Category Archives: Discussion

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

Mamoosh pittas and other products are available (as of April 2017):
At the Lewes Farmers Market, morning of first and third Saturday of the month, the Precinct, High Street, Lewes BN7 2AN, where Einat has a stall.
At the Lewes Food Market, every Friday morning at the Market Tower, BN7 2NB.
At the Hillcrest Country Market, every Thursday morning, the Hillcrest Centre, Newhaven BN9 9LH.

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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Filed under Bakeries, Breads, Discussion, Food misc

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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The gingerbread boy

Gingerbread men

Our toddler has been obsessing over the story of The Gingerbread Man recently. So it seemed only right that we started making actual gingerbread men together.

Now, every time he grabs the book for me to read, he points at the gingerbread man on the cover and says, “We make some buttons!” Handling the mixture, rolling out a soft-ish dough, doing the cutting and transferring the pieces to a baking sheet aren’t exactly jobs for a two-year-old (see previous post), but he’s very happy to be given the task of sticking currants in to make eyes and buttons. Nothing fancy. No icing decorations. It isn’t Bake Off, it’s just father-son “do making”, making something he then ardently scoffs whenever we allow.

Cake and biscuit
Gingerbread is a fairly generic name that covers both soft cakes and a cookies, but I’m talking about those distinguished in the UK and US traditions from other ginger cookies by being cut into the shape of a man. One source on Wikipedia says they were first recorded as being made in England for the court of Elizabeth I, who reigned 1558-1603. Though ‘breads’ sweetened with honey and spices are quintessential foods for feast days and celebrations and have probably been made in Europe since the Middle Ages, if not longer.

Various ginger-spiced biscuits and cakes can be found in the traditional feast day foods of much of Europe still, but notably in Britain, Germany (eg lebkuchen), Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Poland etc: that is, more northerly countries. It’s easy to imagine Medieval folks huddling round fires in the winter and very much appreciating feast day treats containing ginger, cloves etc, as such spices have a warming effect.

Dough and cutter

Sentient food
Now, before I get to a recipe, I must talk a little about the story The Gingerbread Man. I love folk stories, fairytales, Märchen. I’ve read a lot, and I look forward to the kids being old enough for me to introduce more to them. I know full well they can be illogical, macabre and confounding to the modern mind, but The Gingerbread Man is downright weird.

Here’s the gist, if you don’t know it, or need reminding. A childless couple (which obviously resonates) decide the way to overcome their sadness isn’t to, you know, visit an orphanage, but instead to bring forth life through the medium of baking. Indulging in some kind of dough-based witchcraft. I suppose it’s not unlike Gepetto carving a son out of a piece of wood in Pinocchio.

The old lady makes a gingerbread man. But rather than being a dutiful son, he leaps out of the oven, out the door, and runs off. The old woman and her husband give chase. Various other people and animals see him and join the chase. The couple want their “son” back, the others want to eat him – despite him being ambulatory and self-aware, as evinced by his taunting song: “Run, run, as fast as you can, you can’t catch me I’m the gingerbread man!”

When he reaches a river, a fox appears and offers to carry the gingerbread man across. The sentient – but none-too-bright – biscuit agrees. But the fox tricks him and in three tosses of his head, he eats him all up. Snap! Snap! Snap! And that’s the end of the gingerbread man.

The moral of the story? Who knows. Maybe it doesn’t have one. It’s suggested that folk stories teach children about life, but it’s not always clear what the lesson is. The lesson here is not to be gullible or trusting of strangers, I suppose. Or alternatively to beware hubris. Certainly, the gingerbread man is a proud fool. Arguably the hero of the story is, instead, the fox. He’s cunning, and gets the snack. Cunning is quality in many cultures (eg the Italian concept of furbismo, which kept Berlusconi in power for so long), and is often exemplified by the fox, an archetypical trickster, in folk stories.

There are other folk stories about runaway food in British, German and Easter European folklore – balls of dough, pancakes, bannocks – but the gingerbread man story appears to be a variation that evolved with migrants who settled in America.

Cutting out

Melt or rub
Whatever the origins or moral of the story, the boy loves it. Finding a recipe we could easily make together has been a minor challenge. Pre-children, I probably would have tried half a dozen recipes, but today, with two under-threes, I tried just three recipes. One from Dan Lepard’s Short and Sweet, one from Leith’s Book of Baking by Prue Leith and Caroline Waldegrave and one from Geraldene Holt’s Cake Stall (a hand-me-down from my mum with a wonderful dated 1980s cover, where Holt looks like an Edwardian).

The two main approaches for making gingerbread men involve melting together butter and sugar, then combining with flour etc, or rubbing the butter into the flour, and adding the sugar etc. The latter is easier, but frankly, the best one of the three I tried was Leith one, which involved melting. The dough was trickiest to handle, but the resulting cookies had a proper snap – suitably enough considering the gingerbread man’s fate in the jaws of the fox.

Making the dough (or paste), then cooling it in the fridge to firm it up and relax the proteins isn’t exactly ideal if you have a small child chomping at the bit to “do making” right now! I tried to lull young T-rex by putting The Jungle Book on (it was a rainy day) but it still wasn’t ideal. So I suggest making a batch of the dough in advance, then freezing some or leaving it in the fridge until the optimal “do making” moment in your day.

Decorating

Recipe
This is based on the Leith version, but tweaked somewhat.

If you’re doing this with a small child, make the dough in advance to give it time to cool, so you can do the rolling, cutting and baking in one hit.

