From building site to castle. Real, actual castle

Kingswear Castle sunflare
As our building works were plodding into their most inconvenient stages we’d arranged to go away. I went down to Devon to see my folks, visiting a strangely dead village on the way down where all the cafes were closed but there was this great carving on an old pub.

Wheatsheaf

Being in Devon was lovely in itself as we got to enjoy the last vestiges of summer while mowing a meadow, but also because staying at my parents’ house meant I had use of an actual kitchen, something I’ve not had for 13 weeks now. So I could get stuck straight in with the baking, using up some something aging ingredients to make a surprisingly good loaf and okay almond and candied peel cookies.

Bread and biscuits crop

For the weekend, thanks to a generous gift for Fran’s big birthday and my less significant one from my folks, we went and stayed in a castle. An actual castle. Surely all boys – and many girls – fantasise about living in castles when they’re young, and this was about as good a fulfilment of that as I could hope for, aged forty-something in the 21st century.

Dartmouth and Kingswear castles

Kingswear Castle is a small defensive fort built a few meters above the waterline of the mouth of the river Dart. It was constructed at the turn of the 15th century to form a pair with Dartmouth Castle just over the river. Both were fitted with cannons to cover the mouth of the river in case of attack by enemy ships trying to take advantage of the sheltered port of Dartmouth. Improving technology soon made Kingswear Castle obsolete and it fell into disrepair. A Victorian aristocrat owned it in the 19th century, then the local MP in the mid-20th century, but I can imagine it wasn’t the easiest home. The gardener there told us the winter 2013-2014 storms involved waves breaking into not just a small Victorian bedroom in a turret at ground level, but also into an upstairs bedroom. Like Dartmouth opposite, it was also a significant spot in WW2, and there’s a blockhouse in the garden.

Shadow, blockhouse, rocks

As a place to visit though, with some mixed but not extreme weather, it was a wonderful experience. Partly, again, as it had a kitchen so I could do some cooking and baking, but partly because it had a kitchen with a view across the mouth of the River Dart or out to sea.

Apple cake, Dartmouth Castle

Among the things I made were the Dan Lepard apple and orange crumble tart I mentioned in my last post. It was delicious, especially with some of that divine dairy nectar clotted cream. (In this case, from Riverford Dairy. So good.)

Apple cake 2

I also made a loaf, about 80 per cent spelt, given an overnight fermentation. First I put it the dough an embrasure on the spiral stairway to prove.

Spiral staircase long prove

But I think there was too much warm air coming up, so I moved it to the ground (or rock) floor, where the old gun ports are. The finished loaf looked a bit like a seal, suitably enough as I’d seen one on the evening we arrived.

Gun floor

On our final morning, the weather was a tad wild and windy, and the waves were breaking into these ports. No wonder it wasn’t an easy place to live, especially for the MP, who put his kitchen in here and presumably watched it floating around in the surf on regular occasions.

Kingswear Castle panorama

Before the final wet and windy morning, however, we had some lovely weather. Good enough for a sunny walk along the coast path, via the old WW2 installations and current Coastwatch station at Froward Point, to Coleton Fishacre. This is a National Trust property, built in the 1920s for the D’Oyly Carte family, founders of the Savoy Theatre and patrons of Gilbert and Sullivan. I loved the 1920s styling, but particularly enjoyed the kitchens, replete with their fake loaf of bread.

D'Oyly kitchen

The sunny weather also gave us a nice backdrop for a patriotic moment and some beer tasting. This included a range from a new brewery near Winchester, my home town, called Mash. To be brutally honest, we found most of their beers insubstantial, not ready for release. But good luck to them. I always enjoy encountering a new brewery.

Mash and flag

Then we had some more local beers from Teignworthy Brewery in the Devon village of Newton Abbot (which we’d driven through.) This mild was almost a porter, with charcoally hints and a medium body.

Teignmouth Martha's Mild

The (sensible) boozing didn’t stop when we’d left either. We tried some more beers from Clearwater Brewery, in the north Devon village of Bideford.

Clearwater beers

The baking didn’t stop either. I was able to make one more loaf, this time with Wessex Mill‘s Wessex Cobber, a lovely malty flour I’ve tried before. As well as being an amazing holiday, it was just such a relief to have an opportunity to do some baking. For someone who makes bread every week, being without a kitchen for so long has been an interesting trial.

Wessex Cobber loaf

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An evening with Dan Lepard at The Hearth, Lewes

Intro

Dan Lepard is my baking hero. If you know my blog(s) you’ll know I mention him a fair amount. His book The Handmade Loaf was the encouragment I needed to take my baking to the next level, and I had a great run making his reliable recipes from The Guardian, now collected in Short and Sweet. So I had some fanboy excitment when I heard he was doing a day at The Hearth pizzeria and bakehouse in Lewes, arranged by proprietor Michael Hanson.

Taking place on Tuesday 30 September, this was surely one of the biggest days of Lewes Octoberfeast, and indeed The Hearth has been at the heart of the 2014 festival. Dan had three events over the course of the day: classes Bread Made Simple and The Big (Cake) Bang Theory, then an evening meal, prepared in The Hearth’s wood-fired oven.

Heads down

As Michael said in his introduction, a hearth is “where people are around a fire, sharing stories, in each other’s company” and you can’t argue with the warmth, literal and metaphorical, that comes from a wood-fired oven. It also gives a remarkable depth and richness to any food cooked in it – both in flavour terms but also in more rarified, almost spiritual terms. This is real cooking: wood, smoke, oven walls with serious mass, ancient technology.

