Like a Rocket – summer glut-busting: wild rocket pesto

Summer days are here at last, and for those of us who grow our own fruit and vegetables, that means the summer gluts are starting, too. Wild rocket is really very easy to grow, which is great, as the sad little plastic salad bags at the supermarket cost a small fortune! Even if you only have space for a window box or a pot on a sunny doorstep, you’re quite likely to be able to grow more of this really punchy, peppery salad leaf than you can bear to eat in salad. Even better, wild rocket is perennial, which means that you only have to plant it once and it will come back, year after year. In the garden of our last house, we ended up with a big clump of wild rocket growing at the edge of the lawn which served us for many years.

A few weeks ago, I transplanted three rather sad looking overwintered plants from an exhausted grow-bag into one of the raised beds in my poly-tunnel. And look what happened!

Wild rocket

There you go, straight away – more rocket than I can possibly eat! And then, I thought – I wonder if I can make pesto with this stuff? It’s punchy, peppery, and in many respects quite like basil, so I was hopeful. A quick search around the internet confirmed my suspicions that it should be possible, so I got picking.

For my batch of pesto, which filled an average-sized jam jar with a little to spare, I used –

  • 120g of freshly picked wild rocket leaves. To give you a rough idea of how much rocket that is, the supermarket packs of rocket leaves are usually between 50g and 70g.
  • Washed & dried rocket3 large cloves of garlic
  • 50g pine kernels, lightly toasted in a dry frying pan
  • 50g good quality parmesan cheese
  • Plenty of good extra virgin olive oil
  • One lemon
  • A pinch of salt

Wash your rocket, removing tougher stems and any flower stalks, and dry it in a salad spinner (or give it a really good shake in a colander with a plate over the top).

You can make this pesto in a pestle and mortar (in fact, it’s my favourite way of making small batches of basil pesto, as you keep closer control over the texture and you’re much less likely to over process) but given the quantities I used my food processor for this batch. First, blitz the garlic cloves with a pinch of salt until they’re finely chopped down. Then add the parmesan, and reduce to crumbs, before adding the pine kernels. Aim to retain some texture in the pine kernels, you’re not trying to purée them!

Once that’s done, add the rocket, a handful at a time, adding some olive oil as you go if the mix gets a bit dry. Aim to retain a little texture in the mix.

Rocket pesto after processing

Once it looks like this, squeeze in the juice of half a lemon, mix well, and add oil until it reaches the texture you prefer. Taste – you’ll find it punchy, peppery, and pungent – and add more lemon juice if you feel it’s needed. You won’t need to add pepper – trust me on this! – but you may want to add a little more salt at this stage, too.

The pesto will store for a few days in a screw-top jar in the refrigerator. Keep the surface covered with a layer of olive oil to prevent oxidation. If you want to store your pesto for longer, you can freeze it in an ice cube tray, and take it out in single-serve portions. How clever is that?

Pesto in jar

Use your rocket pesto any way you would use the basil kind. It’s wonderful stirred through pasta or, particularly, gnocchi. Add a few little dabs to the top of your pizza before baking. Or spread it on burger buns as a punchy, peppery relish.

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The Eurovision Drinking Game – 2016 Edition

It’s Eurovision time again! Where has the time gone? I had almost decided to skip the traditional Eurovision Drinking Game Rules post this year, but Hubby convinced me otherwise. So, somewhat belatedly – sorry folks, I’ve been incredibly busy the last few months – it’s that time again! The 61st Eurovision Song Contest takes place tonight – yes, TONIGHT – May 14th 2016, in Stockholm. <whispers> And this year, I’m going to miss it! The pathos! The tragedy! So I need all you guys to play extra hard on my behalf, OK?

Before we go on, I must pause to welcome our American friends, who for the first time ever can watch Eurovision live on tv! How exciting for you guys! You are, I suspect, going to find the whole thing rather mystifying – don’t worry, just keep drinking, and you’ll find the disorientating effect of the contest itself is rapidly replaced with a soft and comforting dizziness. The Eurovision Song Contest has a long and distinguished history, in much of Western Europe, both as an iconic event in the pantheon of LBGT pride, and as an excuse for an almighty pissed-up party. Inexplicably, some of our Eastern neighbours meanwhile insist on taking the whole thing seriously. Anyway, welcome y’all, join in, and enjoy!

Flags!Like so many good and worthwhile ideas, these rules started life at a university party, well over a decade ago. They have been carefully curated and updated over the years, and play-tested by a number of kind ‘volunteers’, some of whom even recalled enough the next morning to provide helpful feedback and suggestions! So, without further ado, I present to you – The Countryskillsblog.com Eurovision Drinking Game, 2016 Edition.

How to play –

This is a forfeit game. A variety of features of songs and the performances have been selected, and their appearance triggers a drinking forfeit. This is usually (but not always!) ‘take a swig’.

Shot glassesIt’s a really good idea to divide up the countries and songs between your players. Extensive play-testing experience suggests that human beings with normal sized livers (or those who wish to retain them, in any case!) should probably not attempt to play for more than three or four songs each.

