Category Archives: Uncategorized

Long overdue update

You may have noticed it’s been quiet around here. When I first started this blog, a decade or so back when I was living in Rome, I used to crank out a new post every week. Things were very different then. Notably: no children.

Parenting pre-schoolers can be hard work, and the received opinion is that things get easier when they start school. You can get more work, have some time for yourself or whatever. Which is just poppycock, in my experience. Aside from the fact that Covid has made life more complicated, particularly for younger children whose entry to education was so damaged, I’m just finding things busier than ever.

It’s been a full-on summer, work-wise, while parenting wise, with my children now aged seven and eight, there’s never been more rushing about. Swimming, football, ballet, karate, gymnastics… and now they want to try capoeira. Which is great, but it’s more rushing about for me. Never mind their social lives. You don’t realise how much of a social secretary or PA role you’ll be playing for your children at this age, older than playgroups and easy convening at the playground, younger than having their own freedom and phones.

The other big change to affecting this blog is my diet and lifestyle. I’m 52 now, and while many people were driven to drink more during the Covid years, I went the other way. I rarely drink these days. It’s not like my 18 to 25 teetotal years, but certainly I don’t reach for the booze at home, and as don’t have much of a social life beyond chatting to other parents at football training or the skatepark or whatever, I don’t sink pints down the pub either. Or indeed down our dynamic local brewery taprooms. Frankly, so much of their product is just too strong for me, so even when I’m working their on a pop-up food stall, I decline (and it’s free for the caterers!). Seven per cent beers were fine in Rome, but not now I’m a decade older and my kids challenge my stamina, it’s not something I can relax with. I’ve lost 5kg too, though that may be incidental, more stress-related than beer calories-related.

Although we put on a cake spread for me and Fran’s 100th birthday party back in July (see pic), I’m also not baking cakes as much either, as I’m trying to reduce the amount of refined sugar I eat. A middle-aged spare tyre is never a good look. Much as I adore baking and eating cake (etc), I often find in our household it’s just me and my son eating it, with my wife and daughter eschewing it. I won’t go into how the daughter often seems to prefer industrial junk, one of those phenomena that seems to occur with some children who are fed a lot of home-made, real food.

I do have various bakes I still plan to attempt, and write about, and interestingly, my drift away from strong ale has led me to start exploring the burgeoning world of low-alcohol or so-called “alcohol-free” beers. For decades in the UK, the only low alcohol beer available was dreadful industrial lager. That’s been changing fast the past few years, with the arrival of low alcohol IPAs. And now, breweries like Lowtide in Bath are producing a remarkable range, including a NEIPA and a pleasant take on a Belgian abbey beer. The big craft breweries are in on it too, like Brewdog, with its Nanny State (0.5% ABV), and Beavertown, with its Lazer Crush (0.3% ABV).

I plan to write about this properly at some point. One thing I’ve been wondering about is the legal definitions. A UK government document called Low Alcohol Descriptors Guidance published in December 2018 says, ‘alcohol free’ “should only be applied to a drink from which the alcohol has been extracted if it contains no more than 0.05% abv”, while it defines ‘low alcohol’ as “1.2% alcohol by volume (abv) or below”. Though I haven’t explored it properly yet, Tom the Steady Drinker’s blog both cut through some of the confusion and confused me more, as it seems to be the case that UK legal definitions and licensing laws are somewhat out of sync.

Anyway, that’s what’s been going on – or not going on – on this blog. The other thing to mention about me not updating it as regularly as I used to is that I knackered my phone camera (dropped it after a few strong ales, ironically), so snapping half-decent pics for inclusion has been tricky. Sorry about that.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15. Cool on a wire rack.

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

Happy St Nicholas’s Day!

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

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Filed under Baking, Biscuits, cookies, Feasts, Uncategorized

Moo-cow biscuits


Since my last post, my life has changed a lot. We went from a couple to a family of four, with the adoption of two under-threes. I’m still baking a lot – all our bread, pizza night once a week, a lot of flapjack, and various things – but I don’t have the time or mental energy to blog as regularly, as I’m really not used to sleeping in fitful hour segments when repeatedly woken up by screams and the flashing lights of the baby monitor, or “misery disco” as we call it.