Desserts on hearth

For the meal itself, Dan, aided by Michael, food and travel writer Andy Lynes and The Hearth team, prepared a series of hearty dishes that carried on this theme of warmth, real food, depth of flavour, all eminently suitable for the last day of September, where our Indian summer is finally giving way to a change of seasons and the food cravings that accompany cooler weather.

Bagna cauda

First up flatbreads with a bagna cauda. I’d not encountered the latter before, but it’s a hot dip originally from Piedmont/Piemonte, northwest Italy. Dan’s version was an intense, thick, oily and salty, as only serious anchovy-based dishes can be, and was served with flatbread. It included oregano brought back by Emilio and Diane, who we shared a table with, from Emilio’s Sicilian hometown of Pachino (of tomato fame).

Chopping pork

The main course was shoulder of pork, with sage, lemon and garlic. The woodfired oven is perfect for proper, slow-cooked pork, and Dan said they cooked this for about four hours. It was served with crisped-up polenta slice, roasted celeriac and potato, and mushroom and borlotti bean stew. I hope Fran isn’t reading this as she’ll be really sad she wasn’t able to make it, as these are some of her favourite things, excellently done.

Apple crumble cake with gelato

The desert was one an apple and pine nut cake served with Amaretto and raisin gelato. It was a delicious, surprisingly delicate desert. The cake is based on one of Dan’s recipes for the Sydney Morning Herald, and he explained how cooking apple in orange utilises the ascorbic acid to preserve the natural sweetness, resulting in a need for less added refined sugar. And cakes with some form crumble on the top are always a winner in my book (cf toscakaka, streusel cake).

Last bit of cake

All in all, a great evening, hosted by two men who combine experience with enthusiasm, to paraphrase Dan quoting Forbes. An evening that played to the strengths of a wood-fired oven, which isn’t just for pizza – though The Hearth remains one of the few places I’ve had a decent pizza in England. Let’s hope Dan Lepard comes back to The Hearth more in future, to spread knowledge – and cook great food.

(Oh, and usual apologies about the photography. I’m really not a photographer, despite being the only one wielding a DSLR yesterday evening. Not only was Dan a professional photographer, I also met Susan Bell that evening, which throws these bodges in a very sorry light.)

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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.

Toppings

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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Walking from Lewes to Winchester on the South Downs Way

Mist in the Weald, South Downs Way

Winchester, in Hampshire, is my home town city but now I’m living in Lewes, in Sussex. Between the two is the ridge of chalk hills known as the South Downs, along which runs a path: the South Downs Way.

When we moved to Lewes in summer 2011, we walked a section of the Way to the southeast of Lewes, but since we moved back here this year, I’ve been wanting to walk to Winchester. We finally found a time in September to escape the building site and do the walk, happily coinciding with my birthday. After a cool, wet August, the summer came back in September and we had great weather. Three of the five mornings had thick mists, but these generally burned off leaving sun and views along the hills and north over the Weald, the lowland area between the South Downs and the next set of hills, the North Downs.

The south of England has been populated and manipulated by humans for millennia. The landscape of the hills was defined by centuries sheep farming, which resulted in a unique ecology, plagioclimax communities featuring amazing selections of wildflowers and other wildlife. Much of this downland has been lost in England with the mechanisation of farming, but there’s still plenty along the Way. The human influence is also evinced by numerous hill forts , old industrial buildings, castles, tumuli (prehistoric burial mounds) and many, many cross dykes. No, not angry lesbians, but prehistoric earthworks that may have been territorial boundaries

Nature, history – and pubs
The other good thing about a walk in a long-populated part of the world is that you can go to the pub, something that’s not so easy on a backcountry hike. There were some great pubs along the way, and some great beers. A few pints of which, I would say, are well-earned after walking 20 miles (32km). We also stopped in a few nice tea shops, which, along with pubs, are – when done one – one of England’s great pleasures.

England’s B&Bs, on the other hand, can be less of a pleasure. There are some great B&Bs out there, and we stayed in a few lovely places, but they’re not the greatest examples of our hospitality. Aside from small, rubbish showers, my main grievance is the so-called “full English breakfast”. It’s all very well to pile a plate with sausages and beans and toast, but when all of that food is industrially produced, it just turns my stomach. Luckily, we stayed a few places that had their own chickens, ducks and pigs, so the eggs and pork products were good, but for the five places we stayed, only one served real bread, and only one offered homemade granola. The other four provided toast and “cereal” made from industrially used and abused grains. These are not good foods for you health in general and preparing to walk long distances specifically. B&Bs of Britain – make the effort! Serving real bread would be a great start.

In total we walked 88 miles / 141km, linking, the old-fashioned way, my current home and my childhood home. Here are some pics.

Day 1: Lewes to Steyning (21 miles / 34km)
Misty morning. Though this dew pond – one of many along the top of the Downs – with its one solitary tree looked handsome and moody.

Dew pond near Ditchling Beacon

Already done a few miles. I love topographic features with devil-related names. The Dyke is the grandest of them along the South Downs.

Finger post, one of many

Tea stop at the Hiker’s Rest, Saddlescombe Farm, before climbing up the Devil’s Dyke. A unique arrangement involve a small food truck serving cakes etc parked in a farm yard, with seating both outside and inside old feeding sheds.

Cake and coffee at Saddlescombe

Cup of tea at eminently cute Steyning Tea Rooms. Yes, it’s green tea with lemon, not your normal British black tea with milk. Cos that’s how I roll. Sometimes.

Tea at Steyning Tea Rooms

First pint of the walk, Long Man Pale Ale from Long Man Brewery, further east in Sussex, near the Long Man of Wilmington. We stayed at the Chequer Inn. Although it was a pretty standard pub, the beer was well kept – they have Cask Marque and SIBA signs – and the 15th century building had a lot of character.

