Unprocessed Lent – a food challenge

I’ve been thinking for some time about giving up processed foods – at least as an experiment. The time has never seemed right, but with Spring on the way, and Lent around the corner, it seemed a very Lenten sort of exercise in food discipline.

Hang on, what do you mean by processed food?

When I’ve discussed this idea with friends in the past, one question arises, sooner or later. ‘What do you consider to be processed? I mean, all cooked food is processed. Even flour is processed!’ And this is a very fair question. Everything apart from raw fruit, vegetables, meat and fish has been processed to some extent – arguably, even those have, unless you start with a live chicken or dig the potato from the ground yourself.

unprocessed-lent_7What I’ve tried to do is construct a logical ‘traffic light’ system that categorises foods purely by their degree of processing. I’m not making any moral judgement here, or asserting that one category of foods is healthier, better, or more environmentally sound than any other. This isn’t by any means a ‘clean eating’ thing (I think that’s a rather pernicious fad, and well past it’s sell-by date). It’s purely a list of categories sorted by – if you’ll forgive the expression – increasing ‘buggered-aboutness’.

There are definitely other criteria that we might want to be considering, as thoughtful, ethical consumers, and I refer to some of these in the annotations to the categories. They will colour the degree to which I’m inclined to be militant about the degree of processing. For instance, freezing, drying, and canning foods – all undoubtedly forms of processing – significantly increase the shelf life and preserve the nutritional value of foods, reduce food waste, and allow us access to fresh produce all year around without needing it to be flown half way around the globe. I would rather eat frozen peas or tinned tomatoes in February than fresh ones flown in from Kenya or produced in an artificially lit and heated glasshouse somewhere.

I’m not making an argument here that additives / preservatives / flavourings and so on are necessarily and axiomatically bad (though many undoubtedly are) – just that they are more likely to disappear invisibly into certain sorts of food than others, along with trans fats, invert sugar syrups, and artificial sweeteners, and I like to know what’s on my plate. For me, the most worrying thing about the 21st century food chain is that it introduces black boxes, and unknowns, into what we’re eating. When food is a commodity, we lose touch with our food and our farmers. As a planet, we have never been more divorced and isolated from the origins of our food. Making a point of starting from simple ingredients, and shopping, cooking, and eating thoughtfully, is a great place to start in reconnecting ourselves to the food on our plates.

Embarking on this challenge at this time of year means that I can’t cheat by drawing heavily on my veggie garden – we’re fully in the ‘hungry gap’ and there’s pretty much nothing growing just now. Where I will be benefiting from our usual lifestyle is that I have a good stock of home-made preserves – pickles, jams, chutneys and so on – which, assuming they were made from simple ingredients, I consider absolutely fair game.

unprocessed-lent_6

Why are you doing this?

As thoughtful consumers, there are plenty of important questions we might want to ask about the food we eat –

  • Where was it grown, and how was it stored and transported?
  • What resources – water, soil etc – and other inputs such as fuel, insecticides and herbicides were used in its production?
  • What are the consequences of that for the local and global environment?
  • Who produced it, and were those farmers able to work safely and be paid fairly?
  • Is it good for us, or will eating it have negative consequences for us as consumers?
  • Is it good value for money?

Different people will have different priorities. But whatever is important to you when it come to food, we are deluding ourselves if we think we can start to answer any of these important questions without first being able to answer a much more basic one. And that question is –

 “WHAT AM I EATING?”

When we eat processed and highly manufactured foods, we cannot possibly answer this question. And without that answer, any attempt to answer any of the others is meaningless. Stripping out processed foods from our diets is the first, essential step towards being able to make good decisions about food. If we don’t know what’s in the food on our plates, we can’t possibly make good choices about it – whatever ‘good’ means for us, at any given time in our lives.

It’s not Lent until the 1st of March, so why the preview? 

Well, I’m asking you to argue with me, I guess. Point out important food groups that I’ve missed, or places where you think my categories are not working or where I’ve introduced false-equivalences. I think it’s very unlikely that I’ve got this right first off. So, folks, what have I forgotten or got wrong?


Unprocessed Lent – food categories


Green
 – Fresh foods
unprocessed-lent_4Permitted – first choice if home-grown or locally produced and in season, otherwise substitution with yellow or amber items may be preferred.

