Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Bread of Heron: it's got our name on it

This week we were using tins again at Bread of Heron, the Heron Corn Mill's community bread making group. And here's the evidence - a fine loaf with HERON boldly stamped on the side.

Talking of things with names on them, did you hear about the missing hundred year old tortoise? It went out for a walk last year and never came back. Its owners probably concluded that it had ended up like Dame Edna's mother, in a home for the bewildered. It finally turned up back home this week. It had cunningly written its owner's name on the underside of its shell. You're never too old for an adventure, are you?

Last week saw me and some of the other Bread of Heron bakers struggling to handle a recipe with a lot of very wet raisins. Mind you, we had some good reports about the flavour of the raisin loaf. My wife said I could do it again any time I liked, but I told her she'd have to do it herself! I've had it with raisins.

This week's mystery ingredient was sun dried tomatoes and generally speaking I think everyone got on better with this recipe than the raisin loaf. That is not to say the tomato loaf didn't have its moments. Not all the loaves came out as easy on the eye as the one above. I know mine didn't! But the real issue was the same as last time: following the recipe.

The problem was that there were several things to add to the dough, including both tomato puree and sun dried tomatoes.

Be gentle with me

The recipe warned us to be gentle when working the tomato puree through the dough by folding and refolding - a bit like making filo pastry by folding butter into the dough. Failure to go easy at this stage was likely to result in the dough ripping, and this had the potential to turn our loaves into a "dog's dinner". Not a warning to be taken lightly.

What seemed to happen was that everybody confused the two lots of tomatoes, and skipped several steps in the recipe altogether. In my case this was a good idea because I had made such a mess of the first step that the only option open to me was to stop right there and get the poor thing in the oven right away!

Here's how it was supposed to go. First, make some dough, including quite a generous helping of olive oil. Next spread the dough out, apply some tomato puree, and fold the dough a few times until a nice marbled effect was achieved. Then, and only then, or to quote Britten's Spring Symphony -

"Then oh then;
Oh then oh;
Then oh then"

only then, move on to the second set of tomatoes - the sun dried variety. The marbled dough was supposed to be stretched out again, and most of it spread with the sun dried tomato mixture. The whole lot was then supposed to be rolled up like a swiss roll, bent into an "S" shape and packed into a bread tin. Here we all are spreading all our tomatoes at once. The nearest one is mine -

I didn't see anybody doing the swiss roll stuff at all so our sun dried tomatoes were not very well distributed through the dough. I was tempted to say "crumb" there, but like Mr Charles Pooter's wife (Diary of a Nobody Chapter 23 July 4) I have not arrived at it yet.

There is no going back when you have put all your ingredients in. So my loaf just got a reasonably gentle folding, and into the tin to sink or swim.

When is enough sufficient?

One thing we were puzzling over at the Mill this week was how to tell if the bread is ready to go in the oven or not. Is it still rising, or has it gone "over the top", risking a disappointing fall back on the way into the oven? This is a real problem if you have to turn your bread out of a basket and then shoot it into the oven: you don't want it to be so full of gas that it can't take the handling. On the other hand, you don't want to put it in the oven before it has done as much rising as it can reasonably manage.

The books offer suggestions as to what to look out for, and we have been going in for a lot of prodding of our dough to see if it "only resists feebly" or bounces back proudly. Another tell tale sign is supposed to be that the surface of the bread gets bubbly, because the gas is in effect escaping through the top.

This all a bit too scientific for me. I just look at it, and if it seems to be saying "please, let me at it" then in it goes. And if the oven is not available for a few more minutes, I smile encouragingly and say "just hold on a bit longer old boy - nearly there" or similar.

Surface tension

As for bubbles escaping through the surface - well, that raises the whole issue of surface tension. All the kneading and shaping aims to stretch the dough. Stretching the dough produces surface tension. The effect can be heightened by the following technique, which is very hard to explain, but very easy to do once you can visualise it. I had a  look on YouTube for someone doing it, but all I could find was lots of people doing really bad kneading. Dear me!

With flat hands on either side of the bottom of the loaf, palms up, turn the loaf round by moving one hand in one direction and the other in the other direction. This tucks some dough under the bottom of the loaf every turn, and increases the surface tension over the dome of the loaf. You can read this and see a picture in River Cottage Handbook No. 3 pages 48-49.

The bubbles are what the proving process is all about, of course. You want to keep them inside the loaf because they are effectively holding the dough up. When you slash the bread, you expose some of the inside of the dough, and I think it's really nice to see the bubbles stretching for all they are worth as the bread bakes. When you see stretch marks on the exposed bubbles in the slashes, it means the loaf has been stretching in the oven.

Surface tension is something I see in the river at Arnside when the tidal bore comes in. The sea water rapidly overwhelms the river water, and you get all sorts of swirlings, shimmerings, currents and counter currents. You get different shapes and interference patterns in different parts of the water, and surface tension all over the place, with stretch marks where faster water runs alongside slower water. If you have never seen the bore come in at Arnside, it really is worth seeing when there is a big tide due. A little girl was watching with her granddad this week when the bore came roaring in, overturning everything in its way. She sagely commented "even the sand is moving".