Long Man American Pale Ale at the Chequer Inn, Steyning

Steyning has a very handsome high street, which remains fairly unspoiled except for that most reliable of taints on the modern human environment, the motor vehicle.

Steyning High St, evening

Day 2: Steyning to Bury (13 miles / 21km)
Started the day getting supplies from the Sussex Produce Company, which has this excellent selection of local beers.

Local beers, Sussex Produce Company

These hops were growing semi-wild on the edge of Steyning.

Hops - and convolvulus - Steyning

Wild chicory on the ridge above Steyning. If you like chicory and are interested in the various cultivated forms and their relationship with this wild one, I wrote about it here.

Wild chicory

Paths in the mist – or possibly fret, as a sea mist is known in Sussex dialect.

Tracks in the mist

An unusual WW2 bunker on Highden Hill, just after crossing the A24 London Road. It was apparently built by Canadian forces 1940-42, and was dubbed the “Tin Castle” by local schoolchildren.

World War 2 'Tin Castle', Highden Hill

Stopping at The Bridge Inn at Amberley (or more accurately, Amberley station / Houghton Bridge) for a few halves of  Hip Hop – a hoppy blonde ale – from West Sussex’s  Langham Brewery and some live bluegrass.

Hip Hop and bluegrass at the Bridge, Amberley

There used to be a ferry across the River Arun  between Bury and Amberley. Walkers be warned – there isn’t any more, but there is a fine new foot and cycle bridge.

The old ferry crossing, Bury

Nice little village Bury. We had dinner at the Squire and Horse gastro pub where the food was good and the service very hospitable, so much so that I forget to take photos. I was drinking Sussex Gold, from Arundel Brewery, suitably enough, as it’s just down the River Arun. This light, smooth 4.2% ABV ale, which combined subtle lemon and caramel flavours, was just right for a warm evening, sitting outside watching dragonflies flit. (It really has been an amazing year for dragonflies here in southern England.)

Day 3: Bury to South Harting (20 miles / 33km)
Another misty start coming out of Bury, but it clearly very suddenly when we got back up on the ridge.

Another misty start

The Devil’s Jumps, one of the many wonderful prehistoric sites along the route. They’re a series of five bell barrows, a type of tumulus: that is, a grave (or not) created with a stone construction covered with earth. Fran had been having a bad day with blisters but a game pie cheered her up as did the amazing sight of a hare which ran across the path near the Jumps, closely followed by a stoat.

Devil's Jumps

This memorial is just near the Devil’s Jumps, and another fascinating bit of history. The South Downs Way official trail guide shows its weakness when author Paul just says “A German pilot killed during the Second World War perhaps?”. In fact, it’s a memorial to a 25-year-old airman who was on a Ju88 bomber, shot down by a British fighter on 13 August 1940, “Eagle Day”.

German airman memorial

We spent a very pleasant couple of hours enjoying beautiful late afternoon/evening weather – and Upham Brewery beers, from Hampshire, though we were still in West Sussex – at the White Hart pub in South Harting.

The White Hart, South Harting

Day 4: South Harting to Corhampton (18 miles / 29km)

The day started with mist again, beautiful as we headed back up to the ridge through these woods.

Sunlight through the morning mist in woods, near South Harting

I’m assuming this enigmatic bollard with a length of chain attached marks the county boundary between Hampshire and West Sussex. Why the chain?

Sussex-Hampshire county boundary I believe

The English hedgerows in September are things of great beauty. Among the many plants in these tangled, frequently ancient field boundaries is black bryony, Dioscorea communis. This is Britain’s only native member of the yam family, though unlike its African staple food relative, it’s not edible.

Garland of black bryony

Adter seeing a 20-year-old book about the Way illustrated with aerial photos, I was intrigued about the landlocked naval base known as HMS Mercury. Sadly, by the time we arrived, it’s all a building site for massive houses in a weird pastiche 18th farm cottage architectural style. This is Fran changing the plasters on her blisters just nearby.

Blister rest stop near the old HMS Mercury

This was our lunch that day. Local Sussex cheese and bread, though the latter was disappointing. My water bottle is a growler from Estes Park Brewery, which we visited almost a year ago.

A lunch

View of Old Winchester Hill from the east. Quite why it’s called Old Winchester, when it’s 18km from Winchester (itelf pretty old, with its own hill fort) is a mystery. One local legend says the Romans tried to build Winchester (Venta Belgarum) there, but every morning they returned to the site and found the stonework they’d laid had been rolled down the hill. So they chose Winchester instead.

Old Winchester Hill, Iron Age hill fort

Quick break on Old Winchester Hill, most of which is a wild flower meadow at the moment, helping mantain species that need grazed chalk downland and also helping the much-ravaged bee population.

Rest on Old Winchester Hill

The villages of Corhampton, Meonstoke and Exton all blur together. Two of them have pubs and ancient churches. Corhampton church dates from 1020. This yew tree may be even older.

Thousand year old yew, Corhampton Church

Exton’s church, St Peter’s and St Paul’s, is slightly younger, 13th century. This is apparently a gravestone (now located in the nave) showing the Angel of Death summoning a scholar from his books.

Angel of death visits scholar, Exton church

We arrived about 4.30pm. The pub, appropriately named The Shoe, didn’t open till 6pm, dammit. So we hung about in the churchyard until it did, then I had a pint of Wadworth 6X. Wadworth is in Wiltshire, so relatively local as it’s the next county to the  northwest of Hampshire. It was a solid, medium-bodied, malty, caramelly ale. Fran had Swordfish, a similar malt ale given a bit of bite with the addition of rum.