225g unsalted butter
200g caster sugar
160g soft dark brown sugar
350g plain flour
6g baking powder
3g fine sea salt
3g ground cloves
12g ground ginger
2 eggs, beaten (that is, about 110g beaten egg)

1. Melt together the butter and both sugars, stirring and cooking until the sugar has all dissolved.
2. Take off the heat, allow to cool slightly, then beat in the egg.
3. Sieve together the flour, baking powder, spices and salt.
4. Put the sieved mixture into a bowl then gradually add the butter, sugar and egg mix, combining to form a homogenous mixture.
5. It’s a very soft dough, so put the bowl in the fridge to cool it completely. Then you can divide the mixture into slabs, and keep one in the fridge for a day or so until you want to do the baking. You can also freeze it.
6. When you’re ready to roll, heat the oven to 180C and line baking sheets with parchment or silicone.
7. This dough warms up easily and gets soft, so to cut out the gingerbread men, do it in portions. Roll to about 4-5mm thick and cut out your men. We have a cutter about 13cm tall by 8cm armspan. Decorate with currants for eyes and buttons if you like.
8. Place on baking sheets lined with parchment or silicone, with enough room for some spread, and put in the oven. Note, this dough will spread slightly, especially if you’re oven isn’t quite hot enough. (What the knobs says and the actual temperature inside are very likely to not be the same if you have a domestic oven, so I recommend an oven thermometer.)
9. Bake for about 10-12 minutes until nicely brown. Leave to firm up on the tray for a few minutes then transfer to cooling racks and allow to cool completely. They should crisp up as they cool.

10. Satisfying the obsession of toddler. Briefly.

This is, obviously, a tricky area. I love to bake; he loves sugar; I try to be a responsible parent and not allow him too much. I want to nurture a sane relationship with food, where sweets are treats. This is a challenge as refined sugar is so addictive small children rapidly get a crazy-eyed for it, something that’s exploited by the food industry and insufficiently regulaed. Just look at breakfast cereals, some are a third sugar. But that’s another story, another rant. Run, run as fast as you can, I’m a two-year-old on a sugar rush….

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Filed under Baking, Biscuits, cookies, Discussion, Parenting, Recipes

Pangiallo, primitive cakes and winter festivals

Pangiallo

Pangiallo is a cake I encountered in Rome, and indeed one of the last posts I wrote before leaving there in October 2013 mentioned it. But I’ve only recently started to make it, and discovered a quite a lot variation in recipes. Which might seem quite surprising, until you consider it’s a cake that purportedly has roots in Ancient Rome.

Pangiallo, or pancialle, is a Roman, or Lazio, cousin to panforte, “hard bread”, the better-known dense fruit and nut cake of Sienna, and panpepato (“pepper bread”). All three can be arguably be classified as “primitive cakes”. It’s easy to imagine the first cakes were compressed discs of nuts, seeds and dried fruit bound and sweetened with honey.  although food historians suggest pangiallo’s origins are ancient Roman, and panforte is comparatively recent, possibly from the 13th century, people have probably been making these kinds of things for millennia.

Spice trails
There’s debate about what spices the ancient Romans had, but they almost certainly used cardamom, cloves, coriander, black pepper, ginger and nutmeg, and possibly cinnamon too. Such spices, many of which arrived in Europe via the Silk Road, maintained a role as important for feast day foods through the “Dark” and Middle Ages. As they had travelled so far they were expensive, so were used only for special foods on special days.

Britain, of course, has a very similar tradition of rich, spiced fruit cakes for midwinter celebrations in the form of our Christmas cake and Christmas pudding. Their characteristics have similarly ancient origins, though spices were even more scarce and valuable in northern Europe, compared to Italy. Ports such as Genoa and notably Venice were the western extremes of the maritime Silk Route, the dropping-off points for such valuable cargo; spices still had a long way to go before they reached Britain.

Pangiallo spice mix

Festival of light
Today, Pangiallo is eaten to celebrate the feast day of Santa Lucia, St Lucy, and also for Christmas. Both of these Christian feasts are associated with older winter solstice celebrations. The ancient Romans had Saturnalia, when the ancestor of pangiallo may well have been eaten. When Rome took Christianity as its official religion, many of the pagan festivals were Christianised too, and the consumption of special spiced cakes continued.

The calendar change of 1582 has confused things somewhat as St Lucy’s Day is now celebrated on 13 December in the Gregorian calendar, with Christmas Day closer to the solstice of 21-22 December. In the earlier, Julian calendar, however, St Lucy’s Day would have been closer to the solstice, the day when the night is at its longest. To dispel the darkness, it’s a festival of light, and indeed the very names Lucy and Lucia derive from lux, lucis, the Latin for light.

One Roman blogger suggests the yellow, saffron-tinted glaze of pangiallo is symbolic, looking forward to the new light of spring. The only problem with this theory is that pangiallo doesn’t always feature a yellow glaze. Many versions don’t seem yellow at all, but instead more brown from the dried fruits, caramelised sugar and honey, and even cocoa and chocolate.

Testing times
At the weekend I made the version in Rachel’s book Five Quarter’s: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome. It’s closer to the version by the blogger mentioned above and does feature a rich glaze, coloured with saffron and egg yolks. Although they all contain flour, Rachel’s version is not leavened, with yeast or chemicals. So I was intrigued when I read the recipe in Oretta Zanini de Vita’s The Food of Rome and Lazio. Hers features a yeasted bread dough. That said, the dough only forms about 20 per cent of the total mass: which is predominantly raisins. Her original recipe is huge, with “1.8kg (about 4lb) zibibbo (seed raisins)”, with the whole formed into a loaf and proved for 12 hours.

For my testing process, I can’t really do such enormous bakes, so I halved the recipe and tweaked it. Hers included pine nuts too, for example; I love them, but they’re so expensive and the ones in the shops here have all travelled from China, which seems crazy. I’ve also favoured the disc-shaped form. Half quantities still produced four cakes, each scaled with 400g of dough. So I’ve halved it again here.

