Category Archives: Misc

Mail, ale and the movies in Lewes

The Depot building site

For years, people arriving by train1 in Lewes, the county town of East Sussex in southeastern England, were met by a sign that said “Welcome to Lewes, Home of Harveys Brewery”. This sign is in the yard of the former Harveys Depot, which sits just to the north of the railway station. Currently, the depot is a building site, the sign, and much of the building, swathed in scaffolding. In Spring-Summer 2017, it will open in its new incarnation: the three-screen Depot cinema.

The very name of the cinema is a nod to the heritage of the building, and indeed of Lewes itself, so synonymous with Harveys Brewery. Though interestingly, the site was originally owned by the Royal Mail. The current depot was built in 1937, replacing a 19th century one.

I was lucky enough to have a tour of the site last week with Carmen Slijpen, whose passion for cinema is at the heart the Depot cinema project. The site is certainly changing fast, though the finished Depot will reflect its past in several ways, notably by keeping several of the features that look older, but were in fact fitted by Harveys in the 1990s, such as the Harveys signs and the clock tower2.

Clock tower and hoardings, featuring film characters - including one of my favourites, Princess Mononoke

A town needs a cinema
In a former life, I was a film journalist and I have a master’s in film and TV studies, so the Depot cinema is enormously exciting for me. Not only does it revitalise a neglected corner of Lewes, it connects my loves of cinema and ale, albeit loosely!

Lewes hasn’t had a cinema for years. Cliffe, at the bottom of town, lost its Odeon in 1971, with the building sadly demolished in 1982 (another, the Cinema de Luxe on School Hill, closed in 1963; an even older one, the County Electric Theatre, didn’t even make it into the sound era!). And while Carmen and others have been running the Film Club, with screenings in a theatre and a former church the past decade and a half or so, a town of Lewes’s status needs a proper cinema. Furthermore, the Depot will be a kind of community hub. Alongside three state-of-the-art auditoria, there will be a café, bars, education facilities and an editing suite, as well as outdoor terraces, and a publically accessible garden. Indeed, the garden will hold even older echoes of the site’s history. Prior to the post depot, it was an orchard, and Carmen says they will be planting some fruit trees, alongside various other intriguing schemes, such as structures with climbing plants (I suggested they plant some hops).

Finding the Depot
Carmen, who trained as a projectionist in Amsterdam before becoming a film programmer, embarked on her quest to create a cinema in Lewes in 2011. Within a few weeks, she found a funder in the form of Robert Senior, a local with a love of cinema. Senior established a charity for the project, Lewes Community Screen.

Finding a suitable site was a challenge, as cinema auditoria have particular requirements, notably height. They considered the former magistrates court, but it wasn’t right, and has since been demolished. Carmen says that, strangely, the nearby Harveys Depot site had “become invisible”, despite its central location. Harveys had moved to their new depot in Malling Brooks, and it just sat there, empty. At the end of 2011, Harveys were looking to sell the site. There were plans to build a Travelodge there, or a Tesco Metro with flats above, but luckily all fell through and Lewes Community Screen was able to buy the whole site.

London-based architects Burrell, Foley, Fischer, who had previous experience with other cinemas, were chosen from six who pitched. Plans were drawn up and, by 2014, Lewes Community Screen got planning permission.

It sounds a close-run thing though, as, bafflingly, Lewes Town Council voted against it, despite how much such a project will offer the town and community. Even the Highways Agency had concerns. The three auditoria will be 140 seat, 130 and 37, the education room is for a maximum of 40, and the cafés etc will have a total of about 100 seats, so the Depot will have a theoretical capacity of nearly 500. The Highways Agency panicked that all these people would be arriving simultaneously, individually, by car. Which is patently absurd. For starters, cinemas stagger their screenings. Never mind the fact that the Depot is centrally located, and within walking or cycling distance for most Lewes residents. Furthermore, there are bus stops nearby – and the station!

Red brick 1930s walls being reformatted for the new Lewes Depot cinema

Thankfully, the South Downs National Park Authority saw sense.

Indeed, several aspects of the project are entirely suited to celebrating a town at the heart of a precious national park. Not only will the Depot be powered by ground-source heat pumps, using heat transfer from 200m below the surface, it will have a living roof – planted not with generic sedums but with flora found in the South Downs. Such details make the Depot special.