Anyway, our toddler came to us with a very sweet tooth. We’ve tried to wean him off the industrial rubbish, but I’m not going to completely deprive him of biscuits and cake. Especially as I know what goes into what I make – and I almost always reduce the sugar in recipes by about 25 or 30 per cent. A comparison between my flapjacks and a batch made by my mum really highlighted this!

As well as eating a lot of flapjacks when we were little, we also ate a lot of Malted Milks – or “moo-cow biscuits” as they were known by myself, my big brother and my little sister when we were kids. I’m not interested in giving our toddler the factory version of these, but was intrigued to try a recipe called “The mega milky malt” in Justin Gellatly’s Bread, Cake, Doughnut, Pudding.

These are one of those biscuits, or cookies, where you make the dough then refrigerate it overnight. I made mine early on Sunday morning, in time for a walk up our local hill in borderline-freezing temperatures – as winter seems to have reappeared this late-April. I did reduce the sugar: some bakers would say changing the proportions of fat to sugar affects the caramelisation and crunch, but the results still seem pretty good. I also cut them with a rectangular cookie cutter, in memory of the shape of the industrial moo-cow biscuits I ate so often all those years ago. Sadly I don’t have a stamp to add a cow design to to them.

The one vaguely unusual ingredient in these is malt syrup, which can usually be found in health food shops, and may be called malt essence.

250g unsalted butter, softened
100g caster sugar
100g soft light brown sugar
2 eggs
5g (1 tsp) vanilla essence
50g malt syrup
20g golden syrup
50g milk powder
400g plain flour
Pinch fine sea salt

1. If you have a mixer, or a handheld beater, it’s easier, but you can still do it with a bowl and a wooden spoon. Start by creaming together the butter and sugars.
2. Lightly beat the eggs and vanilla then beat into the creamed mixture.
3. Beat in the syrups, then add the milk powder and combine.
4. Add the pinch of salt, sieve in the flour then mix to form a well-combined dough.
5. Form the dough up into a slab or disc, wrap in plastic, then put in the fridge for about eight hours.
6. Heat the oven to 160C and line baking sheets.
7. Lightly flour the work surface, then roll out the dough – there’s quite a lot, so you might want to do it in pieces – to about 5mm thick. Stamp out with your cookie cutter of choice.
8. Place on the baking sheets then bake until golden-brown, about 15 minutes – this will vary depending on the fierceness of your oven.
9. Leave to cool for a few minutes on the trays then transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling.
10. Store in an airtight container, or freeze until needed.

Our toddler seems happy with the results; I just wish he’d spontaneously incorporate a “please” into his demands occasionally. “Want bickit! More bickit!!” But we’re working on that. Amongst other things.


And thanks to Will “Mabel Jones” Mabbitt for the use of his lovely lighting for the top pic and for having our toddler over to play with his, an event I can’t quite bring myself to call a “playdate”.


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Quiet week

If it’s been a bit quiet round here this week, that’s because I’ve been baking even more than usual – preparing to open a stall on the market.

I’ve been thinking about such a venture for years, so I’m giving it a try, starting tomorrow. I’ve done some catering work over the years with my friend Dom, and we operated as The Wolf from the Door. I’m continuing to use that name (which Fran came up with) as I love the expression.

If you don’t know what it means, it’s a great English idiomatic expression meaning to keep hunger at bay. My mum – who has an idiom for pretty much every occasion – used it all the time when we were growing up, as me and my brother were constantly asking for something to eat, while we both shot up to be six foot-plus.

If you live in Sussex, specifically Lewes or even Brighton, please do come along and try my wares, have a chat. I’ll be in – or possibly outside – the Market Tower in Lewes as part of the Lewes Food Market, initially every other Friday, from about 9am to 1pm.

It’ll be a biscotteria – with an emphasis on Italian, or Italian-inspired biscuits and cookies, notably biscotti and almond-based items. But I’ll also be doing some other items, inspired by flavours from other cultures. A couple are even gluten-free, and I’ve made my Christmas biscotti vegan, so hopefully something for everyone.

Bit nervous. It’s all very well writing about this stuff online, but there’s a different kind of interaction, and feedback, in the real world!