Pangiallo ingredients

5g fresh yeast, or 4g active dry yeast
50g plain flour
50g strong white flour
35g caster sugar
100g water, warm
20g olive oil
2g fine sea salt
250g seedless raisins
100g dried figs, quartered
120g whole or blanched almonds
20g candied peel
Spices: a mixture of ground cinnamon, coriander, black pepper, nutmeg, cardamom to total about 8g, to taste

1. Dissolve the sugar in the water.
2. Make a preferment with some of this sugar-water, the yeast and about 25g of the flour.
3. Leave to get bubbly.
4. Put the rest of the flour in a roomy bowl.
5. Add the preferment, the rest of the sugar water, the olive oil and salt.

Pangiallo mixture
6. Form a dough, adding more water if necessary, then turn out onto a lightly oiled surface and knead until smooth.
7. Rest 10 minutes, then add the spices, nuts, raisins and peel.
8. Combine. I can’t really say “knead” as it’s all fruit and nuts. It’s more a case of getting your hands in there and squishing it all together.
9. Cover and rest again, for about 6 hours.
10. Form the desire shapes. I recommend a couple of equal balls.
11. Put the balls onto baking sheets lined with parchment or silicone, and squash them down into discs, about 25mm high. If it’s too sticky, flour your hands a bit as you form the discs.
12. Cover and leave again, for about 4-6 hours. Less if it’s warm, more if it’s cold.
13. Heat the oven to 180C .

Unbaked pangiallo
14. Make a batter with 15g flour, 15g water, 15g oil and 15g sugar. De Vita’s glaze wasn’t coloured yellow, but if you want to, you can add some saffron to the (warm) water and leave it to infuse for half an hour or so. Or cheat and sprinkle in a little turmeric, a spice that’s only mildly flavoured and is more used for colouring.

Unbaked pangiallo, with saffron glaze
15. Brush the glaze onto the loaves.
16. Bake for about 30 minutes, until coloured, but without burning too many raisins.

Pangiallo, baked
17. Allow to firm up on the trays for 20 minutes or so, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

Two pangialli

Comparisons
Considering pangiallo is defined by spices, raisins, figs and nuts, the two recipes I tried this week are remarkably different. De Vita sweetens hers only with the fruit and some sugar. Rachel’s uses honey.

I’m struggling a bit at the moment as I keep wondering about vegan stuff for my stall, and honey is a ahem sticking point. Many vegans are staunchly anti-honey. I love the stuff, and beekeeping friends have explained to me it’s a more symbiotic relationship with the bees, not the wholly exploitative one Donald Watson suggested in his 1944 edicts on the founding of the Vegan Society.

Anyway, Rachel’s (on the left in pic above), which uses mixed nuts and more candied peel alongside the honey, has a more pleasing texture. She describes it as like a “soft, chewy, heavily spiced nougat with a whisper of cake”. Which is spot on. De Vita’s, on the other hand, is surprisingly bready, considering the yeasted dough forms such a small proportion of the whole. It’s like a dense, more traditional, fruit cake, even one we’d recognise here in Britain. It’s good, but not as good. So I’m going with honey, more peel, more varied nuts. No yeast. And possibly even egg yolks in the glaze. Though whether it really needs to be quite so yellow is something I’m still undecided about. I need another research trip to Rome!

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Filed under Baking, Breads, Cakes, Cakes (yeasted), Discussion, Feasts

Remembrance and St Martin’s Day

Poppies at Cenotaph

Poppies at The Cenotaph (pic: Cameron Cox)

Up in London on Sunday 15 November, we found ourselves alongside a memorial procession taking place in Whitehall, where The Cenotaph, the UK’s national war memorial, is located. This was the remembrance ceremony of AJEX, the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women. Among the more elderly participants, adorned with medals and proudly wearing their regimental berets, were representatives of the 65,000 British Jews who fought for the Allies in World War II.

It was a moving event, and I’m surprised I’d not heard of it before. Perhaps it’s somewhat overshadowed by our main Remembrance Day, which takes place four days earlier, on 11 November. The “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” is when the guns officially stopped firing in World War I in 1918.

Poppies and chapels
I’d been meaning to write something for 11 November, as it’s also, in the Christian Calendar, St Martin’s Day or Martinmas. However, I felt somewhat overwhelmed by the number of different feast day bakes that are traditionally made in various countries around Europe, so got a bit stymied.

Among the many bakes are rogale, or rogal świętomarciński (“St Martin crescents”) pastries from Poznań, Poland, which can have a poppy seed filling. This connects nicely with the poppy as the symbol of remembrance, as worn during the commemorative events on Sunday and on the Tuesday beforehand.

The poppy was chosen as a symbol in the UK and Commonwealth countries as it’s a flower that proliferated in the former WWI battlefields of Flanders. Not speaking Polish, I’m struggling to find out if the use of its seeds has any older symbolism in the rogal świętomarciński. Their use may have come about simply as an alternative to an almond-based filling when the nuts became scarce after WWII.

I’m not going to do a recipe here, but did want to write about St Martin’s Day as it’s got all sorts of interesting angles. As an etymology geek, one of my favourite associations with St Martin is how one of his myths gave us the words “chapel” and “chaplain”.

Martin was born in the 4th century, in what is now Hungary, and served in the Roman army before finding his religion. He later became the bishop of Tours, in France. His conversion was inspired by a meeting with a beggar. Touched by his poverty, Martin tore his army cloak in half, giving a piece to the beggar to save him from the cold. Martin purportedly then dreamt of Jesus wearing the half-cloak. The remaining half became a holy relic. The Latin (and Italian) for a cloak is cappa; a small cloak, a cappella. The place Martin’s cloak was kept took the same name, and cappella became “chapel” in English.

Disgrace and favours
Germany produces a similar pastry to the rogale, called Martinshörchen, while there are various products from different regions of Italy. When I lived in Italy I found chestnut flour on the market, and used it for making a chestnut bread. I subsequently discovered this was something that was traditionally done in St Martin’s name: pane di San Martino.