Old and new
Aside from bureaucracy, there have been other challenges. Not only did postal then brewery storage have very different requirements to a cinema in terms of how the space is used, but the site is at risk of flooding, so the cinema has effectively been raised 800mm.

It’s been a test to retain the history of the buildings while converting them to new usage. Much of the old red brick structure is being retained, to be visible through new glass walls. It’ll form a handsome contrast to the advanced elements. Carmen talked us through the high specs they’ll have in the auditoria, with screen 1 having 4k digital and Dolby Atmos with 36 speakers in the ceiling; screen 2 having 2k digital with 3D; and screen 3 also having 2k digital. Screen 3 has a small bar adjacent, which Carmen says will have a “dark, private members’ bar feel”.

Looking from screen 2 into screen 1

What’s on
Carmen says they’ll be screening “a healthy mix of arthouse and mainstream cinema.” Certainly, screen 1 sounds like it’ll be able to handle anything a modern movie with elaborate digital production can throw at it, while the more intimate screen 3 will be a delight for smaller films or rep. Carmen says, “We’ll be running lots of strands, which are series of films that run alongside the main programme – the main programme being films that we book on a weekly basis and are the newly released films.”

Indeed, the Depot sounds unique on a number of levels, not just for the site’s heritage. As Lewes Community Screen is a charity, it does “not exist to make a profit necessarily (but will strive to, as that will give us options for further, more exciting programming).” This may also mean they have a slightly different relationship with distributors, who can be quite, shall we say, demanding when it comes to big releases.

Carmen continues “If we don’t do what is stipulated by distributors we will often have to wait for one or more weeks before we can get hold of a film. We will have to see how our audience responds to that. I think it is realistic to expect it will take us two years to understand how [people] will react and respond to having an independent cinema in their vicinity.”

I imagine running a truly independent cinema is very challenging3. But if it can be done right anywhere, it’s Lewes.4

Oh, and just so this post doesn’t seem too far outside the normal remit of my blog I’d like to reassure Lewesians that Carmen tells me the Depot bars will be serving Harveys. And though she says most of all that “I want to be selling films”, a quality ale and a good film is a perfect evening out for me.

Steel and ply

Lewes Depot Cinema, Pinwell Road, Lewes
lewesdepot.org
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Footnotes
1 Currently a grotesque proposition as rail operator Southern (Govia Thameslink) continues to abuse and disrespect its customers with a cavalcade of late, delayed, cancelled and overcrowded trains, while continuing to charge absurd prices for tickets.
2 The clock itself is being restored by local mechanical wiz John Downie. I love a public clock myself, and this one is a far more handsome proposition than the other one in Lewes I use regularly, which adorns the increasingly tired looking Tesco supermarket on the Malling side of the river. Funnily, another public clock adorns the Market Tower, where I used to do my biscuit stall, but I rarely look up at it as it doesn’t have clear lines of sight. I don’t believe it works. Another Lewes public clock  that does work sticks out from St Michael in Lewes church at 158 High Street, in the Bottleneck. A place of worship for 800 years apparently, though the clock is a bit more modern than that.
3 The UK has proportionately few independent cinemas these days; most of our cinemas aren’t even British. We all grew up with the Odeon chain, but that’s a subsidiary of the US AMC chain, itself owned by the Chinese Dalian Wanda. Vue is Canadian owned. Cineworld is owned by Cinema City International, which is based in the Netherlands. Cineworld also owns the superficially more indie Picturehouse chain. Everyman Cinemas are owned by Everyman Media Group PLC.
4 Though Uckfield, just up the road, also has an independent cinema, it’s not quite as diverse a venue as the Depot will be. Plus, I live in Lewes and dream of being able to walk or bike to the movies on my own or with my family. I’ve almost always lived in places where I could do this – London, Newcastle, Rome – so it’s something I’ve really missed. Indeed, I can’t wait for my kids to be old enough to start properly enjoying the cinema too.

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Filed under Bars, pubs etc, Misc

Neolithic bread

Back in 1999, an archaeological dig in Yarnton, Oxfordshire, “unearthed two 5,000-year-old pieces of bread – the earliest fragments of bread to be recovered in the British Isles”.