You might do this by ballot, draw straws before each song, or adopt some other creative or arcane method of your choice (rolling dice, top trumps, whatever you fancy frankly!). Smaller parties may chose not to allocate a player to every songs. All of the players playing for every song is likely to result in unpleasant consequences, and cannot be recommended!

The Competition –

Begin any song that you are playing with a fully-charged glass.

Certain features of the song and performance trigger a forfeit. These features can appear more than once in a performance (and sadly, often do!) and ‘score’ each time they appear – so the now legendary ‘Bucks Fizz’ skirt removal would represent a single costume change, because it happened in one go, but a song that repeatedly swaps languages or makes major-to-minor-and-back-again key transitions triggers a forfeit on each switch.

Take a drink for each instance of the following:

The song –

  • OrchestraChange of language
  • Change of key (take an extra swig if the key change is so egregiously telegraphed you can see it coming for miles)
  • Change of tempo
  • Wordless lyrics (da dum da, mana mana mana, lalalala)

The performer, costume and performance –

Folk Dancers

  • Folk costume
  • Folk instrument
  • Folk dance
  • Weapons (with an extra-big swig if they’re ‘folk’ weapons – axes, pitchforks, flaming torches etc)
  • Uniforms – military & civil (including costume references to same – epaulettes, insignia, military-looking hats and suchlike).
  • ‘Game of Thrones’ costume or set references.
  • Office wear, three-piece-suits
  • Dubious uniformsFlags, banners, national symbols
  • Pyrotechnics (take an extra big swig for the falling-curtain-of-fire effect)
  • Smoke, fog, wind machine
  • Costume change
  • Bare feet, bare torsos
  • Underwear as outerwear, ‘nude’ body-suits
  • Spandex, lurex, sequins
  • Leather, rubber, PVC, bondage wear
  • LEDs or other lighting incorporated into costumes
  • Fur, feathers, wings
  • Feather BoaTrapeze or wire-work
  • Magic, circus themes
  • Booby Prize – ‘Uncanny Valley’ The appearance of an animated human or human-like avatar triggers the booby prize. Players should immediately down the remains of their drink.

The half-time performance (or the ‘Riverdance’ slot) –

The host country puts on a performance on during the ‘voting gap’. Everyone plays for this segment, using the same forfeit list as for the songs.

Bottles and bottles

Voting –

The voting round should be considered advanced play, and may be unsuitable for novice players or those with a delicate constitution. These rules are intentionally kept simple. They need to be, by this time in the evening!

  • Before each set of results are announced, everyone guesses where the 12 points are going. If anyone gets this right, those who got it wrong take a swig.
  • ‘Booby Prize’ – Everyone downs their drink if the presenter gets the country they’re speaking to wrong, calls the national representative by the wrong name, or gets their pronunciation corrected by the national representative.

Well, that’s all, folks! Have fun at your Eurovision parties, and if you do decide to try these rules, please do comment here or tweet me @CountrySkills. Do please share widely – everyone needs a bit of Eurovision fun in their lives!

And remember, please drink responsibly (*ahem!*), and definitely don’t drink and drive, attempt DIY, deep fat frying, change important passwords or operate heavy machinery. Finally, your hangover is your problem, not mine, so don’t come crying to me in the morning!

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Hugh’s on the Warpath – but is bin-shaming really the way to tackle food waste?

Last night the indefatigable Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall launched onto British television screens with a new crusade, ‘Hugh’s War On Waste’. After taking aim in previous campaigns at factory farming of poultry and against the practice of discarding fish catches at sea, this time his target is the vast scale of food waste in our homes and in the supermarket supply chain.

Let me start by saying, first of all, that I completely agree with Hugh’s view that food waste (and waste generally in our society, whether that’s disposable fashion or indiscriminate upgrading to the latest electronic gadget) is a disgrace. Perfectly edible food is wasted in the supermarket supply chain, downgraded for failing to meet the ‘Stepford Vegetable’ cosmetic standards the supermarkets insist that the British Housewife demands, or thrown in a skip when past the sell-by date. The food that makes it home with us is scarcely better off, discarded from our kitchens by the bag-full, whether this is misguidedly premature, led by confusion about food safety advice and the best-before date conundrum, or genuinely putrid, neglected and forgotten in the back of our fridges and the bottom of our fruit bowls, the victim of overbuying and poor meal planning.

Processed meat selectionThese two things, it seems to me, are very different problems; I think naming and shaming supermarkets (and other food businesses) for abusive contracts and wasteful supply chain practices is entirely worthwhile – they’ve shown that they don’t like having daylight shone on their dodgier business practices in the past – and has potential not just to reduce waste, but also to improve the situation of their farm suppliers, but I’m not all sure that rooting through people’s wheely bins on telly and shaming them for throwing away food is likely to have any useful effect on waste from homes.

Why? Well, people throw away food essentially for one reason – because they believe it’s ‘off’, and not good to eat.

