Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Sponge, oats and sourdough

This week at Bread of Heron, the Heron Corn Mill's community bread making group, we got back to basics and had a go at using a "sponge". We also dipped our toes into flatbreads, which I am sure is an area we will be revisiting before too long. Cuppas arrived early this week.

Spongeing for flavour and a strong texture

Spongeing is a very traditional way of making bread, and is quite easy to do. It does seem to cause confusion, which may explain why not everyone has tried it before. I suppose the other reason is that you do need to be just a little bit organised, and start thinking about your bread the day before you want to bake. Personally I seem to be thinking about bread all the time, so that's not a problem!

I always do a sponge now, and it's simply become a part of the process as far as I'm concerned. And if I can get organised enough to do it, believe me, anyone can!

The River Cottage Handbook on bread (by Daniel Stevens) suggests mixing half the flour and all the water and yeast the night before you want to bake, and then adding the salt and the rest of the flour next day. That would be called a "half sponge". Others suggest mixing just a quarter of the flour, half the water and half the yeast the night before, which is called a "quarter sponge".

There always seems to be more than one way to do anything when it comes to bread, and I don't think it really matters if you do a quarter sponge or a half sponge, or if you put all the yeast in the day before or just half of it. The main thing is to give some yeast the chance to start breaking down some flour and give it plenty of water to slosh around in and absolutely no salt to worry about.

If you only have a few hours to spare, then your yeast will have a few hours to get to work on the flour. If you go mad and make your sponge a couple of  days in advance, it will still be OK. The sponge activity will probably slow down to virtually nothing after a few hours - just as a sourdough culture goes into hibernation in the fridge when it's had its fill of the available flour. But it won't die off completely, and will spring back to life when the rest of the flour eventually drops into the mixing bowl, like manna from heaven.

Adding extra yeast along with the rest of the flour definitely gives the dough a bit of a kick start, but just adding more flour will certainly get the yeast going again.

Our sponged bread

Master Chef has a lot to answer for. Cooking against the clock, and against each other for that matter, is not the right way to cook, it seems to me. Once you start going down that road, it isn't long before you start cutting every corner there is to cut so that you can do a roast-beef-dinner-style meal in 30 minutes. Look where it got the British baking industry - the Chorleywood process is a high speed nightmare we are only just starting to wake up from.

Once you get into the way of thinking that says bread takes as long as it takes, it becomes an easy choice to give the yeast a bit of quality time with the flour before you get down to making the dough. And if the yeast gets some extra time the day before baking, why not give the dough a bit more rising time before going in the oven?

We heard from one baker this week that a combination of spongeing and letting the dough rise longer meant that the same amount of dough that used to produce one large loaf is now happily stretching to two medium sized loaves. At the mill, it all went into one tin -

And it certainly rose in the oven. In this next picture, you can see where it fell back a little bit when the top of the loaf touched the shelf above -

We like adding bits and pieces for the sake of texture and contrast. The middle loaf above was nicely coated in seeds, and several loaves this week had seeds, flakes and cracked grains inside as well.

The shepherd's hut gets quite cosy with the oven on, so we sometimes need to open a window or two. And the door gets opened occasionally if anyone pops in from the barn. So we have to be careful to avoid draughts upsetting the bread as it rises. We generally cover it with a tea towel or a plastic bag. The little greenhouse in the next picture has the advantage that the bread is unlikely to stick to the top. And you can easily see what is going on inside. A regular little eco system, in fact. 

 Flatbreads ad lib

We've been doing two recipes each week at Bread of Heron. At first we all did the same recipe, or as near as we could. But there has always been a main recipe and a secondary recipe. The bread is always the main thing, and then we try something alongside it, which hopefully takes a bit less time and effort. In practice if you find yourself being pushed for time or oven space, you can find yourself wondering why you bothered! So this week we relaxed things a little on the secondary recipe, and everybody chose something they really wanted to do. This little piece of psychology seemed to work quite well, and everyone was a bit more relaxed. Crucially it gave me the option of not doing pitta breads again! My pitta stockings have become something of a legend - and not in a good way.