  • Fresh whole fruit & vegetables
  • Fresh whole identifiable pieces of meat or fish
  • Fresh egg
  • Honey

Yellow – Single-ingredient foods simply processed for preservation purposes
Permitted – in my view these are no ‘worse’ and in some respects more desirable than fresh – they make foods available out of season without causing dramatic food miles, without significant deterioration in food value, and reduce food waste.

  • Frozen meat, fish and vegetables (otherwise as above)
  • Pasteurised whole milk
  • Whole grains (brown rice, pearl barley etc)
  • Un-roasted seeds and nuts
  • Dried pulses (peas, beans, lentils etc)
  • Cold-pressed (extra virgin) vegetable oils

Amber – these are still primarily single-ingredient foods, but have been processed more heavily.
Permitted – these foods may be starting to lose some food value compared to their fresh or unprocessed equivalents, or have had small additions of other ingredients. In exchange, they often store better than fresh, reducing food miles and food waste. I can’t see how we can do without them and there’s nothing here that would have bothered my grandmother.

  • unprocessed-lent_9Tinned vegetables in their own juice (eg tomatoes)
  • Dried fruit & vegetables
  • Roasted nuts and seeds
  • Lightly processed whole grains – white rice, rolled oats etc
  • Wholemeal flours
  • Fruit juices (fresh or pasteurised, but preservative free)
  • Skimmed & semi-skimmed milk (pasteurised)
  • Cream
  • Unsalted butter
  • Animal fats (lard, suet)
  • Natural unsweetened yoghurt
  • Maple syrup
  • Coffee beans roasted (& ground)
  • Loose-leaf tea
  • Unsweetened cocoa powder
  • Dried herbs and spices
  • Sea salt

unprocessed-lent_5Amber+ – similar to amber but more processed
Substitute – where possible

  • White flour
  • Refined sugars
  • Minced meats

Orange – foods created by traditional preservation techniques such as fermentation, curing and smoking. These are foods with amazing, complex flavours; the very stuff human food culture is made of.
With Care – source is everything here, so buy carefully, from small – ideally local – makers using traditional techniques (actual smoke, rather than liquid, for example), look for PDO products, consider alternatives & home-made. The industrially manufactured versions of these foods fall into the ‘black’ group.

  • unprocessed-lent_8Cheese
  • Cured and/or naturally smoked meats & fish (anchovies, bacon, smoked haddock)
  • Real ale & cider
  • Wine
  • Natural wine and cider vinegars
  • Lacto-fermented foods (kimchi, sauerkraut)

Red – multi-ingredient manufactured foods. These are foods that our grandparents would have recognised, and may have bought from outside the home (at least some of the time). They can often be a source of hidden ingredients (salts, sugars, fats & additives)
Avoid – unless home-made

  • Bread & bakery products
  • Fresh & dried pasta and noodles
  • Prepared ‘deli-style’ meats ready to eat
  • Sausages, burgers
  • Jams, pickles, chutneys
  • Tinned fruit and vegetables in brine or syrup
  • Tinned fish
  • Squashes, cordials, and flavoured syrups
  • Manufactured condiments (mustard, ketchup, sweet chilli sauce, mayonnaise etc)
  • Tea bags

Black – convenience, industrially manufactured foods. Our grandparents would have been mystified by many of these, or, while recognising them, would never have thought to buy them ‘off the shelf’. These sorts of foods are where all the hidden sugars, salts, and oils (not to mention invert sugar syrups, trans fats, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, flavour enhancers, and so on) sneak into our diets. Obviously, all of these foods made at home from lower category ingredients are fine!
Off-limits

  • unprocessed-lent_3Any ‘orange’ food produced industrially
  • Ready meals (including prepared sandwiches)
  • Convenience fruit & veg (bag salad, peeled / chopped fruit & veg)
  • Prepared pizza
  • ‘Chorleywood process’ bread
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Prepared sauces (pasta, curry etc) and raw foods coated in them
  • Tinned prepared foods (baked beans, pasta in sauce etc)
  • UHT or homogenised milks
  • Solvent-extracted vegetable oils
  • Margarine and similar non-dairy spreads
  • Non-dairy creamer
  • Sugar-free sweetners
  • unprocessed-lent_1Fruit juices containing preservatives
  • Prepared soups (fresh & tinned)
  • Instant noodles & soups
  • Sweet & savoury pies, scotch eggs
  • Crisps, biscuits, prepared snack foods
  • Sweets, chocolates, etc
  • Carbonated drinks
  • Spirits
  • Instant coffee
  • ‘Coffee pod’ coffee (Nespresso, Tassimo)
  • Stock cubes & gravy granules
  • Packet sauces & seasoning mixes
  • Take-aways

 

‘Tricky’ foods – additives and additions traditionally used in kitchens, and manufactured condiments in small quantities.

