Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Memories are made of this

We've now had 3 bread baking sessions at Bread of Heron, the Heron Corn Mill's community bread making group, and we're starting to get to know each other a little bit better. Sometimes we can even remember each other's names. There's a nice atmosphere developing in the shepherd's hut, and not just because the oven is on most  of the time. We had a few laughs together over our first assignment, which was a straightforward tin loaf.

It's tempting to just do what we love and stick to it...

But we are bread pioneers, our mission -

"to explore strange new whirls, to seek out new loaves and new caramelisations,
to boldly dough where no man has scone before."

So we are going to try something a little bit different. Not harder necessarily, or better. Just something to push our envelopes a little.

Something to get us out of our comfort zones.

We did some scones last week, and hot cross buns on Good Friday, both of which were completely new to me, and surprisingly good fun. At home I just make bread, that's all! Coming to bake at the shepherd's hut at the mill is like stepping into a different world...

This week the "Buns" half of the group will be doing rye and raisin bread, and pitta breads on the side. Here are the recipes we are following this week -

I suppose it is inevitable that we will choose some recipes that we fondly remember from childhood, among a haze of warm kitchen smells and apron strings probably. So how about a few memories from childhood?

My mum's cobs

I remember my mum struggling to get her "cob" dough off her fingers, and Stork margarine melting into the dense white doughy delight that we ate straight out of the oven. But not a lot else sticks in the mind in the way of food from back then. It is amazing though that the whole family shares this happy memory of those simple cobs, which were a lot nobblier than these -

It's not always the most sophisticated things that create the most satisfying memories.

Bread and cake shops within sniffing distance

The baker's shop that I remember best from childhood was known for reasons obscured by time as Taylor's, although it was run by Mr Higginbottom. It's been a cafe for 12 years now. This place was famous among the children as somewhere you could buy broken biscuits and penny cakes, all well within the budget of a 3d pocket money. The penny cakes were of course left overs, and became available at the end of the shop day. Occasionally a few were still there the next morning, but we kids knew that the evening was the time to go. Penny cakes came in a paper bag and it was a matter of strict protocol that the bag should not be opened until you were out of the shop. We bought on trust. The bag was often found, on close inspection, to contain not one but several cakes. My favourites were brandy snaps. Who can resist a brandy snap?

Nothing gives children more confidence in the innate goodness of human nature than for an adult to go beyond the call of duty in the business of selling penny cakes.

My memory has been playing tricks on me again. I just realised the baker's name was Ramsbottom, not Higginbottom. But what's in a name? On the other hand I can remember his signature trade mark as if it was yesterday. He used to poke his thumb through the top of his loaves, making what looked like a navel on top of the loaf. Everyone knew where his bread came from.

Other bakers' shops were available. As well as Taylor's, I was regularly to be found further down the road at a shop that made the best vanilla slice in town. It was heavenly. Sweet sticky icing, wobbly bright yellow custard, and the flakiest of flaky pastry. Or so it seems to me now. Who knows really? This one would have been marked down on the pastry, but the custard and icing look about right!

And across the other side of the village, you could get mini Hovis loaves for a very reasonable price - again, well within the parameters dictated by pocket money. The beauty of the mini Hovis was that it was proper wholemeal bread, and quite capable of being sliced to within an inch of its life. I used to see how many slices I could get out of a loaf that was possibly 2 inches long. Perfect with cucumber.

I seem to remember Hovis loaves being sold in waxed yellow wrapping paper, but maybe I'm just inventing that. But shops selling Hovis certainly had signs outside. This is another local bakery, on Beech Road, Chorlton. But it was not "one of mine". Note the Hovis sign on the wall.

Along the road from this bakery there were 3 pubs and 3 chippies. The best of the chippies was the smallest - Wright's Supper Bar, a tiny little place where the queue always started out in the road. Note the "fresh tripe".

Mabs Snack Bar also sold records. We used to have a money box at home where we collected all our 3d bits, until we had enough to buy a single (6/8d each, 3 for £1). We never collected enough to buy an LP at 34/-. If these prices mean nothing to you, don't worry - your turn will come soon enough to be an oldie.

Speculate to accumulate

When I was very young, there were two old ladies in our road who, like Mr Ramsbottom, regularly reinforced my childish faith in the essential goodness of human beings. I used to give them a 4 oz box of chocolates for Christmas -

and they used to give me an 8 oz box back. Now there's psychology for you!

Unreliable witness

This memory is a slippery creature, without a doubt. We all think we have clear memories from long ago, but how accurate these memories really are is very open to doubt, given how very unreliable our shorter term memories are.

And medium term memories are no better. I have been complaining for several years about a block of flats in Manchester that (according to me) were built across one of two derelict railway lines, making it impossible to reopen the line properly. Yet when I had a look recently, both lines were still there, as shown in this picture when the metro was being built -

It makes me wonder, what kind of a witness would I be? And how reliable is any eye witness years, months, weeks, days, hours or even minutes after the event? There's nothing new here, of course. People have been misremembering things for centuries. Here is Hamlet's famous soliloquy as mangled by the jobbing actor who was responsible for the First Quarto. He starts to ramble after 6 words!