If you have been following Bouran's contributions to the blog, you'll have come across za'atar as a topping for flatbreads, and much else besides. It's basically a herby mixture with a bit of a spicy kick as well. You can get it from Oxfam and Single Step in Lancaster, both of which have a small place reserved on their shelves for Palestinian produce.

You stretch the dough out into one big circle or two smaller ones, as the fancy takes you -

Or four very little ones if you prefer -

And when it's risen a bit and is ready to go in the oven, sprinkle some za'atar on the top. Some like it hot -

Others go for a hint of a tint -

Nell has been very enthusiastic about za'atar and maneesh for some time, and with Bouran championing it from Palestine I think we will be seeing more of this in the future.


This is a fun loaf to make, and relatively easy to do. The only problem really is the very wet dough. When I made this on my Staff of Life baking day, Simon Thomas encouraged us to make it as wet as we liked. "You can't really make it too wet" he said, and then added, when he saw how much water I'd put in, "that does look a bit wet though". And then you add a huge amount of olive oil. We put in 70 ml for 250 g of flour. That's a lot.

Kneading the dough is hard work when it's this wet. Simon's suggestion was to make a claw with one hand and beat it by hand like you were beating eggs. This seems to work quite well, and you get a stretchy, squidgy dough at the end of it, which you can roughly stretch out to the shape of your tray and leave it to rise.

The fun starts when the bread has risen. You punch holes all over the top with your fingers. Ideally you should push some rosemary in each hole as you do it, but it's much more fun to do the holes first at high speed and then add the rosemary as a fiddly afterthought.

I think the trick to getting the holes to stay open is to let the bread rise quite well before you puncture the top. Surprisingly, the bottom loaf in this next picture was in the oven for 3 minutes more than the one at the top. Either we have a cool shelf in the oven, or something was different. Maybe the bottom loaf had more oil in? Who knows? I'm sure they both tasted good, anyway! 

Pitta bread

This is something of a bĂȘte noire for me! My only attempt at making them resulted in some of the longest flat breads in recorded history. But these ones came out looking and tasting great - 

They really puffed up in the oven too -

Ivan Day's talk on Cumbrian flatbreads

Who could resist a talk with the title "Bakestones and Clapcake: Girdle cakes and flat breads in rural Cumbria 1570-1960"? I couldn't, so I trotted along to the Kendal Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry to see what was occurring.

Ivan Day is a well known speaker, and has appeared at Heron Corn Mill as well as guest spots on TV in any number of food programmes.

He came well prepared, and had some oat cakes (soft "Cumbrian chapattis" and crispy "Kendal poppadums") that he had prepared during the day. He also had some yeasted batter at the sponge stage which he used to demonstrate making the soft cakes. He brought the batter to the museum in a round brown pot of the kind my mum cooked her famous rabbit pie in.

He also mixed up some unyeasted dough to demonstrate making his clap cake. This fragile crispy wafer is clapped out with the palm of the hand on a slightly curved work surface until it is impossibly thin. It's then transferred to a hot girdle using a wood and iron peel. Once cooked on one side, it is slid back onto the peel and flipped over to cook the second side. Then it is stood up on a wooden stand in front of the fire to crisp up. 

These are some of my first batch of soft oatcakes. Like a crumpet, an oatcake batter becomes quite active when it hits the heat. You can see the bubbles on the top cake. These form almost immediately when you are cooking the first side. The bottom cake shows the much tighter formation you see when you flip a cake over to cook the second side.


We have been puzzling for some time about how we can do sourdough bread at Bread of Heron. Because it takes so long, there is no way it will fit into a morning session. Even a day long session is pushing it. When Nell and Stuart went on a sourdough course recently, they got their sourdough as far as the proving basket during the day of the course, and had to leave it overnight to be baked next day. Could this approach help us solve our sourdough dilemma?

I decided to try the basic idea out this week, so I started some sourdough off at home on Thursday, the day before the bread group met in the shepherd's hut. I got it into the proving basket, and left it in the fridge at home overnight, covered with a tea towel.