Additives / additions – our grandparents would have been familiar with all of these, even though, as kitchen ingredients, some have fallen out of common use. I plan to continue to use them when appropriate. Yes, some of them even have E-numbers.

  • Bicarbonate of soda
  • Baking powder
  • Dried yeast
  • Citric acid [E330]
  • Sodium nitrite [E250](saltpetre, used in tiny quantities in curing salt)
  • Sodium metabisulfite [E223] (Campden, used as a preservative and sterilising agent in brewing)

Condiments – while noting these are ‘red’ foods, they may be used occasionally, while looking for home-made alternatives.

  • Soy sauce
  • Mustard
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Ketchup, brown sauce, sweet chilli sauce

It’s just under a week until we start. Looking forward to your comments!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >

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.

Read more from the Country Skills blog >

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!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

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!

Read all the posts in the Sourdough Saga >>

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

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!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Blocking Up – experimenting with peat-free soil blocks

I can’t quite remember where I first came across the idea of soil blocks for seed sowing, but they’re a rather neat idea. Compacted cubes of growing medium are used instead of pots or modules, freestanding seed trays with narrow air gaps between the blocks.

Big claims are made about the benefits of soil blocks for raising young plants in terms of reduced root disturbance and how ‘air-pruning’ of the roots prevents root binding of seedlings, all of which may well be true – I haven’t really got the horticultural background to say! But actually the thing that really attracted me to soil blocks was practicality.

Sowing seeds into soil blocks

I really don’t like module trays – they’re a pain to wash and re-use, if nothing else, they tend to degrade badly and crack up so that they only last two or three seasons, and are expensive and enormously wasteful if you’re using them only once. While it makes sense  to start certain seeds directly into 3″ pots, that takes up an awful lot of window sill space – something that’s definitely at a premium in my house at this time of year. And as we’re aiming to be completely peat free in the new garden, those little peat jiffy pots are right out (and the cost adds up quickly). A useful compromise has been home-made newspaper pots, but there’s quite a lot of effort involved in making these and I don’t always have time (also, my paper potter tool seems to have gone astray in the house move)! I’d more or less settled to using plain seed trays and pricking out seedlings at a small size, but that’s quite a lot of work and it can be rather traumatising for the seedlings, and has to be done at just the right time when inevitably I have too much else to do. So, no perfect solution.

Half trays of soil blocks in heated propagatorSoil blocks combine the convenience of the plain seed tray with the ‘modularisation’ provided by plastic module trays or individual paper pots – so could they be the best of both worlds?

Despite a real lack of cash just now, I decided to dig deep and find the twenty pounds for a four-block two inch cube soil block maker, which I bought from GreenGardener.co.uk. Only after diving in feet first with the purchase did I stop to consider the peat free problem; almost everything I read suggested that a peat-based seed compost was essential for making functional soil blocks. So had I just wasted my money?

Unwilling to compromise on our principles, I set about mining websites and gardening forums in search of a peat free recipe for soil blocks. None was quite right but some themes kept recurring. A base of peat free compost (fine textured seed compost ideally), something to help drainage (sand, perlite and vermiculite were variously mentioned) and loam or topsoil to help bind the mixture.

I’ve mentioned that money is a bit tight; going shopping for extra growing media is not on the cards, but I have a reasonable supply of New Horizon peat free organic multi-purpose compost and a rather soggy old bag of vermiculite (I generally use the New Horizon compost mixed 3:1 with vermiculite as my seed mix). We also have an almost inexhaustible supply of molehills, as the efforts of Mr Mole to create a ‘des-res’ for Mrs Mole are in full swing on our paddock!

So with a ‘make-do and mend’ attitude I did a few experiments and have come up with the following mix that seems, so far, to be working well for me. It will be the basis of my soil blocks for this season, while I get a handle on how things go germination-wise, and consists of –

  • Dry soil block mixture4 parts peat free multipurpose compost (you could sieve this to take out the biggest bits – but I’m fundamentally lazy and don’t own a garden sieve)
  • 1 part vermiculite, and
  • 1 part molehill (you should ideally sterilise this to get rid of weed seeds, I suppose, though it seems like faff) or substitute with bought topsoil (being careful it’s not been mixed with peat compost, as it often is!)

