our (not so) daily bread :: 2

IMG_3899Although sourdough bread has become extremely fashionable in recent years, it’s fair to say that its chewy texture and characteristic tang are something of an acquired taste. Personally, I can’t get enough of the stuff (though there will always be a place in my heart for the guilty pleasure that only a slice of totally plastic white bread, dripping with butter and Marmite can provide), which is why, many months ago, I put myself on the waiting list for Laura Hart’s wonderful Bread and Breakfast Workshop. The workshop takes place once a month throughout the year over the course of a weekend: a three-and-a-half hour session on Saturday evening followed by a shorter session on Sunday morning.

IMG_3883In my excitement at finally getting an email alerting me to the fact that my time on the waiting list was over, I didn’t really take on board what the workshop would involve beyond mastering the art of sourdough. And I couldn’t quite believe my luck when I realised that we would also be making croissants, Danish pastries, cinnamon buns (one of the bakery’s signature creations), chocolate tarts and pizzas — the last of which we ate together that evening with a glass of wine while the various doughs rested prior to shaping.

IMG_3885The session began with the sourdough and, although most of us had some sourdough experience, none of us had ever come across the autolyse technique which Laura uses at the bakery. The idea is very simple: the first bit of kneading, which is often extremely sticky and messy, is sidestepped and the dough is left alone for 20-30 minutes during which time the gluten begins to develop naturally (nice explanation of the theory here).

Incredibly, the dough was much easier to manage after the rest, and at this point the salt is added. A further rest, of an hour, and we then began to folded the dough a few times every thirty minutes until it was time to shape it for the proving basked. There is no doubt about it, sourdough takes time — there are no viable shortcuts — but get your timings right (the folding only takes a moment or two) and the whole business is easily fitted around whatever else you are doing: making an evening meal, watching the television, or even gardening. Over the course of the evening we filled the gaps between tending our dough with thwacking lumps of butter, folding and shaping pastry for our croissants, rustling up a marmalade and chocolate tart and making and eating pizza.

IMG_3895It was an intense session, but enormously satisfying. And as we chatted over pizzas (a half sourdough base) we all agreed that we’d learned many valuable tips and techniques: weighing water rather than measuring it; the autolyse technique; working the dough in the bowl rather than on the work surface; creme fraiche with a sprinkling of parmesan makes a fantastic pizza topping; butter for croissants needs to contain at least 82% fat; a heavy iron pot (not a le Creuset though) can be used to mimic a professional bread oven…

There was also much discussion of sourdough itself, with one participant admitting that she didn’t like it — too sour. Why on earth was she there, we all asked. Unlike me she had read through the details of the course and, well acquainted with Hart’s delicious pastries, she’d come to learn how to make croissants.

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On Sunday morning we returned to the bakery, each of us accompanied by someone with whom to share breakfast (I took Matilda), and while our guests drank coffee and read the papers we got back to work. First we had to tip our loaves out of their proving baskets and onto a baker’s peel, then we slashed them with a sharp knife (scissors will do if you don’t have a suitably razor-sharp blade) and finally shot them into the depths of the oven. Next we put the final touches to the pastries: creme patissiere and apricots for the Danish pastries, a glaze for the pain au raisin, croissants and cinnamon buns.

P1290552And then it was time for breakfast. But despite our enthusiasm, there really was no hope of us polishing off all that we had made, so once again we left the bakery laden with treats to take home. Best of all we were given a pot of Laura’s 50-year-old starter, which I’ve already put through its paces several times in the weeks since the workshop.

Laura waved us off with the promise that should we need any help, she’d happily talk to us at the bakery or reply to our emails. And she has been as good as her word, taking the time to reply to various queries I’ve had. I really cannot recommend the course enough — whether or not you are a fan of sourdough, if you enjoy making bread you’ll almost certainly leave harbouring fantasies of starting your own bakery. I’m hopeless at early mornings, so my bakery dreams lasted all of twenty-four hours, but at least I’ve got back into the habit of making bread on a regular basis.

our (not so) daily bread :: 1

white loafI have been making bread on and off for many years; since I was a teenager, in fact. Sometimes I bake a lone loaf, made on the spur of the moment, just because; at other times, I fall into the rhythm of regular bread-making and happily turn out a couple of loaves a week for several months (more often than not I make a smug vow that I will never again buy my bread). And then, for no particular reason, I find that the shop-bought bagels, bread rolls, pittas and loaves have made their way back into our lives once more. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to it.