Despite my enthusiasm for history, British food history and bread in general, I’d not heard about this before, so thanks to Jeremy Cherfas and his Newsletter from Eat This Podcast.

It’s a wonderful story. Not only is it amazing to have such fragments, which survived as they were charred and have been carbon dated as from “between 3,620 and 3,350 BC”, but also, in this era of blanket demonisation of bread, it’s a salient reminder of how long humanity has had an important relationship with grain-based foods. Even here in Britain, which was, a long way from the civilisations of the Middle East, central Asia, China etc.

At the time of the announcement, they had identified one of the grains as barley. I wonder if they managed to identify any more of the ingredients and if anyone had a go at re-creating the ancient loaf? It sounds like an interesting challenge, but one would need not only true ancient grain varieties, but also a quern-stones to mill them. That’s not something that’s part of my kitchen kit at this point.

There’s a little more on this 1999 discovery here and here, but I can’t find anything subsequent.

 

 

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Filed under Baking, Misc

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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Filed under Breads, Discussion, Misc

Acciuleddi – Sardinian deep-fried sweet pasta

Acciuleddi, drizzled with honey

We first encountered acciuleddi on our holiday in Sardinia a few weeks ago. They’re a form of sweet, deep-fried pasta and as such are a cousin to frappe, which are found on the Italian mainland. I ate a lot of frappe in Rome, when they would appear in shops for Carnevale – the blow-out before the fasting period of Lent, the run-up to Easter in the Christian calendar.

Pasta, deep-fried then sweetened? What’s not to like? Well, perhaps such things aren’t brilliant for your arteries so it’s good they’re just eaten for Carnevale. Except of course it wasn’t Carnevale in June for our holiday, so I think the proprietress of the Gallurese (northern Sardinian) bakery we bought them, La Panetteria del Porto in La Maddalena, from was bending the rules slightly.

If she can do it, so can I. Though I wouldn’t normally endorse eating celebratory seasonal or feast-day foods at the wrong time of year. It’s as obnoxious as British supermarkets stocking hot cross buns all year round. They cease to be special if they’re on the shelves all the time.

Sweet pasta
The very concept of sweet pasta may be a bit weird for staid Brits, but I just couldn’t resist a crack at these, given my love of frappe.

Looking at Italian – and Sardi – recipes, the pasta generally seems to be made with semola rimacinata di grano duro – that is fine, “re-milled” semolina (Triticum durum) flour. That’s not something it’s terribly easy to source here in the UK, so I went for a mixture of 00 flour for the fineness, and normal (ie medium milled) semolina for some robustness.

Also, the pasta does seem to have been traditionally made with strutto – lard. Now, I don’t have a problem with lard in principle, as I do eat some meat and as it was a key ingredient for older, traditional British baking (such lardy johns, or the more well-known lardy cake). The thing is, I try to only eat meat where I know the provenance, and generally that means from people we trust who have a farm nearby. I hoped they’d do some lard, but they just don’t have the demand. Instead, the only readily available lard in small-town England is foul crap spat out by the grotesque industrial meat machine, and I don’t want to use that. Instead, I’m going for all eggs, which some of the Italian recipes I researched also did.

So really, it’s just a pretty basic egg pasta – with the familiar ratio of 1 egg to 100g flour. Though with a little added sugar and some lemon zest.

Then deep-fried.

Surface & tension
The best surface for making fresh pasta is marble, the next best is stainless steel. I don’t have either, so I just used my bamboo worktop, rubbed with a bit of oil, as I do when making bread. It worked fine.

150g 00 flour
50g semolina
20g icing sugar (or caster)
Pinch salt
Zest of half a lemon (optional), finely chopped
2 medium eggs (about 110g total yolk & white)
Extra water, or egg, if mixture is too dry
Oil for frying

1. Sieve together the flours and icing sugar, add the pinch of salt and lemon zest.
2. Form a mound on your work surface.
3. Create a hole in the middle of the mound, much like the gaping mouth of a miniature volcano. Or like when you’re making concrete by hand.
4. Crack the eggs and put in the hole. You can of course do all this in a bowl, but there’s something very satisfying about eggs in a mound of flour..