To be, or not to be, eye there's the point,
To Die, to sleep, is that all? Aye all:
No, to sleep, to dream, aye marry there it goes,
For in that dream of death, when we awake,
And borne before an everlasting Judge,
From whence no passenger ever returned,
The undiscovered country, at whose sight
The happy smile, and the accursed damn'd.
But for this, the joyful hope of this,
Who'd bear the scorns and flattery of the world,
Scorned by the right rich, the rich cursed of the poor?
The widow being oppressed, the orphan wrong'd,
The taste of hunger, or a tyrants reign,
And thousand more calamities besides,
To grunt and sweat under this weary life,
When that he may his full Quietus make,
With a bare bodkin, who would this endure,
But for a hope of something after death?
Which puzzles the brain, and doth confound the sense,
Which makes us rather bear those evils we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of.
Aye that, O this conscience makes cowards of us all,
Lady in thy orizons, be all my sins remembered

Fudging the issue

I find I need some sort of a system in the kitchen. Maybe for "the kitchen" read "life". If I have to put flour, yeast, salt and seeds into a bowl, the slightest distraction is enough to wipe my memory completely, and I can find myself wondering if I put the salt and the yeast in, or was it just the salt? Or just the yeast? Nell has a good trick, which is to distribute all the bits around different parts of the bowl, so it is clear what is in and what is not.

Likewise when did I put the bread in the oven? Was it "5 to" or "5 past"? I can easily find myself with no idea how long the bread has been in. On the other hand, I am surprisingly good at getting up to check the clock at just about the right time - when the bread needs turning, or taking out. So maybe inside every temporally challenged man there is a time and motion expert trying to get out. But I don't think so.

At least I am not alone in this constant struggle with memory. We made a couple of batches of hot cross buns at the mill on Good Friday. The first batch needed to be "crossed" when we were part way through preparing the second batch. So we stopped working on the second batch before adding the water, and came back to them when we'd dealt with the first batch. The three of us all agreed we were up to the point of adding the water, and it was only some time later that we realised we had all forgotten to add the sugar. Unlike my scones last week, this was a salvageable mistake, and we simply worked the sugar in. Ah, the happy ending!

The loneliness of the long distance flour bagger

A few weeks ago I had a trip out with Stuart the miller to deliver some spelt to a customer. Getting the 20 kg of spelt bagged up in a nice new sack was my job - just about my level in some ways, and a surprisingly soothing activity for the brain. A lot of the music I listen to is slow and repetitive. There's obviously something about this kind of activity that suits my brain!

What really surprised me was how hard it was to keep track of where I was up to, while carrying out a mundane and repetitive task. Try listening to this for about a minute, and see if you can remember how it started.

There are a number of weighing scales at the mill, but the heavy duty ones are a bit of a puzzle to use, and we are not entirely sure all the bits are present and correct. So weighing a relatively small amount of flour on a large set of scales would be a bit too error prone to be attempted with confidence. There is a smaller set of scales which are fine for bagging up flour in 600 g and 1.5 kg bags, so I opted to use these to weigh out my 20 kg.

500 g of flour is pretty well all the scoop can hold, so 20 kg is forty scoops' worth. Hmmm. Surely it can't be that hard to count up to 40 ... can it? After two scoops I decided discretion was the better part of valour. Rather than find myself all at sea with half a sack of flour weighed out...

I thought I'd better start keeping a record. Not having my worry beans with me, I decided to start taking notes. I started off confidently enough, my plan being to make a note every time I had weighed out one kg. Weigh one scoop, do nothing; weigh one scoop, write it down; weigh one scoop, do nothing; weigh one scoop, write it down. What could possibly go wrong?

Frailty thy name is memory

When I got to the third scoop, I blinked. Was this the third or the fourth? It was Groundhog Day all over. I decided it was the third, and went ahead and weighed the fourth. But then the rot set in. Not to mention the panic. Eventually I weighed the sack! 2.4 kg. So what did that mean? Four scoops with lots of experimental error? Or was I really on to five scoops already, but wildly under-weighing? At this point the cold sweat started. Should I empty the sack and start again? Did I have a choice? Then I had a brainwave: weigh an empty sack! It tipped the scales at 300g, so I concluded that I had done four scoops and been a bit generous. Nobody likes a short pint.

In the end I decided there was really no alternative to recording every scoop as I weighed it. I who have a brain the size of a house, effectively ready reckoning on an abacus! Still, better safe than sorry. Just a bit of a wake up call, that's all!

When we delivered the flour to our customer, I found myself rather envious of this scale in pride of place on the window sill. This baby has a full set of imperial weights, and a rather charming needle in between the two pans to indicate the balance.

 Anybody got any interesting scales at home? And if you are baking the rye and raisin loaf this Friday, don't forget to soak your raisins on Thursday!