Pint at The Shoe, Exton

The Shoe is a great food pub. Desserts included that essential British (gastro-) pub classic, sticky toffee pudding. It wasn’t the best sticky toffee I’ve had (it wasn’t warm enough for starters) but the main coarses we had – venison and scallops – were excellent so we were in a forgiving mood.

Sticky toffee pudding at The Shoe

Day 5: Corhampton to Winchester (15 miles / 25km)
Leaving the lovely Corhampton Lane Farm B&B, where they both grow and clean grain, we scrambled down the back of their property. This vineyard was across the valley. The South Downs are becoming increasingly significant for wine production. I don’t know much about it, but apparently chalk and limestone are particularly good for producing sparkling wines – and that’s what this estate, Exton Park, does.

Vineyard near Exton

Not far to go now, getting back in the countryside I explored as a kid on my bike and on family walks.

Winchester 10

For those who know me, they’ll know I got a bit obsessed with dead bikes while living in Rome. This was a nice variation on a theme. What it’s doing alongside a path on Gander Down I don’t know.

Dead bike, Gander Down

Some more hedgerow bounty. It really has been an amazing year for sloes and blackberries. If we’d been medieval pilgrims of a lowly caste or abstemious bent, we probably could have walked the whole route feeding ourselves on blackberries and hedgerow apples.

Amazing year for brambles.

Reaching Winchester, we stopped at my favourite hometown pub, The Black Boy free house, for a quick early afternoon drink. I had a Saxon Bronze from Alfred’s Brewery, founded in 2012 and named after our 9th century Saxon king, Alfred the Great. Winchester was his capital and from there he built the foundations of modern England. The Saxon Bronze is one of those new generation English ales that has the maltiness of a traditional bitter, but is informed by the crisp New World hoppiness so associated with the craft beer revolution.

Black Boy beers

And here is some serious caskery outside the Black Boy.

Casks outside the Black Boor

The end of our walk, on the steps of my folks’ place.

Made it

Now, I absolutely loved this walk. So much history and beauty. Fran had a wobble when her blisters were getting to her, but overall she enjoyed it too. My only regret is not doing one extra mile at the end and going to the Hospital of St Cross, a Norman church and almshouses, where you can request the “wayfarer’s dole” at the porter’s lodge. As we were genuine old-school wayfarers, it would have made sense, but as I grew up just near there, it felt weird to go there to blag a piece of bread and mouthful of ale.

Instead, we paid a visit to this wonderful gravestone in the grounds of Winchester Cathedral. Thomas Thetcher was a soldier who died in 1726, apparently because of his beer choice: “Here sleeps in peace a Hampshire Grenadier, / Who caught his death by drinking cold small Beer, / Soldiers be wise from his untimely fall / And when ye’re hot drink Strong or none at all.”

Small beer memorial

 

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Sourdough September

Sourdough, plus Lux

Although I’ve still not got a kitchen, and can’t bake – seven weeks and counting – doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about baking. I think about baking a lot. I wish I could just knock up a batch of cookies, or put make some bread. I have, at least, been tending my sourdough starter, which is quietly biding its time at the back of the fridge, not entirely dormant, but not particularly active.

Sadly, I still won’t have a kitchen, or an oven, until late October, so I won’t be able to do any naturally leavened loaves during Sourdough September. This is the annual event organised by the Real Bread Campaign, a series of “local events and activities to help share sourdough secrets and demystify the delicious delights of the oldest way of raising a loaf.”

Not only is making your own bread not that difficult,  creating your own natural leaven, or sourdough culture, to use instead of commercial yeast, isn’t either. Read all about it here.

Oh, and that’s Lux with my sourdough. I notice she didn’t wipe her feet when she came in from the building site, which isn’t very hygienic. I’ll have a word with her about that before she heads off to the spa (okay, cattery) while me and Fran get out of the way of the builders for a week, firstly by walking the South Downs Way from Lewes to Winchester.

 

 

 

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Microwave chocolate cake experiments

Microwave chocolate cake - weird texture?

As you may have noticed, this beer-and-baked-goods site isn’t featuring much of the latter at the moment. Due to buildings works, we’ve not had a kitchen for a month, and probably won’t have one for another couple of months at least, so there’s not baking going on here. Instead, we have a pathetic electric hotplate and a basic microwave.

And can you bake in a microwave? No, you can’t. Not literally at least, as the verb to bake apparently has its origins, via the Middle English baken, the Old English bacan, the Old Norse baka, and even the Old High German bahhan, in the Greek phōgein meaning to roast, to parch, to warm. So in essence baking is a process based around heat, specifically dry heat. Microwaving, on the other hand, involves zapping the food item with energy from approximately the middle of the electromagnetic spectrum.

You’re not cooking with thermal energy as you do in a conventional oven, you’re cooking with energy that generates thermal energy. You’re not baking with a dry heat, you’re causing molecules in the food – particularly the liquid component, the water – to dance and get hot.

I didn’t grow up with microwaves, and only acquired one when a relative of Fran’s died about a decade ago. I know they’re an efficient way of preparing food, but if you take pleasure in cooking, it’s quite likely you take pleasure in the tangibility of real heat: from an electric element in an oven, from a gas flame on a hob. The latter particularly has a kind of primal immediacy, like a neat, manageable campfire.

Is this baking? No. Give me a flame or a heating element.

So having said all that, I must report I’m surprised at my first microwave cake. How can you make a cake without baking it? I can’t really reconcile that, yet the mixture I made was a pretty normal cake mix, and it was cooked in the microwave in about five minutes, and the results are most definitely a cake. Not a good cake, but definitely a cake.