Making acciuleddi pasta 1Making acciuleddi pasta 2
5. Using a fork, whisk up the egg, then starting combining the flour. Try to keep that wall around the edge intact, and add the flour bit by bit.
6. When the dough is starting to get quite thick, bring the rest of the flour into it by hand.

Making acciuleddi pasta 3Making acciuleddi pasta 4

7. Knead the dough until smooth, then form a ball, wrap in plastic and rest in the fridge for about half an hour.
8. Take the dough out and cut off small pieces. Mine weighed in at about 15g.

Acciuleddi pasta ballAcciuleddi cutting pasta
9. Take a piece and roll it out to form a long snake. Mine were about 300mm long, 5mm wide.

Acciuleddi, roll outAcciuleddi, roll out
Shaping acciuleddi 2Shaping acciuleddi 3

10. This is the tricky bit, so I’ve also made a video. It’s my first video and it’s not exactly slick, focus is an issue, going out of frame is an issue, and it is entirely un-edited, sorry. But it might help.


11. Anyway, you take the snake and join the two ends together.
12. Gently roll one end, while holding the other end still, to form a spiral. There will be some tension in the spiral – retain it.
13. Now, join the ends together again and that tension should cause it to spiral around itself again – creating a kind of double helix. Help it on its way as needs be.
14. Squeeze together the join.

Acciuleddi ready for frying
15. Put the acciuleddi on a tray or plate, lightly dusted with flour or semolina, and cover while you make the rest so they don’t dry out.
16. Heat oil for frying. I used sunflower oil, though I imagine the most authentic, original ones were fried in lard too. You want it at 180C or thereabouts, if you have a thermometer or fryer with a dial. If not, throw a small piece of dough in. If it bubbles, bobs to the surface and browns within a few minutes, you’re good to go.
17. Fry the acciuleddi in batches until browned.
18. Drain and put on some absorbent paper.

Acciuleddi, drizzle with honey
19. While they’re still warm, pile them up and drizzle them liberally with honey. I used some from our friends’ hives, from when they were in south London. I’ve been saving it for a special occasion. This seemed like one.

The results were good. Sweet, crunchy and simultaneously indulgent and undemonstrative. They were a bit chunkier than the ones we bought from La Panetteria del Porto, so if you want to make more refined, smaller ones, use pieces of dough weighing about 10g and roll that snake even thinner!

I want to go back to Sardinia now.

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Filed under Feasts, Misc, Other food, Recipes

Rachel Roddy’s Five Quarters

Rachel Roddy's Five Quarters

In the front porch this morning were a couple of bills, a wedding anniversary card and a large padded envelope. The card was nice, but it was latter that really got me excited. It contained a copy of Five Quarters: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome by Rachel Roddy, a must-have food book published today by Saltyard Books.

Anyone who knows me or reads this blog will know Fran and I lived in Rome for a few years, moving there in August 2011. Recently, as we’ve struggled with the adoption process and a cold English spring, it’s been tempting to reminisce about Rome – the sunshine, the food,  friends, the fascinating city itself. But I have to keep reminding myself to not don the rose-coloured spectacles. Our first year in Rome was hard. Fran’s job was challenging, I was floundering around on various writing projects, I didn’t speak Italian, I missed my own house, I didn’t know what I was doing there, we felt a long way from friends and family. And it took five flippin’ months to connect the internet in the mausoleum-like Roman flat we were renting.

A marked improvement to our lives in Rome came one day in Autumn 2012, while me and Fran were walking through Testaccio. We had stopped to use an ATM when an English voice mentioned that it was dodgy, and recommended we use the other one across the piazza. We mumbled some very English thanks while a tall woman with a small child strapped to her chest strode away. Something passed between me and Fran along the lines of “she looked cool, let’s say hello.” Fran says we stalked her, I like to think we just overcame our English reserve.

This was Rachel Roddy. We became friends outside Volpetti on the corner of Via Alessandro Volta and Via Marmorata in what, we would learn, was the heart of Rachel’s turf. She was even living on Via Marmorata at the time, and took us to her local cafe, Barberini. It was a friendly and gracious gesture and the start of a new stage of our life in Rome.

