Mamoosh pittas and the question of artisan food

Real pittas from Mamoosh

When making food by hand to sell direct to the public, one thing you will almost certainly argue about with yourself – and possibly with friends and family too – is pricing. Despite Britain being a place where we idolise chefs, buy recipe books in bulk, sit glued to food-themed TV, and like to fantasise about the artisan food producer life, most people still buy most of their food from supermarkets. And supermarkets are very much a product of the post-World War 2, post-rationing hunger for cheapness and plenty, quantity over quality.

Any artisan food producer has to compete with this.

Einat Chalmers of Mamoosh rolling pittas

Einat Chalmers runs Mamoosh1 out of small bakery within an industrial in Newhaven, on the East Sussex coast. Her main product is pitta2 bread. She sells four for £2. This seems like a bargain to me, but then I’m a middle-class stereotype who tries to eschew industrial food. People, even friends, criticised my prices when I sold Italian biscuits on the market, but my margins were very narrow, and the time it takes to handmake real food is a world away from the time it takes for a factory to spit out industrial food.

Scaling brioche buns by hand

Einat has some professional kit but is essentially making her pitta by hand: dividing the dough, shaping the balls, feeding a small dough roller, laying them on trays to prove, then dropping them onto her new addition: a proper pitta oven. Then removing them by hand too. With a supermarket’s pitta, the dough is almost certainly not touched by hand at all as it moves through an automated production process in a factory, not a bakery.

And frankly supermarket pitta tastes like cardboard; a conclusion I reached years ago and one that’s affirmed every time I eat Einat’s bread. Never mind that many will find the result indigestible; not because they can’t eat wheat, but because industrial bread doughs simply aren’t proved for long enough.

Mamoosh brioche buns

Einat, who grew up in the north of Israel close to Lebanon, sells her delicious pitta on the markets in Lewes. They’re a key part of my family’s diet these days. My fussy son calls it “pocket bread” and it’s a good way to get him to eat something filling. Einat also makes brioche buns to supply The Pig and Jacket, who do pulled pork and hog roast, and croissants and Danish, which she sells at the smaller market in Newhaven. She says she turns out up to around 250 brioche buns and 900 pitta a week but is gradually expanding. The latter production is helped by that pitta oven.

Mamoosh croissants, pain au chocolate and Danish pastries proving

I’ve never seen one before but it’s a great bit of kit, gas elements heat a large rotating disc of cast iron from below, while other flames brown the pittas from above. Einat says she was encouraged to invest in one by her restaurateur father in Israel, and when I visited the bakery I got a great sense of its efficacy. It heats to about 450-500C (a temperature similar to that found in a wood-fired pizza oven) in about 10 minutes. About a dozen pittas can fit on the disc and the rotation takes about a minute. The results are great: pocketed but puffy and tender, an entirely different animal to the abovementioned cardboard pittas more familiar to British supermarket shoppers. They may cost about 50p for six, but to my mind that’s a false economy: not only are they poor quality in terms of ingredients and production process, they’re also barely edible for anyone who’s even vaguely discerning about the bread they eat.

Pitta oven

Einat, who trained as a chef at the French Culinary Institute and interned in bakeries in New York in the late 1990s, taught herself sourdough and pitta at home. She’s lived in Sussex with her Scottish husband for about 15 years and worked on and off for Brighton’s Real Patisserie before starting her pitta business. I think she’s really onto something. I urge anyone who’s in Lewes for the food markets to check out her pitta, they’re one of those foods that very tellingly highlights the difference between real, handmade products and industrial crap. One of those products that, in a mouthful, qualifies and justifies the price differences3.

Mamoosh pittas are available at the Friday morning food market, in the Lewes Market Tower, from Talicious falafel stall, or you can get them straight from Einat’s Mamoosh stall at the Lewes farmers market on the first and third Saturday of every month. I’m eating some now with some of my hummus as I hit “Publish”.

Pittas baking

 

Footnotes
1 Einat explains the name thus: “Mamoosh comes from the word mummy (mother), probably introduced by the Polish Jews and become part of the Hebrew slang. “e use it mainly as a slang for sweetie, darling, honey, dear.”

2 In English pitta or pita is borrowed from the modern Greek πίτα. As it’s a transliteration, presumably there are arguments for both spellings. Indeed, the Greek word can also be translated as pie or cake. Older etymology of the word is contested so can’t help.

3 This is a tangent but just to preemptively respond to any criticism that I’m writing simply from a naive middle-class position, here’s a little more food for thought. Many people say that only the better-off can eat what I call real foods, and the poorer are dependent on cheap industrial produce, often frozen or in the form of ready meals, from budget supermarkets etc. This is obviously a complex issue but a story I read in the i newspaper on 2 March seemed to confirm something I’ve long thought – if you base your diet on fresh veg, grains, pulses, don’t expect red meat with every meal and don’t throw away food (itself an enormous issue, and one of the things that will bring about the downfall of our society), you can eat more affordably.

The article quotes from a report by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), “the UK’s original free-market think-tank”, and its author says, “A diet of muesli, rice, white meat, fruit and vegetables is much cheaper than a diet of Coco Pops, ready meals, red meat, sugary drinks and fast food. The idea that poor nutrition is caused by the high cost of healthy food is simply wrong.” The IEA is not a body I know well, and it’s of neoliberal disposition and I’ve not read the original report, so I’m slightly wary of quoting from it.

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Welcome Holler Boys Brewery!

Steve Keegan at Holler Boys Brewery

The small East Sussex town of Lewes once had a dozen breweries. In the 19th century, these included Harvey’s, Southdown, Lyells, Beards, Verralls, Ballards, Bear Yard, Cliffe (then South Malling Steam Brewery). The latter burned down, the former still majestically dominates the centre of town – architecturally and olfactorily. All the rest are gone too. But the story of the region’s brewing reflects the wider story of Britain’s brewing.

