In this most glorious spring, our cruel Gods with cunning irony,
And perfect twenty twenty vision, hung out the sun,
In cloudless skies, Bithynian blue, to dry.
That this weather would continue like this, not just to the end of that month, but for the whole of May as well. Our first swathes of manual haymaking will be completed today under more perfect blue skies, brisk drying winds and the with the lightest of crops after the recent lack of rain…It’s now officially been declared as the sunniest ever spring in the UK, since records began in 1929, according to The Met Office. Not just beating their previous records, but smashing them. Water shortage issues are becoming imminent for those like us with spring supplies. The last 10 weeks since lock down began on March 23rd have seen just 73.7 mm of rainfall here, falling on just 14 days. This is indeed uncharted weather territory for us, and comes as a complete and dramatic weather flip from the previous 6 months and 3 weeks up until, bizarrely, lock down day. When we received over 200 mm per month, followed by 127 mm in early March, with barely 20 days without any rain in the whole of that time. This just doesn’t normally happen in this part of the world, yet we clearly live in very abnormal times…
An unprecedented wonderful spell. I’ve focused a huge amount of time on video recording over these weeks, and I shall be relieved when June arrives and the beginning of the official summer season permits me to leave the Camcorder inside.
However to change tack completely, but entirely because of the altered way of life in recent weeks, I’m going to feature an aspect of our lives inside…
I don’t think I’ve posted much about cookery before, but prompted by the news that much of the UK seems to have discovered the many benefits of home baking over the period of lock down, thought now would be a good time. Flour sales have grown by an “obscene” amount to quote a family mill owner in this excellent piece in the New York Times, and bread machine sales have tripled according to some reports.
I mentioned on the “background page” on this website when I set it up, that one of my long term interests has been bread making. For the 40 plus years we’ve been married, I’ve always made our own bread, initially probably because money was tight, but more gradually because I’ve become fascinated by the art and science of it. It rarely ends up exactly the same, and minor tweaks in technique can have major consequences. Early on my efforts were sometimes a challenging eat – most honest home bread makers will probably feel the same – too dry, or too heavy, but gradually as with most things in life, practice and experimentation honed the results. I’ve always resisted buying a bread machine, though in the early years I did use a Kenwood mixer with dough hook. I really like the physical work and time spent kneading – great for thinking.
Every year or two I’d try something which improved the end result, until I thought I’d really cracked it, creating multigrain, low salt, full of flavour and pretty good textured loaves which were always enjoyable and a huge improvement over most air filled commercial bread. Then along came lock down and the first thing we stocked up on was flour. For many years after reading about the standard (and in my view scandalous) pre-harvest spraying of most commercial wheat crops with glyphosate to improve dessication, aid grain drying and hence reduce post harvest energy usage by the farmer, we’d switched to using organic flour milled by Shipton Mill (SM). Click here.
We discovered before the supermarket shelves were emptied of small bags of flour, that SM also supplied flour in bulk bags (16kg) direct to home bakers, so managed to order one before, due to overwhelming demand, their website temporarily closed. But then baker’s yeast started to become an issue. I should add here that for about 4 months last year I experimented with a sourdough starter, which seems to be all the rage, and frankly was disappointed – a lot of pfaffing about to keep the “culture” going, and at the end of the day, the results never matched my previous consistency. So having used dry granulated baker’s yeast for years and with our large tub gradually depleting, I figured that the answer to our diminishing yeast supply was to reduce the quantity of yeast I used, and if necessary just extend the “proving” time.
And this has proved to be one of the biggest light bulb moments in my decades of bread baking. For a few years now, I’ve always begun my actual bread making process by mixing equal cupfuls of fizzy spring water and white flour with a teaspoon of sugar and a teaspoon of dry yeast (already less than the recommended quantity for 3.5 lbs of flour anyway). What would happen if I reduced the yeast down to barely a quarter of this teaspoon?
The answer seemed to be very little difference. In fact the reverse, a great improvement was apparent. For some unknown to me reason, the mix was becoming more elastic as it was left to rise more slowly for 36 hours, with extra flour and water additions, before adding the bulk of the ingredients.