We made other friends, but I particularly clicked with Rachel, which was such a relief after a fairly lonely year. We had things in common – we’d left London for difficult or sad reasons and ended up in Rome; we both had family from the north of England but had grown up in the south; both had a speedy way of conversing; and – of course – both had an obsession with food. I was blogging at the time, a bit about my baking, a bit about my general experiences of living in Rome, but it was Rachel, with her successful Rachel Eats blog, who encouraged me to start a new blog, focussed on the baking and beer. This blog in fact, which I launched in November 2012.

Over the months until we left Rome in October 2013, we saw a lot of Rachel, hanging out a lot at Tram Depot, just over the road from Volpetti and a perfect place to rendezvous on warm evenings, with Fran getting off the train home from work at nearby Ostiense station. Rachel became a great friend. She helped us get to know Rome, empathised as we slogged through our attempting-to-start-a-family saga. She encouraged me to try for the internship in the kitchens of the American Academy in Rome, I gave her the occasional baking lesson and raved at her about my latest favourite birra artigianale (“artisan beer”). We got to know her boyfriend Vincenzo, and watched the half-Roman Luca grow out of his baby-sling and start running around the piazze and mercato. And Rachel told us about her book deal, which we discussed enthusiastically as she poured energy into what would become Five Quarters.

Hand modelling

It’s been an exciting process, and I’ve been thrilled to be involved as a sounding board, occasional recipe tester and even, at one thrilling point in June 2014 (I believe), a hand model. Vincenzo’s hands appear fairly often in the book but those are mine on p358 holding a bowl of dough, and my wrist on p357, with a young Luca looking upwards with a mischievous sense of anticipation about the tray of proving maritozzi. These are Rome’s sweet breakfast rolls, which I blogged about here; Rachel includes a version of the recipe in Five Quarters. She also uses a version of my recipe for frappe, deep-fried sweet pasta treats eaten for Carnevale.

Although I read various bits and pieces of the book while Rachel was writing it, tried some of the recipes and talked about the progress, frequently via Skype, it’s a great to be holding the finished book. Blogs are all well and good, but a book, especially a handsomely bound book full of great photos and inviting text, is deeply pleasing.

I struggle with a lot of recipe books – they’re just recipes, and perhaps a photo of the dish, overly styled and not looking terribly like something you’d produce from your humble home kitchen. The recipes are often so lacking in context. Five Quarters, on the other hand, is a book all about context. It’s about the Testaccio quartiere, and Rachel connecting with that quarter. It’s about food, and Rachel learning about it, exploring it, interpreting it. It’s about real food, made in a real kitchen – and photographed in that kitchen. Rachel’s kitchen is nothing fancy, it’s small and modestly appointed; it’s not some fancy professional kitchen or cookery studio with disingenuous props. As such, it’s a built-in reassurance that you too can make these dishes, you too can learn about Roman food.

She covers a broad sweep of Roman food, so much of the things I crave now while living in small-town England. From the joys of the deep-fried antipasti, to the reassurance of the classic pulse-and-pasta dishes than span the gap between soup and stew, to vegetables and dolci (my area of obsession, obviously).

The book may also introduce readers to the food of Testaccio, which gives the book its name: the quinto quarto, “fifth quarter” – the meat and the offal dishes developed by the workers in the local slaughterhouse (used c1890-1975). Rachel doesn’t get too hardcore here, as such dishes are a far cry from the so-called Mediterranean diet people might expect of all Italian food (it’s an abiding misconception). But they do connect nicely not just with the nose-to-tail eating ethos, and also, as Rachel points out, with many traditional dishes of northern England. Rachel often makes these connections, or gives an anecdote – some context – for how she first encountered a dish.

As such Five Quarters is a book that’s a good read, a book that’s pleasure to learn about cooking from, a book that’s an aesthetically pleasing object, with Rachel’s own pictures of food production accompanied by pictures of Testaccio, the neighbourhood, its streets, shops, market, restaurants and denizens by Nick Seaton. I’m trying to keep on top of my sentiment, but it’s also a book that’s making me pine for Rome, and meeting Rachel to go for a grattachecca and an obessive rant about the latest recipe we’ve tried or foodstuff we’ve bought. *sigh*

In the meantime, I heartily recommend you buy Five Quarteres from your local independent bookshop. Failing that, here it is on Waterstones and Amazon.