The 20th century saw the decimation of diversity, the reduction of enormous regional variety and its replacement in pubs, largely, with interchangeable industrial lagers. A few real ales hung on, defended by CAMRA. Then, around the turn of the millennium, new ‘craft beer’ breweries began to appear; with the advent of 2002’s Progressive Beer Duty1, they started flourishing.

I don’t really like the real ale/craft beer distinction, especially as the latter has no accepted definition. But what I do like is the restoration of diversity with the emergence of innumerable new breweries. The number of breweries in the UK is now at its highest in 70 years2.

In the Lewes area, we now have Burning Sky, Gun, Long Man, 360, Isfield, among others. They were even microbrewing out of the Elephant and Castle pub and the Pelham Arms has its new Abyss Brewing operation. Excitingly, we’re getting another new brewery now near Lewes. It’s called Holler Boys, a name that’s sure to connect with the area’s Bonfire boys and girls, as it comes from a Bonfire prayer3.

Steve Keegan at Holler Boys Brewery. And wort.

Old hand, new brewery
It’s being set up by Steve Keegan, an old hand in the booze industry: he was at the forefront of setting up pubs that sold craft beer, before he borrowed £700 on his credit card and set up Late Knights Brewery in Penge, south London, in 2012. It was his night job, but Late Knights quickly became very successful, with them opening up a half dozen bars, including the Brighton Beer Dispensary. They ended up with a £2.2 million turnover. Then, in Autumn 2016, it all came to an end. While Steve’s relationship with their investor was getting difficult, he injured his head badly playing football and was laid up with labyrinthitis, barely able to talk. Steve and his girlfriend and creative collaborator, Bethany Warren, are also expecting – indeed, the baby is due this month, around the same time as the first batch of beer.

It was through Bethany, a local girl, whose father has a vineyard near Crowborough, that Steve met Anthony Becvar. Anthony’s Czech granddad immigrated here in the 1930s – “a military man who knew what was coming,” says Anthony – and starting to farm at Little Goldsmiths, near Blackboys. He’s the third generation to run the farm.

Not only has Anthony switched away from dairy to arable, he’s another example of a farmer diversifying. Farm buildings are used for all sorts these days – from soft play to brewing. Holler Boys is being set up in the building that once was used for milking, and is still partly used for storing bales. They’ve put in walls, creating the brewing space, cold room and office so far, with the latter to be fitted out to host tastings.

Brewery in a cow shed

What’s in a name?
Originally Steve planned to use the name Ironstone, a nod to the bedrock of his home turf around Middlesbrough, but also to the Blackboys area, which gets its name from the sooty faces of the charcoal burners and smelters who once toiled here. It turned out Molson Coors had it copyrighted though, and weren’t forthcoming when he tried to negotiate. Then a small backroom brewery in Staffordshire started using it too, so they found a new name. Bethany is involved in Bonfire, a member of Cliffe Bonfire Society, so would understand full well the potential local resonance of the name.

When me and my friend Alex Markovitch (of Kabak Food, who knew Steve from Penge; Steve’s also provided beer for Alex’s Festival of Jim over several years) visited in late February, Steve was busy brewing up a batch of Golden Ale. He says, “The past two months we’ve been plumbers, electricians and painters” so he was excited to now be brewing. The Golden Ale is using NZ Pacific Gem (for bittering) and Kentish Goldings (for aroma). He explained that many of the big flavour US hops favoured by craft brewers are all bought up by the big boys so he’s almost forced to innovate with the hops, malts and even the yeasts that are more available. This particular beer is based on an 1890 recipe which he found after being inspired by Peter Haydon, a director at Meantime Brewery, writer and former General Secretary of the Society of Independent Brewers, to research.

Belgian red from Holler Boys Brewery

Testing, testing
He’s also doing tests for an English IPA and a black lager, as well as planning a “crisp, easy-drinking” session IPA, 4-4.2%. Steve also gave me and Alex a chocolate milk stout and a Flemish red beer (made with Belgian yeast). I always feel chuffed to get beers from brewers even before they’ve finalised their branding4: a bottle without a label is strangely exciting. We really enjoyed the Belgian Red, a beer that has both a hoppy crispness and a warm, full body. Steve explains, “with the craft world dominated by the hop side of things at the moment, there is certainly going to be a shift into what we can do with malt and yeast. The Flemish red is my way of showing what a Belgian yeast can really do.”

I’m looking forward to seeing some of Steve’s beers appearing in the pubs of Lewes. He said the brews should be ready later this month. Initially he’ll be focussing on bottling and casks, which he plans to sell “within half an hour of here”, to places where the beer is well looked after. Down the line there’s talk of kegs, can, even venues, as that’s Steve’s background – when he started Late Knights he was running places in London, Oxford and Brighton and had been an operations manager for Fullers. But as Late Knights grew so fast, he’s keen to pace himself better this time, get the brew right, build up slowly, retain control. He says, “I’ve turned down a lot of investment… actually I want to do it myself.” Unlike with Late Knights, he even has a proper lease with Anthony for using the farm buildings.

Steve and Anthony talk about growing hops, keeping bees, and maybe even trying barley (though Anthony says, “It’s not the best ground for barley”). The farm has “plenty of space” – 200 acres (81 ha or 0.8 km2) – for such projects. Time will tell. It’s all rather thrilling, to taste these beers after having a previous acquaintance with Late Knights, then be able to sit back and see what happens next. Steve, Bethany and the baby, with assistance from Anthony, production in tanks dubbed Wayne, Long John, Jake and Ellwood, are initially aiming for 100 casks5 a week, with a range of English IPA, Golden, Session IPA and Stout.