Wetted soil block mixMix the components thoroughly and then add water, a little at a time, until you reach a consistency that holds well together when you take a handful and give it a good squeeze. I find this is at the stage that you can just squeeze a tiny bit of water back out of the mix. Any wetter and the blocks slide straight out of the block maker – drier and the blocks tend to crumble. If you find you’ve over-wet the mix just add a bit more compost to dry it out again. A little trial and experimentation and you should get a good idea what you’re aiming for.

Filling the soil block makerTo make the blocks, level the wet compost mix about two and a half inches deep and as even as possible. Push the block maker down firmly into the compost until it hits the bottom, then push down on the handle without moving the press, to squeeze down on the blocks. You may squeeze a out a little water (if you’re seeing a lot, your mix is too wet). Then, release the handle and carefully pick up the block maker, tilting it on it’s side to reduce the risk of blocks falling out.

Making up soil blocks in seed trayPosition it where you want your blocks to go, and then press down on the handle again pulling the block maker up at the same time. If it’s all worked perfectly, you will have four even, neat little cubes each with a dimple in the middle. I find I can fit three rows of four blocks (12 blocks in total) into a half sized seed tray or seven rows of blocks (28 in all) in a full sized tray.

Half seed trays of soil blocksNow you’re ready to sow your seeds. Pop one seed into each dimple (or more than one if they’re small seeds and you plan to thin any extra seedlings) and cover loosely with a pinch of dry compost or vermiculite – or leave the seed uncovered if light is required for good germination. Then place the seed tray in your desired spot. I currently have two half trays of soil blocks in my heated propagator with tomato seeds in, and two full trays of salad leaves and brassicas in the unheated greenhouse.

Completed tray of soil blocksThe soil blocks are supposed to contain enough water to allow the seeds to germinate without further watering being required, but this depends on preventing excessive evaporation.

Covered seed trays in greenhouseI wrap the seed trays in the greenhouse with cling film (wetting the edge of the seed tray like a pie dish gives a good seal) and those in the heated propagator are under a closed lid. But if they do get a bit dry, don’t panic – mine held together fine when I watered them with a normal watering can and medium rose, just be gentle! Obviously you can’t use normal plant markers easily if you’re using cling film, so I label my trays using masking tape stuck to the seed tray. Keep your eyes open for signs of germination and remove the cling film before the seedlings reach it.

I’m waiting to see how things germinate in them now, and how they grow on, with no small degree of excitement!

Are you experimenting with soil blocks this year? How are you getting along?

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Something’s Rotten in the Garden Centre

Something has been happening in our garden centres. This blog post, I’m afraid, is a bit of a rant.

Recently, I had the most depressing experience. We were out and about, and with seed sowing season upon us, we needed to pick up a few bags of peat free compost for the garden. As it happened, we knew there was a garden centre just up the road – the glossy signage at the roadside bragged of it having won awards, and the car park, on a sunny February Saturday, was crowded.

Garden CentreThe bad omens started at the entrance. ‘No dogs’, said the sign. This was a nuisance because Dave dog was with us, of course. So he would have to wait outside with Hubby while I popped in to pick up the compost. And maybe one or two other bits and bobs. Even better, I had some National Garden vouchers in my wallet, so it was the best sort of shopping, the kind that doesn’t feel like it involves spending ‘real’ money.

The ‘information’ desk at the entrance (‘This is Not a Till’) was a bit odd, but the man in a suit standing behind it was able to confirm that they would indeed accept my vouchers. Oh goodie! I looked around. A few BBQs. A chimnea or three. A garden swing. Nothing really unexpected, and surely the good stuff would be just through there…

The sight that greeted me through the door, instead, was rather startling. A large hangar of a space, it was filled from side to side with tat. Not so much as a houseplant, as far as the eye could see. Instead, nick-nacks piled up on tables like some sort of demented car boot sale. I’ll admit, it took me a few moments to take it all in. A second adjoining cavernous space seemed to be filled with even more of the same. But where on earth were the plants?

