Thursday, 22 June 2017

Today I have a perfect sourdough, and radishes on the side

It doesn't look like much, I grant you -

The dough stubbornly refused to behave itself when I was kneading it, sticking to my hands and the work top. It wouldn't go back in the bowl the right way up, and had to be manhandled in with the scraper. It stuck like glue to the basket, and stretched like chewing gum before finally coming away and flopping lifelessly down onto my baking tray. It deflated sadly when I slashed it, and I was feeling quite glum by the time I finally got it into the oven.

But in the end this little loaf was everything I could wish for from home made sourdough. It rose like a trout in the oven, proudly announcing its noble heritage with a crisp and crackly crust. The texture was spongey as could be, and it resisted the knife like Horatio defending the bridge. It was moist, it was fragrant, and above all it actually tasted of bread.

I managed to leave the loaf uncut for the best part of an hour...

but then the first cut was made and the flood gates opened. That still warm, slightly roughened first piece! My good lady wife had the first rip, and I followed on a very close second. You just know, when things are right.

We had mussels for tea, their plentiful liquor bursting with white wine, garlic, oil and butter, just begging to be mopped up with bread. Nothing of course would do but the sourdough, and great door-stopping wedges soon lay soaking among the mollusc wrecks. The joy of that bread, sopping wet with sauce, the crust still crunchy in the mouth.

It reminded me of the man in the pub who put a sign over his lunchtime cheese board - "today I have a perfect brie". That simple pride, and the joy of being alive to witness the day! Now it was my turn to proclaim with swelling chest the honest truth "today I have a perfect sourdough".

It doesn't take much to turn an average day into a perfect day. Watching the tide come in at Arnside is a good start, especially if there are any herons around. But even the most trivial thing can make all the difference. Same with bread, of course!

I tried out a polenta loaf the other week, with a view to making it at Bread of Heron, the Heron Corn Mill community bread group. It was OK, but nothing special. The recipe just replaced a quarter of the white bread flour with polenta, and used two parts water to three parts flour (66% hydration) to make a medium firm dough. The polenta makes the bread quite yellow, but apart from that the main characteristic is a slight sweetness - not unpleasant, but nothing to write home about.

At the mill I decided to make a small change to my prototype loaf, and replace most of the water with milk. This completely transformed the bread, turning "sweet" into "rich and succulent". The milky polenta loaf didn't stay fresh for long when wrapped in paper. Fortunately, it turned out to be one of the best toasting loaves I've made, so just for the record, here is the recipe -

Simple polenta milk loaf

This loaf is slightly sweet from the corn. Milk makes the loaf a bit richer.


  • 375 g Carr’s white flour
  • 125 g polenta - fine for a soft loaf or rough for more texture
  • 5 g salt
  • 5 g yeast
  • 325 g warm milk or milk and water


Mix the dry ingredients in the bowl - don’t put the salt and yeast together.
Add the milk and mix well in the bowl.

Turn out and knead for 10 mins.
Leave to stand in a lightly oiled bowl for up to an hour.

IMG_20170608_104809.jpgTurn out and shape into an oblong loaf and put in a well oiled tin.
Leave to rise for an hour.
Slash the top if you like

Bake at 200 fan for 10 mins then turn down to 180 fan and bake for another 35 mins (making 45 mins in all).

Check the bread after 45 mins and give it another 5 mins if (like me) you like it well done. Put it back in the oven upside down to crisp the bottom.

Once cut, wrap in plastic to keep fresh.

Anyone who has baked with me will know that I like to keep my bread simple. I like my bread to be bread, and my cake to be cake. Parkin for preference. You have to try things out, just to find what works and what doesn't. But I am seldom tempted to "give things a twist" in the style of MasterChef and the Great British Bake Off. So I really felt for the baker in my last group who was told the bread he took home from the mill was "too fancy".

There is a golden rule when you are testing computer programs: get everything stable, and then change one thing only. That way you can clearly see any difference and be fairly sure what caused it.

The same thing applies to making bread. If you are only using three or four tried and tested ingredients, and you change one of them, the difference in the loaf you bake is probably due to the change you made.

In fact there is a golden rule in Italian cooking - only use three or four ingredients, and NEVER change anything! I remember Jamie Oliver presenting a dish to some Italians, who knew exactly what it should taste like, and they tore him to shreds because he had "given it a twist". He'd added a dash of this and a sprinkle of that, like he does, and they picked up straight away that there were too many tastes in the way, and they couldn't clearly taste the ingredients they were wanting to taste. "Hear! Hear!" say I. Don't overload things...

Speaking of Italy, I think I have my Italian holiday sorted for next year already. I've found three concerts in Florence in March 2018, on consecutive days. Days one and two the Belcea Quartet are playing, and on day three, the pianist Radu Lupu is playing. What better excuse for a few days in beautiful Florence?

If it comes off, I will make sure we get our lunch at Trattoria Mario by the market.

This place is the real deal. Daily hand-written menus, based on what's in the market.

And lunch time only, because the staff have lives too. If you have 20 minutes to spare, I recommend their video here. If you click "English version" you get subtitles. It's good because you can tell these people really care about the food they cook.

I really like the hugger mugger of the place, with whoever is eating crammed onto communal tables.

Simple dishes are beautifully cooked, and presented with no ceremony. The staff are attentive and efficient - "who needs to pay?" is the cry, as there is always a queue outside the door. It reminds me of the old English style of eating known as "the ordinary".

Keeping things simple and using few ingredients certainly improves your chances of successfully repeating a recipe. This one from Rachel Roddy in the Guardian uses four ingredients, but I think I could teach our cat to do it successfully. Just to make it a bit more challenging, I've laid it out as a Haiku

Butter good toast well.
Lay some anchovies on it.
Eat with radishes.