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Lewes OctoberFeast – apple juice, pizza and pulled beef

I know it has absolutely nothing to do with bread, cakes or ale, but I was really excited to hear that an apple press was being set up for two weekends of Lewes OctoberFeast (which is actually more of a SeptemberFeast). People could collect their own apples, or their neighbours’, or apples from wild trees, or whatever, and bring them along to be made into juice.

When we moved back into our house in Lewes at the end of December 2013, one of our two old apple trees had produced loads of fruit, which was all lying rotting on the ground. It drives me mad to think our tenants were probably buying apples shipped from New Zealand or South Africa – or even France – while ones went to waste in their garden.

I vowed to utilise them this year, but the ripening has coincided with out period of no kitchen (10 and half weeks and counting), so I couldn’t make any chutney; instead, we gathered a small backpack full and took them to John Downie’s press in the Market Tower. Which was disappointingly quiet – considering how many other apple trees I see being neglected, and considering how much effort those running it go to, it should have been thronged. Quite possibly  it wasn’t publicised enough.

Apple pressing 1

Just one small backpack produced nearly three litres of delicious fresh juice. Wonderful.

Apple pressing 2

Afterwards, we wandered off in the direction of the Street Food Feast, taking place in the yard of Harveys brewery, picking up some bread en-route at Flint Owl, one of the two great real bread places that opened up in Lewes during our two years away in Rome.

Flint Owl shop

Much as I’m missing home baking, I’m enjoying the excuse to try the locally baked breads.

The street food feast was a lovely event. Harveys had their beer wagon set up, a chap was playing a lute (or somesuch exotic instrument) and people were sitting around on beer crates enjoying the wares.

We had some pizzas from the mobile oven of The Hearth, the excellent Lewes pizzeria and bakehouse.


Lewes isn’t a great place for restaurants – there are very few, and they’re mostly not great for buon rapporto prezzo qualita (“good balance between price and quality”, ie value for money). Lewes is more a pub town. Indeed, it’s an excellent pub town, but while some of them do decent pub food, those tend to be the ones that don’t necessarily do the best beer. Gah! And, weirdly, for a small town, we have every single rubbish pizza chain you can think off – so The Hearth is a real relief, especially after moving home from Italy.

The restaurant above the bus station has a wood-fired oven, but owner Michael Hanson honed his skills with his mobile rig at festivals. And here it was in the Harveys yard yesterday being ably driven by big-haired Big Pat.

Pat and pizza oven

Now, I must say I prefer cubed mozzarella blocks to this pre-grated stuff, but I imagine Michael uses it for the mobile set-up as it’s a lot easier. (They use both, as well as mozzarella di bufala, in the restaurant.)

Hearth pizzas

After the pizzas we also had to head for a truck called Spade and Spoon, as the carnaholic Fran had spied it did pulled beef, slowed cooked in Harveys ale. This looked like just my sort of place too, as they had an emphasis on good provenance. I’m sick to the eye teeth of pubs saying “we use seasonal and local food” then having menus clearly based on imported produce or stuff from cash and carries. Spade and Spoon looked more credible though, thankfully.

This is where things got a bit strange. Not the very slow-moving queue, which was just boring. I mean the fact that the night before I’d been to a gig in Brighton featuring my very talented friend Angeline Morrison*, who I’ve known since the early 1990s. When Fran got to the front of the Spade and Spoon queue to help carry our pulled beef in buns, chicken wrap and beetroot burger back to our other chums, the guy making my burger said “Dan!”. I looked up and said, “Dan!” This was another old friend from the same period when I met Angeline – indeed, Angeline may well have broken up with me then gone out with Other Dan. I’d not seen Dan for about 15 years, and hadn’t seen Angeline for about five either, so it was a strange coincidence.

Dan’s beetroot burger was very good too. Though I think he perhaps need to employ one more, faster chef in his food truck.

Spade and Spoon

Afterwards all this gorging on the savouries, and shock of the coincidence, we perused the sweets. Now, as much as I like a good honest British sponge cake, I would say there were a few too many at this event. We did, however, find one lady doing delicious chocolate hazel-nut meringues, which just hit that desert spot, thanks very much.



