Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Wish you were here

The Blog has taken its bucket and spade to Cornwall...

2006 is the centenary of the birth of John Betjeman, poet. He was a popular poet, in the sense that the people understood and loved him and he loved Cornwall, particularly the little church of St Enodoc, above the wonderful beach at Daymer, near Rock,(see above).

St Enodoc's Church was rescued in the nineteenth century from the sand that had engulfed it - in order to celebrate its consecration the vicar had to be lowered through a skylight - and now stands in the middle of a rather posh golf course.
" A mile of sunny, empty sand away,
A mile of shallow pools and lugworm casts.

Safe, faint and surfy, laps the lowest tide."

Betjeman is buried in its tiny churchyard, his ornate gravestone near the lych gate with its lead topped stone the shape of a coffin, a pause for the funeral procession to get in line.

I'm enjoying freshly boiled lobster and great fish dishes, but nobody should leave Cornwall without saffron cake. The Cornis
h people traded their tin with the Phoenicians for saffron, and the traditional saffron cake - a fruited tea bread heavy with the yellow spice - is available everywhere. I didn't make it, but I am certainly eating a lot of it!

People had left stones on Betjeman's grave, and I did too, whispering "This is from Joan Hunter Dunn" as I did so. I think saffron cake would have been her sort of thing, if she could have got it in Aldershot.

A Subaltern's love-song

Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn,
Furnish'd and burnish'd by Aldershot sun,
What strenuous singles we played after tea,

We in the tournament-you against me!

Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! weakness of joy,
The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy,
With carefullest carelessness, gaily you won,
I am weak from your loveliness, Joan Hunter Dunn.

Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,
How mad I am, sad I am, glad that you won.
The warm-handled racket is back in its press,
But my shock-headed victor, she loves me no less.

Her father's euonymus shines as we talk,
And swing past the summer-house, buried in talk,
And cool the verandah that welcomes us in
To the six-o'clock news and a lime-juice and gin.

The scent of the conifers, sound of the bath,
The view from my bedroom of moss-dappled path,
As I struggle with double-end evening tie,
For we dance at the Golf Club, my victor and I.

On the floor of her bedroom lie blazer and shorts
And the cream-coloured walls are be-trophied with sports,
And westering, questioning settles the sun
On your low-leaded window, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

The Hillman is waiting, the light's in the hall,
The pictures of Egypt are bright on the wall,
My sweet, I am standing beside the oak stair
And there on the landing's the light on your hair.

By roads 'not adopted', by woodlanded ways,
She drove to the club in the late summer haze,
Into nine-o'clock Camberley, heavy with bells
And mushroomy, pine-woody, evergreen smells.

Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,
I can hear from the car-park the dance has begun.
Oh! full Surrey twilight! importunate band!
Oh! strongly adorable tennis-girl's hand!

Around us are Rovers and Austins afar,
Above us, the intimate roof of the car,
And here on my right is the girl of my choice,
With the tilt of her nose and the chime of her voice,

And the scent of her wrap, and the words never said,
And the ominous, ominous dancing ahead.
We sat in the car park till twenty to one
And now I'm engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

John Betjeman

Sunday, July 23, 2006


What started life as a profile for the New Yorker of the star New York chef Mario Battali and his restaurant Babbo turned into a full time obsession for Bill Buford, the author of Heat. First he begged to be allowed to act as unpaid slave in the restaurant kitchen, then he followed this with trips to Italy to learn the arts of pasta making and butchery at the feet of the masters.

Buford, during his time in England as editor of Granta Magazine, developed something of a reputation. His exploits and appetites were legendary; mischievous, demanding, unreliable, he erupted roaring on to the English literary scene like a volcano. And the fire motif carries on throughout this book. The title (‘If you can’t stand the heat…’) is apt. The kitchen at Babbo appears as a searing hellhole. Battali himself is a presence on the edge, rarely seen, constantly felt. The workers toil in Hades, sweating, literarily, into the pasta water. Tempers fray, profanities are the accepted form of communication, dreams turn into nightmares. Buford negotiates all these dangers with his critical faculties intact, but his arms burnt, his fingers slashed, and, at one point, his clothes on fire.