Then came the breakthrough moment, when in trying to find out more about the magic of gluten, I discovered this piece, click here for more, on the Modernist Cuisine website. If you’re a bread maker or fancy having a go for the first time, it’s well worth trying to understand the science, if this is as new to you as me, and then everything that follows with making any yeast proven recipe, makes perfect sense.
What I didn’t previously know before reading this article was that gluten, which forms the invisible elastic mesh which traps air in the bread and distinguishes yeast proved baking from biscuits or cakes, is actually formed from two of wheat’s proteins – glutenin and gliadin – when these become activated by contact with water.
This enzyme controlled process would happen in nature when the wheat grain begins to grow and absorb water. In our flour, where the grain has been crushed, hydration can occur really quickly when the dry flour is mixed with water, and glutenin and gliadin begin to combine, but it takes much longer for chemical bonds to form between the newly created gluten molecules, which will create a mesh of meshed protein strands. This process is achieved through the action of protease enzymes, already present in very small amounts in the wheat grain, which snip developing lengthening gluten chains down and allow more cross joints to develop. The resulting webbed mesh of gluten strands develops both elastic and extensible properties, which allows the dough to hold air, create flexibility and also allows a shape to be formed from the dough.
Other factors like the type of flour, salt, oils and fats, and quantities of water can all impact on the gluten forming process, as well as length of time in proving, and of course the ambient temperature. So in all of this development of elasticity, the action of the yeast is in fact secondary – it seems to simply act as it does in brewing by feeding on sugars, and releasing carbon dioxide through respiration. This carbon dioxide creates the bubbles, and thus the “air” filled spaces which give fresh bread its wonderful texture and feel. The yeast also contributes a certain amount of flavour.
Reading all this explained to me what I was now experiencing by using a much slower dough making process. I then discovered that most commercial bread making yeast has been bred to work super fast – great for highly controlled, efficient commercial bread making, but not perhaps so good for home baking. Years ago, bakers actually skimmed off the upper layers of yeast from fermenting beer, called barm, and used this selected yeast to make their dough – there was real skill in using this approach. Fortunately you can now buy fresh yeast which has been grown organically through the Shipton Mill site, and I can confirm that it works really well if frozen in small chunks and does indeed add even more noticeable flavour and textural gains to the dough. Click here for more rational and detailed discussion on the differences between conventional yeast and fresh organic yeast.
Enough of the introduction and science, though. I hope you find this information about one of our staple foods as fascinating as I did. What follows is a record of how I now make what are definitely the best loaves I’ve ever managed. 40 years of amateur bread making experimentation, summarised for the first time below!
If it all seems too fussy, it really isn’t, but bread making does seem to depend on a certain attention to detail, hence me trying to record exactly how I go about it. If you enjoy the slower pace of life that lock down has brought to some of us, incorporating it as a two day method isn’t that demanding – it just needs a little occasional attention.
This will make 3 or 4 loaves, which freeze really well.
On day one, morning or lunchtime, take a large bowl. I’m hugely indebted to Rosemary and Brendan for the wonderful, locally made pottery bowl which I currently use. Previously I used a large stainless steel catering bowl. Using a bowl rather than kneading on a tabletop gives you mobility for kneading posture and you can take it outside if the weather’s nice!
Put one level cup of flour, a teaspoon of sugar and a quarter of a teaspoon of dried yeast in the bowl, and mix well. Then add a cup of spring water as below. How big’s the cup I hear you ask? It isn’t that critical but ours takes a weight of 4.5 ounces or 130 gm of flour, or 225 ml of liquid. Using a cup just makes the measuring process a little quicker.
If using fresh yeast, use about a small cherry tomato sized chunk, and allow it to defrost first if it’s been frozen, by dropping it into the same cup filled with spring water – I use carbonated – and then after a few minutes, add this water to the flour/sugar in the bowl and stir well with a slotted spoon or large fork until evenly mixed. I think the carbonated water helps mixing, but probably isn’t critical, though it will affect the pH of the mix I guess. Cover with a damp tea towel.
In the evening add another cup of water and of flour, and repeat the mixing. Cover.
In the early evening of that second day weigh out the other dry ingredients. I aim for a total weight of 3 lbs 8 ounces (1.57 KG) of a mix of grains/flour, but only about a quarter of the mix as “whole” grain material – sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds and oat bran all in about 1 tablespoon quantities, then about 5 heaped tablespoons of spelt or malted wholegrain flour and make up to the total 1.57 KG weight with organic strong white bread flour. If you go too high with the seeds or wholemeal in the mix, and so have less white flour, it’s trickier to get a lighter feel.