Sometimes they’re right, as the hairy, slimy green peppers that I occasionally discover at the back of my fridge bear witness. But often they’re mistaken – much the food being discarded from kitchens is perfectly sound and being discarded on a precautionary basis by worried families without the food knowledge to tell the difference or the cooking skills to make great meals from ‘bits and bobs’ or ingredients which may be past their best, but remain perfectly edible.

People up aren’t throwing away edible food because they’re stupid, thoughtless, or enjoy throwing money away. They’re wasting food because they’re afraid of it. And the reason they’re afraid of it is, fundamentally, because of a huge gap in food skills that has developed in this country (and, I suspect, in many countries in the developed world).

Young adults in the UK today, if they’re unlucky, could be two generations away from the last person in their family who regularly cooked at home from fresh ingredients. Their grandmothers will have entered the workplace during WW2, and in many families, never left it afterwards. The war years with food rationing would have been inconceivably difficult, and the advent in post war years, first of domestic freezers, and then  of ready meals, would have seemed an incredible boon to these working families. As a result, many baby-boomers grew up in households where meals were rarely if ever cooked from scratch and their children, in turn, are now raising families of their own, stripped of the skills and knowledge that their grandmothers would have taken for granted, and with no obvious way of bridging the gap. It isn’t a matter of money, class, or even of general education, but rather a family-by-family lottery.

People I’ve known and worked with over the years illustrate this issue vividly. Lovely, intelligent ladies, all, and half a generation older than me for the most part. One refused to have anything in her fridge that wasn’t a sealed packet – anything, once opened and not consumed, was thrown away. My enquiries about leftovers were met with a look that I can only describe as alarm. Another fed herself, and her family, almost entirely on take-aways and what she called ‘ping-meals’ (microwave ready meals). Any jar she opened was labelled in permanent marker with the opening date and disposed of no more than seven days later – including very stable foods like jams and chutneys. Another admitted – and readers who grow their own veg might want to look away now – to furtively disposing of vegetables given to her by her allotment gardening neighbour, because they were ‘dirty, and had holes in’.

I genuinely don’t know how we solve this problem – but until we do, no amount of telling people it’s wrong to throw out food is going to make them eat something they suspect will harm them – quite probably wrongly, but nevertheless, or that they can’t see how to make into a meal. The lady with the bacon and eggs, shamed by Hugh into taking them back inside, is not, I suspect, going to eat them, no matter what she’s told. This skills gap, of course, has implications for problems beyond waste, including, most obviously, on heath.

I was incredibly lucky to have a grandmother who taught me a lot – not just about food and cooking, but in her attitude to life. Grandma, like many of her generation, considered wasting food to be almost sinful – I do wonder how we’ve come so far from this view now that we so often think of it as a normal part of life!

In the meantime, here are my top five tips for reducing kitchen food waste –

1) Buy the smallest fridge you can survive with, and the largest freezer you can find space for. And freezer baskets.

This makes sense when you think of how much perishable food goes into fridges only to be pushed to the back, forgotten, and allowed to go rotten. We have a much smaller fridge here in Cornwall than at our old house, not, initially, by choice. But by reducing the amount of fresh food we can keep to a couple of days worth of meat or fish and less than a week’s worth of green vegetables, we have dramatically reduced the amount of it that gets a chance to become inedibly past it’s best before we manage to eat it.

Sliced lemon and lime, bagged for freezingA big freezer gives you the capacity to freeze anything that you’re not going to get the chance to eat before it goes off, as well as freezing leftovers into home-made ready meals for later use. It also means you can keep a good variety of frozen vegetables which are a great, healthy, and low-waste alternative to perishable fresh vegetables.

Having access to a large freezer also means you can buy in bulk when you get the chance, and save money – but always remember to break large packs into sensible sizes before freezing – in our house packs of four chicken thighs are much more useful than trays of 20! But things can easily disappear into the back or bottom of large freezers, not to be seen for years – freezer baskets and a spot of organisation are essential to keep your frozen foods accessible and easy to find.

2) Don’t buy fresh meat, fish and vegetables from the supermarket. Definitely don’t buy ‘prepared’ vegetables.

Supermarkets sell fresh, perishable produce in pack sizes to suit themselves, not you. Then they often price them – with the help of 3-for-2 style offers – to encourage shoppers to take more home than they bargained for. The extra food may seem like a good deal, but unless it’s thoughtfully frozen, it will often end up going uneaten and ending up in the bin.

In addition to this, fresh fruit and veggies in supermarkets have sat in their supply chains for an awfully long time, far longer than you might expect in some cases – apples are stored in temperature controlled, oxygen-free warehouses which dramatically slows their deterioration, but that process cracks right on with a vengeance just as soon as the produce emerges from their enforced hibernation. Fruit and veg ‘fresh’ from the supermarket shelves often just doesn’t keep the way you’d expect.