On Friday morning I took it to the mill, and let it slowly wake up and get back to room temperature in the hut. I waited until the last of the group's bread was ready to go in the oven before turning my dough out of the basket. It was a little crusty when I eventually turned it out, because of the long exposure to the air. I should probably have made the tea towel damp before putting it in the fridge. And it was really stuck in the basket, so I had to be very careful and patient waiting for gravity to help me ease it out.

But - hallelujah! - my sourdough rose beautifully in the oven, and produced a marvellously crunchy crust, complete with lots of little blisters all over - even underneath.

And the texture (on the right) was nice and open.

So in theory, it is possible to make sourdough across two days and across two sites. There are a number of practical difficulties, though, and I can't see how we could do it as a group without putting aside a couple of days to do it in.

Nell brought in a 100% rye sourdough loaf and some Kendal Creamy cheese. This type of loaf is a bit of a tour de force. Getting rye flour to rise is a bit of a magic trick, as it has little or no gluten. And the result is strongly flavoursome, and packs a real punch. For those who like it, there is nothing to beat it. But some people really don't like the taste at all. So it's a bit of a niche market, but a really wonderful thing if you like it. I like it!

Sourdough disaster

Well, the fateful day has finally dawned. I suppose it was an accident waiting to happen. Sourdough is a young man's game. Once the memory starts to curl up at the edges, it's just a matter of time before you forget something really important, like putting your Bread of Heron pinny on before baking, putting the cat out before bed, or winding the grandfather clock.

Oedipus was lax in the business of taking care not to marry his mother. Lear was too soft with the kids. Lady Macbeth's hand-washing left something to be desired. My fatal weakness, it now appears, was my cavalier attitude towards taking back some of this week's sponge to be next week's starter.

Goodness knows, I had systems in place to make sure I always remembered. It says quite clearly on my "to do" list - 

  • put all of the starter from last week into the bowl and make a sponge
  • leave over night
  • take some sponge out into the spare plastic tub to act as next week's starter
  • add the rest of the flour and water, and all the salt to make the dough
But what use are systems, when there is room for human frailty? Alack the day! I have been struck down by that same nemesis that troubled Bloom in Ulysses (chapter 17). Arriving home at the end of a long day, he ...

"... inserted his hand mechanically into the back pocket of his
trousers to obtain his latchkey.
Was it there?
It was in the corresponding pocket of the trousers which he had worn on
the day but one preceding.
Why was he doubly irritated?
Because he had forgotten and because he remembered that he had reminded
himself twice not to forget."
Our common problem -
"defective mnemotechnic" 
He forgot to swap his key from one pair of trousers to the other when he had a funeral to go to. I have lost my sourdough culture because I forgot to move some of this week's sponge into the spare tub to be next week's starter.

We have talked more than once in the shepherd's hut about the lunacy of people giving their sourdough culture a name, a warm basket by the fire, a place at table - treating them like a pet in short, or a respected family member. Well, until you have lost your starter, you just don't know what it feels like. It's considerably worse than losing your mojo.

This week's bread marks the end of an era. That unique strain of sourdough that has been living and breathing in my fridge since 23rd October 2011 (and a good decade at Staff of Life before that) is now defunct. I shall miss the dear old thing.

As Hamlet said in similar circumstances -

"He was a levain, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again."

Next week we start again.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Tramping to Grange

Last week we didn't have a meeting of Bread of Heron, the Heron Corn Mill's community bread group, because the whole mill team was out and about with our tramping project "On The Road". The idea is to take the mill on tour to people who might not have visited us before, and let them see what we do.

Much as tradesmen in earlier times had to hit the road in search of work, we are packing our bags and taking our skills and ourselves "on the road" to a number of places round our area this spring and summer. We're putting on all-day events in a number of village halls, with a pop-up cafe, home made bread, hand-milling, talks about the mill, and 3 mini-plays on tramping themes. We're also displaying the SEWN project's magnificent banner, seen here as the backdrop to one of the plays.

This week it was the turn of Grange Over Sands, and we set up in the Institute during the day -

and decamped in the evening to the Keg and Kitchen for the plays and a well earned drink.

