Saturday, 2 September 2017

Sourdough September - "how charmingly middle class, mate"

The Food Chain programme on the wonderful BBC World Service had an episode on 28 August 2017 which was all about bread, and what it, if anything, our choice of bread says about us.

This caught my attention because only recently I had been trying to work out what, if anything, our choice of flour says about us. (Scroll down this blog to the previous post entitle "Rolled or ground".) My conclusion about flour was that we British find it hard to be objective about the relationship between quality, value and cost. Most food buying in this country is done on the basis of cost.

The radio programme, rather disappointingly I thought, came to the conclusion that people who break out of the cost-driven shopping model, and pay considerably more for sourdough bread than they could pay for sliced white, are really buying an aspiration. Not an aspiration to eat better bread, but to eat what better (or at least better class) people eat. I find this rather horrible really - social mobility through sourdough!

So I would like to challenge this idea, that people buy - or even, God forbid! - make sourdough bread because it shows other people what discerning buyers they are. Hands off my sourdough! I make it because I like it, and it is good for me, and it is something that has been made this way since the year dot. I make it because people earlier in the food chain are as passionate about growing good grain, and grinding (not rolling) good flour as I am about making good bread.

A few weeks ago, I had a day in Manchester, riding the Metro like a big kid, and shopping at my favourite shops, for my favourite foods. I was really not doing anybody any harm, and I was genuinely enjoying having access to the kind of food products that only a big town can provide. But I still managed to come up against the thorny issue of class. I'll tell you how it was.

My favourite shops in Manchester are The Unicorn Co-Operative Grocery, and Venus Foods. No trip to Manchester is really complete without a visit to at least one of these, and a curry at the Al-Faisal Tandoori in the Northern Quarter.

On this particular visit, I had been to The Unicorn in the morning, and filled a rucksack with good healthy ingredients - beans, pulses, flour, flakes and the like. Like a squirrel caching nuts, I had taken the Metro back up to the north of Manchester, to the park and ride where I had left the car, and off-loaded everything to make room for more good things in my rucksack when I went to Venus Foods in the afternoon. Lunchtime, I need hardly add, involved stopping off at Al-Faisal for a curry.

When I got to Venus Foods, number one on my shopping list was a large tin of olive oil. They often have very good offers on Greek or Italian oils here, and I was hoping to find some Kolymvari Gold, one of my favourites - nutty, and dark green, and reminiscent of a family holiday in Crete, at Maleme, just along the coast from Kolymvari. They didn't have any, so I spent a little while considering how big a tin (3 litres or 5 litres) of the Eleanthos oil to buy. The tin just says this is Greek oil, but I have subsequently found out that it is actually from Kalamata, so its provenance is almost as specific as the Kolymvari oil.


While I was looking at the oil shelf, a young chap came and stood near me, doing just the same kind of shopping as me. We had a chat about the oil, and went our separate ways. When I got to the till, clutching my 3 litre tin, the same young chap went by, also clutching a 3 litre tin. We had another chat, and he told me about some good shops in Whalley Range, where he lived. I said I was from Chorlton originally (just up the road from Whalley Range), so I knew which shops he meant. He looked a little less happy when I mentioned Chorlton, which is a more affluent part of Manchester than Whalley Range, but I didn't think anything of it. But when I returned his favour of telling me about his favourite shops, by telling him that I'd been to The Unicorn in the morning, his whole demeanour changed. He looked at me rather coldly, and said "how delightfully middle class, mate", with quite an emphasis on the "mate", and walked off, leaving me feeling somewhat like Neil Kinnock in 1989 - kebabbed!

So what was this all about, really, and what has it to do with Sourdough September?

Sadly, two people who both enjoy shopping at Indian general stores and Turkish supermarkets, and both bought 3 litres of good olive oil, managed to fall out over a workers' co-op selling fresh fruit and veg, and beans and grains grown without fertilisers. I love it and the simple values (and good value by the way) that it represents, but the other chap sees it as a posh shop selling trendy food for posh people.