Prepared fruit and veg – trimmed beans, peeled apples, diced mangoes, and the worst offenders of all, washed and bagged salads and stir-fry mixes – are some of the worst culprits in the food waste stakes. Despite the ‘protective atmospheres’ that these products are packed in, peeling, dicing, slicing and shredding vegetables dramatically reduces their shelf life (take two apples, slice one in two, leave the other whole, and stick them both in the fridge for a few days if you don’t believe me) making them much more likely to go to waste. And that’s without even considering the huge amount of packaging waste that also results from ‘prepared’ products.

A final reason not to buy fresh produce from supermarkets, is that their purchasing practices are pretty universally awful, full of waste and focused on supply-chain characteristics and cosmetic appearance far above flavour or nutrition.

So what are the alternatives? Well, find your local butcher and fishmonger, and buy from them. You’ll be able to get exactly what you want, in exactly the quantity you want – the quality will almost certainly be better than the supermarket, the butcher will likely be able to tell you about their origins, and you won’t end up paying over the odds, either. As for fruit & veggies your local grocer, if you have one, is ideal. That way, you can buy what you want, when you want. Veg boxes are great, but require a flexible approach to cooking and a willingness to try new things depending on what arrives in your box, so if this doesn’t honestly describe you, they may not be the right answer.

3) Meal planning

I admit, I’m bad at this one! But if you’re the organised, list-making type, it can save a lot of waste, not to mention a lot of money! If you can’t manage that, then try to keep a close eye on the contents of your fridge, bearing in mind what you’re going to eat today, and tomorrow. If there’s anything perishable in there that you’re not planning to eat in the next day or two, consider freezing it now – you can always defrost it again if you change your mind!

Not every food in your fridge will lend itself to freezing, but most will if you learn a trick or two. Meat and fish will usually freeze fine as it is. Milk, cream, butter and cheese, incidentally, can also be frozen – cream will often need to be whipped after defrosting, but is absolutely fine for cooking with. Vegetables often won’t freeze straight from fresh, but many will freeze really well after simple cooking such as dicing and roasting in the oven, or par-boiling.

4) Make and grow your own

I know this may seem impractical if you’re short on time and space, but even if you only grow a few salad leaves, some fresh herbs, or a single strawberry plant in a sunny window box, there’s something transformative about growing your own food.

Once you’ve planted the seed, cared for it, and watched it grow and ripen with anticipation, the idea of letting it go to waste is almost inconceivable. I go to great lengths to make sure I use every last thing I grow in my garden and polytunnel – freezing, pickling and preserving what I can’t use fresh – because the idea of wasting any of it makes me feel awful. That feeling can’t help but extend itself to food I buy, which, after all, has been grown with care and attention by someone else.

Tear & enjoyThe same principle extends to baking your own bread – one of the most wasted items in our kitchens. Once you’ve made your own glorious fresh loaf, believe me, it won’t be wasted. And you’ll go off the spongy supermarket rubbish pretty sharpish, too!

5) Up-skill!

Take every opportunity to improve your food and cooking skills and knowledge. I don’t mean by watching celebrity chefs on telly – that’s just sight-seeing. And you don’t need to go to expensive masterclasses or kitchen-school weekends.

Indian kebabs, servedKeen cooks are usually keen to share what they know – just look at the number of food bloggers out there! They will exist amongst your friends, your family, and your colleagues, so why not ask if you can cook with them? Perhaps there’s something else you can offer to teach them in return?

Practice. Experiment. Buy a few good cookbooks. And seize any opportunity to learn from others – from your grandparents, if they’re still with you, and other peoples’ Grannies, should the opportunity arise. Seek out older members of your family and learn what you can about your family food traditions. You never know, you may learn about a lot more than food!

Have you got any top tips on reducing food waste at home? Any bright ideas on how to close the food-skills gap? What do you think of Hugh’s approach to solving the food waste problem? Please comment below!

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Little Crifts Cottage – Raising the Roof

Little Crifts Cottage, Cornwall

What a difference a fortnight can make!

Site webcam from Monday 14 SeptemberLast Wednesday morning, less than three weeks ago, the cottage consisted of completed foundations, a block and beam floor, and a single course of block-work marking out the internal and external walls.

This was a little frustrating, as we had been anticipating that the wall panels would arrive on site and start to be assembled on Tuesday.

The walls in question had in fact appeared, as scheduled, on the back of a lorry on Tuesday morning. But despite the hauliers promising that their lorry would definitely fit through our narrow entrance and over the cattle grid… Well, it didn’t – and wasn’t going to, at least not without us demolishing our neighbour’s fence. Late in the afternoon one of our friendly local farmers kindly came to save us with a tractor and a bale handler, and at least the panels were finally safely…

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Little Crifts Cottage – finding our footings

Little Crifts Cottage, Cornwall

After discussions with Mark, our architect, and Ellie, our project manager from the timber frame company, we decided on an approach which would both minimise the number of heavy vehicles which needed access to the site, and which reduced the amount of concrete being poured or otherwise assembled into the ground to an absolute minimum. These priorities came from pragmatism (our access is a bit narrow, and shared with our neighbours – it was important to minimise damage to the drive and above all nuisance to our neighbours) and also out of our desire wherever possible to make environmentally responsible choices.