It’s not all good news though. What makes it not a good cake is a certain dryness, a weird airy homogeneity, a lack of depth of flavour and a slightly dry, ashy mouthfeel. Though the latter may be partly explained from the relatively high amount of baking powder in this recipe. Some jam and ganache, or even some standard water icing, might mask that, and compensate a bit for the dryness, but it’s definitely not as good as a real, proper, baked-in-an-oven cake. Nuking all the water molecules to cook the batter is no substitute for real heat.

But while I’ve not got an oven, it’ll have to do.

140g plain flour
40g cocoa
3 tsp baking powder
150g caster sugar
100g sunflower oil
100g hot water
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla essence

Microwave choc cake ingredients

1. Grease and base-line a 22cm microwave-safe cake container. This could be a glass dish or a silicon cake pan.*
2. Sieve the flour, cocoa and baking powder together into a mixing bowl.
3. Stir the sugar into the flour mix.
4. Whisk together the sunflower oil, hot water, eggs and vanilla essence in a jug.
5. Pour the liquid mix into the dry mix and combine well to break down any dry lumps.
6. Pour the batter into the prepared pan or dish.
7. Cover with clingfilm (aka plastic wrap). This is the bit that freaks me out. Making a cake? With heat? With plastic?

Before cooking - cover with plastic
8. Put the pan or dish in the microwave and hit it at max power. Time will depend on your microwave. Mine is 700W, and it took seven minutes. If yours is 800W max, it may only take 5 or 6 minutes. Peel back the plastic and check with a skewer to see if the cake is cooked fully. If not, nuke it a bit more.
9. Remove from the microwave and allow to sit for about five minutes.

After cooking - remove plastic
10. Run a palette knife around the edge then turn out and allow to cool completely.

Slice

11. Decorate with ganache, or apricot jam and melted chocolate and butter like a sachertorte. Plain like this (above) it’s a bit dry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* I tried to buy the latter, a silicone cake pan from a brand called Zeal. Unfortunately it didn’t say whether it was microwave-safe. I assume it would be, but don’t know enough about microwaving to be certain. So I didn’t buy it. I’ve emailed the Kitchen Innovations, the company behind the Zeal brand, but they’ve not replied. Got to love a brand that communicates with its potential customers.

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A London beer jaunt

Beers at Crate

Yesterday, I took a day away from the building site that is our home to visit London and sample some beers with my friend Russell, of Hooksmith Press. It being London Beer City, along with the Great British Beer Festival and the London Craft Beer Festival, it seemed almost rude to not go to London and drink beer.

Although I lived in London from 1997 to 2011, I already feel like an outsider, a country mouse, when I visit. All major cities have certain consistent qualities – a winding river, a dominant old building, a hill – but cities that launder channel large amounts of money also change fast. London is no exception. The number of ego monuments going up at the moment is extraordinary. London was never a highrise town, but the money men seem determined to turn it into one. It’s just plain weird – there are only so many empty offices and flats for the mega rich one city needs.

Back down on the ground, however, another way in which London is changing fast is its beer scene. Small independent breweries are popping up right, left and centre. Back when I lived in London, there were very few. Fuller’s had, somehow, survived the culls and takeovers*, and still operated as a fair-sized independent, offering beers like the easy drinking, organic golden Honey Dew that helped me transition to ale appreciation. While Fuller’s was founded in 1845, new breweries were rare. One that led the way was Meantime, which was founded in 2000. Where I lived in south London, meanwhile, The Florence pub in Herne Hill began producing its own beers on-site in 2007.

The new beer scene arguably took off in London, however, with The Kernel, which started brewing in 2009. The growth since then has been incredible. According to beer writer Des de Moor, “By the beginning of 2014, despite a few losses, there were well over 50 [breweries] – a quintupling of brewery numbers over five years.” All this happening after I’d left the city. No wonder I feel like an outsider now, with all these new buildings, and new beers.

The first place we went to was Russell’s local in Leytonstone, the grand Red Lion (640 High Road, Leytonstone, London E11 3AA). Even pubs like this exemplify how our beer culture has changed the past decade. Part of the Antic chain, it has an excellent selection of beers, keg, cask and bottle, including Meantime and The Kernel but also Beavertown (purveyors of my favourite recent beer, Gamma Ray), Camden Brewery and London Fields Brewery. I’d never had anything from the latter, which was founded in 2011, so tried their Love Not War, cask. It’s reddish, with a fairly full, chewy, malty body and a big slap of hops.

Ex-Olympics

Canalside
That second place we went to was Crate on Fish Island, Hackney Wick, east London. This is an area defined by old warehouses, canals, 2012 Olympics facilities seeming to lumber on the horizon like weary daikaiju, grafitti and hipsters. Lots of hipsters.

I suspect fairly quickly me and Russ felt old. We’re not, really – we’re half-way between the twenty-something hipsters and the sixty-something CAMRA crowd. Which isn’t a bad place to be, as I reckon it makes us old enough to have some knowledge, and some memories of when beer was really bad, but young enough to be receptive to extreme hop forwardiness, weird adjuncts, and even beer in kegs and cans.

Indeed, Russ is more inclined to colder, fizzier beers from kegs (at say 6C). Personally, I favour the Great British pint hand-pulled from a cask, carbonated by the live, active state of the yeast, and served at cellar temperatures (say 12C). Luckily, the real beer explosion the past few years, and particularly in well-served places like London, means we can both be satisfied in the same bars and pubs. The old guard might poo-poo all keg beer, but you can’t argue with the craftsmanship of these beers.