And many people see sourdough as expensive bread for posh people who have money to throw away. Apparently, this includes the presenter of the BBC programme about bread - note the question at the bottom of this picture -

But all this simply misses the point. Sourdough is completely different from sliced white. And sourdough came first, don't forget! So the question should really be not -
"why eat sourdough at three times the price instead of normal bread?"
but rather -
"why eat tasteless soggy chemical filled 'bread' instead of proper bread at all?"
The BBC programme asks the question "have you ever felt ashamed of your sliced white?". But my encounter in Venus Foods made me feel as if I should feel ashamed of my olive oil, my stoneground flour, my organic beans - my whole value system in fact. Well I don't! And I won't!

Let's enjoy Sourdough September for what it is - a celebration of simple ingredients, simply made with care and love. And let's enjoy sourdough bread for what it is - healthy, tasty, satisfying, and by the way, quite challenging to get right.

I'm going to be doing 2 Sourdough Saturdays at the Heron Corn Mill during the month of Sourdough September. A small group of us will be making sourdough together in the shepherd's hut. I've been recording a series of short videos on YouTube, showing how I am getting on with preparing my existing wheat starter and a brand new rye starter so they are in tip-top condition when we bake with them. You can find the videos on my YouTube channel. Each one has a number, so you can start at number 01 if you like, or just dip in to the more recent ones (15 so far!).

And please, when it comes to Sourdough Saturday at the Heron Corn Mill, let's have none of this  "how charmingly middle class, mate": it's just good ingredients, good baking, good food, and good fun.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Rolled or ground?

We bakers at Bread of Heron, the Heron Corn Mill's community bread group, are extremely lucky to have our own working mill to explore and learn from. A big part of the mill's function is to get local people and visitors to look at what they have in front of them - history, heritage, culture, natural beauty and man-made functionality. And the best bit of course is that the mill actually is functioning, after the best part of 300 years!

So what about the flour that is produced at Heron Corn Mill? Just for fun, I thought I would compare a bake using Heron Corn Meal flour to a similar bake using Tesco's stoneground wholemeal flour.


On the face of it, my experiment is comparing like with like. Both flours are made from the whole of the grain - 100% of the grain is extracted into the flour, nothing is taken out and nothing is added. Both flours are stoneground, so they are both made by crushing the grain between two stones. So both should produce good, healthy, tasty bread. And they do. Up to this point there is not a lot to choose between the flours.

But there must be some differences. After all, the Tesco flour is retailing at £1.10 a bag. Stuart probably can't even get the grain for that price, let alone produce the flour. Heron Corn Mill flour retails at £3 a bag. It's quite a difference, so how is it justified?

Actually, I don't think it needs to be justified: we are very lucky to have the choice to buy it. Tesco's or any of the other supermarkets certainly don't offer a product which you can see being made, in the traditional way it has been made for centuries, and where you can talk to the person who is producing it, ask where the grain comes from, and learn all about the milling process and the history of the mill itself. The fact that Heron flour is being produced at the mill, and that we can buy it, offers us a connection to a basic aspect of a simpler life back through the ages.

Buying by price

But choosing which flour to use is not a clear cut case of price alone. It is a very English problem, that we can't look objectively at two products and compare them without being influenced by the price to look more favourably on the cheaper product. If you go to Italy, you will see good quality polenta, for instance, selling for three or four times as much as a cheaper alternative, sitting side by side on the same shelf, both selling well, and being used for different situations. Good bread selling at 6 euros a kilo would simply not be compared to a sliced white (if such a thing exists in Italy) on the basis of price: the difference is as much about quality as price. Unfortunately, twice as expensive may only mean a little bit better! In England, quality producers can only hope their product won't be compared to cheaper alternatives on price alone.

Start with the grain

Stuart buys grain from farmers that he knows and has spoken to personally. They are generally growing their crops organically, without chemicals. They are not necessarily certified as organic growers, because that actually costs quite a lot of money. How ironic that far from being held up by the organic movement as shining examples, farmers who are farming organically are effectively being excluded from it by cost.

Tesco's flour (and most other supermarket flours) is anonymous. You don't know how it was grown, who by, which country even. It may be perfectly good, but you just don't know. So one part of the value of the £3 Heron Corn Mill flour is traceability.