 

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Filed under Discussion, Misc, Rome

Many ways to bake

Stone and casserole

If my blog is isn’t getting updated quite so regularly these days, it’s because Fran and I are at a pretty intensive stage of a journey we’ve been on the past decade. It’s a journey that’s much shorter for most people: that of starting a family.

The old-fashioned way failed us, so we tried medical intervention. Quackery also failed us, so the past year or so we’ve been involved in the adoption process.

As anyone who’s had similar experiences will tell you, it’s a roller-coaster. The adoption process in the UK is predicated on extending the protection of children in care who may well have had tragic, sad or painful starts to life. So as the prospective adoptive parent, you’re scrutinised to within an inch of your life, every corner of your life checked, considered, evaluated.

You spend months filling in forms, being interviewed. The sheer weight of bureaucracy can make you buckle with its Kafkaesque convolutions as you struggle to prove you can be a good parent – without ever having had the experience of being a parent, thanks to the fickle vagaries of nature. It’s tough, but the end goal is clear – giving a child a good home.

Baking as palliative
When times are tough, baking is gives me solace. Bread-making especially is unique and special: it’s about making a basic food stuff, but it’s so tactile. Plus it’s all about fertility too, in its modest way. You’re reliant on the life incarnate in microorganisms: yeast, and, for sourdoughs, yeast and lactobacilli (bacteria). You need to nurture them, feed them, encourage them to reproduce. Reproduce as fervently as possibly. Unlike us, they shouldn’t need any intervention.

So I’ve been baking a lot recently. I’ve been baking most of my life, and making bread for at least 20 years, though it’s only been the past eight years or so I’ve made pretty much all the bread we eat at home. Although I’ve got a baking diploma, I’m not a professional. The thing professionals have over home bakers is a mastery of skills acquired through repetition. For long baking shifts, often through the night, professional bakers will make their doughs, prove them, shape the loaves, bake them, perfecting the processes.

So although I have a reasonable knowledge of all these things, I haven’t the mastery: it’s a lot harder to achieve when making one or two loaves a week. Especially if, like me, you have an enquiring mind and want to keep experimenting. There are so many variations on basic techniques, so many kinds of flour, so many permutations. So I keep on playing around.

I was a pretty good artist when I was young, but art, like bread-making, like any skill, is something that needs constant practise. Creativity needs nurturing. I carried a notepad and sketched all the time until my mid-twenties, but then it just tailed off. I don’t really know why. Anyway, my creative urges these days mostly go into food, into baking. Talking to my friend Rachel, who knows all about our trying-to-start-a-family saga,  she suggested the baking obsession is also an expression of my creativity, my nurturing instincts. (I’m not a stereotypical macho male, obviously.)

If fate, and the powers that be, allow us to adopt and, finally, start a family, I don’t intend to stop baking. But I suspect I’ll have less time for free-form experimentation as the focus of the nurturing will be very different.

Bread experiments in the oven
Another thing Rachel’s said to me is: make your blog more personal. But I’ve not really known how to approach this. This attempting-to-start-a-family thing is mine and Fran’s big personal project. Fran’s sort of tried to put me off talking about it, but we process things differently.

The way I see it, with a pregnancy, you get to a point where you can’t not talk about it – it becomes publically obvious. I feel we’ve been involved with the adoption process for long it’s reaching an equivalent to that publically obvious stage. Just without the bump. Without the literal bun in the oven. Instead, there are my bread experiments in the oven.

This is my latest haphazard experiment. I wanted to see how the same dough behaved when baked in two different ways.

Lively sponge

I made a dough using a kilo of flour, a mixture of white wheat flour, wholemeal spelt flour and rivet flour. I combined 400g of this with 650g of water and 15g of yeast to make a sponge pre-ferment.

Full of wheatberries

I let that ferment for a few hours at about 17C, then made up a dough with 15g fine sea salt and about 200g of cooked wheatberries (wheat grains) I had.

Well risen

Then gave all that a prove for about five hours, giving it some turns and folds.

I then managed to break Fran’s camera. We’d had two days of howling winds, 40-50mph (64-80kph), and that frays your nerves somewhat. Clearly it made me clumser than usual. I’d just said to myself, better watch out, the concrete floor would destroy this camera if dropped – then I dropped it while climbing a small stepladder to take an overhead photo. So now my pics are taken with my inferior phone camera. And I need to take a trip to the camera shop.