The Sicilians, meanwhile, have biscotti di San Martino, which aren’t biscuits, and aren’t twice-baked, but are instead small yeasted buns, often flavoured with anise or fennel seeds. The one I’m most intrigued by is pizza di San Martino.

In Italy, the word pizza is used not just for thin dough discs topped with cheese etc, but for other breads. Pizza di San Martino is one such bread. It may originally be from Molise and nearby regions of central and eastern Italy, but I can’t be sure. It seems a fairly loosely defined product that be can be sweet or savoury, enriched and flavoured with grated parmesan, and again, might contain fennel or anise seed. The most interesting aspect of this bread is how it’s made is sections or balls of dough, with a different seed or grain hidden inside them.

This hiding of seeds and grains is another example of the habit of hiding “favours” – think of the coin inside the British Christmas day pudding, a baby Jesus in French galette de rois, or an almond hidden in Danish Christmas Eve rice pudding (thanks to my half-Danish friend Kate for informing me about the latter). And many other examples.

Most of these favours are about bestowing good fortune or a special status on the person who finds them, but in the pizza di San Martino, each one symbolises something different. It’s fascinating. So the person who finds a dried broad bean, a fava*, in their portion is the queen (or king) of the household for the duration of the feast day. Who finds the acorn is a pig. A grain of barley? An ass (as in Equus asinus, not the American for arse). Pumpkin seed – liar. Grass pea (cicerchia) – farter. And of course it involves that prime Italian insult, the cuckold – whoever finds the fagiolo, common bean.

This is why I like traditional baked goods. They’re steeped in history. And, often, good to eat too.

All these rich St Martin’s Day baked goods used to be eaten to mark the start of a 40 day fast. I doubt many people observe that now, certainly not in Britain, with its protestant official religion and widespread secularism. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make the breads and appreciate the stories. And, as St Martin’s day and Remembrance Day have been conflated, also spare a thought for all those who’ve died in war. Whatever their religion, or lack of; soldiers and non-combatants alike.

 

 

 

* I wonder if there’s some etymological connection between “favour” in the sense of a hidden charm, and fava?

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Harvest festival wheat sheaf loaf

A bread wheat sheaf for a harvest festival

Beside my primary school was a church, St Stephen’s. In the summer, house martins built their nests under its eaves and whizzed over our heads as we came and went or played in the yard on wet days. Just as the house martins were leaving at the end of the summer, the autumn term started. Soon after, we had a harvest festival.

The abiding notion in Britain is that school summer holidays freed up children to help with the harvest. This may be a myth, but certainly the biggest grain harvests start happening here in the middle of school holidays, around the festival of Lammas, 1 August.

Harvest festivals continue through late summer and autumn, notably occurring around the time of the nearest full moon to the autumnal equinox. This year, the equinox is today, 23 September, the full moon 28 September. Though our local primary school is doing its harvest festival on 16 October. I’ve not seen how they do it yet, but I’ve got strong memories from a couple (several) decades ago of the festivals at St Stephen’s, with the altar piled high with foods, to give thanks and for charity. There were tinned foods, but there was also fresh autumn produce, and possibly even a wheat sheaf: real or made of dough.

Stalks and symbolism
A sheaf is a tied bunch of grain stalks after they have been harvested. It was a common sight at this time of year during the centuries when harvests were done by hand with scythes. I did it this way when I lived on a small farm in New Zealand in 1990, and I know people these days growing heritage grain varieties that still do in England, but mostly harvesting is done now with combines: so no more sheaves.

An old "wheatsheaf" pub sign in Dorset

It’s a shame really, as they’re an ancient symbol and one that you’re more likely to encounter now in pub names. Symbolically, however, the wheat sheaf represents plenty, a good harvest, fertility and even resurrection, as the cycle of seasons has once more given grain for bread. Indeed, the sheaf infers bread, and bread is of course a quintessentially important symbolic food in some religions. The heart of Christianity is the eucharist: the eating of bread to reiterate the Last Supper, where Jesus prepared for his sacrifice by shared bread, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:20).

Back to school
Although I’m not religious, I enjoy the symbolism and stories, and most of all appreciate the tradition, so I thought it was about time I had a go at a bread wheat sheaf.

It’s based on the recipe in The Bread Book by Linda Collister (1993) which is in turn based on a recipe in The Modern Baker, Confectioner and Caterer (1907) by John Kirkland, a former head of The National Bakery School (founded 1894), then at Borough Polytechnic and now part of London South Bank University. I did a diploma there in 2010, but we didn’t make anything quite this ornate.

This is slightly tricky to do in a domestic oven as it won’t be as capacious as a commercial oven. Mine can cope with baking sheets 35cm wide. It’ll mean your sheaf isn’t as grand as those professionals might make for harvest festivals, but even the comparatively stumpy results can still be very pleasing.

It’s a fairly time-consuming project. Not only do you have to make the dough and wait for it to prove, you also have to shape a lot of small pieces of dough. Notably to make the ears of corn. (And when I say corn, I’m using it in the Old English sense meaning any edible grain, though particularly wheat grain, not the modern American sense – which is taking over here in Britain – meaning maize.)

1350g strong white bread flour
20g salt
8g caster sugar
15g fresh yeast
750g tepid water (approximately, see below)

Glaze
1 egg
Pinch salt

1. Combine the yeast and most of the water. Hold say 100g back.
2. Put the flour, sugar and salt in a large bowl and mix to combine.
3. Add the yeast mixture and bring to a dough.
4. It will be quite a tight, firm dough as you want it for sculpting, however if it feels too dry add a little more of the water. How dry your dough feels will depend on how absorbent your flour is. As I’m using a stoneground flour, which contains more bran than an industrial steel roller-milled flour, it’s quite absorbent.