Then as for quality, it is perfectly clear that a bag of flour that costs £1.10 has been sourced on price. It may well be perfectly well treated all the way through to the supermarket shelf, but it cannot have been made from a grain whose quality merited any kind of a premium. The cheapness of the flour undoubtedly reflects the cheapness of the grain. It isn't always true that you get what you pay for, but if you want to get something worth having, it is generally the case that you have to pay for what you get.

Let the grain take the strain - or preferably not

What about processing? Both Tesco's and Heron Corn Mill flour is stoneground. Is there a difference there? I don't know for sure, but I somehow think that Tesco's are unlikely to be using water power to grind their grain at the rate of about an hour per 25 kg sack. I am guessing there is a very large pile of grain being processed rather quicker by a very 21st century version of millstones. They will almost certainly be turned by electric engines - nothing wrong with that, but it does allow the miller to choose how fast to process the grain. Short of doing a rain dance, Stuart has very limited scope for adjusting the speed that the mill runs. He can slow the flow of water down, but he can't speed it up. Obviously faster processing of the grain keeps the cost of the flour down. As Tesco's flour is sold at rock bottom price, it is a fair assumption that it is probably ground relatively fast. The trouble with that is that the grain gets hotter if you process it faster - or harder for that matter: if the stones are closer together, they crush the grain harder.


The main difference in terms of quality between traditional stone milling and modern roller milling is how the wheatgerm is processed. This is the very best part of the grain, and it is the most volatile. In particular the oil can be damaged by heat. In roller mills the wheatgerm is separated from the main part of the flour, and the oil it contains is largely lost in commercial flour, both white and wholemeal.

Harder, faster processing by stone milling could easily damage the oils because of the extra heat generated. I am not saying that the Tesco flour is affected in this way, but I am saying that the Heron Corn Mill flour definitely does contain all the oils from the wheatgerm, and it has been relatively gently processed.

The bake off

My favourite wholemeal loaf is based on my mother in law's recipe, and she in turn based hers on the Grant recipe from a 1944 book (see Elizabeth David English Bread and Yeast Cookery p 272).

The main thing about the original is that because it is made very wet it makes a no-knead approach possible. I found that by mixing some roller-milled wholemeal in with the Heron Corn Mill stone ground wholemeal flour, I could just about knead it properly, so I do this as a normal 2-rise bake. The results can be very good indeed.

The flour

Here is the flour I used for the Tesco loaf - Carr's at the top of the picture, Tesco's at the bottom -

And just for comparison, in this picture the Tesco's is to the left of this picture, Carr's to the right, and the much finer ground Heron Corn Mill flour in my hand -

The Tesco bread

Good flavour, and it rose very well, even with only half a tsp of yeast in the sponge and 1 tsp more in the dough for 3 loaves.I was able to work it properly, even at 80% hydration (800 g of water to 1000 g of flour), which is certainly saying something. That made 2 risings possible.

There is a nice open texture, and plenty of roughness from the big bits of bran etc. The only significant thing is the relative lack of sponge-iness and strength to stand up to the knife. Feels a bit pappy compared to the Heron Corn Mill / Carr's mixture. It had a full 52 mins in the oven - 12 at gas mark 9+ and 40 at 8. Tapping the bottom, which had been out of the tin for the last 10 mins of cooking gave a "just about" hollow sound - I'd probably give it another 5 minutes if I baked it again, although some people might say the top was already burnt. Personally I like a good dark crust. I included 15 g of brown sugar for 3 loaves, and this always seems to give a good crispy crust.

All in all, perfectly respectable bread.

The Heron Corn Mill bread

Overall I definitely prefer the Heron Corn Mill / Carr's mix. The Tesco benefits from a coarser grind, though, which might be something for Stuart the miller at Heron Corn Mill to think about. The Heron flour, with one third Carr's mixed in, gives great flavour, and the spongy inside is very compelling, I must say.

Getting the best out of Heron Corn Mill flour

My top tip for people trying the flour out first time - cut with Carr's and use lots of water.

And finally, here is an interesting article about how yeast has changed over the centuries, due in effect to selective breeding by brewers and bakers.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Learning about sourdough

September is for sourdough

Every September since 2013, the Real Bread Campaign has had a month long Sourdough September event to promote sourdough. At the Heron Corn Mill, we will be celebrating our second Sourdough September with an all-day sourdough adventure in the shepherd's hut.