*Here’s a classic track from Angeline:

Here’s some more of her stuff on Soundcloud, plus look out for the upcoming album of her new outfit, The Mighty Sceptres.





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Gluten-free, food fads and a lay discussion of the article ‘Does wheat make us fat and sick?’

After two years living in Italy, I was really surprised visiting New Zealand last year to see how ubiquitous the “gluten free” thing has become. Loads of cafés and bakeries had signs front and centre offering baked goods free of the perceived evils of gluten. It surprised me even more to see this has become commonplace in the UK too.

Although Eataly, the Slow Food-ish bourgeois supermarket in Rome, has a section of foods suitable for coeliac sufferers, generally I didn’t notice signs offering foodstuffs “senza glutine” in Italy. Sure they have bad baked products there in Italy, including crappy industrial white sliced (“pancarré”), but by and large there are still a lot more real bakeries selling real bread. The same thing that’s sustained humanity for centuries, and been the staff of life* for millennia.

What we’re experiencing is one of many battles being fought in today’s information wars, where lobbyists and their allied scientists, pseudo-scientists, semi-scientists and writers duke it out. Some represents the arable industry, or the (industrial) baked goods sector, others representing sections of the food industry, or sections of the media and publishing trade that are advocating a certain fad diet (low carb, carb-free, “paleo”, etc).

Every week, it seems, there’s another article in the media about the latest foodstuff that can satisfy dietary needs in lieu of wheat – quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, coconut flour, almond meal, flax seed meal, buckwheat, chia and teff. Despite the fact that human civilisation, in Eurasia at least, was largely built on the nutritional strengths of grains –  first domesticated as far back as 10,000BCE, possibly earlier, in the Fertile Crescent.

One of the big guns in the recent anti-wheat lobby is American cardiologist William R Davis, who published a book called Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health in 2011.

I’d seen the guy’s spiel on CBS and was partially drawn in – he said that modern wheat strains were so over-engineered that the crop had become toxic. It resounded with me due to my interests in older wheat varieties and in real bread made with them. His theory, however, was controversial.

A few days ago, Jeremy Cherfas, a fellow baker and a science and food communicator, posted a link to an article published in The Journal of Cereal Science in September 2013, with the catchy title ‘Does wheat make us fat and sick?’ While it’s not a scientific research piece in itself, it references and quotes a broad selection of studies to refute Davis’s theories.

It makes quite interesting reading. Though it also uses some language I struggled with, like “immunogenic epitopes”. So, I started writing this with the intention of succinctly summarising it. I’ve failed miserably on that front.

A few key points of refutation
Davis said modern bread wheat wascreated by genetic research in the 60s and 70s” resulting in an “unnatural protein in our ‘modern wheat’ called gliadin”.

Apparently, commercially available wheat is still not GM, unless you consider millennia of selective breeding to be genetic modification.

Gliadin, meanwhile, is one of the two proteins that makes up gluten (the other is glutenin) and is present in all wheats and related species.

The article even picks on some specific pronouncements by Davis, such as “‘The proliferation of wheat products parallels the increase in waist size.'” The article’s response even manages to be almost humorous: “This statement implies that a correlation between two variables can be interpreted as a true causal relationship. It is certainly true that the increase in wheat sales has a parallel with an increase in obesity. However, there are also parallel increases in the sales of cars, mobile phones, sports shoes and the average speed of winners of the Tour de France.” Haha. Oh.

The article refutes the notion that wheat is a worse starchy food in GI terms sayaing, “However, the blood glucose response after bread consumption was lower than the response after eating the same amount of potatoes or white rice…”

It refutes Davis’s assertion that wheat can be addictive and cause withdrawal, by pointing out that although the body can create an opiate-like substance from “incomplete digestion of gliadin”, that substance simply cannot be absorbed by the gut and as such cannot get into the bloodstream or affect the nervous system.

Conversely, the article points out something that’s generally accepted among sane people: “the consumption of whole grain and whole grain fibre significantly improves blood glucose control, improves cholesterol levels, reduces blood pressure […etc]”.

So bread is still good, but only when it’s real bread made with wholegrain flour as responses are very different with “refined (white flour based) wheat bread”, which is a mealy-mouthed way of referring to that central culprit in ruining the reputation of bread as a healthy food: white sliced, the bastard child of post-war research in Chorleywood in the UK.