Holler Boys tanks

 

Notes
1. Under Gordon Brown, the taxation of breweries was changed so that smaller companies paid less tax on the beer they were selling. Wikipedia gives more detail.
2. Peter Brown, in this (undated) article.
3. It comes from this verse of Bonfire Prayer. The full prayer can be found here.
“God’s providence he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match,
Holler boys, holler boys, ring bells ring
Holler boys, holler boys, God Save the King!”
4. Labels etc are being designed by Brighton-based illustrator Billy Mather, billymather.co.uk.
5. There are 73 imperial pints in a cask, so 730 pints; that is about 4.15 hectolitres.

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Real beer barm bread mark II

Barm bread

A few years ago, I was given a bottle of barm by my brewer friend Michele Sensidoni, of Mastri Birrai Umbri. For those who don’t know, barm is the yeast, and yeasty foam, formed by vigorously reproducing yeasts during the fermentation process in brewing. I used it to make some bread. Last week, I was lucky enough to visit Holler Boys, a new Sussex brewery, and meet its owner and brewer Steve Keegan.

Steve is a friend of a friend, and former managing director of Late Knights Brewery, which he set up in south London in 2012. It expanded fast and they opened several pubs, but things drew to a close in Autumn 2016. I’ll tell that story in another post soon, in the meantime, here’s another experimental barm bread.

I got up this morning – well, I was woken up by the Raver, 19 months, at the not too uncivilised hour of 6.50 – and found the dough crawling out of its proving basket. So, yes, this is one of those blog posts that talks about a bit of a cock-up, not an expert success story.

Barm

 

When we visited, Steve was busy making new brews and one of his conditioning tanks, named Wayne, was bubbling away. I asked Steve if I could have a scoop of the froth, the barm.

Barmy starter
Back home, I mixed with flour and water over the course of three days, much like you would feed a sourdough starter. It wasn’t that vigorous, but it was alive. The barm I’d got from Michele had involved a lot more liquid and yeasty bits. This scoop of bubbles, however, was a bit of a gamble, as it obviously didn’t contain quite such a density of yeasts.

Barm starter

In the evening of the third day – sounding a tad Biblical – I made up a dough. Here’s the recipe.

350g beer barm starter, at 100% hydration (ie, I fed it on equal quantities of flour and water)
8g fine sea salt
300g water
500g strong white bread flour

Ignoring the small amount of liquid in the initial scoop of barm, the total liquid in the dough was about 475g, the flour 675g, making a dough hydration of 70% (475/675 x 100).

1. Bring the barm starter, salt, water and flour together to form a soft dough in a roomy bowl.
2. Turn out onto a lightly oiled work surface and knead. Knead it briefly, form a ball, then put back into the bowl, lightly oiled. Cover and leave 10 minutes.
3. Knead again, put back in the bowl, cover and leave 10 minutes again.
4. Repeat a few more times then put back in the bowl, cover and put the fridge for 24 hours.

Before final prove

Now, this is where I went wrong. I wanted to give it a final prove in a proving basket, but I misjudged the liveliness of the dough – the barm starter had turned out to be more vigorous than I thought. I thought I could give it a final prove at room temperature (in this case 17-18C), overnight, for about 9 hours. I probably should have done it in the fridge.

Oops

The dough spilled over the edges of the proving basket, which was too small for the amount of dough, and stuck. It was overproved and had a bad skin where the dough had dried out. I was forced to prise it out (destroying stucture) and reform the ball, give it a short final prove, then resort to baking in a preheated casserole dish, rather than slid off a peel onto a hot baking stone as I’d planned.

I don’t think there’s any point continuing with a numbered recipe now, as it went wrong. But when I say “wrong”, I mean that I learned a lesson. If I can get hold of some more barm, I’ll know to trust it more for leavening.

The result isn’t what I was aiming for, and its crumb structure is a slight disappointment, but the flavour is good. Fran says she can taste a beeriness, a bitterness. T-Rex, three, enjoyed it too, until he decided he didn’t, and said “Yuck”. I’d like to think this wasn’t an entirely failed experiment: all I had to start with was a few grams of foam, it was fun and the results are tasty. I just got the timings wrong. Hey, I’ve only made real barm bread twice!

Barm bread crumb shot

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Plum shuttles or Valentine buns for Valentine’s Day, 14 February

Plum shuttles, Valentine buns

Me and my wife Fran have been a couple for, blimey, nearly 17 years now. Through the years, Valentine’s Day has always been a bit of an issue for us. I think it’s a load of old bollocks and try to ignore it, she buys into the notion that it should somehow be more romantic than other days and tries to make a thing of it. We usually meet in the middle – with a bit of teasing and bickering. Maybe she’ll give me a card and I’ll feign confusion.

It is a funny feast day, any genuine older traditions now lost into the spoon-fed, commercial morass. It’s the ultimate Hallmark holiday where sales of cards and bunches of red roses have a massive spike.

In Cattern Cakes and Lace (pub 1987), Julia Jones and Barbara Deer talk about the theory that it’s a modern incarnation of the Roman fertility celebrations of Lupercalia, transferred into an association with not one but two characters martyred in Rome in the 3rd century AD. The Catholic Encyclopaedia meanwhile says “At least three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs, are mentioned in the early martyrologies under the date of 14 February.” How confusing! “One is described as a priest at Rome, another as bishop of Interamna (modern Terni)”. It also says the Roman city gate now known as the Porta del Popolo was called the Gate of St Valentine in the 11th century. “Of the third Saint Valentine, who suffered in Africa with a number of companions, nothing further is known.”

The idea that St Valentine’s day was a Christianisation of Lupercalia was suggested in the 18th century and has been rejected by modern scholars. Instead, it’s suggested that the association of St Valentine’s day with romance arose in the 14th century, notably with Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules, which drew attention to the date as when birds partnered up:
“For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.”