Digging the trenches

We hoped to minimise excavations; thankfully the building regulations inspector came and peered into our relatively shallow foundation trenches and was content with what he found there – a subsoil commonly found locally known as ‘shillet’, made up of broken up soft slate and shale. This meant we could get on…

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Little Crifts Cottage – clearing the ground

Little Crifts Cottage, Cornwall

The old barn, sadly, was a hopeless case, timbers rotten through and barely held together by the equally rusted corrugated panels. It’s been some time since we’ve been happy to step inside it for any length of time, and I’m quite surprised that last winter’s storms didn’t do for it completely – they did however leave some quite impressive gaping holes, and, what with the increasingly obvious double-pitch roof ‘feature’, it was clear that the structure was becoming increasingly unsafe and something had to be done to deal with it.

The old barn
On one of the warmest days of the year, at the end of June, some good friends came to give us a hand to take the barn down. In the end, the old building put up surprisingly little resistance, the rotten timbers came away more or less painlessly at ground level after we removed the corrugated metal, eventually leaving just…

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And Now For Something Completely Different – are you an aspiring smallholder?

One of the nice things about writing a blog is that people email you out of the blue from time to time to say nice things about it. Often they want to sell you something, of course, but isn’t that the Internet all over? Anyway, today I got a message from Eve White, who works in programme development at the BBC; as well as being ever so nice about the blog, she wondered if I knew anyone who might be able to help them out finding a family to participate in a programme they’re making.

Now, this isn’t really the kind of blog where I’d normally post this sort of request, but I just have sneaky suspicion that this might suit some of my lovely readers here down to the ground – so, if you’re considering taking on a smallholding or wanting to take bigger steps towards a self sufficient lifestyle, listen up, this may be for you!

Copied below is Eve’s email to me and her contact details. Please contact her directly, if you’re interested in participating, as she won’t be checking comments here!


My name is Eve and I work in the programme development team in BBC Bristol. We’re looking at a new daytime programme idea featuring Paul Martin (antiques expert who presents the BBC1 show ‘Flog It!’ – but also happens to be a smallholder) whereby families thinking of leaving behind the urban life for a new one in the countryside try their hand at smallholding challenges at Paul’s home.

It might be that you and your family have always dreamt of giving everything up to move to your own piece of land in the countryside, or that you’ve climbed the career ladder for long enough and want the chance to become self-sufficient, or that being a smallholder has always been pushed aside in the face of the reality of your day-to-day lives.

We are looking to film what’s known as a taster tape – a short preview film to give a flavour of how the programme might look and feel – with Paul and a family who are considering this change of lifestyle in around two weeks time. This isn’t for broadcast, but will help show our commissioners the potential for a brand new series for BBC1. This will involve a bit of filming with you to find out more about why you’d like to leave the rat race and move to the country, and some hands-on practical smallholding challenges at Paul’s farm in the south west.

We’re looking to film in about two weeks time on the 21st September, so you’d need to be available then.

If you think you and your family might be up for the challenge, or have somebody in mind who you would recommend, please get in touch via my email address eve.white@bbc.co.uk and I will respond as promptly as possible.


So, if that sounds like you, and you fancy the experience of TV without the stress of actually ending up on the box, why not drop Eve a line?

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Little Crifts Cottage – how the story began

If you were wondering what we’ve been up to lately… It’s this!

Little Crifts Cottage, Cornwall

In June of 2014, a little over a year ago, we arrived in our new home in North Cornwall, just outside the lovely moorland village of Altarnun. The move to this beautiful part of the world is something that we had spoken about doing for many years, though in truth we rather suspected it might need to wait for our retirement! But life had other ideas, and when some kind Whitehall bureaucrat decided that they needed a high speed rail line to Birmingham, and that this line – the HS2 high speed railway – would be going straight through the garden of our pretty Northamptonshire cottage, it was time to take things into our own hands, and take the plunge.

The old barn

We were incredibly lucky to find a home on the very edge of Bodmin Moor, one of Cornwall’s wild beauty spots and an AONB, tucked away but within easy reach of the…

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Sourdough Saga: Episode 8 – semi-sourdough baguettes

It’s difficult to believe that it’s over three years since sourdough baking became a regular part of our life and our diet, back in May 2012. I predicted at the time that life would never be quite the same again and, in a variety of small ways, that’s definitely true. A lot has changed in our lives since then, but home baking has remained a constant despite upheavals and long working hours. We make a mix of sourdough and traditionally-yeasted breads at home, and they’re all wonderful in their own ways; the bar is set very high for bought breads and when time precludes home-baking, we’re inevitably disappointed by what we can buy in the shops.

Fresh from the oven

Bread can seem like such a small, inconsequential thing, a cheap commodity which requires very little consideration. But good bread – really good bread – is a thing of great joy, not an afterthought but the crowning glory of a meal, or even a meal in itself. Still warm from the oven, with wonderful cornish unsalted butter melting into the crumb, I wonder if there is any more satisfying food in the world?