The article continues, “The authors conclude that the evidence regarding the relevance of refined grain and whole-grain product intake for the risk of obesity is judged as insufficient.”

Furthermore, they say, “studies show a possible relationship between whole-grain product intake and a reduced risk of obesity, a probable relationship with a lower risk of diabetes and coronary heart disease, and a convincing relationship with a reduced level of LDL cholesterol.”

The article also refers to further studies that “concluded that the intake of dietary fibre from cereals and other whole grains is associated with a reduced risk of colorectal cancer.”

The article does talk about the exceptions to these endorsements of the health benefits of wholegrain products, notably those who suffer from coeliac disease and wheat allergies, but it lost me a bit here and also disappointed in that in failed to discuss the related issue of the importance of fermentation in the production of bread, and how the biggest problem with the CWB white sliced is how it basically fails to properly ferment the dough.

An academic study done in Italy a few years ago indicated even coeliacs could digest bread if it was made properly – that is, with long fermentation. But presumably the authors of this study cannot come out straight and criticise such an important industrial food product, they just have to stick to criticising the theories of the faddish Wheat Belly.

Again, being somewhat mealy-mouthed the article said, “Wheat-containing foods prepared in customary ways and eaten in recommended amounts have been associated with numerous health benefits.” But “customary”, like “traditional”, is one of those words that’s open to interpretation. I mean, white sliced junk has been made in factories (factories – not bakeries) for more than 50 years. Does that make it a “customary way” of preparation? How long does something have to be done in a certain way to qualify as “customary”?

The article concludes “Arguments that the currently consumed wheat has been genetically modified resulting in adverse effects on body weight and illnesses cannot be substantiated. In particular, populations in some countries have obtained the major part of their daily energy intake from wheat-based foods for many years, such as Turkey, without reporting any detrimental effects on body weight or chronic disease.”

So ultimately the article is saying it’s nonsense that bread is fattening or intrinsically illness-inducing (for those not genetically predisposed), saying “There is no evidence that selective breeding has resulted in detrimental effects on the nutritional properties or health benefits of the wheat.”

The article doesn’t say it but I will: what’s fattening or bad for you is eating too much crap food – such as industrial white refined wheat products full of additives – and having a lazy, inert lifestyle that involves sitting on your arse too much.

You don’t need a gluten-free or faddish diet like “paleo” (nicely discussed here by Michael Pollan) to be healthy and have a suitable body mass. Just stop being a lazy sucker, get off your arse, walk or cycle to the shops, buy or make some properly fermented wholegrain real bread (ideally made with locally grown organic flour, to support your local and national economy and damage the environment less). It’s been good enough for thousands of generations of humanity – it’s good for you too.


* Leviticus 26:26, King James Version (KJV): “And when I have broken the staff of your bread, ten women shall bake your bread in one oven, and they shall deliver you your bread again by weight: and ye shall eat, and not be satisfied.”


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Splits, clotted cream and a Roman summer afternoon tea

Devon splits, Cornwall splits

Among the few things we crave but are just impossible to source in Rome are halloumi cheese and clotted cream. For those who don’t know, the latter is a nectar-like dairy product that comes from the Southwest of England. Fran’s from the southwest and I have strong connections, so we both have clotted cream in the blood. So to speak. It’s an essential component of a proper cream tea.

I’ve always used clotted cream with scones, but it’s also used with a less well known variation the cream tea: with splits. When I smuggled a massive tub of clotted cream back home from Blighty last week, I resolved to make splits, and do a bit of a comparison with scones.

A large - nearly empty - ot of Langage clotted cream

What is a split anyway? Well, it’s basically just a cream bun, made with a basic enriched dough, split and smeared with jam and clotted cream. (Messily smeared in our case – I’m a little ashamed we didn’t do it a bit more neatly, but then I’m no food stylist and we just wanted to scoff them!). As Rachel pointed out when we were doing just that yesterday, as it’s really not unlike a maritozzo con la panna. Though with slightly more demure amounts of cream. Sort of – clotted cream is cooked, so it’s denser and richer than whipped cream.

