cancer”. Alongside radiotherapy and chemotherapy, she revised her diet. She also says she was “someone who spent much of her life fighting an eating disorder.”
2 For more information, as always, start with the Wikipedia entry.
3 I used Stoates Organic Light Spelt, which has been bolted – sifted – more, removing more of the bran and making it lighter for cakes etc. I use this flour a lot, it’s great in my pizza and my everyday bread doughs. Available here.
4 I’ve still not found a satisfactory explanation of any difference between “cocoa” and “cacao” in the English language. I’m coming to the conclusion that the latter is simply used in a more health foody context. I talked about this more here.

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Filed under Baking, Biscuits, cookies, Discussion, Recipes