Other medieval writers referred to the same avian motif. Clearly, modern society isn’t the only one to generate and perpetuate whimsical piffle. I’m not going to go on about it all here. If you’re really interested in such things, the Wikipedia page is, naturally, respectably comprehensive. Instead, here’s a recipe from Jones and Deer for some enriched dough buns.

Plums but not plums
The name “plum shuttles” might confuse – it doesn’t contain plums and what’s a shuttle? Well, Jones and Deer say “These buns are shaped like weavers’ shuttles”. It’s a nice idea, though if you look at a weaver’s shuttle, it’s longer and pointed at both ends. These are more bun-shaped. As for the “plums”, that’s just an older British English usage of the word used to cover not just fresh Prunus fruit, but also dried fruit such as prunes (dried plums) and raisins and currants (dried grapes).

There’s not that much sugar in this enriched dough but a high proportion of dried fruit makes for a notably sweet currant bun.

Currants

I found their dough a bit tight, so have increased the liquid. It also uses a lot of yeast, proportionately, and has a resulting short fermentation. I’ve reduced the yeast a bit, but if you prefer a really good, proper, healthy long fermentation time, knock it back even more.

450g plain flour (all-purpose, low protein)
5g fine sea salt
4g active dried yeast or 8g fresh yeast
5g caster sugar
60g warm water
50g unsalted butter
160g full-fat milk
1 egg, about 55g
225g currants

Extra egg to glaze

Makes 12 buns

1. Combine the sugar, yeast and water and leave to activate. The sugar really boosts the yeast so it should go seriously frothy.

Frothy yeast mix

2. Warm the milk with the butter until the latter is melted. Leave to cool a little.

Butter, milk, egg, frothy mix
3. Put the flour and salt in a large bowl.
4. Add the yeast mix, milk and butter and egg to the flour mix and bring together to form a dough.

Combine

5. Turn out and knead until smooth.
6. Stretch out and add the currants. Fold the dough over and knead again to combine and distribute.

Smooth dough, with currants

7. Clean and grease the bowl, return the dough, cover and leave to prove until doubled in size.

Doubled in size

8. The total dough weight should be about a kilo (with slightly variation depending on the size of your egg etc). Divide this into 12 pieces scaled at about 84g each.

Divide into 12 pieces

9. Form the pieces into balls, leave to rest, covered, for about 10 minutes.

Form balls

10. Stretch and roll these to form long ovals with pointed ends. Like weavers’ shuttles.

Shaped
11. Place the ovals on lined or greased baking sheets, with plenty of room for expansion.
12. Cover with damp cloths and leave to prove again, doubling in size, or until a finger pushed in forms a slight dent.

After final prove
13. Heat the oven to 200C.
14. Brush the buns with beaten egg.
15. Bake for about 15-20 minutes, until nicely browned.

Freshly baked
16. Cool on a wire rack.

Eat how you like – plain, with butter, with butter and jam or, if you really want to go crazy, add a load of whipped cream and pretend they’re maritozzi con la panna*. And of course, enjoy with your special someone… while arguing about what a lot of old nonsense Valentine’s Day is.

Plum shuttled Valentine bun, split

 

 

* Similar shaped Roman buns. Boy I miss Rome, especially at this time of year when it’s been grey and cold for weeks, and it’s apparently already 20C there. Bloody British winter. If we have a bad October and April, the British winter can last six months. Half the flippin’ year! We had sun today (see pic above) but it’s not due to last. Boo hoo.

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Semi-sourdough, no-knead, casserole-baked bread

No knead, semi sourdough crumb shot

Purists will disdain it, but I’ve not got a problem with using a combination of sourdough starter and commercial yeast. This is semi-sourdough baking. The sourdough gives some depth of flavour while the addition of the yeast helps a baker of my middling ability to control the timings better.

It’s a technique I learned from the essential book The Handmade Loaf by Dan Lepard. It’s a technique that stands me in good stead as, honestly, I never mastered getting satisfactorily consistent sourdough loaves. I probably could master it if I had a real push but it’s not really where I’m at these days. Indeed, mostly I just make a fairly basic tin loaf these days for toast, something my family Hoovers at breakfast time. It involves yeast and a mixture of stoneground strong white and wholemeal wheat and spelt flours.

When I want something a bit more interesting, I reach for the sourdough. This is what I’ve been making recently. It involves the no-knead and Dutch oven techniques. The latter means baking it in a preheated Dutch oven, cast iron casserole dish or even a terracotta chicken brick. I’ve got one called a knuspertopf, my mum’s got one called a römertopf. My German-speaking father tells me topf means pot, while knusprig means crisp or crunchy. Römer means Roman, apparently. They all work well, retaining the moisture, adding some steam to the bake.

Knuspertopf no knead loaf

Combine to make a preferment
100g of sourdough starter at 100% hydration (ie, refreshing it with equal quantities water and flour)
2g active dried yeast or 4g fresh yeast
100g stoneground wholemeal wheat flour
100g water

I don’t worry about the temperature of the water. Leave this mixture at room temperature (about 19C in our place now) for about 6-8 hours. One good option is to make it at lunchtime.