Garden centre tat

In the distance I spied a door that seemed to lead outside. Perhaps, this was where I might find what I needed? After weaving through tables piled with clocks, picture frames, porcelain rabbits, and oversized tea sets, I stepped out into the sunshine. Here, finally, I found the plants, set out on staging. I could have danced. And there, against the fence, half-hidden by heaps of discarded wooden pallets, were piles of promising looking plastic sacks. At least I’d be able to pick up the compost I needed, and escape from this very perplexing place.

Compost SacksI couldn’t spot the peat free compost we normally buy, so I walked along the row looking to see what they had instead. It dawned on me, slowly, that the answer was ‘nothing’. Not a single bag of peat-free compost. I walked back along the row, slightly disbelieving, and checked all the labels carefully. But apart from the topsoil, wood chip, and the farmyard manure, all the potting mixes contained old-school peat.

Now, I’m not a peat free zealot. I understand that some gardeners, familiar and comfortable with its properties, find it hard to give it up. A bit like fossil fuels and global warming, it can be hard to link the bag of compost in your shed to the destruction of rare and fragile wetland habitat. I’ve made the personal decision to finally make the break, and our new garden will be peat free as far as it possibly can be – but I understand that not everyone is ready or able to make that jump just yet. It is surely a remarkable moral failure, though, to be denying your customers even the possibility of making the right choice.

Rather shocked, I turned around and tried to find the exit. On my way out, I spied the seed racks – the ultimate impulse buy for any keen gardener, and my personal retail kryptonite – hidden so far out of the way that I wasn’t even tempted to browse, let alone buy. A tiny range of cheap plastic propagating trays was piled haphazardly nearby, almost hidden behind a giant selection of multi-coloured welly boots.

I left, gift vouchers resolutely still in my pocket.

What has gone wrong when a garden centre can’t part a keen gardener with a pocket full of gift vouchers from even a penny their cash?  The failure to stock even one peat free multipurpose compost is beyond disappointing – actually I think it’s unconscionable; presumably it result from some bean-counter’s profitability analysis but surely it’s the bean growers’ needs that should matter?

Discussing this with friends on Twitter, I’ve been asked to name and shame, but that’s not my style. And depressingly, I don’t really need to – wherever you live in the country, unless you’re very very lucky, it’s likely your local garden centre, be it a chain or an independent, is somewhere rather like this. Some make a better job of pretending to care about the gardener than others, but a cursory look at the square footage is enough to make clear that the cafe, food court, interior decor, ‘giftware’, crafting supplies, pet shop, outdoor clothing (and indoor clothing for that matter), garden buildings, children’s soft play areas, and fishing tackle are more important than seeds, plants, and essential garden provisions.

This sad state of affairs appears to result from a nasty loophole in planning law which allows horticultural businesses – which real plantsman (and woman) nurseries absolutely are, but these garden centres are not – to be developed on agricultural land where permission would never be given for an out of town shopping centre. It’s the worst of both worlds, then – over-development of inappropriate sites, and the horticultural purpose, sadly, long forgotten. Instead, we get this rambling, low-rent, mixed-retail mess. And a mess which, to add insult to injury, now often fails even to fulfil its original purpose, of offering plants and horticultural supplies for gardeners.

So what are we to do? Well, you could do as we did, and visit the good guys.

Nursery PolytunnelIndependent local plant nurseries are the gardener’s friend and still hang on in most places despite competition from the big boys of the garden centre and DIY warehouse worlds. They probably don’t sell BBQs  – they may not have a cafe – but what they know, and excel in, is plants, and the knowledge and gear that you need to grow them successfully.

Fresh from our disappointing experience at the garden centre, we went along to Bodmin Plant and Herb Nursery. We immediately found the compost we needed, along with a very nice selection of pots, right outside the entrance. In the small inside space (into which Dave dog was welcomed), a good selection of seeds, seed potatoes, pea and bean seeds sold loose by weight, little bunches of snowdrops ‘in the green’ ready for transplanting, and a good selection of tools, along with tree ties, rabbit guards, and so on. Second-hand module trays, too, saved from landfill and a bargain addition to our potting bench. And not a nasty nick-nack in sight.

Plant selectionOutside, even in very early spring, a great range of fruit trees and bushes, and a really good selection of shrubs and bedding plants. I can’t wait to go back in a month or two when I expect a riot of colour and fresh growth. The staff don’t wear suits; they were helpful, knowledgeable and clearly cared about the quality of their plants and the needs of their customers.