We had a steady stream of visitors throughout the day, including some young ones, which is always encouraging. Catch them young and they'll be bakers for life. I had a big lump of dough on the table top, and encouraged people to have a go at kneading for fun -

but the good people of Grange were having none of it. To a man woman and child, they preferred to sample the really rather fantastic offerings at the table next door, where the home made cakes and filled rolls with Nell's excellent home made chutney were the best deal available in Grange on the day.

Talking about home made butties reminds me of when I used to keep the score at the local cricket club. It was a well paid job in those days - 2/6 (12.5p) for the whole day when we were playing at home, and 5/- (25p) when we were playing away. Oh, and as many home made butties as you could get down you during the tea interval between innings.

The plays went very well in the cosy downstairs bar area of the Keg and Kitchen, and we rolled out the bread to be sampled again with some Kendal Creamy cheese provided by Low Sizergh Barn. The punters' preference in the evening was surprisingly for a loaf which we couldn't immediately identify, but which by a process of elimination was found to be a yeasted white 'n' rye (two thirds white).

The rye flour from Heron Corn Mill has been selling strongly, and is proving to be excellent in bread. The Heron now boasts a full range of wheat, spelt and rye, which is a major achievement. Well milled Stuart! Because of the difficulty of buying grain in small quantities, Stuart is having to try different varieties of each grain, depending on what is available. While this is a bit of a headache for him, it is very interesting for the bakers, because we can see what each variety is like. The spelt in particular is quite different from one variety to another, and this rye is certainly an exciting baking addition.

Nell did a 100% rye sourdough and a yeasted rye 'n' white (two thirds rye) for the Grange event. I was really impressed with these, not least because there was such a difference in style between them. Although they both used the same flour, the yeasted one had a rich flavour and almost cakey texture, while the well risen sourdough was firm and tangy, without the wild acidity that it can get if it "goes native". A couple of customers who hadn't had a heavy duty sourdough before were rather taken aback by the full-on flavour of this one, but that is only to be expected. And the people who knew where this was coming from really enjoyed it. I know I did!

The great divide between hardened sourdough lovers and those innocents who take a sharp intake of breath and gasp "Sour! Ough!" reminds me of a short holiday we had in Vienna. Our landlady suggested a couple of authentic coffee shops we should try, which we duly did.

The first coffee shop, called Demel, was a bit of a dream for cakeists and coffaholics alike. There are some mouthwatering pictures here. If you want plush, this is it. Service was exemplary, and the cake and coffee were really heavenly.

The second coffee shop was called Cafe Hawelka -

This is just as famous as Demel, but about as unlike it as you could imagine. Total apathy from the waiter, bordering on disdain for the clientele, and frankly ordinary fare. The waiter would doubtless say "and your point is?". The point is that coffee houses like this one are strictly for those who like that kind of thing. Not for me, this one, much like the sourdough for the uninitiated nibblers in Grange. I told our landlady that I didn't think much of Cafe Hawelka, and she just laughed and said she wanted us to try them both so we would realise how broad the "coffee shop" concept is.

Nell's two rye breads, both magnificent examples in their own very different ways, beautifully demonstrated what a broad concept baking with rye is.

What can you do with a spare loaf?

This Saturday's Guardian had a nice article about using up stale bread. There's a soup, pasta, gnocchi and bread pudding. All Italian ideas as far as I can see. I tried out the spaghetti with anchovy breadcrumbs this week, and it is pretty good and extremely easy to do. The soup is one I've done myself for years, and it is a nice looking thing -

How is it the Italians can see all this in a humble loaf of bread, and we as a nation are simply known as "Rosbifs"?

Notes from Palestine

This week our special correspondent Bouran tells us about the second kind of traditional oven where she lives. Over to you, Bouran.
The other kind of Palestinian traditional bread is called 'Shrak' where the same dough texture of Taboun is used but the method of baking is different. It is usually baked on something which is similar to a Chinese wok put upside down on wood fire and the loaves would be baked on both sides in a few seconds. These loaves are usually very thin and large. My late grandmother used to bake Shrak when we visited them in their vineyard. Shrak is not as crispy as the Taboun but the smoky flavour makes them as divine as Taboun.
Shrak bread -
Shrak oven -
I told Bouran I had seen a lady cooking on a shrak at Pamukkale, an amazing Roman site in Turkey. The whole area is covered in calcium deposits from natural spring water. The water also feeds into this swimming pool which is full of broken Roman columns -

The shrak was just by the pool - a very smart fast food operation! This was what Bouran had to say -

Your experience of seeing a woman baking Shrak in Turkey is just another testimony that our bread and food culture in the Arab countries are heavily influenced by the Ottomans who occupied most of the Arab countries for nearly 500 years!