After the allotted time, when the preferment is bubbling nicely, make the dough by adding
500g flour (I used a 50/50 mix of stoneground white wheat and wholemeal wheat)
400g water
7g fine sea salt

1. Just beat it all together until it clears, that is, until the flour is fully mixed with the water and there are no dry bits left. It’ll be a sloppy, wet dough. For those interested in bakers’ percentages, this works out at about 85% hydration. Ie, the total flour comes to 650g, the total water comes to 550g; 550/650 x 100 = 84.61.
2. Cover the bowl; I use a floral shower cap but a plastic bag is fine. Leave the dough for about 12 hours. I’ve been putting it in the fridge for about 10 of that. Overnight is good.
3. Remove the dough from the fridge and allow it to come back to room temperature. I’m not sure how important this is and haven’t scientifically investigated it yet. Some suggest a cold dough is good for oven spring, but I’m not convinced about that, it’d just be a sluggish spring.
4. Set your oven to maximum. Sadly, my electric Rangemaster only musters about 220C, at best. Put your chosen casserole dish in and heat it up for about 20-30 minutes.
5. Using a dough scraper, carefully remove the dough from the bowl onto a floured worktop. Handling it gently so as not to deflate it or damage it structure too much, fold one side into the middle, then the other, like a letter, to form a rough loaf shape.
6. Take the hot, hot dish out of the oven, remove its lid and, gently as you can, er, drop the dough into it. Put the lid back on, put it in the oven and bake for about 40 minutes.
7. Turn the oven down to 180C and bake for another 10 minutes.
8. Take the dish out, turn out the loaf, then return it to the oven for another 10 minutes. One risk with a dough this wet is that it may not cook all the way through. It should do with the preheated dish and a baking time this long but if you’re not sure, over-baking won’t do too much harm, other than thickening the crust a bit.
9. Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack.

Casserole no knead loaf

Now, this is a pretty easy way to make fairly satisfying loaf. It’s got a good chewy crust and a reasonably open crumb structure. My only criticism is that it can feel slightly rubbery, if that makes sense. It’s definitely worth a try though, for that artisan vibe, and it makes cracking toast. Even if kids do fuss about the crust. Honestly, some mornings it feels like all I eat for breakfast is rejected crusts…

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All quiet

So yes, I notice it’s been a bit quiet round here lately.

We were all somewhat ill over Christmas, then been hit again the past week or so.

Hobbyist blogging is a lot more work than it might appear, especially if it involves research, recipe testing, photography (and food styling, if that’s your thing; clearly, I don’t really bother), writing up, then assembling the blog post.

I must admit I’m finding all that quite hard at the moment while doing a lot of childcare for an 18-month-old and a three-year-old. Especially currently when the former, let’s call her Raver, has discovered the joys of tantrumming – even in the small hours of the night. She’s a willful thing.

My hat goes off hugely to friends and fellow food bloggers who manage do keep their blogs dynamic, and raise small children, and then even go ahead and produce books. Wowsers.

I do have some things planned, but they’re pending better health.

In the meantime, I’m closing my old personal site at dether.com and planning to import a load of its posts. They’re not food related, as I used to keep things separate, but many are a nice record of my time in Rome, and a few I’m quite proud of, such as this essay on the Second World War in Italy in the movies.

In it, I mentioned I’d not seen the 1946 Roberto Rossellini film Paisà, a companion piece of sorts to the more famous neorealistic classic Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City), from the year earlier. Well, I’ve just seen Paisà now, having bought a BFI DVD of it recently.

It’s not as coherent a film as Roma città aperta, largely as it consists of a series of vignettes about the Allied campaign moving up Italy, from Sicily to the Po, and the interaction between Americans (mostly) and Italians along the way. It features a lot of off-Broadway and non-actors, some of whom are rubbish, some of whom are great, notably former partisans who lived the experiences they’re recreating, less than a few years later.

But it is still immensely powerful in places, notably where we’re introduced to a family of contadini (rural peasants) in the Po marshes, who share their polenta and eels with the OSS working alongside the local partisans. Then we return to them – or at least just a toddler, wailing while wandering among bodies. They’ve all been murdered by the Nazis. This would have affected me a few years ago, but now I have a child of a similar age it was devastating.

There are a few notable touches about the food situation too: some other struggling Italians (city folk this time, in Florence if memory serves) have heard a rumour that the British are coming – and bringing “la farina bianca“, white flour! How important such things were for people who’d suffered years of depredations, deprivation and shortages.

I’m also currently reading The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle For Food by Lizzie Collingham, who also wrote the brilliant Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors.

The Taste of War is an extraordinary book, massive in scope, and emotive in content, as it tells the story of the 20 million or so people who died during the Second War World not in combat (which accounted for another 20 million or so) but from hunger or starvation. Be it due to the Nazi’s evil policy of intentionally murdering “useless eaters” by giving them such a small calorific ration that they starved, or the British failing to manage rice shortages in India, or Japanese soldiers resorting to eating palm tree starches and dead comrades. It’s truly grim. Traditionally in Britain we’ve thought we went somewhat hungry in the war, and many did, as in other European countries like Italy, but it’s nothing compared to those who really suffered, especially in the Soviet Union, where the death toll, from combat and food shortages, accounted for three-quarters of the war’s total. It’s astonishing.  A book that will really make you rethink what you think you know about the Second World War, and should even make you think even more about the profligacy and waste and absurdity in our current food culture, where the UK alone wastes 15 million tonnes a year. Fifteen million.

Anyway, proper Bread, Cakes and Ale to follow shortly! (Hopefully!)

And as I’ve not posted since before Christmas, I hope everyone is coping with 2017 and the scary parallel reality we find ourselves in

 

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Mince pies for Christmas

Mince pies

Clearly, I’m interested in traditional feast day foods on this blog. Many, if not most, of our traditional feast day activities have been lost here in Britain. This is due to various factors, notably the 19th century industrial revolution that shifted the population from rural labour to urban industry; then the privations of two world wars and dependence on imported food; then the ensuing embracing of industrialised food production.