Add to this weight about half a heaped teaspoonful, or about 3 gm of salt (this is about a fifth of what many recipes would include for this amount of flour – but we aim for a lower salt diet), and then for a few years I’ve added a generous sprinkling of dry rosemary leaves. I used to add caraway seeds, but prefer the subtle rosemary flavour which this creates in the bread.
In a small pan cut about a quarter off a normal block of butter, add 5 tablespoons of olive oil, and 2 heaped dessertspoons of black treacle. Gently heat and stir occasionally until the butter and treacle have all melted.
Now add the weighed flour mix to the yeast mixture in the large bowl and begin to stir in. As it becomes a drier mix, add in the milk/butter/treacle mix, and stir a bit more. Finally rinse the butter/oil pan with the remaining milk and add this to the dough bowl. At this stage the aim is to just try to incorporate most of the flour into the liquid – remember the point about the gluten in the flour needing to be hydrated. It’ll look and feel like a sticky, stodgy, uneven mess at this stage. If it’s a warm evening, then leave the bowl somewhere cooler until just before bedtime, having covered the bowl again with a damp tea towel. This equates to a “sponging” period, which some recipes mention, but never seem to explain why you do it. Now you know! But this lasts for a couple of hours or so…
Then begin the first kneading. Initially work again with the spoon to mix in all the ingredients a bit more, but you’ll soon need to abandon the spoon and use your hand. I mix with my right hand, and rotate the bowl gradually with the left.
Hopefully the time lapse gives an idea. Initially it’ll be really very sticky, but try to resist adding more flour until you’ve worked the dough for about 10 minutes. By then you should start to notice it becoming a bit less sticky and more dough like. If it’s still really sticky, you can add in a little more flour (a tablespoon at a time) and keep going. You can repeat this additional flour a couple of times if necessary. Should the dough seem too dry after this initial kneading, which is unlikely if you’ve kept to the rough dry flour ingredient mix outlined above, you could add a little more milk.
Eventually all the sticky dough around the bowl edges will start to come together, or can be scraped into the main dough mass, which by now will be feeling smoother and more elastic. When you’re happy with this, and the whole kneading might take 15 to 20 minutes, cover the bowl again with a damp tea towel and now leave the bowl somewhere as cool as you can overnight. Sometimes I leave it in the car, sometimes on the floor by a door – it’s unlikely you’d fit it a big bowl like this in a fridge though that would be an option.
Early the next morning the dough will have risen nicely, though if it’s been really chilly it might not have risen that much – in this case place the bowl somewhere warmer for a few hours, until the dough has about doubled in size – you don’t want it to over rise, but this is much less likely with these reduced yeast quantities. This cold temperature trick is really to slow things down overnight, so that there’s no danger of the dough significantly over rising while you’re asleep! Sometimes if it’s been really cold overnight, I’ll put the bowl on the cooling stove just to get it going again.
Olive oil, wipe with kitchen towel, and then dust with semolina flour 3 or 4 casseroles (use loaf tins if necessary) and using a sharp knife cut off roughly equal/appropriate chunks of dough, lightly shape into a circular form and place in each casserole. I make a single slash across the top, dust with semolina and cover with a damp tea towel for the secondary rise. How long this second rise takes does depend a lot on ambient temperature – it might just be a couple of hours, but could be 4 or 5. Again the dough seems much more tolerant of over rising – if this were to happen, which in my early years was an occasional problem, then the bread really won’t be as good. With a bit of practice, and getting used to your own casserole shapes, you soon get a feel for what a doubled in size loaf looks like.
In due course, just before cooking, turn on the oven to about 240 degrees C, and when ready to bake, put all the loaves in, and turn the temperature down immediately to 210 degrees C. (We have an electric fan oven) Set the timer for 18 minutes, and at that point open the oven door for about 5 seconds, to speed cooling and then close the door, lower the temperature to 160 degrees C and set the timer for another 20 minutes. This approach gives a nice crust, but avoids it burning, whilst ensuring the loaf gets cooked in the middle.Remove the loaves from the oven, cover with a dry tea towel for a few minutes in their casseroles, then remove the loaves from the casseroles and leave on a cake rack covered with a dry tea towel until cooled. I then quarter and freeze them when completely cool, though Fiona and I always succumb to a fresh slice, to allow quality control, whilst the bread is still warm! It really is just as good when defrosted, provided it’s eaten within 12 hours, and makes great toast too.