My wholemeal sourdough starter, ‘Seymore’, continues to thrive, and in some sense procreated last year when I started the process of converting a batch of starter to white flour. Each white flour feed progressively shifted the proportions and the starter is now 100% white. I find the white starter raises white loaves quite a bit more effectively than the wholemeal one did (presumably because the balance of microbes within it is already adapted to using white flour as a food source), so now like raises like – Seymore has an outing when I’m baking wholemeal or spelt, and the new white starter makes a quite wonderful, airy and chewy 100% white sourdough loaf.

A year or more ago, I had a hankering for home-made baguette. Initial experiments and trials with recipes in my cookbook library were all rather disappointing – they produced baguette-shaped loaves, but lacked not just the flavour, but also the crumb and the chewy, toothsome, slightly elastic crust of a genuine French loaf. French cookbooks, of course, were no use whatsoever – no French housewife in her right mind bakes her own bread, when there’s still a traditional ‘boulangerie’ in almost every village and on almost every street corner.

So I kept reading, and asking questions, and stumbled upon Paul Hollywood’s recipe from his pre-TV ‘100 Great Breads’ book, which begins with an overnight sponge, much like my everyday sourdough loaf. A bake through of his recipe produced one of the worst-behaved doughs I have ever worked with, but also gave me the best results to date. But it was still most definitely lacking ‘something’ in the flavour and texture departments. The sponge step, though, gave me an idea – what if I incorporated some of my white sourdough starter into the mix? Might that add, not just the complex savoury flavour that was lacking, but also the chewy elasticity to the crust? I had to experiment.

A year of trials later, I have a process that, while it’s not a ‘novice bake’, works very well and reliably for me, and as a bonus, can even be baked the same day you start if you forget to start the sponge the night before baking. It’s a ‘hybrid’ bread, making use of both the sourdough starter and of bakers’ yeast (much as many commercial loaves labelled as ‘sourdough’ do!). And while the results can sometimes look a little ‘wobbly’ and rustic, they have every bit of the flavour and characteristics of the loaves I enjoyed for my breakfast on a visit to Paris back in March. Torn in half, with unsalted butter and jam and a big mug of coffee, I challenge you to find a better everyday breakfast.

Of course, you can bake these loaves without the sourdough starter – you’ll be baking something like Paul Hollywood’s original recipe, and it’s not bad, but it’s just not the same!

To make these semi-sourdough baguettes, you will require –

  • Ingredients200g of 100% hydration white sourdough starter (that is, made up of 100g of flour and 100g of water), which has been ‘fed’ within the last 24hours. You’ll need to adjust the quantities of ingredients if your starter is balanced differently.
  • 400g of French bread flour (you can use British-style strong white bread flour, but the texture and flavour aren’t quite right; you’re going to a fair bit of trouble for these loaves, so it’s worth tracking down the good stuff!)
  • 200ml of water at room temperature (or gently lukewarm on a cold day or when short of time)
  • 1tsp or a 7g sachet of dried instant yeast
  • 1tsp salt (this is my personal preference – recipes often double this quantity)
  • 50g of softened unsalted butter
  • Oil for kneading, and
  • Semolina for dusting the baking sheet

Make up the overnight spongeIdeally the night before, combine the 200g of starter with 100g of flour and 200ml of water, add the spoonful of instant yeast, and combine to create a thin batter. A whisk can be helpful. Cover with cling-film and set aside overnight, or, if you’re not that organised, for at least an hour and more if possible.

The overnight sponge after mixingThe loaves will work fine with the shorter resting period but you’re inevitably sacrificing some flavour from the longer, slower fermentation. After resting, there should be some bubbles rising to the surface of your batter (more if you’ve left it overnight).

Roughly mix the dough and allow to restNow add the remaining 300g of flour, the salt and the softened (melted is fine) butter, and combine to make what will be a very soft, wet dough. Before kneading, just let it sit in the bowl for about half an hour to allow the flour grains to absorb as much as possible of the moisture and help the gluten start to set up.

Dough during kneadingTip the dough onto a well oiled worktop, scraping out any that sticks to the bowl, and knead it for at least 10 minutes. It will be very sticky to start with, but this will improve to some extent with working. Try to resist adding extra flour unless absolutely essential, and if you do, add a very little at a time. This is never going to be an easy dough to work, you’re aiming to get it just on the right side of ‘impossible’. Working it with plenty of oil will reduce its tendency to stick to things other than itself, and avoids changing the hydration with flour from surfaces being incorporated into the dough.

Form a ball and allow to riseOnce the dough is well kneaded, form a ball and set aside in a well oiled bowl, loosely covered with plastic or a tea towel to retain moisture, until it has at least doubled in size.