Turn out the doughKnead to a smooth dough
5. Turn the mixture out onto a lightly oiled surface and knead until smooth and well combined. These days I rarely do long manual kneads, but as this is quite old-school, go with it. I added water to a total of about 750g – meaning the dough is 55% hydration.

Before provingDoubled in size

6. Return the ball of dough to the bowl (cleaned and lightly oiled), cover or put in a plastic bag, then leave to prove until doubled in size. At an ambient temperature of about 18C this too about two and half hours.
7. When doubled, turn out. My total dough weighed approximately 2150g.

Deflate the dough
8. Give the dough another short knead to deflate and redistribute the gases. Again, this isn’t a loaf where we’re after a nice pleasing crumb, it’s a medium for sculpting.
9. Divide the dough up into pieces: two at 320g, one at 400g and the rest, about 1110g. Don’t worry too much about total accuracy – you’re making a wheat sheaf, an organic thing, not something geometric.
10. As this is quite a protracted process, you might want to keep the pieces you’re not working on in the fridge, so they don’t keep proving and swelling too much. Too much proving and the resulting shape may crack where you don’t want it to.

Wheat sheaf base layer
11. Take the two 320g pieces and form two rough rectangles, approximately 22x13cm. Use one to form the trunk of the sheaf, the other the top. Place both pieces on the largest baking sheet you have (that’ll fit in your oven of course). Stretch the head out slightly. You want a kind of cartoon tree or mushroom shape. Prick all over with a fork and brush with water to stop a crust forming. Cover with a damp cloth while you do the next bit.

30 pieces30 pieces into sausages
30 pieces as stalks

12. Take the 400g piece and divide it into 30 pieces, each scaled at around 13g.
13. Roll these pieces into snakes, again about 22cm long.

Add the stalks
14. Place 27 of the snakes on the base, making the wheat stalks. Twist or braid the remaining three to form a sheaf band, tucking its ends underneath on each side.
15. Cover or bag this and place it in the fridge as the next bit is the most time-consuming.
16. Take the large, remaining piece of dough. This is to create to ears. Divide it up into about 70 pieces, each scaled at 16g-ish. Do more, smaller pieces if you want daintier ears.

Make the ears
17. Roll each piece into a ball, then roll out, rolling one end to a point.
18. With a pair of sharp-pointed scissors, make snips in the small piece of dough, three or four, on three sides. Cut down and inwards towards the rounded base. It’s a bit like making dozens of mini versions of the French pain d’épi – meaning ear or cob bread.
19. You could make all of them in advance, but I got the main part out of the fridge again, and started positioning them on the top. Place them loosely to give a sense of them having grown out of the stalks.
20. While you’re doing this, preheat your oven to 220C.
21. Keep adding the ears, layering slightly, with the thickest point in the middle.

Position all the ears
23. Beat the one egg with the pinch of salt and use it to – carefully and lightly – glaze the sheaf.
23. Bake for 20 minutes, take out of the oven and brush with more egg glaze.
24. Turn the heat down to 170C and bake for another 40 minutes or so until nicely browned.

Baked

At this point, you can decide whether you want to eat it – it’s a perfectly serviceable, albeit low hydration, bread – or use it as a decoration. If you want it for the latter, turn your oven down to 140C or 130C and leave it in for a few hours longer to completely dry it out. Collister says six hours and if you have a wood or oil range, maybe you could just leave it in, but using electricity this seems a bit excessive in terms of energy consumption.

Collister decorates hers with a blobby little mouse on the stalks. If I’d been doing this with children in the house I might have been tempted, but as our adoption process continues to drag us along on its emotional roller-coaster, and we still haven’t been able to expand our family, I wasn’t inclined.

It’s easy to make a mouse though – just save 30g or so of the dough used for the wheat ears, make it into an eggy shape, snip a few ears, skewer a few eyes and add a snaky tail. I don’t think the mouse has any particular symbolism, though I could be wrong. Maybe it today it could symbolism how biodiversity is so tragically compromised by modern industrial farming techniques.

Wheatsheaf, detail

Addendum
So I dried out the wheat sheaf loaf – every time I used to oven for other things, then turned it off, I put the loaf back in to dry while it cooled.

I gave it to the local primary school, where I volunteer, and they used it as part of their harvest festival display. It’s a nice echo of my own memories of harvest festival at my primary school, all those years ago.

School harvest festival display

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few notes
1. Here’s a film of a British master baker making a wheat sheaf in 1957. His wheat ears are a bit finer than mine!
2. Out of interest, Fran, my wife, works at Kew Foundation, at Kew Gardens in London. As I was doing this, she was working on a document that contained this remarkable statistic. While the human genome contains 3 billion letters, that of bread wheat (Triticum aestivum L. ) contains 17 billion. I’m not a scientist – clearly – but that’s boggling. The human sense of superiority leads one to imagine a sophisticated, sentient animal organism like us would be that much more genetically complicated.

 

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Proper ancient grains and the real paleo diet

Ringo Starr's Atouk gets kissed by a strange plant in the 1981 film Caveman.

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I’ve got a bit of an issue with fad diets. The “Paleo” is one that particularly irks me, not just for the farcical idea that wealthy westerners eating steak and avocado somehow equates with a caveman diet, but also because evidence is increasingly showing it’s a misnomer.

The familiar narrative of the emergence of modern humanity is that around around 10,000BC, we left behind the hunter-gatherer life of eating mostly animal protein and wild fruits and instead began domesticating animals and cultivating crops.

Our diet shifted to one where grains from members of the grass family (wheat, barley, rice, millet etc) and legumes became the staples. Fast forward 12,000 years and people in California decided such foods make you fat and you instead you have to live on the aforementioned steak and avos, totally ignoring small things like, ooh, the environmental implications of all 7 billion of us shifting to a meat-centric diet.

Anyway, a couple of things in the news recently have caught my attention as they contradict the notion that we didn’t really eat much grain before the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. I’ve got my dad to thank for notifying me of this one, as there was an inch – just one column inch – in his newspaper last week and not a mention in the papers I read. Weird, considering how many column inches fad diets get.