Divided up

After breaking the camera, both pieces of dough were scaled at the same weight, both were moulded the same way, and both were given their final prove in round bannetons.

Final prove

After the final prove, I put one in a Le Creuset casserole dish, pre-heated in the oven at 220C. Some call this the Dutch oven technique. I used a peel to slide the other onto a baking stone (or, more specifically, my pizza stone). Both were then baked at 220C for 20 minutes, then 30 minutes more at 180C.

Baked

Now, as you’ll see from the photos, despite all these years of baking, I’m still making some errors. Firstly, the two kilos of dough I had was too much for the size of Le Creuset I was using. Oops. Secondly, the one I baked on the stone, not being constrained by a container, did a funny oven spring and opened out sideways. This is frustrating for several reasons as I know the factors full well:
1. I probably didn’t leave it long enough in the final prove.
2. It may have opened up better if I’d give the top some slashes.
3. I quite possibly didn’t get the dough tight enough in the moulding stage.

The latter is one a baking skill I really struggle with. Sometimes I nail it, sometimes I fail miserably. I’ve managed 80% hydration ciabatta, then made a 70% hydration ball that’s turned out a discus.

Cut

Anyway, the real thing I was wondering about with this experiment was whether the crust and the crumb of the bread would be markedly different when baked with the different techniques. I was expecting they would be. They weren’t. Both are lovely loaves, soft, wholesome, good for sandwiches or, when they’ve staled a bit, toast.

For this experiment, I probably should have divided the dough in three, and baked a third on a steel baking sheet. Not sure my oven’s big enough though. Still, it was a fun experiment, a nice distraction from the anxiety and emotional intensity of the adoption. And, heck, one day I hope it’s the sort of bread my kids will like for their school lunches.

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Marzipan

This is something I’ve been wondering about for a while: what’s the difference between almond paste and marzipan? Both are made with sugar and ground almonds and some sort of binding agent – usually egg, possibly oil.

I would say that marzipan is a form of almond paste, and indeed Alan Davidson calls it “a paste of crushed almonds and sugar” in his essential Oxford Companion to Food. If you’re being thoroughly pedantic, however, one distinction seems to be that almond paste has a higher proportion of almond to sugar, whereas with marzipan the proportions are more or less equal.

In Britain, marzipan is mostly used as a covering for cakes – notably on top of our traditional heavy fruit Christmas and wedding cakes, with a layer of royal icing on top. It’s also used for as a filling for things like the German Christmas cake stollen, or as a kind of sculptural medium. It’s not something I do very often, but I’ve used it to make, for example, decorative fake pebbles (below, alongside the real ones).

Marzipan stones

In parts of Italy, Spain and Portugal, meanwhile, they’re big on using it to make imitation fruit, a sort of sweetmeat.

An older English name is “marchpane” and this referred to large sculptural sweets that would decorate feast day tables, right up until the 18th century. These showstoppers were the ancestors of our modern wedding cakes. The word marchpane may also relate to the Italian marzapane, which can be translated as “March bread” – but the etymology is confused. Indeed the Latin root marci panis, Davidson says, means “the bread of St Mark”, (the Latin for the month of March is Martius). While one dictionary says it’s “perhaps” from the Arabic mawthabān meaninga seated king”.

Davidson also talks about a distinction between French and German marzipan, with the production of the former involving a sugar syrup and the latter a mixture that is “dried over heat, cooked for a short time then poured onto a slab to cool”. The English version, however, generally isn’t cooked.

I’ve found one Delia Smith recipe that cooks it, but otherwise it’s a more basic concoction that relies on raw egg, one of those things we’re quite squeamish about these days. If, however, you do have a reliable source of eggs and aren’t squeamish – being unafraid of say, real mayonnaise – this is a great basic recipe that’s so easy you’ll wonder why you ever bothered to buy ready-made marzipan.

Sugar is a natural antibacterial, so the high level present is a preservative. The fresh mazipan will keep for a couple of weeks in the fridge, probably longer – but I’ve not done a controlled experiment.