A split and a scone

The next question involves their origins. Are they Cornish splits? Can they be Devonshire splits? Or is the Devon cream tea always based on the split’s easier-to-make cousin the scone? I’ve always assumed splits are actually “Cornish splits”, but then I started encountering recipes for “Devonshire splits”. What you call them probably just depends your loyalties. The white cross on black or the white cross on dark green? (Something that’s almost entirely irrelevant to people outside the spatting ground of southwestern England.)

And is there a difference between a Devon and a Cornwall version? Discussing splits, and Elizabeth David’s recipe, here Nigel Slater suggests Devon splits are smaller, though the recipe I based mine on was called “Devonshire splits” – and they’re quite big.

Initial dough mixture for Cornish split, or Devon split - flour, sugar, butter, milk, yeast

And why do these two counties get their knickers in such a twist anyway? After all, surely pasties and cream teas are from the West Country, not from either county in particular? Hey, I just love the West Country in general; I’ve been going there all my life and my mother’s mother’s family is from border country in northeast Cornwall/northwest Devon. Although there are cultural differences between Devon and Cornwall, there are plenty of cultural similarities too: clotted cream for starters.

This delicious treat is, frankly, from the West Country in general and neither county in particular. Especially not now in our industrial age when clotted cream is no longer produced by local farms and dairies but instead comes from larger producers like Langage (Devon) and Rodda’s (Cornwall) – both of which are available in supermarkets in both counties and beyond.

Kneading Devonshire split dough

Anyway, I’ve made scones all my life and I even did a very scientific experiment to address the important question of whether cream or jam goes on first (includes recipe). This is my first go at splits though. They were very nice, but I’m not sure they’ll dethrone scones from my tea-time repertoire. For starters, scones are easier to make (just don’t overwork the dough!) and have a satisfying crunchy crust and crumby interior, which I found preferable to the more bread-like consistency of the splits.

Anyway. Here’s the recipe:

Makes 12 splits.

25g fresh yeast (aka lievito di birra)
300g full-fat milk
25g unsalted butter
500g strong (high protein) white bread flour (farina di Manitoba in Italy)
3g fine sea salt
25g caster sugar

Shaping balls of dough for Devonshire splits. Or Cornish splits

1. Warm the milk and butter, melting the latter and bring the liquid to around body temperature.
2. Crumble the yeast into the liquid, and give it a whisk.
3. Put the flour, salt and sugar in a large bowl and stir to combine. (If you want to use easyblend yeast, add 10g now instead).
4. Add the liquid to the flour mix, and bring together.
5. Turn out and make a dough, kneading until smooth.
6. Put the dough in a clean bowl, and cover with clingfilm/plastic wrap.
7. Leave to ferment and prove until doubled in size.
8. Turn out, gently deflate and divide into 12 pieces – they should each weigh around 68-70g.
9. Form the pieces into balls, keeping them covered with a cloth.
10. Place the balls on a baking sheet, and again, keep them covered.
11. Let them prove again, for about 20 minutes, until they’re soft to the touch. (Time will vary depending on the temperature.)
12. Preheat the oven to 200C.
13. Bake the balls for about 15 minutes. Again, time will vary depending on your oven. You want them to start browning nicely on top.
14. Remove from the oven and cool completely on a rack.
15. When cool, slice the buns on a diagonal. Into this split (hence the name) add jam of choice and clotted cream.
16. Serve dusted with icing sugar.
17. Eat, messily. Whether you’re nearly two or 42.

Balls of dough, pre-bake, for Devonshire splits. Or Cornish splits

I clearly lied in my last post about getting back to talking about Italian and Roman beer and baked goods didn’t I? Oh well – if it’s any consolation, we were sitting in a Roman garden, drinking prosecco, getting eaten by mosquitoes and being glowered at my our oddball neighbours when we ate these.

Freshly baked  Devonshire split buns

So it was a kind of English-Roman hybrid cream tea. But probably the best cream tea consumed in Rome for a while. I don’t make any bones about saying my scones are excellent, and good clotted cream is always awesome. Plus, well, Babington’s, the famous “English” tea room by the Spanish Steps, serve their cream with whipped cream not clotted cream – which is frankly just an abomination. No contest.