Christmassy flavours
When I made the Cattern cakes in November, a friend mentioned that they tasted “Christmassy”. This is interesting, as it demonstrates how the only strong legacy of our traditional feast day foods is at Christmas. It might be grotesquely commercialised, and shifted forward from the Twelve Days (25 December to Epiphany Eve, 5 January) into late November and Advent, but for many it still involves the consumption of traditional foods: mince pies, a heavy fruit cake and plum pudding. All of which feature dried fruits and spices.

We take them for granted now, as jars of dozens of types of spices are readily available from any supermarket, but in antiquity and the Middle Ages they were enormously expensive. L ater, in the age of European empires, their trade fuelled many  economies, notably imperial Dutch and British*. They really were only ingredients for special days, or for the wealthy, until fairly recently.

While spiced (cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, ginger etc), fruity flavours were once more associated with various celebrations through the year, now we just think of them as “Christmassy”.

Mince pies

Anyway, that’s a thought for this post. Mostly, I realised that while I have various multinational feast food recipes here, I don’t have any basic British Christmas ones. That’s partly because I don’t like Christmas cake and plum pudding. I didn’t like mince pies growing up either, but then I discovered a simple recipe for mincemeat and gave them a whirl. They were good. Making your own is so much better. I know Christmas can be stressful for many but this recipe involves just a fruity preserve and some pastry – nothing too complex, and both can be made ahead of time. The mincemeat will sit in a jar, the pastry can be frozen.

Sweet meat
Oh, and many wonder why the filling – sweet, fruity – is called “mincemeat”. Well, in the Middle Ages, puddings and pies would often involve fillings that mixed what we’d considering today as sweet and savoury, notably meat, spices and sugar. I’ve written previously about the term “pudding” – which can still refer to sweet or savoury items in British English. The precursor of Christmas pudding (aka plum pudding), plum pottage, featured meat along with the dried fruit and spices. The legacy of this in mince pie fillings is suet – traditionally a fat from around the kidneys of beef cattle, or mutton (sheep older than two years).

I do tend to use vegetarian suet substitute, partly from force of habit as an ex-veggie, but also because it’s easier at parties when many guests may be too. But it is still a conundrum, as vegetarian suet used to be hydrogenated fat, since deemed a nutritional nightmare, and is now mostly palm oil, an environmental nightmare. So your call on the lesser of two evils.

The mincemeat recipe here was originally from Delia Smith, the pastry originally from Linda Collister.

First make the mincemeat, ideally in October or November – when you can get some fresh homegrown cooking apples. You will need a couple of medium sized jars, washed and rinsed thoroughly. I then tend to put them in a low oven when I’m ready to bottle, to dry them and sterilise.

Fill the pies and top with stars

225g Bramley apples, cored and chopped small (no need to peel them)
110g shredded suet
175g raisins
110g sultanas
110g currants
[total 385g of these]
110g whole mixed candied peel, finely chopped
175g soft dark brown sugar
grated zest and juice 1 orange
grated zest and juice 1 lemon
25g whole almonds, cut into slivers, or flaked almonds
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
3 tbsp brandy

1. Combine all the ingredients, except for the brandy, in a large mixing bowl.
2. Mix thoroughly.
3. Cover the bowl with a clean cloth and leave in a cool place overnight or for 12 hours, so the flavours have a chance to mingle and develop.
4. Preheat oven 120°C.
5. Cover the bowl loosely with foil and place it in the oven for 3 hours. It’ll look fatty. Don’t worry, this is right. As it cools, stir it from time to time.
6. When the mincemeat is cold, stir well again, adding the brandy.
7. Bottle in sterilised jars.

It’ll keep for months, even years. I had a jar for two years once and it was fine, indeed it was probably better as it gives time for the flavours to mature.

Pinning out for mince pies

Now, the pastry.

Readers of this blog will know I love ground almonds as an ingredient for cakes. They’re a great addition to sweet shortcrusts too. My mother has just been reminiscing about the mince pies made by her mother, my Granny Buckley, and how “Ground almonds in the pastry was her trick.” So such tastes must run in the family.

This recipe calls for one egg yolk but I’ve also done it with whole egg, and then just used less water to bind. Both are fine.

200g plain flour
30g ground almonds
30g caster sugar
Pinch salt
100g butter
1 egg yolk
2-5 tbsp cold water

1. Sieve flour into bowl.
2. Dice butter and rub in. Alternatively, combine in a food processor.
3. Add ground almonds, pinch salt and sugar.
4. Lightly beat the egg then add to the dry mix.
5. Bring together dough adding enough water to create a soft but not too wet dough.
6. Form ball and wrap in plastic. Rest in fridge for half an hour or freeze.
7. Roll out to about 4mm and cut discs to line the dips in a pie tray.
8. Fill each with some mincemeat.
9. Add lids – either whole discs or star shapes. The latter is easier (no crimping required), and cute to boot.
10. Bake for about 15-20 minutes at 200C, until nicely browned.
11. Dust with icing sugar before serving.

Freshly baked mince pies

If mince pies are a big part of your Christmas, I’d heartily encourage you to make your own. I don’t claim mine are the best mince pies, and they’re certainly not the neatest or most aesthetically pleasing – like everything I make these days, they’re slightly rushed as I’m either waiting for kids to wake from their afternoon naps or I’m knackered at the end of the day. But they’re easy to make and really, honestly, so much better than any of the industrial crap from the supermarkets.

 

* See this blog post by botanist Stephen Forbes for more about the origins and history of spices.

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Cattern cakes for St Catherine’s day

Cattern cakes

November 25 is the feast day of St Catherine of Alexander. Chances are, St Catherine isn’t someone you’ve heard of, beyond having a firework named after her, or more accurately after her mode of martyrdom – on a wheel. In my childhood, St Catherine was quite a well known figure. Well, not the saint herself exactly, but a hill named after her.