That he returned time and again for more abuse is testament to the narcotic of the total food obsession. The excursions to Italy to learn the craft at source appear as pastoral light relief, with the master butcher, appropriately enough, expounding Dante to his customers. Buford, moving through the Circles of Hell, not only learns how to cook and butcher, he also forms new ideas about food and its provenance – it’s not fast food that has destroyed our appreciation of it, it’s big food, conglomerates that give the customer what the customer wants, even if the customer is sometimes not altogether – right.

This is a book with a real odour of machismo; the water boils and seethes, the knives slash and fillet, the oil splashes and burns. A man’s world. When women appear they are on the fringes, making delicate pastries, passing on the lore of their grandmothers, supporting their ever more crazy spouses and partners.

The word ‘berserker’ comes to mind. Berserkers, those most scary of all the Vikings, had a reckless disregard for their own safety, possibly having ingested quantities of amanita muscaria fungi to enable them to ignore pain and wounds. Heat suggests this full-on approach to the culinary arts, portraying a restaurant kitchen as nothing short of a war zone.

And then there are the filmic moments when everything seems to go into slow motion, and the whirring chopping browning blends into a zen motion and rhythm where fingers and hands and body move together in a fluid dance – probably a pasa doble. Maybe this – being in the zone – is what it’s all about.

As a roller coaster ride through the flames of hell it is a great read, often thoughtful and with huge educational value. This is what goes into the success of one great New York restaurant. Sitting in an English country garden I devoured it at one sitting.

Heat. An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford.

Jonathan Cape, London

Saturday, July 15, 2006


Richard Bertinet is a French baker/chef who teaches at his school The Bertinet Kitchen in Bath. We met recently to talk about his sourdough bread, but before we got into the detail of ferment and biga he said to me “Do you know how to make a dough?”

I opened my mouth to say yes, then caught sight of the raised eyebrows and thought better of it. I muttered something incomprehensible. He gave me an impromptu lesson in how to make dough, his way. And suddenly it all became clear!

Richard’s book Dough is a million miles away from either the worthy or the fake artisan. This is bread in a lighter tradition, infused with colour and sunshine, the crunch of the baguette, the taste of the olive, and it is hugely inspiring.

He says that English home bread makers don’t know how to make dough. We put in the ingredients, flour, water, salt, yeast, and when the mass is incorrigibly porridgy what do we do? Why, we add more flour. This is quite true, I do it myself.

When a recipe says ‘ knead until the dough cleans itself off the work surface’ I know that my dough will not do that as it is far too sticky. I must have done something wrong, or the recipe is not right, or my flour is different, or, or, or.

Richard showed me how to do it his way. The recipe is not wrong. The mixture is extremely sticky. It would be impossible to knead it in the way I have been used to, with the heel of my hand.

If you add water to flour it gets sticky” he says. “And your natural reaction to sticky hands is to stop them being sticky, you don’t like the feel of the wet dough on your hands. So you add flour until the stickiness disappears. But the job of the flour is to absorb the water, which changes its consistency and structure, and if you add more flour it can’t do that. Think like a dough hook, it starts off working in the sticky mixture but it’s a dough hook so it doesn’t mind.”

Rule No 1: follow the recipe exactly.

500g strong bread flour

350g water

10g fresh yeast

10g salt

Rub the yeast straight into the flour, do not add it to water.

Add the salt and rub through.

Add the water, keeping back a little in case you don’t need it all.

Now, using a flexible plastic scraper like this, or something similar with rounded edges, incorporate the water into the flour. Turn the bowl with one hand and use the scraper with the other. You will end up with a very sticky mixture. Use the scraper to get the mixture out of the bowl.

You cannot knead this mess in the ordinary way. Indeed, Richard dislikes the word ‘knead’, he says you ‘work’ the dough. “Slide your fingers under it, like a pair of forks, with the thumbs on top; swing the mixture (which is sticky enough to be cohesive, just) upwards and then slap it back down, away from you on to the work surface. Stretch the front of the dough towards you, then lift it back over itself in an arc (to trap the air), still stretching it forwards then sideways and tucking it in around the edges. Keep repeating this sequence.”