I went home with my peat free compost, and a couple of other little bits that caught my eye (yes, there might have been a seed packet of two…) and left a nice bundle of gift vouchers behind me. In fact, the only slight cause of sadness was the relative emptiness of the car park, with only a handful of vehicles parked when we arrived.

Honourable mention also goes to Burncoose Nurseries near Redruth, which we visited last week on the way back from an outing to the Lizard. A great ‘pure’ plant nursery with a fabulous selection of specimen plants and shrubs, where I finally found the Tasmanian Snow Gum I’ve been looking for for about a decade. Don’t expect to find tools or supplies here, but for plant selection it’s one of the best I’ve seen.

So, even if you’re not ready to go peat free, why not reject the tat-merchants and DIY barns and make it your resolution to go garden-centre free this growing season, and instead, give your support – and your hard-earned cash –  to your local independent nurseries?

[The photos used in this post are Creative Commons licensed images sourced from Flickr (see image pages for details) – they are for illustrative purposes and do not represent the products, nurseries or garden centres discussed in this blog post.]

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

New Year, New Home – our plans for the garden

Crikey, we’re half way through January 2015 already – how did that happen?? It seems like only last week we arrived here, but it’s been over six months now since we moved, in the height of summer.

The house

It’s going to be an exciting year for us, and hopefully plenty of opportunities to showcase new skills and techniques here on the blog, too! Those of you who read here regularly will know that we were forced by the HS2 rail project to move from our lovely little cottage near Banbury. We decided to bite the bullet and make a big move – the move to the South West that Hubby and I had always told ourselves we would make ‘one day’, when the right opportunity arose. I have to say I’d always suspected the ‘right time’ might well have ended up being be 20 or 30 years from now, when we were thinking about retirement, so while it was a scary move, and stretches us financially, I’m delighted that we find ourselves here in Cornwall now, while we’re still young (well, relatively, hah!) and fit and able to work and build a life here and contribute to our local community. Even if it means we’re skint working-age folk rather than comparatively well-off retirees!

After an initial 6 months doing temporary contract work to keep our heads above water, I’ve started a new, permanent job for the new year, closer to home and with saner hours (occasional days off!) which will hopefully allow me to draw breath from time to time and spend a little more time making, doing and writing too!

So, as today is one such day, I thought I’d share a little about the projects we have coming up here at our beautiful new home in the course of the next year.

In the garden –

We’re amazingly lucky to have five acres of land with our new home, and in due course we hope to slowly build it up into a productive smallholding. For the time being we’re renting the pasture land to our neighbours for their sheep to graze, while we concentrate our time, effort, and resources around the house and gardens.

Dave dog on the paddock

Yes – gardens. I never thought I’d have gardens in the plural (well, if you ignore a scrap of front driveway!) but we have two, three if you count the old sheep fold where we’ve planted the orchard trees that we dug up and brought with us from our last home.

South gardenTo the south of the house, sloping away gently, we have a triangular garden with Cornish hedges on both sides which is going to be our ‘pretty’ garden. It has gorgeous views over Bodmin Moor and will be perfect for relaxing in on summer evenings if we ever get any time to rest!

The fish pondHubby has dug a pond here for our fish, who are settling in nicely, but otherwise this patch of land is likely to have to take a back seat for a while while we concentrate on more productive projects! With a bit of time and attention (ten years or so should do it!) I have high hopes for it being an even more beautiful place to be.

To the west side, we have an almost square, level garden with the house to one side and Cornish hedges to the other three sides, which essentially makes it a walled garden and the most protected growing space we have. This is an important factor as we’re nearly 900ft up on the edge of Bodmin Moor, and the winter weather and winds here can be a bit ferocious!

First raised bedsThis is going to be our kitchen garden, and as you can see the work has already started, the hens are settling in nicely, and the first three raised beds are planted with winter veggies.

We’re going to build a shed and a small seedling greenhouse here and add some more growing space as we go along. The soil is quite stony as we’re on granite and slate bedrock, but seems good and fertile so with a bit of luck and lots of patience and stone picking this should make for a lovely productive working garden. As long as we can keep the rabbits & mice at bay…

We plan to build a polytunnel outside the gardens to the side of the pasture paddock, to allow us to grow more tender plants like chillies, tomatoes, peppers and maybe even melons, and take even greater advantage of Cornwall’s lovely mild climate (well, by and large – it’s blummin’ chilly today!) and long growing season. The hens might even enjoy hanging out there in future winters, in the dry and out of the wind.