175g ground almonds
175 g icing sugar, plus extra for dusting
1 egg, lightly beaten (approx. 60g of beaten egg)

Makes about 400g

Marzipan mix 1Marzipan mix 2

1. Put all the ingredients in a bowl and bring together, with a fork, palette knife or dough scraper.

Marzipan 3
2. Lightly dust the work surface with icing sugar and turn out the mixture.

Marzipan ball
3. Completely bring together and knead slightly, to achieve a homogenous dough. Do not overwork or it can become greasy.

Marzipan block
4. Form into a ball or block and wrap in plastic.
5. Store in the fridge.

Anyway, I’m blogging this as I seem to be using marzipan fairly regularly at the moment. It was in the semlor I made a while back, and I’m also using it for a simnel cake recipe, which I’ll post next.

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Harveys Bonfire Boy Strong Ale 2014

Bonfire Boy 4

It’s been a busy week here on the building site, so escaping the frenzied activity of plasterers, plumbers, window fitters and carpenters this morning I went into town – and had to visit the Harveys brewery shop, as their famed Bonfire Boy had just appeared. In fact it was bottled just this morning, the batch prepared to accompany the annual Bonfire Night, aka Guy Fawkes Night, celebrations, 5th November. They didn’t even have a button set up on their till, so I reckon I was the first customer to buy it.

Since I was a kid in the 1970s, when we used to run through the embers of the massive fire on the site of Oram’s Arbor in Winchester, Bonfire Night has become a sorry, much diminished thing in many parts of the country, local council regulations banning the actual bonfire in many places. It’s pathetic. What’s Bonfire Night without a bonfire? Luckily, Lewes is the world capital of Bonfire Night. It’s a very, very serious business here, with neighbourhood Bonfire Societies, dressed in colour-coded striped Guernseys, white trousers and various themed costumes, holding their own processions, burning barrel races, fireworks displays and bonfires in a continuation of traditions that date back to the 17th century, or earlier.

The Lewes Bonfire historian – with whom I share a surname – Jim Etherington says “Any account of what form 5th November celebrations in Lewes took in the years immediately following the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 remains conjecture” but writes about solid accounts from the year 1679. “The rolling of blazing tar barrels through the High Street is recorded for the first time” in 1832. Years of tension between the Bonfire Boys and local authorities continued until the Bonfire Societies began to form in the late 1840s, giving the anarchy some organisational tethers. As with many British folk traditions, consolidation and honing took place in the Victorian era, and over the intervening decades the events have become world famous – with a reported 80,000 people sometimes packing the town, which normally has a population of around 15,000.

Bonfire Boy 2

Harveys first brewed Bonfire Boy in 1996. It was then called Firecracker, and commemorated the work of the fire brigade and their work fighting a blaze at the brewery in July of that year, but it subsequently became the annual Bonfire Night brew.

It’s a delicious beer, a dark amber colour, very little head and an aroma of apples and toffee – appropriately enough, given that toffee apples (aka candy apples in American) are for many Brits a treat closely associated with Halloween and Bonfire Night, both arguably modern incarnations of the Celtic Samhain. The beer also has a taste of apple and toffee, along with a deep maltiness, like well-baked bread or warming porridge with golden syrup, and hints of Prunus genus fruits like cherry and plum. It’s a smooth, full-bodied beer, confident in its 5.8% strength. It’s one of those beers that feels really substantial when you roll it around in your mouth, almost like eating an autumnal stew followed by a hot fruit pudding.

I’m looking forward to having a few more come The Glorious Fifth.

Bonfire Boy 3

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From building site to castle. Real, actual castle

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

Wheatsheaf

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

Bread and biscuits crop

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

Dartmouth and Kingswear castles

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

Shadow, blockhouse, rocks

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

Apple cake, Dartmouth Castle

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

Apple cake 2

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

Spiral staircase long prove

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

Gun floor

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

Kingswear Castle panorama

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

D'Oyly kitchen

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

Mash and flag

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

Teignmouth Martha's Mild

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

Clearwater beers

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

Wessex Cobber loaf

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An evening with Dan Lepard at The Hearth, Lewes

Intro

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

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

Heads down

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

Desserts on hearth

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

Bagna cauda

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

Chopping pork

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

Apple crumble cake with gelato

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

Last bit of cake

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

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

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