So, new research indicates that oats were ground to make a rough flour or meal 32,000 years ago. That is, firmly in the Palaeolithic era. This was the conclusion of a team from the University of Florence, based on evidence from a tool found in the Paglicci caves in Puglia, southern Italy. In 1989, a kind of stone pestle or grinding tool was found in the cave. It was carefully stored, and a few years ago a new study began. The researchers were able to isolate and analyse starch residues from the tool. There were five types identified but the most common was Avena barbata, a species of wild oat. Another grass grain was a form of millet.

They also concluded that the oat grains were heated first. This would have dried them out and made them, and any resulting flour, more long-lasting. Such processing would also have made any resulting foods more digestible. There’s no way of knowing how the flour was consumed: mixed with water surely, but whether as a porridge or simple bread we cannot know. Apparently there hasn’t been much research in this area yet, partly as evidence is scarce: plant-based foodstuffs don’t really leave a lot of remains. However, it’s likely that the real paleo diet was more plant-based than the food faddists want to believe.

Some other recent research suggests that as the Homo brain enlarged and developed over the past three million years, it needed more carbs. After all, the human brain accounts for a large proportion of the body’s energy requirements: 25%, as well as 60% of blood glucose. And where do we get energy from most readily? Carbohydrates.

US archaeologist Dr Karen Hardy and her team suggest the focus in studies of ancient Homo diets should shift from animal protein to plant carbohydrates: tubers, cattails (starchy marsh plants) and grains. One indicator that Homo has long had a relationship with starchy plant based foods is the development of the amylase in human saliva within the past million years. Amylase is an enzyme that helps the breakdown of starch.

So when we think of Stone Age man, perhaps we should just envisage some hairy, heavy-browed folk with spears, picture them also with tools for gathering and processing starchy plants.

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St Roch’s Fingers – a trifle, of sorts

St Roch's Fingers

Internationally, St Roch, whose feast day is 16 August, is also known has Rocco, Roque, Rock and even Rollox. Rock ’n’ Rollox. He sounds cool. Though actually he’s invoked against things like epidemics and skin diseases. And is the patron of a wide variety of people in different nations: the falsely accused, surgeons, tile-makers, gravediggers, second-hand dealers, wool-carders, pilgrims, apothecaries. As well dogs, sick cattle and bachelors.

He’s pretty multi-purpose.

The story says he was born in Montpelier in France and, after the death of his parents, became a pilgrim, bound for Rome. He didn’t get there (or maybe he did. The whole saga is hardly factual). Instead, he found himself in an area gripped by epidemic. Staying to minister, he apparently performed various miracles before himself contracting the disease, at Piacenza, northern Italy. He retreated to the woods. There, a dog found him, and brought him bread every day, taken from his owner’s kitchen.

Roch survived, and would only die in 1327 when he returned to Montpelier, was taken for a spy and stuck in a dungeon. Maybe. He may have instead died in Angleria, Lombardy, Italy, where he’s patron of two towns, Potenza and Gerocarne. Or he may have been an amalgam of other historical figures, or, like many saints and feast days, the story may have drawn on older, pagan stories. Hagiography does blur with folklore and legends.

As his story features the bread-bearing dog, I would have thought he would have a traditional feast-day loaf. But seemingly not. Instead, Feast Day Cookbook (Burton and Ripperger, 1951) and Cooking with the Saints (Schuegraf, 2001) say one should make something called St Roch’s fingers. The latter book says it’s Spanish in origina. It is basically another variation on the theme of trifle – sponge and custard, a dash of alcohol.

Sponge fingers
St Roch’s fingers requires sponge fingers. Now, you can just go and buy these, but they’re pretty easy to make and cooking from scratch is fun, rewarding, and means you can avoid any nasty additives you will very likely get in industrially made biscuits and cakes bought from supermarkets.

Sponge fingers, ladyfingers or savoiardi, are basically made with the same mix you use for Genoise, or a similar one. I wrote about that, and trifle, more here, but here’s another basic savoiardi recipe.

Makes about a dozen fingers.

2 eggs
62g caster sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch of salt
55g plain flour

1. Preheat oven to 190C.
2. Line 2 baking trays with silicone or baking parchment.
3. Fit a piping bag with a plain 1.25cm nozzle.
4. Separate the eggs. Whisk the egg yolks with half of the sugar and the vanilla. Beat until light in colour.
5. In a clean bowl beat the egg whites. While beating, slowly add the salt and the remaining sugar, continuing to beat until you achieve soft peaks.
6. Gently fold the beaten egg whites into the egg yolk mixture.
7. Sieve the flour over the egg mixture and gently fold it in.
10. Pipe fingers, about 9cm long, 4cm apart.
11. Bake for about 12 minutes until firm to the touch and golden.

Sponge fingers unbakedSponge fingers baked
12. Place on racks to cool.

Crème de la crème
You also need custard. Again, you can buy this in tins, or cheat with a cornflour-based powder, but you simply cannot beat homemade stuff.

145g full-fat milk
145g cream
1 tsp vanilla essence
2 egg yolks
15g caster sugar

1. Heat the milk and cream together in a saucepan, and scald – that is, bring it almost but not quite to the boil
2. In a bowl, beat the eggs with the sugar.
3. Pour the hot milk over the egg yolks whisking continuously. When completely mixed in, return to the pan.
4. Stir over a low heat until the mixture thickens.
5. Pour into a bowl and beat in the vanilla essence. Allow to cool completely.

St Roch's Fingers

To assemble the dessert:
Some brandy. Or other alcohol. To taste.
Some whipped cream.
Some small glasses.