I grew up in Winchester, Hampshire. It was the city that was the capital of the great Saxon kingdom of Wessex, and arguably the capital of England before London. Earlier than this, however, it was a Roman city. And even earlier than this, there was an Iron Age settlement (around 500BC), on a hilltop just outside the city. This hill is known as St Catherine’s and there was a 12th century chapel on the top of the same name, until it was demolished in 1537, I believe at the behest of that great money-grubbing vandal Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries,  in his massive pope-won’t-let-me-divorce royal hissy fit.

Mazes and wheels
When I was young and fitter and my knees worked properly I used to love running up there. It’s a wonderful place, and very much worth a visit. The views are good, there are orchids and other wild flowers, and there’s even a mizmaze, carved into the turf, with the winding path in exposed chalk. The form of such mazes is to an ancient, mysterious pattern, but this one is most likely from the second half of the 17th century. A local legend involves its creation being punishment for a pupil of the nearby privileged seat of learning and abject arrogance, Winchester College.

St Catherine’s martyrdom in 310AD in Egypt on a wheel may also be the reason the hill is named after her, with the Iron Age ramparts forming a circular shape. Or it may just be because she is, among other things – wheels, obviously, librarians, knife sharpeners, hat makers, lacemakers, spinsters, etc etc – patron saint of hilltops. Or something. Such hagiography is a right shambles.

Another Catherine
Anyway, her feast day is 24 or 25 November. The date was also used to honour Catherine of Aragon, first wife of the abovementioned Henry, and the first victim of his desperation for a male heir. After 24 years of marriage, he blamed her for the lack of a living son, and changed the course of history to get shot of her. He had her imprisoned in Ampthill, Bedfordshire, 1531-1533. She became a patron of local lacemakers, and they began to celebrate her support on, naturally enough, St Catherine’s day.

One feast day treat for St Catherine’s day is Cattern cakes. These are closer to what we’d consider a cookie or biscuit today, and are flavoured with cinnamon and dried fruit. I’ve got recipes in a couple of books: Cattern Cakes and Lace by Julia Jones and Barbara Deer and Cakes Regional and Traditional by Julie Duff. Only one includes the peel, while the other includes caraway seeds. I like the idea of both, so here’s my version.

I’m only using self-raising flour here as I’ve got a lot in the cupboard. You could use plain instead, but use around 340g and 10g of baking powder.

350g self-raising flour
2g mixed spice
4g cinnamon powder
2g fine sea salt
50g ground almonds
350g caster sugar
50g currants
50g candied peel
4g caraway seeds
280g butter
1 egg, beaten
Extra sugar and cinnamon
1 more egg and 25g milk, beaten together, for a glaze

1. Preheat the oven to 180C.
2. Sift the flour, spices and salt into a mixing bowl.
3. Add the sugar, ground almonds, dried fruit and caraway seeds.
4. Add the melted butter and beaten egg.
5. Bring together to form a dough.
6. Bring the dough together, form a ball then cover with plastic and allow to rest in the fridge for about half an hour. This will firm the butter content up again.
7. Roll the dough out into a rectangle, about 12mm thick.
8. Brush the top with a little water, then sprinkle with extra sugar and cinnamon.
9. Roll the dough up like a Swiss roll to form a cylinder. It’s a pretty crumbly paste, but don’t worry: just squish it back together.

Space out well on baking sheets

10. Cut into slices about 10mm thick. As above squish back together as necessary. Place the slices on a baking sheet, lined with parchment or silicone.
11. Brush the tops with the glaze.
12. Bake for about 10-15 minutes, until lightly browned.

Cattern cakes

Despite the slightly fiddly dough, I like the results. They’re slightly unusual. One friend says “Christmassy” – but really, most feast day baked sweet treats involve similar spices and ingredients, such as peel, it’s just that we’ve lost so many of the other traditions, with most people’s only relationship with feast day foods being Christmas cake and plum pudding.

They spread as they bake, and come out somewhat wrinkly, like cooled lava. You can see a swirl or spiral from the rolling up, especially underneath. The caraway, or Persian cumin (Carum carvi) is a bit of a divisive flavour though, faintly medicinal and almost medieval. It’s perhaps most commonly found in rye breads these days, but for a long time a great British classic was seed cake – a sweet, teatime cake flavoured with caraway. It’s one of those flavours that’s arguably gone out of fashion somewhat for the British palette. If you don’t like it, just leave it out.

I’ll be in Winchester just after St Catherine’s day, so maybe we can go for a walk up the hill and take some of these for sustenance. Even if number one child, T-rex, has already rejected them, probably because of the caraway (unfamiliar flavour trumps sugary treat). Number two child, Stingray, is rather partial at least.

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Pizza di San Martino for Martinmas

Pizza di San Martino

November 11 is Martinmas, the feast day of St Martin, or San Martino as he’s known in Italian. I talked about St Martin and his feast day here, and one of the related food products I mentioned was pizza di San Martino. This is a kind of enriched bread – as in Italy, “pizza” doesn’t necessarily imply a thing topped with tomato sauce and cheese. There are many variations on the theme.

Do a Google image search, and pizza di San Martino comes in several forms but they’re all basically yeasted cakes. It probably originates from the small Italian region of Molise, which reaches from the east coast into the Apennines, or possibly from the region to its north, Abruzzo. This area of central Italy, along with Umbria, has suffered recently from a series of earthquakes and aftershocks this year, so making this is one way of saying I’m thinking of friends living there, and anyone who’s lost their homes and livelihoods.

The patron saint of protection against earthquakes is actually Emygdius or Emidio, but he’s pretty obscure and I’m not aware of any baked goods associated with his feast day (5 and 18 August). I’ve adapted this pizza recipe from one found in Cooking with the Saints by Ernst Schuegraf; he doesn’t mention St Emygdius.