The hens nicely settledThe hens are doing OK now, after a disaster back in November when a stoat broke into the run and slaughtered three of the five girls we’d brought with us from Banbury. Of course, it killed my favourite, Midge, and I was completely heartbroken over the whole thing. We managed to find four new pullets to make up the numbers and all of them seem to be getting on really well now.

We’ve had far less trouble than on any previous hen introductions so we’re obviously getting the hang of this process. The new girls all have their own characters and temperaments and seem very chilled out around Dave dog, which is lovely.

There’s so much to do, but it’s so exciting! I’ve got some chillies in the heated window sill propagator (and rapidly realising I need a much bigger one!) and the first have germinated during the past few days. It won’t be long before every window sill in the house is full to bursting with seedlings – at least they’re nice thick walls, over two feet of solid granite for the most part, so I have plenty of ledge space.

Green shoots!

We missed out completely on last year’s growing season, which was torture. So even though we really should probably be focusing our time and efforts in other places, I refuse to let another whole growing year go by the wayside – it’s so very exciting to have seeds in compost again and to be seeing the very first green shoots of what should hopefully be our first great productive Cornish growing season!

Recycled cold frameIt’s a very conscious decision to concentrate our time and expenditure on the productive aspects of the gardens first – after all, the kitchen garden will go some way to feeding us. Landscaping and decorative planting, no matter how attractive, doesn’t help keep the larder stocked or reduce our food bills. We’re very much doing this on a budget, too – our rather lovely pair of cold frames are made from the glass out of the shower cubicle we had to replace when we got here.

Over the next few blog posts I’ll share with you some of our plans for the house – especially the kitchen – and for our outbuildings. Buckle up – it’s going to be a busy year!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Cooking the Books – with some regret, I’m giving up the challenge!

Just after New Year, and struck with the realisation that I had lots and lots of cookbooks that I rarely seemed to use, I set myself a year-long blogging challenge – each week, I would take a recipe from one of my books (one I had never made before, if possible), cook it, and then write it up for the blog along with a review of the book in question. I’ve enjoyed this challenge hugely, both in the discipline of regular blogging, and in the wonderful new recipes, techniques, and flavours that I’ve been able to explore while doing it. My readers seem to have enjoyed it too, based on the lovely comments and feedback that I’ve received both here on the blog and on Facebook and Twitter.

We were doing so well until mid June! But since then, we’ve moved to a new home in Cornwall, and I’ve been working very long days (and nights, on occasion!). There is so much to do in our beautiful new home – including in the kitchen! – that I’ve finally had to admit to myself that I haven’t got the time to try to keep up with the weekly recipe challenge. Over the last few weeks, the feeling that I ought to be writing up a recipe has stopped me committing time to other blog posts that I could have written instead, which is rather counterproductive, all things considered!

At least my cookbooks are out of boxes again!

The cookbook shelves

So, while I hope and intend that there could well be a few more Cooking the Books posts between now and the end of the year, they’re going to have to be on an as-and-when basis. For the time being at least, trying to turn one out once a week just isn’t going to happen! And I hope, as compensation for all my lovely readers, to be able to offer blog posts and tutorials covering many of the other thrifty DIY skills and sustainable projects that are going to be part of the process of getting our new home the way we feel it deserves to be, without spending the earth doing it!

Thank you all for your great support and feedback on the Cooking the Books posts over the first half of this year, and I do hope you continue to find posts here that you enjoy going forwards!

‘Cooking the Books’ was my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Hopefully there will be one or two more in due course!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Macaroni with Leeks and Bacon, from Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course, Cooking the Books, week 24

Pasta bakes are such a staple that it almost seems odd to treat them as a recipe. Still, we’re clearing the store cupboard and fridge as much as possible, and this variation on the classic macaroni and cheese caught my eye.

To serve two –

  • Ingredients for bacon leek macaroni175g of pasta (I used fusilli, penne would be more traditional)
  • 1 large leek (or one small one and a shallot, as I’ve used)
  • 90g streaky bacon or pancetta
  • Butter
  • Plain flour
  • 3/4 pint of milk
  • Ingredients for cheese sauce90g grated cheddar cheese
  • 45ml double cream
  • Whole nutmeg
  • 1 tbsp grated parmesan cheese
  • 1 tbsp breadcrumbs
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Salt and pepper

Put the pasta on to cook in plenty of well salted boiling water, and cook until not quite done, so that there’s still just a hard ‘bite’ to it. When you’re happy with it (about 8 minutes, probably) drain into a colander and run under cold water to stop the cooking, then mix in a drizzle of oil to stop it sticking to itself and set aside.