Fish Island

We were both broadly after more hoppy brews so the comparisons were interesting. To my mind, 6C is still a bit too cold, neutralising some of the aromas and flavours, but as Americans will always tell you, colder beer is more refreshing. I reckon a keg beer, clasped in body temperature hands (37C ish) will get to just about the right temperature when you’ve drunk half a pint.

Crate, a brewery with a canalside bar and pizzeria, has been open since 2012. We jumped over a fence and sat by the canal, which was remarkably clean and only partially cluttered with dilapidated barges. Russ informed me these were the local hipsters’ accommodation of choice, and that it wasn’t unusual for them to arrive at the bar from round the corner in mini speedboats. This really wasn’t my London at all. The beer was good though. My Pale Ale was rich and almost meaty in its taste, along with hints of coconut, pineapple. Russ had the IPA, which was also good… though a bit cold and fizzy initially. We had to agree to disagree on this one. Being a New Zealander Russ probably can’t help himself.

View of Crate

Re-branding
After Crate we wandered around Fish Island some more, checking out the new Truman’s brewery, with its sign saying “Established 1666 / Closed 1989 / Re-established 2010″. I’ve got mixed feelings about this. Truman’s was a familiar name growing up even if I didn’t drink it, but I do wonder whether it was really necessary to re-cycle an old brand when you’re joining a new era of brewing and asserting your own identity with new brews. We went round the corner to the brewery’s tap room, The Cygnet, on Swan Whaft, another canalside location with a similar hipster presence and cartoony, grafitti-ish wall art. Here, the hipster boy serving couldn’t do the mental arithmetic for the change from a £20 note from two £4 beers, and the beer Russ had was the only duffer we had that day. It was an NZ Pale from Hackney Brewery. It was packed with NZ hops, so we had to try it, but it was badly kept, posisbly spoiled, and far too warm – around room temp, 20C ish, despite the casks being wrapped in thermal skins. I had Truman’s Lazarus, a 42% ABV golden pale ale that was delicious. The site says, “Lazarus is our celebration of the rebirth of Truman’s”, which again seems slightly odd when it’s all about the quintessentially American Cascade and Chinook hops – not exactly characteristics of traditional English beer.

Trumans

Afterwards, we  headed across town to meet Fran at the Cask near Victoria. Thanks for the connections, orange Overland. Public transport as it should be: rationalised, wide-ranging, clean and functional. Why can’t more British trains be like this?

I’ve written about the Cask before, but wanted to visit this evening as their part of London Beer City was a New Brewery Showcase and Meet the Brewers event. Of the six breweries flagged up on the flyer, one was Burning Sky, one of my two most local in Lewes, while Atom is in Hull, with the remaining four – Strawman, Hammerton, Anspach & Hobday and Bullfinch – being in London. Although the first one I had was London Session, from London Beer Factory, an outfit based on West Norwood, southeast London. According to a post on A London Beer and Pub Guide from June 2014, “London brewery count rises to 70 with the addition of London Beer Factory, who have just started brewing.” The beer was good and wholesome, like apple crumble and custard.

Showcase at Cask

Next up I had Strawman’s 3.9% ABV Saison, from a keg. Russ said it tasted of pears and almonds. Along with bubblegum. And “soap – the kind of soap you get in a B&B” and “Parma Violets” according to Fran, who was drinking Bullfinch’s Rascal, a 4.8% ABV session IPA that was massively hoppy. The site says it’s “Currently featuring Kazbek, Simcoe, Ahtanum and Colombus hops”.

Russ was drinking Burning Sky at my recommendation, but as I generally drink either Burning Sky or Harveys when I’m at home I was favouring the London brews. Though I did get to meet Burning Sky’s brewer, Mark Tranter.

I think we started losing track a bit by this point. Not because we were especially sozzled, but more because we were busy chatting, as we’d not seen Russ for years. And eating. The Cask is the only place I’ve ever been that can make the non-meat burger equivalent that is a mushroom in a roll into something really good, with stacks of halloumi. (I won’t call it “the vegetarian option” as just cos you eat meat doesn’t mean you always have to choose meat; I eat meat, but fancied halloumi more.)

Cask tariff

Our last round was all about the hops, with some almost eye-wateringly bitter beers. We had Hammerton’s N7 Pale Ale, which Fran said was reminiscent of “sweaty armpits”; then Anspach & Hobday’s The IPA; and Atom’s This Is IPA. Lots of astringency, sweat and sweeties, specifically pear drops.

Personally, I’d say the latter two were actually APAs, or British APAs, BAPAs, not IPAs. IPAs simply aren’t that aggressive, or at least they weren’t historically. It’s all in flux, and very dynamic. And really, with this half-day wander round London, guided by Russ, I barely even began to scratch the surface of what’s been happening since I moved out of London. I’m not sure how often I can justify going up to London to booze, but each time I do, the prospect of yet more new beers and new breweries is exciting. Sure all these places won’t last, and things will have to bed down to match the market, but what amazing times. It’d almost be possible to forget most of Britain is still dominated by shit industrial lager.

 

 

* CAMRA probably played a notable role in this survival. It had been founded in 1971 and within five years was a significant, influential body. In ‘Brew Britannia: The Strange Rebirth of British Beer’ Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey write, of CAMRA’s mid-1970s successes, “The rot had been stopped, and breweries such as Young’s and Fuller’s were no longer simply under threat but were booming.”

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Hops letterpress print

Humulus luplus letterpress, R Frost

Beer is mostly water. But through the magic of Saccharomyces cerevisiae consuming sugars provided by malted grains, that water becomes something wonderful. While the malt provides a lot of the body and the flavour of the beer, it’s with the addition of hops that beers become truly exciting in their varied characters.