As I wrote in my previous piece about St Martin, a traditional pizza di San Martino would contain trinkets, favours, much like the inclusion of a silver coin in traditional British Christmas pudding or ceramic baby Jesus in galette de rois. This recipe doesn’t include any. There’s nothing to stop you adding trinkets though, for luck to whoever receives them.

1. Dissolve the yeast in the warm water.

Make the sponge, preferment

2. Add about 150g of the strong flour, and blend to form a sponge or pre-ferment.

Bubbly sponge

3. Allow the sponge to develop until it’s nice and bubbly – an hour or two, depending on warmth.

Combine the ingredients
4. Put the rest of the flour and the salt in a large bowl, then pour in the sponge, milk, beaten egg and melted butter and add the sugar, raisins and zest. I used orange and lemon zest.

Bring together - almost more a batter than a dough.

5. Mix to combine. It’ll be a fairly sticky dough. With just the water and milk, it’s about 67% hydration, but factor in the eggs and melted better too and that’s a fairly high proportion of liquid to flour.

Sticky dough

6. Turn out onto an oiled worktop and bring to a dough. For tips on how to handle sticky doughs, read my notes here.
7. Return to the bowl, cleaned and oiled, then cover and leave to prove until doubled in size.
8. Butter a round cake cake tin, ideally 26cm,  or even larger. (If you don’t have one, you could bake the pizza freeform, shaped like a disc, on a baking sheet.)
9. Turn out the dough and form into a ball. Push the ball down into the cake tin, then cover and leave to prove again.
10. Preheat the oven to 200C.

Put in round cake tin

11. When the dough is nicely risen, put it in the oven.
12. Bake for about 40 minutes. If it’s browning too much, cover with foil or turn down the oven.

Freshly baked pizza di San Martino

13. Take out, turn out and cool on a rack.

It’s not unlike a kind of brioche, so eat for breakfast, or morning coffee, or with tea. If I’m honest, I’ve no idea how an Italian family would eat it. During my time in Italy I never really managed to inveigle myself into households to watch people eating Easter Colomba or Christmas panettone or other enriched feast day breads like this. So any central Italians reading, please do let me know.

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Exmoor in and out pudding

Exmoor in and out pudding

A few years ago, before kids, Fran and I rode our bikes across Devon, her home county, in southwest England. It was lovely as we embarked from Tiverton Parkway in the east of the county, but as soon as we reached Exmoor, having climbed steeply from the village of Dulverton, the wind and rain set in.

Although this pudding is named after the moor, it’s hard to imagine it’s a place where many apples are grown. Sure there are some orchards within the confines of Exmoor National Park, but by and large the moor itself is, along with other West Country moors Dartmoor and Bodmin moor, is about as close to wilderness as you can experience in southern Britain. We certainly didn’t pass any orchards as we fought a fierce headwind.

Another county
I made this pudding with apples from my parents’ tree, in Winchester, Hampshire. It would have been hard to find Exmoor apples. Indeed, for crying out loud, it’s hard enough to find English apples in the supermarkets at the moment, despite it being apple season. I live in the southeast of England, in East Sussex. The adjacent county, Kent, is the historical heartland of apple cultivation – and yet our local supermarkets are filled with apples from France, Chile, South Africa and even New Zealand. This madness makes me want to scream. I suspect I’ve ranted about it here before.

Talking of madness: Brexit*. Will it mean fewer food imports as costs increase? Will it encourage domestic food production? Who knows. No one seems to know what’s going to happen, apart from an abiding smugness from aging little Englanders as we metaphorically unmoor ourselves and drift away into deepening obscurity.

Fall from grace
Anyway, back to the apples. My folks have a magnificent Bramley tree. While picking, I managed to fall off the ladder, knocking over not just my toddler, T-rex, but also my seventy-something dad. Sorry guys! Still, it’s great fruit. We should be celebrating home-grown Bramleys more than ever now following the news this summer that the original Bramley tree in Nottinghamshire is dying of a fungal infection, having been sown in 1809.

This is a lovely variation on the theme of apple pudding involving a cake-like mixture. The mixture has the distinction of by being made with rich, caramelly demerara sugar. It also contains some ground almonds, one of my favourite ingredients. Some Exmoor in and out puddings also contain suet. This recipe, based on one found in the National Trust’s Complete Traditional Recipe Book by Sarah Edington, doesn’t.

500g Bramleys, or other cooking apples
50g demerara sugar
5g cinnamon
60g apple juice, or water

110g unsalted butter, softened
110g demerara sugar
2 eggs
1/2 tsp almond essence
110g self-raising flour (or 105g plain flour and 5g baking powder)
50g ground almonds
Flaked almonds

1. Heat the oven to 180C.
2. Peel and slice the apples.
3. Combine the apple slices, cinnamon, demerara and apple juice or water then put into an overproof dish. Cover with a damp cloth so the apple doesn’t brown while you prepare the topping.

Exmoor in and out pudding

4. Cream together the butter and other portion of demerara sugar.

Exmoor in and out pudding mixture
. Lightly beat the eggs, with the almond essence, and slowly beat into the mixture. If it starts to curdle, add some of the ground almonds.
6. Add the ground almonds and sieve in the flour. Fold to combine.

Exmoor in and out pudding, cover apples with mixture

7. Put the topping on the apple mix.

Exmoor in and out pudding, ready to bake

8. Sprinkle with ground almonds.

Exmoor in and out pudding, baked

9. Bake until the top is nicely browned and the cake is firm to the touch, about 40 minutes.
10. Serve warm with cream, ice cream or even custard.

 

 

* As well as the actual process of the UK leaving the EU upsetting me, I detest the ugly neologism “Brexit”. But I can’t come up with a better, succinct alternative, so we’re stuck with it.

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