And finally - a random menu

Despite the London illustration, this is a 1940s lunch menu from the wonderful Elizabeth Botham tea room in Whitby. Looks like a good three course meal with coffee for 2/6 (12.5p) but if you felt like pushing the boat out a bit - and loosening the belt a notch or two - an extra 6d (2.5p) would add a fish course and cheese and biscuits! Those were the days.

Monday, 11 May 2015

National Mills Weekend again

Life's rich patisserie

This week at Bread of Heron, the Heron Corn Mill's community bread group, we were baking a rye loaf and an apricot couronne. Both recipes had their challenges.

All-rye bread

Rye flour has little or no gluten. If you try making a loaf with 100% rye flour and nothing else, you risk getting a 100% brick. It is possible to get a sourdough all-rye loaf to rise to a reasonable level, but it takes a very long time and is likely to be very sour by the time it is ready to go in the oven.

The basic all-rye loaf is a Russian black bread. This sometimes comes with seeds like coriander added for crunch and tang, not that tang is in short supply. The classic Borodinsky all-rye loaf has coriander seeds and fruit.

Rye flour soaks up much more water than other flour, which just adds to the heaviness and density of a 100% rye loaf. Because it is really heavy, the top is likely to be completely flat like this -

If you see a rye loaf with a dome shape like this -

then you can be sure there is something else as well as rye flour in the mix. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but if you want the real McCoy, you should go for a flat topped loaf.

Here are two nuggets of wisdom, learned through bitter experience. If you learn from my mistakes, you could save yourself a lot of trouble!

  • Before buying a tandem, hire one.
  • Before baking an all-rye loaf, buy one.

Making a rye smile

Rye needs a bit of help getting up in the morning. The usual thing is to cut the rye flour with something else. Depending on what effect you want, you might choose to replace anything from 25% to 75% of the rye flour with strong white flour.

Mixing 25% rye flour and 75% strong white gives a slightly grey loaf with a light texture and a noticeable rye flavour. This is a common approach in Germany.

Mixing 25% strong white flour and 75% rye gives you a good chance of getting the loaf to rise without losing the dark colour and deep flavour of rye. This is what we did in the shepherd's hut. But by adding a sweet element in the shape of treacle, molasses or malted barley, we made something closer to a tea-loaf.

Unlike loaves made with more glutinous flour, the first rise (such as it is) doesn't involve a vigorous kneading: there's no point. You just bring it together into a rough ball and let it get started. After resting for an hour, there was just a little gas in the dough. This was my rye loaf taking an hour out before being kneaded.

After the hour's rest, it looked much the same and lost most of its gas when I started kneading. It was a lot like kneading a piece of play dough - quite a workout! Nonetheless, the group produced some very pleasing loaves from this recipe. This belter was first out, and has what I think is rather a "trendy haircut" look -

I think this interesting effect is a combination of a fairly hot oven - the shepherd's hut oven generally seems to cook a little quicker than the recipe says - and a heavy duty Heron bread tin. Here's one coming out now -

I managed to make mine stick to the tin, but I still loved the little fellow, and the flavour is heavenly. This is certainly a recipe I'll be doing again.

At this point the train separated. The front carriages took the couronne branch, while Nell and I shunted off into the sidings to prepare some bread for the upcoming National Mills Weekend.

Apricot couronne

The couronne was a very ambitious choice. The dough needs to rise strongly to lift the apricot filling and the whole business of shaping the loaf is pretty fiddly. I was really impressed with the dexterity and skill people showed when putting their couronnes together, and to be honest I was glad it was them and not me doing it! 