Divide risen dough into threeNow, turn the dough out onto a well-oiled worktop and divide it into three as evenly as you can, but without faffing about (no grabbing a bit from here and sticking it onto there). You’ll see recipes instructing you to ‘roll the dough out into a baguette shape’, but don’t, ok? What you’ll get it you do that is a stodgy, even-textured dough shaped like a baguette (much as you get from most UK supermarkets, sadly). If you want the stretched curst and almost concentric-structured crumb of a genuine baguette, you need to form the shape properly. I got the clue I needed, oddly, from a TV travel show about Paris, where they popped into a boulangerie, and there in the background, when I paused and re-wound the programme, was a guy making baguettes. This way is rather fiddly, but it works!

First, find your widest, shallowest-sided baking sheet, and dust it generously with semolina. This will stop the dough sticking, and provides the characteristic ‘crunch’ to the base.

Shaped loaves on baking sheetTake each piece of dough, and fold two edges towards the centre. Without turning the dough, do this again and again in the same direction until you have quite a tight ‘cylinder’ with a centre seam on top, which will be about a third or half the length it needs to be. Now stretch out the cylinder lengthwise, gently, trying to keep the diameter even all the way along. Turn the baguette over so that it’s seam-side down, and tidy in the ends by tucking under into the traditional point if you can, though don’t worry if the ends are a bit dumpy. Tuck the sides under along the length of the loaf using a dough scraper, if you have one, and then, quickly so that it doesn’t sag, transfer the loaf to the baking sheet.

This takes some practice and your first baguettes will probably be rather funny shapes. But don’t worry – it’s not at all important! The process is a bit tricky to describe (I wonder if I should try and get a video of me shaping a loaf?) but hopefully should make sense once you’re doing it.

You could just as easily quarter your dough and make four shorter baguettes; arrange them across the baking sheet rather than along, if you prefer littler loaves. The smaller loaves are obviously easier to handle, so it may make sense to start that way.

Cook-shops will sell you shaped baking sheets with rounded bottoms for baking baguettes on, and that will give you the characteristic rounded base – baking on a flat sheet will obviously give you a flat bottom, though as the dough springs up in the oven it’s often less obvious than you might expect. I’ve tried quite hard to avoid acquiring clutter and kitchen gadgets during my home baking experiments, and actually I find most of the time you can do perfectly well without them!

Cover and allow to riseCover your shaped loaves (I have a large sheet of polythene that I use to form a tent over them) and leave to rise for at least an hour or until at least doubled in size. Now set your oven to pre-heat at its highest temperature.

Slash the risen loaves along their lengthOnce the oven is up to temperature, uncover your loaves, and very quickly using your sharpest knife, slash diagonally along the length. I find two slashes per loaf works best, overlapping over the centre third to half of the loaf. If you hesitate at this stage, your loaves will deflate a lot, so be quick and decisive, and get the loaves straight into the oven.

Turn the baking sheet at least once to help the loaves bake evenly. You may find they need as little as 20 minutes in all – they’re done once the crust is a lovely deep golden to mid brown colour and the loaves feel crispy and sound hollow underneath. Remove them from the oven then and set to cool on a wire rack.

Tear & enjoy

Once they’re (almost!) cool, rip into one. I love to tear rather than slicing my baguette, it makes the most of the wonderful texture of the crust and crumb. Enjoy as the Parisiens do, with unsalted butter and jam for breakfast, or as the ultimate versatile sandwich loaf. Who wants one of those nasty stodgy ‘subs’?

Enjoy with unsalted butter

I would really love to know how you get on with this recipe, so please please come and tell me how it works out for you, by leaving a comment here or tweeting me @CountrySkills!

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No Weigh! – the bake-anywhere, traveller’s loaf

On holiday in self catering accommodation, staying in hostels, on a campsite, or even visiting family or friends, have you ever felt the urge to bake a lovely fresh loaf of bread only to discover that a key piece of equipment – usually a set of scales, or a measuring jug – is missing? I may be a bit odd, but I’ve even been known to go out and buy the missing piece of kit just to get my loaf baked! Since then, I’ve given the question some thought, done a few experiments, and so today I’m going to share with you my ‘no weigh’, measurement free, (nearly!) foolproof loaf recipe that you can bake very nearly anywhere, with almost no kitchen equipment.

Sliced, warm from the oven.

To make this loaf, the bare minimum equipment you require is –

  • A flat work surface or large chopping board
  • A teaspoon
  • Some sort of a liquid container (a pint glass or mug is ideal)
  • Something to bake your loaf on or in (a roasting tray, a pie tin, or whatever)
  • An oven (if you’re camping, you can even bake bread in a dutch oven, though you’ll need to adapt the process a little)

If you can also lay your hands on any of the following, it will make things a little easier –

  • A mixing bowl
  • Spatula or dough scraper
  • A plastic bag or tea towel
  • A sharp knife

And now the ingredients –

  • IngredientsStrong white bread flour
  • Dried instant yeast (a sachet, or from a pot)
  • Table salt
  • Water
  • Cooking oil (a light-flavoured olive oil is ideal, but whatever comes to hand)

Just a quick note first on difficulty – because this recipe depends, essentially, on judging the ‘feel’ of the dough to get the proportions right, complete novice bakers may struggle with this approach; but you don’t need to be an expert baker – if you’ve made a few loaves before, and have a sense of what a good dough should feel like, this technique will hopefully work well for you!