I have quoted almost verbatim from his book, but having done it myself I have to tell you that your fingers will be stuck in the dough all the time. There is an almost irresistible urge to clean your hands. Don’t do it! You have to keep going, rocking from back foot to front foot so the tension is eased from your shoulders and you get a whole body motion going. Sort of like baking Tai Chi.

Quite soon the texture of the mess changes into a sticky dough with definite dough-like characteristics, and after a while lo! it actually starts to clean itself off the work surface! That’s the time to stop, clean off what little remains on your fingers with flour, and make the still rather wobbly dough into a ball on a floured surface.

From then on it is pretty much business as usual. You don’t slap the dough about to ‘knock it back’, you stretch and fold and tuck, trying to keep the air bubbles going. I let the dough rise for an hour, proved my loaf for an hour, baked it on a stone as usual, and it came out light and perfect.

The book, with excellent photographs, comes with a DVD. I defy anyone who reads it not to reach for the flour bag.

Dough. Simple Contemporary Bread by Richard Bertinet

Published by Kyle Cathie Limited, 122 Arlington Road, London NW1 7HP

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Dear Francesca

On Leith Walk, in Edinburgh, there is a very famous Italian grocery called Valvona & Crolla. Established in 1934, and staffed over the years by members of both the Valvona and Crolla families, it brought authentic Italian foods and flavours to Edinburgh. Scotland has long been a third home to Italians (the second, I think it’s fair to say, being America). When I was a child, growing up in a grey part of Scotland where a red pepper would have been out of place and exotic, the one real taste was the Italian ice cream provided by Toni’s, with the raspberry sauce familiar to anyone who came from north of the border in the sixties. White and icy, it was a world away from the yellow blocks of lard sold by the big conglomerates. Round about that time I went on holiday with my family to Naples and had my first taste of something called ‘tutti frutti’ – I remember it as if it were yesterday.

Both families, the Valvona and the Crolla, came from poor peasant stock in the south of Italy. Emigrating to Scotland in the 1920s in search of a better life they found a supportive community of Italian folk who, prior to the great pizza boom, were providing ice cream and fish suppers to the local Scots, and importing Italian groceries to sell in their shops.

Mary Contini is part of the Crolla family, and this delightful book is written to her daughter, Francesca. She describes the background and history of her own family, their origins in the hill country of Southern Italy, and the recipes they brought with them to this foreign land. Running water was the great gift that Scotland gave in return for the wisdom and culinary lore of a century of womenfolk.

Mary Contini’s observations on food, its quality and history, coupled with a nostalgia for family traditions that have enriched their adopted land, make this a charming book. She includes careful notes on method, one of which - how to prepare artichokes – coincided with the arrival in my house of the tricky vegetable (flower bud actually), and was therefore timely.

Put some cut lemon quarters in a bowl of cold water, get a sharp knife and turn on the cold tap.

Pare down the stalk end nicely, removing some of the tough stalk fibres, and snap off the dark green spiky outer leaves just where they break until the inner pale yellow ones are revealed.

Trim off the top of the artichoke, which is spiky. Inside is revealed a beautiful magenta heart. Rub every cut surface immediately with lemon juice.

Cut the artichoke in quarters and rub with lemon juice. You can see the hairy centre. With a sharp knife cut it away otherwise its like eating a pillow.

Drop the pieces into the acidulated water as you go.

To cook as an hors d’oeuvre:

Put the quarters into a pan with:

1 clove of garlic, peeled and finely chopped

A handful of flat leaved parsley, chopped

About a teaspoon of salt

About 4-5 tbsp olive oil

Same amount of water.

Bring to the boil and then simmer gently until tender.

You might like to add some mint leaves towards the end of the cooking.

Serve warm, and mop up the juices with good bread.