You can get some idea what I am talking about from these pictures of the bore arriving in Arnside -

This is what the Arnside bridge looked like early in the 20th century -

You can find lots of really interesting old stuff about Arnide at this web site.

Releasing the tension

Today I decided to relax after the rigours of our tomato bread at t' Mill, by baking some "simple" bread at home. Not that sourdough is ever simple. But when it comes out as well as this did today, it is definitely worth the effort. I think everyone has their own idea of what a proper sourdough should be like, and mine never quite turns out like the crusty Italian bubble-fest of my dreams, but I always love it anyway.

On the left my sourdough is chilling out as it doubles in size in the basket. No sign of tension there by the looks of it. But on the right you can see how wide the slashes have spread because the surface tension has been released. This allows the bread to grow without being held back by the crust.

You can see lots of stretched gluten, popped bubbles, even stretched bubbles as the bread rose rapidly in the oven.

Bread that goes onto a hot stone needs as much room to stretch as it can get. Slashing releases surface tension at the last moment, allowing the dough to rise rapidly in the oven.

Nice results

The tomato loaves came out looking pretty good -

Special friend in Palestine

This week the group was introduced to Bouran, a friend of one of our group, who is a keen home baker in Palestine. We got to read a little bit about life and cooking in a very different part of the world, and to see some pictures. Here is a completely different take on a tomato (and olive) bread made with love in Palestine -

Bouran is baking all sorts of things, and very skilfully too by the looks of it. There were some biscuits which looked amazing, and lots of different types of bread. So welcome to the group, Bouran! We look forward to sharing our many highs and possibly an occasional low with you, and to hearing about what you are doing in the kitchen.


Alongside the tomato loaf, the group made some teacakes this week. This starts off with working some butter into the flour, to produce something of the consistency of breadcrumbs.

It's really fascinating to watch the group kneading dough. Nobody does it quite like anybody else!

Well paid jobs

We get through a lot of chatting while we bake in the shepherd's hut. It's hell, but someone has to do it. One thing that came up this week was first jobs and wages. Mine was the lowest wage by a fair margin. My first paper round paid 16/- (80p) in 1969 for a 7 day week, including a double round on Sundays. I eventually replaced that with a Saturday job in a green grocer's, where the pay was a king's ransom - £1 a day and Liberty Hall at the fish and chip shop at lunch time.

I have several fond memories of this job. Valerie Barlow from Coronation Street came in for spuds one day.

I can still wrap 5 lb of potatoes up in a couple of sheets of newspaper tucked in the crook of my arm.

The beetroot were boiled out the back in what looked like a small washing machine. "Big Joe" had the job of getting the skins off, wearing washing up gloves of course. "Mick" the hot shot salesman once swore blind the peas were "picked fresh this morning" and tasted them there and then, as though that proved anything. He almost swooned with the pleasure, but as soon as the customer had agreed to buy some, he nipped round the back and spat them out. "Dick" was famous for smuggling lady friends upstairs past his mum's bedroom door by giving them piggybacks. All of human life, and a bit to spare. The shop's famous cry was "strawberry ripe cherries". And strawberries were displayed loose on a tray and served up with a metal scoop into a brown paper bag.

Other people remembered "real" jobs at £8 or £9 a week, which seemed like riches then. Mind you, prices were different then too, of course. My dad bought our house for £400 in 1954, and 60 years later it would probably go for nearly a thousand times as much. That kind of ridiculous inflation makes even beer look cheap. Guinness is probably at least £3.50 a pint now, and it was 2/6 (12.5p) in 1972, so that has "only" gone up about 28 fold in 43 years.

Ulysses as usual has something to say on wages and prices. Two drinkers in the pub raise their glasses to each other in a toast (chapter 12) -

--Thousand a year, Lambert, says Crofton or Crawford.
--Right, says Ned, taking up his John Jameson. And butter for fish.

In those days (1904) a job paying £1000 a year was at best an aspiration, and butter for fish was something you could only afford in your wildest dreams. Nowadays fish is not so cheap either! One thing we all agreed on this week was that nothing can beat the simple pleasure of a piece of freshly home made bread, even if it is too warm to cut.


As a life long lover of Holland's meat and potato - sorry, potato and meat pies, it came as a bit of a surprise recently to bite into a sizeable stone where there should have been only potato, or meat. A friendly and constructive correspondence with Holland's ensued, and after a thorough investigation into what went wrong, they sent me a letter explaining how a very occasional stone might have found its way into a pie in among the potatoes. Having worked in a pie factory (not Holland's), where I once saw a plastic bag of cubed potatoes being emptied into the "hotpot" cauldron bag and all, I can readily believe this explanation.


As a gesture of pure goodwill, and without prejudice, Holland's sent me a compensatory - wait for it - postal order! Remember those? I have no idea how to convert this into regular folding money of the realm, though I expect it involves visiting a Post Office which are about as rare these days as NHS dentists and hen's teeth. For the record, here is what one looks like, complete with a nice picture of Queenie -

Surreal bread monster

I tried to get a picture of today's babies in the oven, but it turned out a bit conceptual, a kind of fusion of man and loaf. It's the closest I have so far managed to becoming "half man, half biscuit barrel".

It's hard to say if this is me trying to get in the oven, or the bread trying to get out. Maybe we both need to get out more!