The hop plant is Humulus lupulus, a native of Eurasia that’s quite possibly been associated with booze since the 6th century BCE (check out this PDF) but has been cultivated extensively, resulting in an incredible range of aromas and tastes.

What you can do with hops is really something to be celebrated, which is just what Russell Frost has done with this new print from his Hooksmith letterpress operation.

Russell, an old friend from New Zealand and a fellow fan of decent real beer, explains, “The type face is allegedly a hand-cut early Chromatic Victorian (meaning for two-colour printing)  known as an ‘ornamented grot'” Strangely, as “grot” is either short for grotto or grotty: these letters are neither.*

Russell has an extensive collection of vintage equipment as his operation in east London. For those who know their letterpress, his site says, “Presses include an Adana 8×5 platen and several proofing presses including a Farley, Stephenson Blake, Vandercook14 and a Vandercook SP15.”

Type. From Hooksmith

As for the ornamented grot used here, Russell says, “I came by it after a serious amount of hunting and it was sold to me by a collector who bought it off another collector in the 1980s.”

Great stuff. I particularly like how the decorative top tips of the letters reflect the pointed shape of the hop flower petals, as seen in this picture taken by a chap called Duncan Harris (thanks Duncan) and posted in his stream on Flickr:

Duncan Harris, Hops

Oh, and Russell, being an educated man and the son of a botanist, knows that it’s a no-no to capitalise scientific nomenclature (that is, put HUMULUS LUPULUS when it should always be Humulus lupulus or at a push H. lupulus), but it’s such a great font it’s justified by artistic license.

 

 

* Russell says “grot” is just short for “grotesque”, which makes sense. Grotesque doens’t just mean ugly or hideous, it originally referred to a decorative style that was inspired by ancient Roman decorative styles (re-) discovered during the Renaissance and featured bizarre, stylised animal and plant forms. Grotesque, grotto and grotty all have the same etymology – the Italian word grotta, cave, which comes from the Latin crypta (as in crypt) meaning underground passage or chamber. The 16th century artists who developed the grottesca / grotesque style had, for example, explored the buried rooms of places like Nero’s Golden Palace, which in the Middle Ages was largely lost and buried under the cumulative filth and silt of decades of neglect in Rome.

 

 

 

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Making bread in The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead 127, gardens at Alexandria Safe-Zone

Those who read this blog will know I like bread. You may not know, however, I’m also a lifelong comic book reader. I don’t follow that many series these days, but one I do is zombie apocalypse saga The Walking Dead, which has recently taken an interesting turn. They’re still fighting zombies of course, but they’re also growing more food too.

Although many people started reading The Walking Dead comics when the TV series (2010-) became a hit, I’ve been there since the beginning, 2003. I can’t remember how I started but it was possibly thanks to my friend Dr Jamie Russell, a screenwriter and author of Book of the Dead: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema. We’re both pretty into apocalyptic fiction. I grew up with stuff like John Christopher, John Wyndham and JG Ballard. My mother was partly responsible, as she likes it too: novels like these, but also TV like the BBC’s Survivors (1975-1977). My childhood was also the era of cinema classics like Mad Max and The Terminator or repeats of The Omega Man or Logan’s Run on TV.

I’m one of those apocalypse geeks who likes to discuss how things would change, what you’d do when human civilisation collapses. I like to fantasise about fortifying my parents’ place in the country, building up its traditional southwest of England hedge-banks into a proper defensive palisade to keep the zombie hordes at bay. Or whatever.

Reality check
It’s all daft, obviously, as the collapse isn’t coming in one neat cinematic fell swoop, it’s coming slowly, now, as we speak, from our excessive consumerism, our unquenchable thirst for fossil fuels, supported by “greenest government ever” pawns who support fracking when our focus should be on energy efficiency and renewables. Such backwards policy furthers climate change, which destabilises agricultural, which causes famine, which results in population movement and increased tension in an overpopulated world. But slowly. We’re living the slow apocalypse. Which just doesn’t make for such great fiction.

Still, while all this is happening, we lap up the sudden apocalypse fiction, the bombs, the plagues, the zombies: The Walking Dead TV series is huge how, and a new trailer for the long-awaited fourth Mad Max film has just emerged via the ComicCon event in San Diego, etc, etc, etc.

I’d got a bit behind with The Walking Dead comics, but now I’ve caught up again. Thankfully, with issue 126, creator Robert Kirkman ended the protracted ‘All Out War’ storyline, which IMHO revisited too much ground already covered by the Governor storylines. With issue 127, Kirkman and artist Charlie Adlard refresh the series with a neat ellipsis. The issue is called ‘A New Beginning’ and about two years have passed since the war. The community of survivors seems to be flourishing, focussing on their food security by cultivating food, not just relying on scavenging food from before the zombie plague.

Post-apocalyptic practicalities
As much as I love the action element of apocalyptic stories, I much prefer it when they look at the practicalities of living in a changed world. This is why the BBC’s 1975 Survivors is superior to the 2008 remake. The former got stuck into the important business of how to survive after a plague had wiped out most of the population and nature was taking over again. The 2008 version, meanwhile, mostly just had its survivors bickering like soap opera characters. When they did try to do something practical – eg build a chicken coop – it was pathetic and cursory, physically and dramatically. Compare that with the original TV series, where they look at things like medical treatment, how to make candles, and even how to maintain a watermill.

The latter is particularly significant as water and wind provided the (sustainable) energy for milling grain for centuries. And milling grain means bread, the historic staple food.

Today, most people go to a supermarket, buy something sliced and wrapped in plastic and eat that. That’s not bread. That’s a post-industrial filler, a culinary deception and dietary disaster. There’s no way western civilisation could have achieved all that it has achieved (for better or worse) if we’d had white sliced as our staple.