Dear Francesca: An Italian Journey of Recipes Recounted with Love, by Mary Contini

Published by Random House, Ebury Press

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

My date with the dough

Troels Bendix (from Denmark) and Kurt Anderson (from Australia), with the assistance of Ross (from Canada), make some of the best bread in London (England). Breadsetcetera has lately opened a café on Clapham High St, just next to Sainsbury’s, which sells bread to the South London cognoscenti as well as breakfast and lunch. Dinner is on the way. On Sunday mornings you can have a full English, decent coffee, and all the newspapers. And you get to make your own toast in your own toaster and choose from a huge array of really good jams and confitures. Just like being at home, without the washing up.

The bread is all made on an organic sourdough leaven, or biga. No extra baker's yeast is added. Troels has cared for the biga for five years, starting it off in Wandsworth. He says darkly that it didn’t like the move to Clapham. The biga sits in a big vat, a creamy mixture of organic white, wholemeal and rye flours, with water and the magic Wandsworth wild yeast, now tempered with some local interlopers from Clapham. The scent is just slightly sour, but not pronounced. All the bread in the bakery is raised on this leaven. The yeast bacteria thrive in an anaerobic atmosphere, feeding on the simple sugars they derive from the starch in the flour. The by-product of this activity is carbon dioxide, the gas bubbles which raise the dough.

I spent the day in the bakery just round the corner, with Frida (from Sweden) who manages the café and is also a novice like me. Breadsetcetera makes six different kinds of bread regularly, whole grain rye, original three flours, original white, walnut, six seed and olive, plus muffins and flapjacks and cookies. The recipes for the breads are Troels’ own, and he brings the soul and traditions of Denmark to the rye breads in particular.

When we arrived Ross (trained in a Gordon Ramsay kitchen on 18 hour days – now that is a bit of a jaw dropper) had mixed the flours for the recipes and the first dough was curling away in a fifty year old machine. It works slowly and comfortingly and Troels prefers its action to the newer, faster machines. Humming away in the corner it’s like a good friend, solid and dependable. All of the flour is organic and most of it is from Cann Mills, near Shaftesbury in Dorset, milled with a water driven wheel by Michael Stoate.

Salt is added later to the mixture, so as not to inhibit the action of the biga, and some of the dough left over from the previous batch of baking is also added, its sour quality more noticeable after an overnight rest.

The dough comes out of the machine like a duvet coming out of a tumble dryer, and piles in drifts on the stainless steel work surface. It is flowing in its consistency and quite sticky. The proving baskets are generously floured and the dough is cut and weighed. It loses a percentage of its weight through water loss in the baking process, but it must weigh at least the advertised weight – and not too much more because that’s the ‘loss’ in ‘profit and loss’!

Then comes the shaping. Frida and I were completely hopeless at this. An oval loaf is tucked in at the corners and rolled towards you, tucked again and rolled in on itself until it is a tight sausage shape. Round loaves are tucked in and turned a quarter turn, tucked again and turned and then again until the circle is complete; then the dough is flipped over and pushed down and away against the work surface so that the outer skin of the dough tightens into a satiny ball. Frida and I tried. We tried really hard. We were terrible. Every loaf I shaped had to be reshaped by Ross or Troels. I was waiting for the F word and it is a measure of the calming nature of making bread that it never came. But I got good at making rolls, wouldn’t you agree lads?

The dough proves in the coiled cane baskets for about six hours. One of the biggest problems they face in the bakery is the acceleration caused by the heatwave we are in the middle of. They use ice water to mix the dough to retard the proving time. Otherwise tomorrow’s bread is ready yesterday, if you know what I mean.

The proved dough is flipped out of its basket on to a peel, and thence to the oven for twenty five minutes at 250ºC. A fleet of drivers (well, two or three I think!) delivers it fresh to restaurants and shops around London. For the full list see the web site. Most are in the London area, but they are just about to start delivering to Edinburgh!

The café will expand its repertoire presently, with a refit due later in the year and extended opening times. Kurt is planning simple menus favouring tasty produce. Less in the way of sauce and more in the way of source.

If you want to acquire a proving basket you can order a huge variety from the web site. If you are passing the café in Clapham High St drop in for a latte and a chocolate chip cookie and say Hi to Frida and Quentin, and buy a loaf to take home. Try the wholegrain rye – it’s like tasting the entire field.

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