Mix pasta, leek and baconWhile that’s going, chop up your bacon into pieces and fry until just going crispy, set aside, and using the same frying pan, slice and fry the leek (and/or shallot or onion) until just soft but still nice and green-coloured.

Mix the leek and bacon into the pasta in an oven dish. Pre-heat your oven to 180C.

To make the cheese sauce, start with 25g each of butter and flour in the pan on a relatively low heat, melt the butter and make your roux, mix in the milk and bring up to a very light simmer. When it has thickened to your taste, melt in the cheese, and season with salt, pepper, and some freshly grated nutmeg.

Frozen cream-cubesNow, a little aside, if you don’t mind, about small quantities of cream. I’m always buying cream for this or that recipe, and then the rest goes off in the door of the fridge and eventually gets thrown away. But as it turns out, there’s an alternative. Take any surplus cream you have after cooking with it, and pour it into an ice cube bag (I prefer the bags for this to the open plastic trays, because the cream is fully sealed in them and can’t take on flavours).

Cream-cubesTie the top securely, and freeze. My bags produce cream-cubes of almost exactly 15ml each, conveniently a tablespoon measure. Then, when you need a little bit of cream for a recipe – sauces like this one are a classic example – just take what you need out of the freezer. I don’t think it would whip-up properly after this treatment, but for this kind of use it’s perfect.

To finish the sauce, add the double cream. You can thaw the cream-cubes out before using – it will tend to separate a bit but whip it lightly and it’ll come back together – or in this case, just throw the cream cubes into the hot sauce and stir until they’re dissolved. Or, add your fresh cream now, if you’re using it!

Macaroni ready for the ovenPour the cheese sauce over your pasta, pressing it down to make sure it’s all nicely covered. Then sprinkle over the breadcrumbs and parmesan mixed with a pinch or two of cayenne pepper. Pop the dish in your pre-heated oven until it’s browned and bubbling – just over half an hour should do it!

This is a really solid variation on the classic mac ‘n cheese. And you can easily substitute alternative alliums for the leeks, depending on what you have to hand. Other cheeses would be fine too – I felt it would benefit from something a bit punchier than the mid-range cheddar I had in the fridge.

Ready to serve

If you don’t over-cook your leeks they come out still looking lovely fresh and green, which is great. The cayenne pepper just adds a little unexpected warmth which is a great detail. It’s not haute cuisine, for sure, but it’s better than many. This may well be my new standard cheesy pasta bake.

**
Delia Smith - coverDelia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course (Classic Edition)
BBC Books, 1978 (revised 1992)
ISBN 978-0-563-362494
Paperback, 640 pages, black and white with colour plates. RRP £9.99.

[Full disclosure: This is my book, which I bought. I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post, nor have I accepted a review copy. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

I honestly don’t know what to say about this book. If any book has a claim to be my ‘Kitchen Bible’, this is it. Mum has a copy, my Grandma had a copy, I bought my own copy in my first term of university because I couldn’t work out how to live – how to eat – without one. We have two at home, because when I discovered that my then-boyfriend (now-Hubby) didn’t have it, I bought one for him, too.

This particular dish is new to me. It’s classic Delia – simple home cooking that works first time, well tested and reliable, but still interesting despite being, really, pretty humble! I know this cookbook more or less inside out (just look at the state of it!) and I’ve never yet found a bad recipe. I have such faith in this book that I’m happy to try recipes first-time-out for dinner guests. This is where I come to time and time again to refresh my memory on times and temperatures for roasts and pot roasts. It’s my reference for basic pastry. It practically falls open on the well-splattered page for the classic All-In-One sponge cake.

Delia Smith - page viewYes, this book shows it’s age – actually, this is particularly the case when it comes to pasta, which to be fair had barely been ‘invented’ in the UK when this book first came out. But all of English cookery is here. This book has been in my life for as long as I can remember – in many respects it’s been the cornerstone of my culinary life.

All the fundamentals are here, and if you sent me to a desert island – obviously one equipped with a good kitchen and a full pantry! – with just one cookery book, it would have to be this one, hands down. What more is there to say, really?

‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>