Filed under Breads, Cakes, Recipes, Uncategorized

The Hangry Hour and Birra del Borgo’s ReAle

Birra del Borg's ReAle at The Hole, Trastevere

One aspect of Roman life I just cannot get used to is meal times. Or more specifically, dinner time. During the hot summer months (ie now) we’ll be going to bed around 11pm, thinking of that pesky alarm going off at 6.30am the following day, while the sound of chatter, and crockery and cutlery, and kids crying, wafts towards us from the restaurant a few doors down. How the heck can they still be eating at nearly midnight? What are those babies doing up at this hour? My body clock just couldn’t cope with those hours. I cannot even begin to imagine how I’d survive Barcelona.

My troubles usually start around 5pm. I’ve eaten a big lunch at 1-ish, I’ve had a few snacks during the afternoon, but still my body starts telling me it’s time to eat big towards late afternoon. I’m just too programmed. Growing up, the main meal of the evening was always at 7pm, or even earlier when I was a little kid. Around 6pm I’m getting hangry, and around 7pm I really really want to eat. Don’t talk to me. Just give me some damned protein. It’s the Hangry Hour. Or at least it used to be, but in Roma it can turn into the Hangry Two Hours, or more.

This problem often coincides with meeting Fran from her train home from work. On a summer’s evening, we sometimes head straight from the station to a bar for an aperitivo. Last night, this involved a jaunt to the less touristy part of Trastevere – that is, east of Viale di Trastevere, in the bend in the river. Specifically, Piazza del Ponziani.

Although neither of the bars there are any good for satisfying my Italian craft beer cravings, it’s just a nice spot. Although there are ex-pats and tourists there, for the most part it still just feels like an ordinary neighbourhood piazza, where the locals all seem to know each other. I even recognise a lot of them now, and their dogs, though I’m probably still just another straniero to them. I don’t think the girls in one of the bars, The Hole, recognise me yet either, but I still like their bar. I’m not sure what. It kinda lives up to its name, they’re reliably surly, and we even got shat on by gulls earlier this summer, but we keep going back.

As it was The Hangry Hour, Fran insisted with get a snack. In a lot of places, you get a snack (or even a buffet) included in the price of your drink at aperitivo time, but not at The Hole. We paid €8 for a plate of salumi e formaggi (cold cuts and cheese), which turned out to be just the latter. And they were pretty poor. A worse culinary crime, however, was the bread.

Many foreigners still labour under the delusion that you can’t get bad food in Italy, it’s all artisan and hand-made. And blah. Seriously, blah. That’s just a load of bollocks. The bread The Hole gave us was what’s known as pancarré in Italian – basically industrial white sliced bread. It’s not unlike British white sliced made with the Chorleywood Bread Process, the industrial invention that did more than anything else to destroy the craft of baking in Britain.

The process turned 50 last year, and continues to dominate wheat-based industrial “food” products in the UK, despite its nutritional poverty and the fact that it’s quite likely at the heart of people’s problems with eating wheat products, from feelings of bloating to Coeliac disorder. Although certain quarters have been determined to deny Chorleywood products are problematic, other – scientific – work has proved that long fermentation breads are digestible to people with coeliac. Ironically, this work lead by a scientist from the University of Naples.

So yeah, despite the Hangry, I couldn’t really eat that pancarré – I tried a nibble, but it was spongy and bland. And stale.


At least The Hole has the one Italian craft beer on their menu available this time. That beer is ReAle, from Birra del Borgo.

Like Birradamare (which I talked about here) Birra del Borgo is one of Lazio’s main local micro-breweries and fairly easy to find in Rome. The 6.4% ABV ReAle is a classic Italian craft beer. It’s an APA – and most Italian craft breweries seem to do APA style beers. So much so that Italian APAs really need a name or category of their own, as they’re evolving from APA much like APA evolved from IPA and other pale ales. (Even though Italian APAs still use American hops, like the ever-popular Cascade. Maybe one day they’ll grow more hops in Italy, and have enough to realy hone a fully Italian APA.)

