Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Bread of Heron - high, wide and handsome

Here we are then: 2015 already and Heron Corn Mill's community bread group "Bread of Heron" still hasn't opened its doors. "So what's been occurring?" as Ness in Gavin and Stacy would say. Why no friendly huddle in the shepherd's hut at the mill every week?

As any bread maker will tell you, things take time. Setting up a shepherd's hut is no exception: we've been looking forward to the arrival of the Heron Mill shepherd's hut since the summer. But we are getting there at last.

The Heron Mill shepherd's hut finally arrived mid December 2014. Here it is going on the delivery wagon. There's someone at the front door - nobody at home mate!

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We've got windows on all sides to maximise the light in winter and throw open in the summer.

The gutter on the front wall is an extra cost option, but we'll appreciate not getting dripped on as we come in and out when it's raining.

The poor man who delivered it slept in his van overnight, and it was a pretty cold night I can tell you! This is what it looks like on site at the Heron Corn Mill. That's the river directly behind it, and the paper mill beyond. You just have to imagine the grass in front for now.

The hut arrived with the oven and fittings already in place. But there's still the problem of water. The sink is there, and the taps, but the water that comes through the pipes is so far not up to scratch. The barn is the nearest reliable supply of clean-enough water at the moment. So for now any bread making involves carrying water from the barn to the hut. We could learn something from these ladies -

Clean water is something it is all too easy to take for granted but you soon notice when there is any kind of a problem with the water supply. The mill has twinned its toilet with a latrine in Khajepur, Bihar, India - something to think about.

Nell and I weren't going to let a bit of water carrying stop us trying out the new cooker! We took it in turns to fill the Pimm's jug and the washing up bowl in the barn and slop our way across to the shepherd's hut so we could get on with a test bake. We were dying to know what the cooker was like and more importantly what the bread thought about it.

You need to be comfortable in a kitchen - know where everything is and so on. And it does help if everything is actually there, so we came armed with pencils and paper to make a list of anything we found we were missing. It's amazing how many things finished up on the list! We were aware of course that we would need a table or two for working on, and maybe some chairs for sitting round drinking tea on, in those few precious moments (oh, alright then - hours) between bread  making tasks. Spoons of various sizes, bowls ditto, bread baskets, trays, baking stones, kettle, tea, milk, washing up liquid. Pause for breath. Yeast, semolina, bread boards, loaf slashers. I could go on. 

Anyway, we decided to be very British about it and plough on regardless. Boldly baking where nobody had baked before, in the middle of a field, by a river, with flour supplies of the greenest credentials, and a little jar of sourdough up our jumpers to keep it warm (love your sourdough, you people). It's a bit like an episode from the Goode Life, I suppose. It certainly has a comic side to it, so it's fortunate that nobody is taking themselves (or each other) too seriously. We're here to have fun - and make some bread!

Like many things about the Heron Corn Mill, Bread of Heron reminds me of this 1967 description of a sonata by the American composer Charles Ives -

If you're going to do something, you might as well go in with both feet. Got a mill? Use it! Got a shepherd's hut - well we have now so let's use it. (Just got to get the water and tables in place first though!)

Nell as usual was thinking ahead and thinking big the day we tried out the oven. She brought along the makings of a couple of pecan nut loaves and a batch of pitta breads. I spent the first couple of hours chatting away, while Nell multitasked - chatting while actually doing some cooking.That's a skill I'll have to work on. Anyway, her pecans were in the oven while my usual bread was still thinking about it.

The oven is quite a treat after my old banger at home. Fan assisted, and deep enough on the right side to take 3 shelves of bread, 2 shelves in the smaller oven on the left, under the grill. We had a set of Heron bread tins "baking" in the big oven, just to take the newness off them by burning a bit of oil on them. Boy did they smoke! It was like going to the pub before the ban came in.

Nell opted to slash a fancy diamond pattern across the tops of the pecan loaves. This may have been a bit ambitious, as there were a heck of a lot of nuts to get in the way of the knife. Still, it created a nice rustic effect, complete with nobbly bits. The mix was suitably rich, with butter and molasses as well as what looked like a whole bag of nuts, and the result was really very delicious in a "loaf-o'-cake" sort of way. Marie Antoinette would have been proud of her.

Next up was the pitta bread sensation. This appeared to be a standard bread mix, but with masses of Nigella seeds added (onion seeds to you and me, but who would miss the chance to call them Nigella seeds?). On a well floured board Nell rolled 'em flat and slapped half onto a hot bread stone and the rest on a baking tray.

The result was spectacular. They all puffed up nicely like good little pitta breads. But the ones on the stone went up like balloons, much quicker than  the ones on the metal tray.

This was a good example of "oven leap" and clearly showed what a difference a really hot stone can make.  (When I say "stone" all I mean is a clay roof tile, about 1/2" thick, available from the builder's yard for under a pound.) It takes the best part of an hour to get the stone really hot, so it is great to have 5 shelves available in the oven. You can get on with cooking something else while the stone heats up.

As you can see above the pittas were really flat when they went in. And when they came out they were completely round like a tin of beans. And they stayed round - none of this shrinking back towards flatness when they cool down, which the supermarket ones rely on - otherwise they would never go in the packet.

Nell's pittas were rather more chewy and substantial than the supermarket version. The main difference was the freshness, of course. And the spicy Nigella effect. A very nice new experience, and a great wrap for our lunches. 

My babies eventually made it to the oven when everyone else was ready to head on home. Still, good things come to him who waits, as they say. I was using the end of my Christmas flour from mills near St Albans and Ely, and I had given my sourdough a helping hand by topping it up with half measures of dried yeast. This is a respectable option, I am assured, but I have to say that the end result feels closer to yeasted bread than sourdough.

Normally sourdough goes all shiny and smooth where you slash the loaf. Yeasted loaves tend to be rough and bubbly where you cut them, with a matt finish. These hybrid loaves definitely would have passed for yeasted.

Anyway, as Hamlet said of the King's sourdough -

He was a loaf, take him for all in all,

We're having another bash at baking in the hut this week, not least to try working at a slightly higher temperature. We used 200 degrees this week, but my bread came out moister than I was expecting, so I'm going in at 240 for 10 minutes and then down to 200, to see if that makes a difference. It's often suggested, to blast first and then turn down. Nell has some people coming round to the mill, so she's preparing a couple of loaves and five fishes.

Won't be long till Bread of Heron can welcome the first set of plucky bread makers into the sheherd's hut. We're all looking forward to it!