But last month, as I started bottling the first of this year’s jam, the home-baked loaves began to appear with increasing frequency and I realised that there is a cycle to my bread-baking: it follows the seasonal spikes in my jam and marmalade-making. A batch of homemade marmalade prompts a home-baked loaf. And then, as the novelty of marmalade wears off, homemade bread disappears from the menu until I start turning summer fruit into jam.

sliced whiteOver the years it has occurred to me that investing in a breadmaker might be the solution to a more reliable supply of homemade bread. I have many friends who swear by them, and certainly the bread they make with their machines tastes wonderful. Machines are convenient too: a daily loaf, hot and delicious, first thing in the morning with minimal fuss and planning — who could argue with that? But a bread machine would deny me the part of the process I really enjoy. I like to feel the dough change texture: gloopy, resistant and impossible one minute, smooth and elastic the next.

No matter how often I make bread, it never ceases to amaze me that such humble ingredients (flour, water, yeast and salt) can be combined to create something so delicious. And this sense of alchemy is never more powerful than in those first moments when the water is added to the flour to create a sticky, shaggy mess — how, one wonders, will this ever turn into a loaf of bread?

P1250633Last year, having baked my way through those jammy summer summer months, I decided to add sourdough to my repertoire — I love its flavour and texture and thought the challenge might sustain my bread-making through the winter months. I had long wanted to try my hand at making a sourdough starter but couldn’t quite muster the courage or energy to get my head around the process.

As with all such things, it really wasn’t very difficult at all, more a matter of planning than skill. And so last winter we enjoyed an unusually long period during which homemade bread was a daily fixture. But although my sourdough tasted good, I didn’t manage to achieve the rise, the lift, I had hoped for. And then, just as my loaves began to improve, I found an uninvited guest in my starter: a fruit fly. Although there was just the one fruit fly, the thought that many more might be lurking beneath the bubbly surface put me off. I lost my nerve and ditched the starter. And as I watched it swirl away down the plug hole I decided not to bother with another starter until I had enlisted a little professional help. I cleaned out the Kilner jar (aesthetically pleasing, but a decidedly wrong-headed choice of storage for my starter as it turns out), and put my name on the waiting list for Laura Hart’s Bread and Breakfast Workshop. The joys of which I will share in my next post.

seville season

P1270200Blink and you miss them: the season for Seville oranges is so short that many greengrocers and supermarkets don’t get round to stocking them at all. And if you fail to bag a kilo or two in January, early February if you are lucky, you can forget about making marmalade for another year.

I suspect that I am more in thrall to the ritual of making marmalade than I am to the  marmalade itself. I like the idea of tracking my prey (has anyone spotted them in the shops yet, I ask fellow marmalade makers), gathering the jars and then setting aside a day in which to juice, slice, boil and then bottle these unpromising oranges which are so bitter and lacking in actual fruit it’s a wonder that anything good can be done with them at all.

P1270175This year it’s fair to say that I’ve gone a little overboard. No one, not even the keenest marmalade maker, needs more than a couple of kilos of Seville oranges. But a fruitless search (excuse the pun) for marmalade oranges in my local shops resulted in a trip to Bristol’s fruit and veg market with my mother-in-law, Sue, where a kind of madness came over us. We were offered 20kg/44lbs of Sevilles for £17 with a few lemons thrown in for free. It seemed to silly to say no.

I have now made sixteen jars of marmalade with roughly 2kg and given 2kg to a friend. This leaves me with another six kg to deal with. Hmm…

P1270186And then, as I put my jars away, I found three jars of marmalade from January 2012. Vintage marmalade, you might say. It looks a little fudge-like so I’ve decided it needs using up quickly. Some will go in a marinade; some in a chocolate cake; and I now have it on good authority from various Instagramers that bread and butter and marmalade pudding is the business.

But of course none of this deals with the Seville orange mountain on the kitchen table. So I spent yesterday evening doing a little googling and have come up with some interesting recipes for the oranges themselves rather than clever things to do with marmalade. I will report on my experiments.

And tomorrow I’ll post the marmalade recipe I use.

St Philip’s Wholesale Fruit, Flower and Vegetable Market: Albert Crescent, St Philips Monday to Friday, 5am – 11am Saturday 5am – 9am

excuses, excuses…

orangesI had planned to return to blogging on New Year’s day: not a New Year’s resolution exactly, but a goal of sorts. New Year’s day! What was I thinking?

And then, when that date flew past, I thought I’d aim for the first day of the new school term. Nothing like a once bustling house suddenly still and quiet to concentrate the mind. But no, the house was a wreck, as it always is at the end of every school holiday. Now I am by no means a neat-freak, but I do find it impossible to focus when I am surrounded by dirty laundry and I keep tripping over the recycling. So week one was lost to life admin and domestic drudge.