So, time to begin.

Make a well in the flourCheck how much flour is in your packet (standard packs of UK flour are usually 1.5kg but can be 1kg or even 3kg) and tip your best guess at 500g into your bowl or on to the work surface. Make a well in the centre, and add a heaped teaspoon of instant yeast (or a whole 7g sachet) and a teaspoon of salt. I tend to add the yeast to the well and the salt to the side.

It’s useful if you have an approximate idea of the volume of your liquid container. (You’re likely to need about half a pint of water, or a little over.) Fill your glass or mug with lukewarm water and add it a little at a time to the well in your flour, mixing as you go. If you’re using a work surface rather than a bowl you are, I’m afraid, likely to make rather a mess, so do use a mixing bowl if you have access to one. Salad bowls or other serving bowls can make a good substitute.

Form a sticky doughKeep adding water until all the flour is incorporated into your dough and the texture is a bit stickier than you really think it ought to be. The dough at this stage ought to be a bit tricky to work with and glue itself to everything. The reason for getting it to this stage is to make sure that the dough isn’t under-hydrated, as this is is the main cause of stodgy, disappointing loaves which don’t rise properly.

Dough after kneadingPour a generous glug of oil over your dough and work surface and start to knead the dough in the oil. Add more oil every if the dough gets sticky again. The process of kneading will mix the moisture evenly through your dough and you may well find the dough stops being excessively sticky just through the kneading process. But if you’ve been kneading for ten minutes or so and the dough is still too sticky, add an extra sprinkle of flour. Go gently with the flour, though, as I find it always needs less than it seems to get the texture of the dough nice and silky.

Cover with whatever you have to handOnce you’re happy with your dough, and it’s well kneaded, form it into a ball, oil it well, and set it aside in an oiled bowl if you have one (or leave it on the worktop). Cover the dough loosely – a supermarket plastic bag is ideal, or use cling film if you have it, or a tea towel, or anything else that comes to hand! Set aside to rise until the dough at least doubles in size.

Doubled doughOnce the dough has doubled (which may take as little as an hour, but could take quite a bit longer in cold conditions – be patient and don’t rush this bit!) turn the dough out onto an oiled surface.

Turn dough outNow, very gently, form it into a bloomer shape. I’m going to stress the ‘gently’ bit again, because it’s very tempting to get stuck in and almost re-knead the dough at this stage, and that’s not what you want to do at all. You’ll hear a lot of talk of ‘knocking back’ dough, but you’ll lose a lot of the air in the dough just in the shaping process.

Formed bloomerTo form a bloomer (the shape you want for a bread tin is very similar), I fold both long ends towards the middle, then rotate the dough 90 degrees and do the same from the side. Then I turn the dough seam-side down and tuck the sides and ends under neatly. That’s it. No kneading, no bashing, just some gentle folding. You can form a round cob loaf by bringing the edges into the centre until you form make a general round, before turning the loaf over seam-down and tucking the bottom under neatly.

Dust your baking sheet well with flour and place the bloomer in the centre of it. If you’re using a tin (or tin-substitute) I would oil or butter it first before dusting well with flour. Dust the top of your loaf with flour too, and put it back under loose cover somewhere warm for another hour or so.

Well-risen bloomerWhen the loaf is well risen, pre-heat your oven as hot as it will go. Take the cover off your loaf, and cut a straight slash down the centre with a sharp knife if you have one (or a more creative pattern, if you fancy!) and pop it straight into the centre of the oven.

The loaf will probably take around 30 minutes to bake, but this will depend on the quirks of the oven, which you probably aren’t familiar with, so take a first look around 20 minutes and then keep your eye on things pretty closely. If you happen to have access to a wood fired pizza oven, you can even use this – just remember that these tend to run very hot so baking times will be quite a lot shorter! Turn the loaf once or twice to avoid any hot spots in the oven baking the loaf unevenly, or even burning it.

The loaf is ready when the top is dark golden and crispy, and the base sounds hollow when tapped. If in doubt, put it back for 5 minutes – over-baking a loaf a a little is never a disaster – it just increases the thickness and crispiness of the crust – whereas an under-cooked stodgy middle is decidedly disappointing. If you have an oven rack to hand, set it to cool on this.

Fresh from the oven

There you go – a no-weigh, no-measure, home made, very tasty rustic white loaf, that you really can make almost anywhere you can get your hands on a few very basic ingredients & equipment. No excuse for rubbish bread this summer, then. Enjoy!

What did I do with mine?

Cucumber sandwich time!

Well, it was late lunch when it came out of the oven, so I sliced it, still warm (I know, but it’s irresistible, right?) and made an old-fashionned but wonderful cucumber sandwich with one of our home-grown cucumbers, harvested yesterday evening from the polytunnel. A little taste of summer heaven!

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