Sourdough is definitely not for the faint-hearted, and the idea of guiding a group of bakers through the minefield that is sourdough sends me weak at the knees. So between now and September I will be monitoring my sourdough starter culture and making sure it is in really tip top condition by the time baking day arrives.

Like last year I will be creating a brand new culture in my sourdough laboratory at home, using Heron rye flour, so that we can see the difference between a wheat culture and a rye culture.

Baking with rye is particularly challenging, and baking rye sourdough is if anything even more so. Making a rye starter last year taught me quite a few lessons along the way, not least about keeping on top of hydration.

It was a big mistake to allow the consistency of my culture to vary over time as I fed it, and try to calculate the ever-changing ratio of water to flour. With hindsight rather than just recording what I added, I should have kept everything in the same ratio by very carefully weighing 7 parts water to 5 parts flour every time I fed.

This year I have ordered a camcorder so I can keep a video diary of how the cultures develop up to baking day. Hopefully this will help me to see clearly where I got things right, and where I didn't.

Learning about sourdough by doing nothing

Sourdough never sleeps - it just dozes off. But even when it appears to be dormant, the character is slowly changing, and not always for the better. A sourdough culture can be a bit of a beast.

Fortunately though, my culture has been very predictable and reliable.  I've had along run of baking sourdough every week and the culture has settled into a good routine.

But this summer I have discovered the joys of yeasted white bread baked without a tin or a basket, just straight onto a tray. And as there is only so much bread you can eat, sourdough has rather taken a back seat. I've fed my culure a couple of times, and otherwise just let it rest in the fridge.

When I finally did come to bake some sourdough again, I got the culture out a couple of days before baking, and fed it again. Then I made a sponge the day before baking, as I usually do. On baking day I was a bit surprised to find that the sponge wasn't as vigorous as I was used to finding it. And when the bread came out, I found that it was considerably sourer than usual.

Some people really like their sourdough tangy, which is fine. The ultimate really sour sourdough is the San Francisco version, which is very challenging stuff indeed. My own preference is for as little actual sourness as possible. What I like is bread with as much sponginess and body as possible, and just a touch of "attitude" in the flavour. My sourdough this time was several notches closer to San Francisco than normal.

Clearly, there was something to learn here. I'd fed the culture, I'd made a sponge, but the result was quite different. So what had I done differently? Well, I hadn't baked off it or made a sponge with it for a long time.

Most bakers tend to feed their culture in the pot, and then take some out to bake with. I don't like this at all, because the part that stays in the pot can just get older and  older. Much better, I think, is to take the whole of the culture out of the pot to make a sponge with, and then take some of the sponge back to keep for next time. My recent experience with this sourer-than-usual sourdough just shows why my sponge method is so good.

When you make a sponge, the 80 g or so of culture is bulked up to about 680 g of sponge, and then 80 g of sponge is taken back for next time. So very very little of the 80 g of culture in my pot this week was there last week. And it's had a really good feed on many times its own weight in fresh water and fresh flour. Sponging is like a complete makeover for a starter, whereas feeding in the pot is more like life support.

Moral of the story

If you just feed your starter, then at the very least make sure you throw most of it away beforehand. And if at all possible, sponge and bake from your culture rather than just feeding it.

Friday, 7 July 2017

The nick of time

Today at Bread of Heron, the Heron Corn Mill's community bread group, we took a leaf out of the Staff of Life bread book and made a loaf designed for toasting. It should be a rich loaf, as it has full cream milk instead of water, and a good helping of treacle. It looks like a brown loaf, but that's mainly the effect of the treacle. There is a small amount of Heron Corn Mill rye, but mostly white flour. And then a few caraway seeds to make it a fragrant loaf. Quite a lovely combination!

Some people baked in tins, and others raised the bread in baskets. And there's always the question - to slash or not to slash? It's not immediately clear why you should at least consider slashing the tops of your loaves. But here is a good demonstration of the difference it makes.