Trawling through my photographs, I can see that the last four months have been incredibly busy. And looking at the long list of draft posts there was a lot to blog about (sour dough, knitting, bulbs, weird and wonderful Bristol stuff, the joy of soup and so on), but the posts were never completed. The simple fact is, there hasn’t been time to write anything coherent enough to share.

The end of last term was dominated by Matilda’s exams — some quite serious, others just mocks — but god, the STRESS! And all I had to do was steer her to bed before midnight and talk her down from the occasional panic attack. Matilda bounced back the moment the term was over, but I feel that I’m only just coming up for air.

But this morning, a sweet comment from Loisaida Nest on my Instagram account in response to my photograph of a big box of Seville oranges (bagged for a bargain at the fruit and veg market and to be shared with my mother-in-law, Sue), prompted me to get back my blog. If all goes well a marmalade post will appear soon.  

But for now, I’ll sign off with some photographs taken in a temporary forest created from old Christmas trees.

P1270170Ours is in there somewhere…

P1270162We were sure we’d recognise it…

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But it was hopeless. Details here for anyone who wants to visit.

thank pippin it’s friday!

P1250472At the girls’ primary school, SATS week is known as doughnut week because the children’s efforts are rewarded with a daily doughnut. Some might see that as a double-dose of ill health, but the doughnuts certainly take the edge off the exams and really, in the greater scheme of things, where’s the harm in a one-off week-long doughnut binge? Slightly more questionable is Doughnut Day, a ritual which our family has embraced with alarming ease, and celebrated with grave commitment, ever since Joe first came across the Pippin Doughnut stall on Wine Street.

P1250471I comfort myself with the fact that our Doughnut Day doughnuts are no ordinary doughnuts — and they really are, as you will see, extraordinary doughnuts — but there’s no way round the fact that what we are talking about here is a ball of dough which has been fried and then rolled in sugar. I’m not sure whether I’m trying to excuse our addiction or justify it, but the bottom line is Pippin doughnuts are delicious  I say that as someone who doesn’t even like doughnuts — and the reason we have just one doughnut day each week is entirely down to the fact that the Pippin Doughnuts only come to Bristol on Fridays*. They are also rather expensive at £1.30 each, £6.50 for six, or £10.95 for twelve.

P1250468But then again, the ingredients used to create the doughnuts are far from cheap and the dough, which is proved twice to improve texture and flavour, takes a long time to make. With homemade fillings as delicious and varied as gooseberry jam, lemon curd and rhubarb & custard, I think it’s fair to say that Pippin doughnuts are about as far removed from your usual supermarket doughnuts (Krispy Kreme included) as you can get. I think of them as being like Stella Artois: reassuringly expensive and much, much tastier.

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P1250480 P1250482The girls may forget their school books, PE kit, packed lunches, front door keys, shoes and socks even, but every Friday, whilst grumbling at each other over the breakfast table, they remember to place their doughnut order.

P1250486In the photographs above you can see last week’s box which contained three Bear Claws (this is what a Canadian friend says the oddly shaped cinnamon-coated doughnuts are called back home, but I think Pippin just list them as cinnamon and sugar), one chocolate ganache, one gooseberry and, just out of sight, a cappuccino doughnut with a coffee custard filling and topped with coffee icing and a dusting of cocoa powder.

P1250487Gourmet cup cakes your days are numbered, the designer doughnuts have arrived!

http://www.pippindoughnuts.co.uk, pippinbakery@aol.com, 01793 496210                            Pippin Doughnuts Wine Street, Bristol every Friday apart from the last Friday of the month. 

neighbourhood art

P1250544This morning, while walking up to school, Martha and I spotted this rather lovely creation on a local lamp post. I have no idea who is behind it, but I am hoping that more will follow.

P1250546I can’t decide which character is my favourite. Mr Fox has a certain charm …

P1250547But then again, so does the bird…

P1250550As you can imagine, our walk to school took rather longer than usual.

Posting these images reminded me that I haven’t shared any street art or graffiti for a while, so here is a round-up from the last six months or so.

IMG_0613IMG_0614The fabulous lion (above), and the crazy rabbits (below), are both the work of local artist, Alex Lucas who, amongst other things, runs the the little shop I wrote about here. The Lion arrived in the spring and the rabbits came on the scene at the end of the summer holidays.

IMG_1210 IMG_1211 IMG_1212And finally, a few words from the streets. First, a hungry letter box (I spotted this in Oxford).