Italian APAs are generally less hoppy and more malty than genuine US APAs, to suit the Italian palette. ReAle is no exception – the predominant flavours here are malt – notably crystal malts, as the beer has a nice slightly-burnt-caramel flavour, along with a certain orange or grapefruit fruitiness. It’s a very nicely balanced beer, with a certain warmth – not warm like a nice cup of cocoa, but warm from the bright amber-copper colour and flavour.

So even though the beer didn’t exactly take the edge off the hanger, it certainly distracted me from the terrible pancarré and dodgy cheese. Afterwards, we eschewed the dubious delights of Trastevere and headed back to Osteria Pistoia on Via Portuense for a pretty decent dinner.

Birra del Borgo (English site) | 07 463 1287 |

The Hole
Via dei Vascellari 16, Rome
06 589 4432

Random addendum
Talking of hangry, among the many T-shirt designs I’ve mused about over the years, how about a pic of Hulk (smashing, perhaps) with the text: “You wouldn’t like me when I’m Hangry!” If you do have a T-shirt printing operation, feel free to steal this idea – but drop me a line if you do!


Filed under Ale, beer, Bars, pubs etc, Uncategorized

Casa Veccia’s Molo

Back at Oasi della Birra in Testaccio, with my chum Rachel and my wife Fran. Fran’s beers of choice are unfailingly porters and stouts. As the bar – disappointingly – doesn’t have any Italian beers on tap, we were drinking bottled beers. We asked for a 32 Via dei Birra Altra, a double-malted dark brown ale. They’d run out, but offered us another dark beer. This turned out to be Molo from a micro birrifficio (microbrewery) called Casa Veccia. Not one I’d heard of before. Turns out it’s in Povegliano, in Treviso province of the Veneto, inland from Venice.

Reading the info on Casa Veccia’s Facebook page, the story of the brewery seems not unlike that of several of the other Italian microbreweries I’ve been learning about. (Indeed, it’s a story that’s repeated in the microbrewery scene across the world.) Ivan Borsato, a chef and cookery teacher, says he started making beer for a laugh with three friends in April 2009 but by the end of the year he’d glimpsed an opportunity take it to a professional level. By January 2011 they were producing their first commercial beer, Dazio, an American Pale Ale, then Formenton, a wheat beer.

Borsato, meanwhile, is recognised on all the labels, which says “Micro Birrificio Casa Veccia Ivan Borsato Birraio” with birraio meaning master brewer. (And veccia meaning “vetch“, that is the Vicia genus of Fabaceae, the pea family or legumes.) In fact, I’m not really even sure what the brewery is called, as my beer guidebook simply lists it as Ivan Borsato Birraio.

The labels are also distinctive for their Matt Groening-esque cartoons. (Actually designed by Kulkuxumusu from Pamplona, Spain.) Molo’s label seems to feature some kind of exchange between salty sea dogs, swapping a fish for a bottle of beer.

Anyway. Enough pre-amble. The beer.

The most notable thing about Molo is that it’s a dark, dense 6.5% stout that contains tawny porto, that is tawny port – port that’s been aged in wooden barrels and, according to Wikipedia, imparted with a nutty flavour through gradual oxidation. Now personally, I don’t touch port, not after a work Christmas party about 20 years ago when I learned the hard way how it  gives the worst hangovers. Something to do with congeners. But it certainly added a depth of flavour to the Molo, an almost rare meatiness alongside the more typical stouty flavours of well-roasted and toasted malt, slightly burnt biscuit etc. Though nothing fishy, despite the image on the label.


Filed under Uncategorized

Fish. Not bread. Not cakes. Not ale. Seafood.

One of the reasons I’ve not been blogging many breads or cakes this past week or so is because I’ve been busy working on another project. Involving trying to identify what species of fish the Roman common names I see on the market and on menus refer to, and relate said names to English common names.

It really doesn’t relate to bread, cakes or ale by any stretch of the imagination. I could have come up with some twaddle about loaves and fishes, about eating bread along with fish, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to it. So I’ve writtten it up on my other, more general blog.

If you’re an Anglophone living in Italy, or an Anglophone on holiday here, or even an Italian speaker who wants to check the English names of fish, please do head on over here:

Dan’s Giant List of Italian Fish and Seafood Names. With Thrilling Colour Photographs!

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Filed under Discussion, Uncategorized