The loaf on the left has been slashed on the way into the oven, and the loaf on the right has not been slashed. They both went in the same oven, and they both rose strongly when they hit the heat. As the bread swells in the oven, the tension on the surface increases until it gets to the point where something has to give. The slash on the left hand loaf gives it somewhere obvious to expand: open the cut a bit and there is immediately more room to stretch. The loaf on the right has to find its own weakest point and rip itself open along the line of least resistance. Very rustic of course, and it shows how unpredictably bread can behave in the oven. It will open up one way or the other, but slashing the bread reduces the unpredictability of how the bread will open up in the oven.

We had some young visitors today, from a school in Macclesfield, who came into the shepherd's hut to see what we were up to. I learned from one of them that Hovis was invented in Macclesfield, and I swapped the information that the thing that makes Hovis different from other bread is that it has lots of wheatgerm added - the very best bit of the grain, which is a "waste product" of roller milled white flour.

We were able to show the youngsters how different the same bread could look, depending on how you handle it. All three loaves in this picture are basically the same loaf, but one of them has been raised in a tin, and two have been raised in bannetons - wicker baskets. We showed them how the ridges of the basket left lines imprinted in the dough.

One of the bakers pointed out that the tin loaf had also tried to open itself up by ripping itself open along the edge of the tin. So even tin loaves might be candidates for slashing.

The other loaf we did today was a simple half and half loaf - half white and half Heron Corn Mill wholemeal wheat or spelt.

This is of course a lot lighter than a loaf using only wholemeal flour, but the Heron element should ensure a good flavour, and we added a few "bits" to make the texture a bit more interesting. Rye flakes, cracked wheat and linseeds are my regular choice here, though I have recently stocked up on wheat flakes and barley flakes as well. We only just got these loaves in the oven in the nick of time, because they were starting to hang over the side of the tins!

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Life in Fife

We've just come home from a short break in the East Neuk of Fife. This is the east coast of Scotland, north of Edinburgh.

It's an area with a lot to say for itself - scenery, seafood, history, coastal walks and a really good music festival. We packed five concerts, 2 crabs, a lobster and fish and chips into a 3 night stay.

They are rightly proud of the seafood in the area, but there is not a great deal to shout about in the way of bread, so far as I could see. The allegedly artisan sourdough left a lot to be desired -

I would have given it at least another 5 minutes in the oven. But it was sadly lacking that firm sponginess that real sourdough should have. No evidence of oven leap. And the crust! Oh dear.

The seafood was another story though. There is a hut on the harbour at Crail which cooks lobster to order, and usually has crab as well. The day we were there, someone had stolen 2 boxes of crab, so it was just lobster. I'm much more of a crab person myself, but when in Crail, do as the Romans do.

You know it's fresh when it's like this -

I never ignore signs like this one -

There are a number of old mill sites along the East Neuk coast - Crail, Kilrenny, and this partially restored windmill at St Monans.

What's interesting about this mill is that it is not designed to grind corn. Rather, it was used to lift sea water up the hill side and drop it into salt pans, where it could be boiled to make sea salt. This is all that remains of the salt pans -

And they would have originally looked something like this -

The whole site would have looked like this, with the sea off to the right -

The salt operation relied on local coal, which fired the pans. The whole thing is nicely written up in this blog. It seems amazing that 7 tons of coal was needed to produce 1 ton of salt. And what is now an attractive place for tourists to look at was, in its own time, a genuine eyesore and pollution source.

Crail, where most of our concerts happened, also has evidence of an old mine, but it has all been back filled now. The story of industrial sabotage in 1620 makes interesting reading.

All in all, I found Fife to be a very attractive place. It was a bit like stepping back to a time when the pace of life was a lot more relaxed. And there is something engagingly direct about the people. On the Sunday morning I went out looking for milk, but everywhere in Anstruther was closed. I walked along the harbour as far as the pub at the end, and had a quick look through the window before giving up and turning back the way I had come. An old boy out walking his dog stood eyeing me up curiously for a while, and then asked, with a very strong emphasis on the last word "are you LOST?". It was clear that the thought process that preceded this question was "you are behaving strangely. I have been trying to account for your erratic behaviour. Are you LOST?". When I explained what I was up to, he came back with "I thought you were maybe looking for a drink of BEER". Lost or thirsty - it had to be one or the other I suppose.

Anstruther has a place of last resort - when the milk shops and the pubs are all closed, this would be the place for me -