P1110714And to finish, a witty post box near St Andrew’s Park (by the same hand as this, surely).

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keep on running

P1210953Last Sunday, for the first time, I took part in the annual Bristol 10K. It was an incredible experience to run through the streets of Bristol with around 9,000 other runners, and then out along the Portway, with the gorge rearing up on one side and the river on the other. It was wonderful to spot Joe and the girls in the crowd, fun to look out for my running friends amongst the Lycra-clad pack and amazing to be cheered on by thousands of total strangers. Running alongside giant bananas, polar bears and lots of superheroes was pretty fabulous too. And through the generous sponsorship of family and friends I managed to raise £245 for COCO, a really fantastic children’s charity founded by Steve Cram.

I completed the course in 61 minutes and nine seconds. Not an especially impressive time — the winner finished in 30 minutes and five seconds: those pesky seconds! — but it was impressive for me because this time last year I hadn’t run anywhere for over twenty years, and I didn’t even own a pair of trainers.

But last August, inspired by both the Olympics and my husband’s distinctly chipper post-run demeanour, I decided to give running a go. I also realised that standing in the park watching the dog run around was not really keeping me fit. Better, I thought, to go and run around with the dog.

My first run took all of three minutes and I hated it. My second run, a day later, was about a minute longer. The only reason I managed a second run was because for a good few hours after the pain of the first one, I felt completely high: a strange sense of elation mixed with a feeling of increased energy. Within two weeks I found that I no longer hated the running, and I began extending my run as soon as I could complete a particular route without stopping. In mid-september I started the couch to 5K regime with my friend and fellow dog walker, Nicki, and I ditched the daily run in favour of three thirty minute sessions a week.

I’d really recommend this approach to anyone who wants to take up running. It’s a brilliant combination of walking and running and you work steadily towards being able to run three miles in around thirty minutes. I’d also really, really recommend finding a running partner: last winter was unbelievably cold at times, but because we didn’t want to let each other down, Nicki and I kept to our routine. We ran through rain, lots and lots of rain; we ran in high winds where we could hardly catch our breath; we ran in snow, which was fantastic even though our toes froze. We ran when it was so cold that our legs felt like lead, our noses were pinched and we couldn’t feel our fingers. In fact only icy pavements and illness kept us from running.

Now, nearly nine months on, I run two to three times a week. The first mile is never much fun. But after that something strange happens. My brain detaches from my body, and even if my legs feel cold or tired, I’m able to keep going. My mind is free to think. Or, if I am running with a friend, which is often the case, we chat (though we’ve learned that at least one section of the run has to render us incapable of saying anything other than “bloody hell!”). We also freestyle our routes, allowing ourselves to be drawn down interesting-looking roads or along beautiful tree-lined avenues. Sometimes we strike out over the Suspension bridge, or drive to the woods where the paths are soft and springy under foot. Sometimes our runs last about 40 minutes, others are about an hour and a half. I am addicted. But oddly enough, as I pull on my running gear, I never, ever feel like running. That only happens once I’m doing it. And sometimes it only feels good when it’s over, which sounds perverse, I know. The post-run sense of well-being, however, kicks in without fail and lasts for the rest of the day.

And as for the post-race* high, well that seems to last even longer. Which is why I want to do it all again. Only this time I want to go a little further, and perhaps slightly faster. I’ve got my sights set on the Bristol Half Marathon.

* race — I use the term in its broadest sense because, of course, although this sort of event is a race, only those wearing white bibs are in it to win it. For the rest of us it’s simply a race against yourself in that you want to improve on your PB (personal best). The back half of the pack I was running with were still crossing the start line as the winner arrived at the finish.

PS This is the LINK to my Just Giving page for COCO, if anyone feels in the mood to donate!

making do

P1210274This time last year the first of my tulips were in flower, and the house was filled with vases of homegrown narcissus, hellebores and hyacinths. This year is rather different.

P1210275I’m making do with tulips from the supermarket and local florist whilst keeping anxious watch over flower beds and pots. I am beginning to wonder whether those back-breaking bulb planting sessions last autumn were nothing but a bad dream.

P1210309I could probably bore for England about the weather (so cold, so grey; so fed up with wearing scarves and fingerless gloves indoors), but compared to people on Arran, I have no real cause for complaint: my heating works and I can get out and about to indulge myself with fresh flowers whilst picking up the everyday essentials we take for granted.

P1210312Mind you, having just written that, I have noticed that it’s started to snow..

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taking stock

P1210209Amazing what a dose of even fairly weak sunshine can do for one’s spirits.