1. If you want to flavour the custard, beat in a little alcohol – brandy for example.
2. If you want to make the custard go a bit further, beat in some whipped cream.
3. Line the glasses with the sponge fingers: a piece in the bottom, and up the side.
4. I’d just made some jam – or indeed jelly – from the cherry plums (Prunus cerasifera) in my garden so I put a blob of that in the bottom.
5. Cover with custard.
6. Add some extra whipped cream on top if you fancy.

Quite why you’d eat this for St Roch’s day I don’t know. But enjoy, while basking in that protection from epidemics and skin diseases.

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Great British Beer Festival 2015. Some thoughts – a lot of them critical

Great British Beer Festival glass

The festival guide cover says, “The Campaign for Real Ale proudly presents…”. But one of my strongest memories from the the Great British Beer Festival yesterday isn’t of a standout ale, but of standing near the Harveys bar and handsome delivery van, chatting with Edmund Jenner (of said brewery). Beside us stood a row of an industrial-size wheelie bins. Their contents: a suppurating mix of packaging, food and dregs. There are no specific receptacles for dregs; no water for rinsing or moderating the flow either. No lids for the bins. No recycling.

Now, I’m not relishing being critical, nay negative, here and I’m very thankful to Ed for offering me a ticket to the trade day. I do wonder, however, if CAMRA needs to raise its game a bit for this festival, held annually at the fine Olympia, Kensington, west London. Oozing dumpsters, centre stage of a drink and food event: is this really the best we can do to celebrate our national drink?

Now, some commentators are suggesting that the event, and CAMRA itself, are changing fast, but I’m not sure I got a great sense of that. Sure there were some beers showing the influence of more experimental “craft” brewing (in-your-face hops, apricot juice, US beers in casks etc) but overall the vibe was somewhat tired, staid, mired in convention. Not a showcase of the best of our brewing tradition. And it’s all still very male, very middle-aged, very white to boot.

CAMRA meets US "craft" in casks

Time to move on
This becomes a thorny issue, however, as any discussion of younger beer-drinking demographics brings us to so-called “craft beer”, which the younger, or new-to-real-beer, demographics favour. The purists will dismiss “craft beer” as the product of upstart breweries that most likely keg their beers, and may even pasteurise them. The purists themselves preferring the CAMRA-sanctified virtues of live cask beers.

The Harveys bar under Olympia's fine vaulted roof

This is troubling for someone like me. I do naturally tend towards cask, most frequently drink Harveys, but I’m open to any decent beer that’s made with knowledge, passion and skill – any well-crafted beer. CAMRA’s narrow focus is depressing – especially now.

British beer culture, frankly, is in a bit of a muddle. For people like me – forty-something, neither young craft beer hipster nor aging CAMRA member – the disjunction between “real ale” and “craft beer” is largely irrelevant; for others just dipping their toe into the waters of real beer, it’s probably just confusing. CAMRA saved real beer in the dark times of the 70s and 80s; but it can move on now, surely? Great British Beer Festival should be about all great British beers*. And represent a wider spread of the populace who enjoy real beer.

National pride
As Spain, France or Italy are enormously proud of their wine culture and heritage, Britain should be of its beer.

It’s our national drink, it fed and watered centuries of British artisans and farmers, workers and traders; it was one of the key fuels of Britain as it rampaged around the globe; it was something we took to colonies and conquered countries. The latter has difficult imperialist connotations, but the point is that Britons were among the key migrants to take the craft and skill of brewing overseas: notably to America. And yet many young British brewers today look to the US “craft beer” scene for inspiration over their own extraordinary British beer heritage.

While the results can be brilliant – The Kernel, Beavertown etc – they can also be crude, with brews overly laden with high alpha hops, resulting in concoctions that are reminiscent of toilet cleaning products. Compare such a thing with the subtle, nuanced blending of British hops and malts in a Harveys ale, for example, and it can be quite shocking.

The splendid new-old Harveys van

Straddling the divide
I live in hope of encountering more British beer that straddles the gap, connects the disjointed cultures – a beer that truly balances and combines assertive hoppiness with full-bodied, warming maltiness. Oddly, I’d say I drank a few beers that fitted this description better while living in Italy – a country whose new generation of brewers happily take inspiration from the US and Britain, or Belgian, or Germany.

Yesterday, I sampled several beers from the hundreds on offer. None of them really straddled the great divide. I wish I could have sampled more, but it’d take days to drink through more, especially as the event also adheres to another frustrating convention. At the GBBF you can only order in pint, half or third measures – that is, 568, 284 or 189ml. Even the latter is a big measure if you’re not sure if you’ll like the beer in question or if you’re a drinker who wants to sample as much as possible but stay sensible and compos mentis.

Triple FFF Brewery's Pressed Rat and Warthog

A few days ago Fran managed to – boo-hoo – break one of our two glasses from the inaugural Fermentazioni beer festival, which we attended in Rome in 2013. The remaining glass is marked in 10, 20 and 30cl measures – 100, 200 and 300ml. Now, sure, a Brit may want a full pint if he or she has found a desirable drink, but I do appreciate the 100ml measure – enough to get a whiff and a taste when there are hundreds more beers on offer. What about introducing a quarter pint (about 140ml)? It’d be especially useful for those beers at 6% plus.

Sample sizes are just one of the ways that CAMRA could revise and, dare I say it, modernise the festival. As far as I’m concerned, the ideal route would be somehow overcoming the differences and enlarging the Great British Beer Festival to include not just cask beers that tick the CAMRA boxes but also the newer wave of “craft beer”. It just seems silly to have separate entities in the form of CAMRA’s GBBF and, a few days later, the London Craft Beer Festival. Surely, they’re all craft beers? I mean, what’s a traditional British brewer doing if not using his (or her) craft? I do not like the distinction.