Having taken a deep breath, you make the dough into a rectangle and spread the filling along the middle. Then roll it up into a long tube and cut it in half lengthwise, letting the two halves lie next to each other. This means the filling is exposed. Then you get hold of one end of both pieces in one hand, and the other end of both pieces in the other hand. Finally twist clockwise with one hand and anticlockwise with the other hand, as if you were wringing out a wet towel. You now have something like a long piece of barley sugar, twisted all along the length. Bring the two ends together and join them into a ring. And relax.

Everybody got a really good looking celebration loaf to take home, as these pictures show.

This one was decorated at home with a final touch of sparkle -

Grandma Gabe's caraway seed bread

This recipe came from my mother in law way back in 1982. As it recently turned up in a box in the attic, I decided to try it out again for the National Mills Weekend at Heron Corn Mill.

It's a very wet dough, so Grandma Gabe used to squelch it around in a washing up bowl rather than kneading it in the usual sense.

The other strong characteristic of this bread is the flavour of caraway seed. It is a marmite among bread additions - you either love it or you hate it. I love it, but my wife has only recently acquired the taste, and it hasn't been made at home for over thirty years. If my luck holds, and we are genuninely entering a new age of caraway tolerance, I hope to be making this once in a while for ever, as it is really gorgeous.

By my calculations in clocks in at 77% hydration, so it is definitely "on message" in terms of wetterness is betterness.

Here from the Taylor archives is the original card index - the official medium for hand-me-down family recipes. It has that extra edge of authenticity, don't you think? 

Roughly translated, the recipe reads like this -


4 tins well greased with 1.5 oz (42 g) melted butter


3 lb (1,362 g) brown wholemeal flour
2 flat tablespoons (30 g) dried yeast
1 flat tablespoon (15 g) salt
2 pints (1,120 ml / g) blood heat water (0.5 pint boiling water, 1.5 pints cold water)
1 flat tablespoon (15 g) caraway seeds
2 flat tablespoons (30 g) linseed
1.5 oz (42 g) melted butter for greasing 4 tins


Put powdered yeast into basin with brown sugar mixed with wooden spoon
Add 0.25 pint blood heat water to the above (keep rest of water covered up)
Put this mixture covered up to warm place to "sponge" (e.g. very very low oven)
Grease tins
Weigh out exactly 3 lb flour (1,362 g) into washing up bowl and add a tablespoon (flat) of salt, and other ingredients to flour
Add the above to "sponged" yeast with the wooden spoon
Knead for 15 mins with radio
Divide into 4 sections and put into tins covered with tea towels or paper towels
Leave in a warm place for 1 hour
When bread nearly up to top of tin, BAKE at gas mark 6 for 40-45 mins, preheat oven for 10 mins

There are several vintage touches that I love here.

"Knead for 15 mins with radio"

I feel your pain! What better to take your mind off the agony of kneading 2.5 kg of wet dough than listening to the BBC Home Service, or perhaps Test Match Special?

And the obsession with the wooden spoon! What's that all about?

Whatever you do, don't forget to grease those tins!

Isn't it great to do the kneading in a washing up bowl? I actually turned this out onto the work top, and had a fine time kneading it with stretching movements, rather than pushing movements. This video shows you a very clever stretching method of kneading, demonstrated by the rather brilliant M. Bertinet. He is working with a 70% hydration dough, and mine was 77%, so you can imagine my dough was considerably wetter than his!

This bread is special, so there is no excuse for cutting any corners at all. First off, get the best flour you can get - Heron Corn Mill wholemeal wheat for example -

Then don't stint on the kneading. With so much water it will seem like a bit of a nightmare at first, but a good kneading and the generous amount of yeast the recipe calls for will ensure that the bread rises well.

The bread has so much water in that it won't have the strength to create a domed top: you should only expect to see a flat top, but it will get towards the top of the tin. 

The real joy of this bread is the flavour. The dough is rich and nutty, and the caraway adds a hefty dollop of tangy flavour on top. A real desert island loaf! Now where's that marmalade?

Notes from Palestine

This week our special correspondent Bouran introduces us to the first of two traditional kinds of oven used to make flat breads.