P1210205Every year I spend much of January and February trying not to look at the garden. When I do, I am filled with despair: I simply can’t believe that it will ever look nice again. Back in October I dug up almost everything at the bottom of the garden to make way for new raised beds and a pond, and this section looks particularly bleak at the moment.

P1210223But Sunday’s sunshine tempted me outside. The novelty of feeling the warmth of the sun on my back and being able to wear only one jumper rather than three, meant that I spent most of Sunday afternoon pottering in the garden — my first proper session in the garden.

It looked pretty desolate, but it was good to face up to the ravages of winter and my total neglect. And after an hour or two of methodical pruning, cutting, raking and mulching, most   of the garden had sprung back into focus.

My thoughts had snapped into focus as well, and I now have a plan for those empty beds.

P1210194For now, I’ve cordoned off the area with chicken wire to protect the few remaining plants from the rampaging dog, and to be honest it looks worse than it did before. But in a week or two things should start shaping up.

In the pop-up green house, I was delighted to see that the first of my sweet peas are emerging and tiny little dots of green on black, damp soil tell me that my rocket and
cut-and-come-again lettuces are on their way too.

P1210237By five o’clock it was chilly again, so I kicked off my boots and finished these mittens (ravelled here). And despite today’s sunshine, it was cold enough to wear them.

a good egg

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On Thursday night I went to a lovely party at Tart, on the Gloucester Road, to celebrate the publication of A Good Egg — A Year of Recipes From an Urban Hen-Keeper

Genevieve Taylor is the hen-keeper of the title, and her book is a charming and inspiring diary of a year in her kitchen, her garden and her hen-house. When not tending her hens, she is also a very talented food stylist and cook (you’ve doubtless been inspired by something she has created without realising it, as her work has appeared in many magazines and ad campaigns), and the book grew from Genevieve’s blog, The Urban Kitchen, which she started when her first batch of chickens arrived and surprised them all with their dedicated laying: 3-4 eggs a day, every day, all year. That’s a lot of eggs.

P1210185But Genevieve is clear that A Good Egg is not an egg cookery bible (neither is it a how-to for prospective hen-keepers), explaining that it’s “a seasonal diary of all that I did with my eggs, and the food that I grew and gathered to eat alongside them.” In fact it is Genevieve’s passion for seasonality that is at the heart of the book, informing her writing as well as her recipes. A point she proved with a lovely reading from the 14th March which was all about wild garlic; as she read we were treated to slices of wild garlic flamiche (the wild garlic had been gathered locally, that morning), followed by mini mocha eclairs and tiny rhubarb pavlovas. Delicious.

P1210186And the recipes — nine or ten for each month — despite coming from the kitchen of a very talented cook, are by no means complicated or fussy; rather they are dishes designed for busy family life: delicious, wholesome and speedy. Of course the temptation is to say “Pah!” to seasonality and leap ahead with the help of the supermarket — which in the case of Crisp cannellini bean and Courgette Fritters is exactly what I intend to do. Other recipes to whet your appetite include a Peach and Almond cake with lavender syrup; English Nicoise of Smoked Trout, Jersey Royals and Asparagus; Courgette and Lime muffins; Broad bean, Feta and Mint Omelette… I could go on… and on!

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The book is a rather beautiful object in its own right — a Tiffany-blue-green cloth cover, with an (egg yolk?) yellow ribbon for marking favourite pages — illustrated throughout with wonderful, hunger-inducing photographs, taken by Bristol-based photographer, Jason Ingram (his blog is over there to the right of the screen and well worth exploring).

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This last image I include, because it sums up for me, Genevieve’s un-fussy, straightforward approach to cooking: for who hasn’t failed on the planning-ahead at some point? I am  regularly caught out by the dastardly line, hidden in many a recipe, which runs something like “… and now leave in the fridge for 12 hours, preferably 24.” No! No! No! My friends are arriving in four hours’ time, not tomorrow, goddammit! Though I must stress, this particular recipe does not offer a clever route around the protracted process of making a Christmas Pudding. It’s just that I liked her admission that tradition and rules don’t dominate her kitchen or her recipes — in this case it’s her failure to make the Christmas pud on Stir Up Sunday. Her Carbonara with cavolo nero is probably a better example, not least because she describes it as “inauthentic in the extreme,” though it sounds heavenly.

And finally, as I have already said, although A Good Egg is not a guide to keeping chickens, be warned, it will certainly tempt you to have a go. Last night, as I thumbed through my copy, I found myself considering all manner of bizarre constructions — tree house!? — in order to add a chicken or two to our household even though I know our garden is far too small.