I hope you manage to give it a go and enjoy the results as much as we do.
We’ve never eaten so much lovely, slow, handmade food…
In the middle of May, like much of Western Britain, we were hit with a quite hard frost to minus 3 degrees C on 4 consecutive nights up to May 13th. Fortunately with much of the garden surrounded by trees, and our location on a steep hill, the coldest air always sinks to the valley bottom, and severe damage was limited, but for the first time it took out or badly scorched several meadow plants – some yellow rattle, all of the many germinating sycamore seeds, and even some of the very earliest spotted orchid flowers. Mid May isn’t exceptionally late for a frost here, rather that many plants are this year a fortnight or so ahead of where they would normally be thanks to the exceptionally dry sunny spring weather.
The veg garden fared less well, with courgettes, strawberries and squash the worst affected, potatoes getting leaf tips scorched. At least my water bottles, wool mats and enviromesh limited courgette damage to burned off leaves – 10 days later, and they seem to be recovering, and the potatoes were fine. Sadly a third of the squash were terminally damaged, though the others too have recovered The early strawberries, have also perished with typical black fruit centres.
Such is the risk of pressing ahead! At least the well insulated greenhouse has meant that the tomatoes are all fine and going to fruit as early as I’ve managed, with several already opening flowers on fourth trusses, and earliest fruit turning that pale green which preludes real reddening and ripeness.
Around May 18th, I guess like many WordPressers of longstanding, I received an email from HQ informing me that the “classic” editing suite for writing posts and pages was going to be withdrawn as from June 1st, in favour of what is known as a block editor. I was invited to trial the new block editor, only to discover that horror of horrors, I couldn’t return to my tried and trusted format. I know I’m a luddite, but in the midst of the current global crisis, whoever had the bright idea to foist this change, at apparently short notice deserves some sort of award for bad timing. (Perhaps they’ve flagged it up before, but if so it passed me by?) For those readers who don’t use WP, suffice to say that the classic editor is clear, simple and everything is to hand, visible on the screen in front of you.
In contrast the block editor seems to consist largely of a blank screen with a few small unlabelled icons at the periphery. Nothing happens or prompts one as to what to do. It struck me as the equivalent of needing to learn a new language in about 2 weeks from scratch, whilst simultaneously finding the time and energy to produce material for two blogs, at roughly fortnightly intervals. I left an appropriately worded, though somewhat irate comment in response to the WP notification, which I note was not published, though a few from equally exasperated long standing WP’ers were.
I also communicated with a WP “happiness engineer”, who to be fair responded promptly, but after running 4 different blogs at various stages for nearly 10 years now, this whole experience with WP has left me a little jaded. It also coincides with me mulling over an idea I’ve had for some weeks, to work on another big creative project over the next year to 18 months. So my current plan is to reduce the frequency of posts on this site from next month to a maximum of about one per month, and to focus mainly on producing the type of post which I currently generate as a monthly Garden Views Page.
Readers don’t currently get notified about these new pages as they’re published, and so few ever look at them, but each one gives a good summary of what’s been going on here, what’s of interest in the garden, but without the amount of research, thinking, and writing that has typically gone into one of my main posts. Unless I reduce the amount of time I spend on WP output, I just can’t see I’ll ever have enough free mental time and clarity to complete the other project which in anyway is linked to the garden and our time here over recent years…
We’re at that time of year when the upper hay meadow changes daily. Flower heads on the sweet vernal grass develop and extend, golden meadow buttercups appear, white pignut flower heads are focal points. Many more orchids than before are popping up in new places, though some early ones were hit by the mid May frosts. Overall numbers probably haven’t increased that much – many on the steep South slope seem to be struggling to flower, perhaps from the heat and drought? The yellow rattle is widespread but relatively dwarf in most of the field so far, after high germination rates, but poor growing conditions from the last two months of very dry conditions.My favourite hemi parasite meadow plant is lousewort, Pedicularis sylvatica, (below), which flowers early and is such a boon for many bumble bees. The eye is drawn to the pink flowers en masse early on but it’s now drawing to an end. However there’s also much more bird’s-foot trefoil, Lotus corniculatus (BFT) in flower this year than ever before.