For a community to thrive it needs a decent staple, and real bread is just that. So it’s great to see the survivors in The Walking Dead during that two-year ellipsis are farming, have built a windmill and are baking their own bread in their home, Alexandria, Virginia, not far from Washington DC.

TWD 128 windmill

Burning issues
In issue 128, Eugene, the community’s resident dorky genius, says he just read a book about how to do it, but Rick, the increasingly physically maimed but mentally sharp leader, won’t hear it. He realises the importance of the mill and the bakehouse in his vision for rebuilding civilisation.

Although we don’t see the more extensive grain fields you’d need to feed the comic’s community of, I dunno, a hundred-ish, you do see gardens and a glimpse of orchards. Unfortunately, the way Charlie has presented the mill and bakehouse is a bit of a bodge. The artwork is as great as ever, but it’s not a credible layout. The bakehouse seems to be inside the windmill. I have never encountered such an arrangement, and suspect it rarely, if ever, happened historically. If a mill did have an associated bakehouse, it would have been a separate building due to the fire hazard of cranking a wood-fired oven near chaff, wooden structures and valuable grain and flour.

The Walking Dead 128, bread fresh from the oven

The bread itself is portrayed slightly strangely too. The baker, Olivia, is handling a peel with tin loaves on it – though they’re not in tins. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say that she’s taken the loaves out of their tins then put them back in the oven to finish baking. Despite this quibbles, the scenes featuring the mill and bread are great: significant and moving.

Growing food. Grinding grain. Baking real bread. Now, perhaps The Walking Dead’s survivor’s can really thrive*.

 

 

 

 

* I doubt it though, as Kirkman generally seems to prefer his protagonists to suffer. Mistrust, human weakness and violence are the bread and butter of The Walking Dead. Not bread.

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Gooseberry and thyme cake

Slice of gooseberry thyme cake

We’ve not had a kitchen for just over a week now. We’re having building work done on our house, and although the original plan was to only remove the kitchen half-way through the three-month schedule, on the first day the builder turned to me and said it’d be better if they did it straight away. Immediately. Post-haste. Subito. Or at least the day after.

So I baked my final cake and final two loaves of bread, then set about removing the units. It was a hideous kitchen, and far from practical, but not having a kitchen at all is, to say the least, even less practical. Only so much baking I can do with a kettle and a microwave. Indeed, I never really use microwaves for anything other than softening butter for making cakes, so I don’t know what else you can do with them. Apparently you can “bake” in a microwave, but I can’t really imagine how. Not in a metal cake tin – unless I actively want to add exploded microwave to the chaos.

Just before the demolition started, I was moving some shrubs from the area where we were building. One of these was a much-neglected gooseberry bush, which, despite being basically in the shade, had managed to produce a fair crop, just shy of a kilo. So that final cake had to involve gooseberries.

Now, I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the “spiny grape”, as it’s called in Italian (uva spina). I used to eat them when I was a kid in the 1970s and early 1980s, but I have a feeling they’re slightly out of fashion these days. Despite how popular “retro” and “vintage” may be, I don’t hear people talking excitedly about gooseberry fools, an old-fashioned British summer recipe.

I can suffer a fool, gladly, but rather than just defaulting to using the gooseberries to make one, I wanted to try a cake. I found some good recipes from both Nigel Slater and Diana Henry, two cookery writers who are proponents of great British produce. Henry had one featuring thyme, which intrigued me. Even though I don’t have lemon thyme as her recipe suggests, my own herbs have been doing very well in this year’s shockingly pleasant south of England summer, so I used some good old Thymus vulgaris, common thyme. (Though I think my variety is the French, narrow-leaf, not the English.)

Herbs

Henry’s original recipe can be found here on the Torygraph site. I’ve tweaked it a bit.

The fruit:
350g gooseberries
60g caster sugar

For the cake:
125g butter
120g caster sugar
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 tsp thyme leaves, chopped (ideally lemon thyme)
1 lemon
100g plain flour, sifted with
1t baking powder
75g ground almonds

For the syrup:
50g granulated sugar
2 large lemons, juiced [I used 1 lemon, 1 orange], about 100g juice
2 small sprigs of thyme

Top & tail

1. Preheat the oven to 190C.
2. Grease and base-line a 20cm spring-form cake tin.
3. Top and tail the gooseberries then toss with 60g of caster sugar and leave them to macerate slightly.
4. Beat the butter and 120g caster sugar until pale and fluffy.

Creaming
5. Add the egg a little at a time, beating well after each addition. If it curdles at all, add a little flour.
6. Finely grate the zest of the lemon. I also used some orange zest. Just cos. Finely chop the zests together with the thyme to free up all those lovely essential oils.

Zest and thyme chopped together
7. Add the zest and herbs to the batter and combine.
8. Sieve in the flour and baking powder, then fold to combine, along with the ground almonds.
9. Spoon, pour and scrape the mixture into the tin.
10. Spread the gooseberries over the top of the mixture.

Add fruit
11. Bake for 45 minutes and test with a skewer.

Baked
12. While the cake is still warm, make the syrup by dissolving the sugar in the lemon juice, with the thyme.
13. Pierce the cake with a skewer then pour over the syrup, removing the sprigs of thyme.
14. Leave to cool then serve. You can just with icing sugar, and serve with crème fraîche, cream or ice cream.

Henry also has another one here, with flaked almonds. I think that could be nicer as the crunch of the almonds would contrast with the eyebally squish of the cooked fruit. Next year perhaps. Or perhaps Slater’s recipe, which involves a kind of crumble. Or perhaps I’ll just revisit the fool.

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