There are two types of bread in Palestine: first the peasant type of bread which is called Taboun / Tabon where special ovens made of mud and straw are set up and then wrapped up with a layer of wood fire ashes. It resembles the shape of a shallow well the surface of which is covered with pebbles that are heated so they would form the base heat for baking and crisping up the bread. This bread is usually made of wet yeasted dough, then flattened and thrown into these special ovens for a few minutes. The pebbles will give this kind of bread its distinctive shape. 
This is what Taboun bread looks like -
This is a Taboun oven from outside -

Image result for taboon oven
Taboun oven from inside -

Another type of Taboun oven from inside -

Compare Baroun's second type of taboun (which looks like a more modern version to me) with this Indian tandoor -

Back to Bouran for more details about the Taboun -

Heat source 

The heat for the Taboun comes from the outside. I did ask dad more about how this outside heat works out for the Taboun, and he said once the Taboun structure is built, a process which may take weeks as Taboun need to dry along the way of building up, a hole is usually dug into the ground, then the Taboun is tucked in there leaving its opening above the ground. Then basalt type of small stones are used to cover the base of it. A special metal lid with a handle is usually made to seal off the Taboun. Once that is completed, the whole structure will be covered with the materials used to set up the fire and therefore heat up the Taboun. Interestingly, and unlike Tandour, or Tanour as we call it in the Middle East, the flaming materials used in slowly and gradually heating up the Taboun are traditionally hay combined with the remains of olives pits that come out of pressing olives in the process of making olive oil. Those remaining hard pits were taken and left to dry out in the sun before being used in heating up Taboun. Those farmers were amazingly very smart in their conception of recycling and going green.
But why dried olive pits in particular? As I understand it, these helped preserve the heat surrounding Taboun walls over longer periods. A newly built Taboun had to go through a warming up stage for at least 2 days prior to its first use for baking. Then it had to be preheated twice a day: once at night and therefore would be ready for baking in the following morning, and another time in the afternoon when another batch of baking/ cooking needed to be done in the evening. Yes, Taboun was not only used for baking, but also (as Sue said about her grandfather the baker) Palestinians used it for roasting meat, vegetables, nuts, coffee beans etc.

This warming up stage will all sound familiar to anyone who has used a Baxi or Rayburn oven. Stoke it up at night to burn slowly, and then give it a good raking through in the morning and some fresh fuel to get it going again. Not unlike refreshing a sourdough, in fact.

And the tabour is not alone in needing two days to get up to baking heat. This brick built oven, which has a large room to itself in Lanhydrock country house also needed two days to get hot, and needed to be kept going the whole time, like a steel works.

The traditional way of timing the bread in ancient ovens was to seal the door with a line of dough. When the bread on the outside of the oven was done, the bread on the inside was done too.


Building the taboun oven under ground and covering it with the fire sounds very much like the gypsy method of baking hedgehogs wrapped in clay and covered with hot ashes. By the looks on these faces, hedgehog must be a tasty dish!

While we are on the subject of hedgehogs, there is a nice little company called Hodmedod's Great British Peas and Beans. Hodmedod is an old East Anglian word. In Suffolk it means a snail, but in Norfolk it means a hedgehog. The two meanings share the idea of something that rolls up.

Hodmedod's main product is fava beans, which I think would be familiar to Bouran. They are known here as broad beans. They date right back to several thousand B.C. and they are good for the soil as well as the digestive system.

What to do when you have made too much bread

I was hoping to show you a picture of some really good looking sourdough I saw in Fortnum and Mason's last week. It's free to look, and not too expensive really at £3.95 a loaf. But unfortunately there doesn't seem to be a picture anywhere that I can mercilessly rip off. So I hereby offer you instead Jane Austen's mum's recipe in verse for bread and butter pudding.

I think we should share ideas about what to do with left over bread. There are plenty of Italian salads and soups designed to use up ends of bread. Maybe we could start with a few of those. But the time has come for you guys out there to cough up some suggestions.

And when do we consider that bread needs using up anyway? I reckon my bread stays fresh for a good week. So I am not at all shocked to read that Molly Bloom - a girl after my own heart! - liked her bread a day old (Ulysses chapter 4).

"Boland's breadvan delivering with trays our daily but she prefers yesterday's loaves turnovers crisp crowns hot."

Hope you enjoyed National Mills Weekend this week!