All of these plants were introduced as hand collected seed to the meadow over the last 10 years, and it all began with the BFT and yellow rattle. The BFT seed was scattered on this very stony access track margin, below, in full sun, dry conditions, but close to hand to collect seed pods from in subsequent years. The main reason for wanting BFT was that apart from it being a leguminous nitrogen fixer, so natural growth booster for the meadow which hasn’t received any NPK fertiliser or imported muck for over 25 years, it’s also a wonderful nectar source for many insects. Especially B. lapidarius, the Red-tailed bumblebee, below in our meadow, and occasionally honey bees too.
But even more specifically it’s one of the main larval food plants for the Common Blue (CB) Butterfly, Polyommatus icarus. Years ago I’d found CB’s on the margin of a local forestry track where BFT grew in similar harsh conditions and a small CB colony existed. I was enthralled by these delicate summer butterflies, and since envied the significant populations at the National Botanic Garden of Wales. The forestry track site was widened a few years back, and the colony destroyed. Apparently last year according to Butterfly Conservation’s annual monitoring, CB population numbers declined by 54 %.
Back in October 2013, click here, I wrote about how I’d tried to speed up the process and bought some CB larvae on line, in a very disappointing experience. No adults appeared in the following couple of years as far as I was aware, but more recently I have found the occasional adult in the garden, or meadow.
The following day was even better, and as soon as I walked into the meadow I spotted another on the wing, and then almost immediately the bright blue male chased a female, and I was able to get some pretty good video footage of this mating pair, which stayed bonded, at rest and in flight, for probably nearly an hour.
Subsequently I’ve seen several more on most days in the area of meadow with the most BFT, which I’d concentrated by early seed scattering on a very poor thin soil area of hot South facing bank. So in what’s been a great spring for butterfly flight, I hope that they have the chance to create a viable colony here for years to come. This was another mating pair seen a few days later. Up to 7 have been seen in the meadow at the same time, and around the house where much Black Meddick, BM, Medicago lupulina (I think!) another valued nectar source and also larval food plant, grows. A rather tatty female is shown below feeding from the very small yellow flower clusters of BM …
I also wrote in July 2015 about courtship behaviour in some butterflies in July 2015, click here, but can now add that apparently Common Blues don’t engage in any significant courtship as discussed on the excellent “learnaboutbutterflies” website created by the eminent entomologist and photographer Adrian Hoskins.
Even better I’ve just discovered that an amateur British butterfly fan has very recently published a book reviewing recent research and knowledge of butterfly courtship and behaviour, which sounds like a fascinating, though expensive read – I have a birthday coming soon … Courtship and Mating in Butterflies – 30 Dec. 2019
by Raymond J.C. Cannon (Author).With any luck our adult Common Blues will hang around in the benign weather for another week or two, although I fear that the numbers are already dropping off a little in the heat – perhaps they’ve already quickly done their stuff this year, and have passed the baton on through the next generation of eggs. In a good year in the South of the UK one can expect a second generation of adults to emerge in late July and August from eggs being laid currently by the mated females.
So a very long time from picking those early BFT seedpods, scattering the seeds, and repeating the process over the intervening years, but what a thrill, and enough to persuade me back into the meadow for the odd hour this week collecting both Dog’s Violet and Snakeshead Fritillary seed capsules in what will surely be a year of abundant seed setting for many early flowering meadow plants. After all, for those many plants which just drop, or fling their seeds, even hay making will take a long time to distribute seeds around even a modest sized field. And yes, I’m impatient…
And I couldn’t finish without some pictures of Beautiful Demoiselle damselflies, Calopteryx virgo, another exquisite early summer insect, which have staked out territories on our drying stream; the trout which are hanging on in it; and finally courtesy of Fiona having her finger pricked when moving a log prior to a bonfire, finding the first adult hedgehog up here for many years. Apologies for the very poor photo, but at least it’s a physical record…