A bit dusty, not as aromatic as hoped from the Elder Ale, by Flowerpots, from near my home town of Winchester

Sorry but…
I do not like the filthy bins. I do like lack of a small sample measure. I do not like the divided demographics: GBBF I would say was about 70/30 male; Fermentazioni was about 50/50. A wine festival I attended in Italy, meanwhile, was also very mixed age-wise – from youths to oldies, male and female equally. If Italians celebrate their wine that broadly, why don’t we do so with our beer?

Craft beerists – you need to look more to your own country’s heritage. CAMRA – you need to recognise all real beer. Enough of this absurd division! Put them all under one roof, and us consumers can pick and choose as we like. And many might even learn something, overcome their prejudices. And proudly celebrate all our brewing culture, traditional and modern, with more open arms. Oh, and please, sort out the bloody vile dumpsters!

Dumpster

* Real beers that is. Not generic industrial lager etc from semi-British owned multinationals and whatnot.

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Toxins in our bread

An email from the Soil Association arrived in my inbox yesterday. It’s a petition…. no, no, don’t stop reading! This is important, especially if you eat grain-based foods* and, you know, don’t want to completely kill the environment and poison the food chain. It involves bread, and poisons therein.

For those who don’t know, the Soil Association is a UK charity that campaigns to promote organic farming as well as providing certification to farmers. Now, I broadly support organic practises for the common sense reason that using chemicals designed to kill living things in farming cannot be healthy for consumers – we are, after all, living things ourselves.

But nor do I completely reject non-organic farming, for a few key reasons. Firstly, people may be farming in a more traditional way but not want the strict restrictions that accompany certified organic farming. Secondly, I’m dubious about large-scale certified organic farming: it doesn’t seem dissimilar to non-organic industrial farming in its heavy use of fossil fuels, food miles etc. Thirdly, strictly organic systems may not be viable for feeding a global population of seven, eight, nine, ten billion.

Weedkillers in food
I’m not getting into these arguments now though as they’re complex. Instead, I want to promote is an awareness of this current Soil Association campaign. The email I received had a title “Not in our bread” with a subtitle that says, “Government tests show nearly 1/3rd of UK’s bread can contain weedkiller”. This figure is credited to a 2013 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) Pesticide Residues in Food (PRiF) report. After the same report, a news story last year said “63% of the loaves analysed in 2013 contained traces of at least one pesticide and that contamination has run at these levels for at least a decade.”

That’s shocking by any reckoning. Shocking, though probably not surprising. Since the two world wars, those of us in industrialised countries, then since the so-called “Green Revolution” those in developing countries, have embraced industrial farming methods that rely heavily on chemical inputs. We’ve known for a long while that such things are toxic, and such toxics are having an effect on the environment – getting into the water table, changing (damaging) the ecology of waterways, effecting animal and insect populations**. But we’ve been complacent about the effects, as if increasing crop yields and pushing down food prices are the only things that matter. Well, sure they matter – but poisoning ourselves and our environment matters too. Just a bit.

Is cheap, plentiful food worth it at the cost of our health and that our the environment?

Damaging our genes
The problem being addressed by this petition relates to glyphosate, a weedkiller. The chemical was discovered in the 1950s then Monsanto recognised it as a weedkiller in 1970. (A great way to commemorate the year of my birth; thanks Monsanto.) It was considered to have a comparatively low toxicity to animals, and became the key ingredient of commercially available weedkillers, most notably in Monsanto’s proprietary weedkiller Roundup.

Now, I never eat shitty industrial faux-bread and wheat-based products and I try to buy organic flour for my bread, but when I’m skint, I do resort to cheaper flours. And these will almost certainly have come from wheat crops nuked with such toxins. It’s a worrying thought.

The Soil Association says, “Government figures show its [glyphosate’s] use in UK farming has increased by a shocking 400% in the last 20 years. Nearly a third of UK cereal crops (over 1 million hectares) were sprayed with glyphosate in 2013.” It’s used on crops too, as well as in parks and gardens.

The Soil Association email also says, “Farmers spray the weedkiller pre-harvest, in order to kill and dry the crop and reduce weeds for easier harvesting. But, The International Agency for Research on Cancer [IARC] – part of the World Health Organisation – has recently identified glyphosate as a probable carcinogen.”

Professor Christopher Portier of the IARC says, “Glyphosate is definitely genotoxic.” That is, it damages your DNA. Furthermore, proprietary weedkiller mixes may be even worse. Dr Robin Mesnage of the Department of Medical and Molecular Genetics at Kings College, London, said at a Westminster briefing, “We know Roundup… contains many other chemicals, which when mixed together are 1,000 times more toxic than glyphosate on its own.”

It sounds like most of us will already be consuming products containing these toxics, and it’s unlikely that’ll stop any time soon. Some nations have already moved to ban glyphosate products, though in the UK, the Soil Association is initially just trying to exert pressure to stop the pre-harvest spraying, which would be a step in the right direction. If you would prefer to reduce the amount of toxins and carcinogens in your food supply, sign the petition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* Like any sane, non-coeliac, person should.
** Insects that are food for other animals and insects that are pollinators. Such side-effects of large-scale industrial farming are quiet catastrophes that are already proving to have consequences. Another group of toxic chemicals used in agriculture, neonicotinoid insecticides, has been connected with the severe decline of bees recently. No bees to pollinate = no crops such as fruits, brassicas (from broccoli and cabbage to mustard and oilseed rape), coffee, onion, sunflowers, various beans/peas/legumes etc etc etc etc. Check out a comprehensive list here.

Just as I wrote this, we had some (more) terrible anti-sustainability news here in the UK: the government has ignored scientific advice and softened rules on neonicotinoid use. They’ve granted a derogation, allowing farmers to spray it on oilseed rape crops. More info here. It’s a difficult one as farmers have got used to this chemical-industrial approach to cultivation, and struggle when they’re banned, but such toxins aren’t the answer. Surely with a combination of traditional knowledge garnered from millennia of farming and modern science we can find sustainable solutions?

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