Monday, 26 January 2009

A Crust of Bread

“If thou tastest a crust of bread, thou tastest all the stars and all the heavens.” Robert Browning (1812-1889)
Baking bread is the most satisfying and the most time consuming of all my kitchen chores. I have a love/hate relationship with it. Love the results, the creative slashing and shaping, the smell of it baking, playing with the living dough, hate and resent the time involved, sometimes spanning weeks, as in liquid levains or nights as in pâte fermentée or a biga. The trouble stems from liking our bread cultivated by naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria or at the very least over-night matured commercial yeasts. In other words we like Old World Breads with rustic and artisan charm. The housewife of medieval England brewed her beer and her made bread together most days and then worked in the fields, washed linen against stones, wove on the loom, and died an early death fulfilling the many other chores, so why can’t I find time to make bread? Well, this week I have, but I know it will be a two or three-week phase and then it will be back to the supermarket. Part of this is the downright mess, after a while I’m finding flour in the most remote areas of the kitchen. And then there are the cultures, each needing nurturing each day, Little Shop of Horrors style “Feed me, Fay, feed me” and of course, there’s the organisation, requiring knowing your plans days in advance, i.e. if you fancy a German farmhouse rye on Saturday you better start making the rye sourdough culture the preceding Sunday! Patience and organisation are not two of my virtues. But no bread ever tastes as good, smells as good, or keeps as well as your own, so you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. Above is Italian Filone, a herb bread made with rosemary and winter savory from the garden, homemade rosemary and savory salt made last summer and herb infused olive oil, a wheat levain and a pâte fermentée. (see photo) This could just be the best bread known to humanity. Below are some Alsace sticks with spelt, after cooking you soak the spelt berries in Alsace wine overnight which can’t help making this loaf another all time winner.

Home Made Liqueurs, Sgroppino and Bas-Armagnac

Oh joy, all the liqueurs we made in the summer and autumn are maturing around now. I always make sloe gin if there are sloes to be picked, usually around the end October but this year yielded a poor harvest and what few there were disappeared quickly. So I had to raid my sister’s freezer for some 2007 berries. However, freezing seems to help in this case and the finished drink is indistinguishable from previous vintages. By the way, if you are put off by the idea of using a needle to prick each and every berry before adding the sugar and gin, forget it, use the prickly side of a cheese grater to run over the berries on a baking tray, works a treat and saves hours of time. In fact, it’s the only use I ever found for that side of the grater! I thought I’d try plum gin as well, as usual one of our plum trees, an Early Rivers type, produced more plums than we could eat, jam, pickle, bottle, cook and give away. The drink produced is less strong as the plums are juicer, which dilutes the alcohol, but the advantage is you can place a plum in the bottom of the glass to eat.
Also, I like to make limoncello, as I use it as an ingredient in Sgroppino (dialect in Venice for a lemon sherbet digestif) along with prosecco, vodka, lemon ice cream. Like sorbet it cleans the palette, but this concoction sends you to the stratosphere. I make my limoncello by using the rind only (no pith) of 10 large, unwaxed, organic lemons, placing them in a bowl with 50cl of pure grain vodka and putting the whole, covered with cling film, in full sun for 7-10 days, not easy to forecast in the UK, to bleach out the aromatic lemon oils. Then add sugar to taste and bottle.
We inherited four blackcurrant bushes when we took over our plot at the allotment, so maybe we could try cassis this year or morello cherries in armagnac, which we made once in more prosperous times. Nick and I have been dreaming and plotting about revisiting La Bastide d’ Armagnac and calling into see the delightful and educational M. le Baron, Philippe de Bouglon at the Chateau du Prada, who makes dam fine Bas-Armagnac in the most glorious surroundings. He is most generous with his time and will take you though the many vintages, while tasting using a glass vial he keeps attached to a ribbon around his neck to dip in the huge oak barrels. You can see the baron’s pad at and le Baron himself at man, I think you’d agree, who looks as if he enjoys his own products.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Paul Dunmall at Cafe OTO

The last time I studied life drawing was at Chelsea School of Art in the 70's but I've discovered a local class and last week when along. Boy, was I rusty! As with all arts the more you practice the better the chance of performing well, so this week I have been taking pens and paper when ever I'm out and about. Yesterday evening, that meant Cafe OTO in Dalston, where Nick was playing with Paul Dunmall, Tony Marsh. The trio have recorded on our Loose Torque label and if you are interested you can put sound to image at All Said and Dun where there is also video of Paul playing with same lineup. Of course, I was heading for the deep end for as subject matters, musicians, in frantic, dynamic, flow are difficult, to say the least, to 'catch'. Some artists manage the trick of motion brilliantly, but I've still to master a still life. I chose Paul to sketch (well, to show you, anyway, even with horribly inaccurate legs). I will post a drawing regularly, if nothing else to enable me to see some improvement over time, well hopefully. To see how it should be done check out Julie's Pictures

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

A Discerning Client Version Two

After uming and arghing over the design and artwork for the new CD cover for Loose Torque see blog A Discerning Client and to stop the artistic bickering, a brilliant solution has been found by prevailing on my sister for one of her nature photographs. This image, which she took in a birch wood, fits the criteria perfectly as it's suitably nordic, wintery and abstract. Still some design issues for me to settle but at least we're on the road!

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Hedgerow Tonic

There is a tradition in Italy, of picking hedgerow herbs and preparing them as a spring salad, a form of pick-me-up after the austerity of the winter diet. An ancient knowledge passed through the women of the family, this mix of plants is in part a feast for the taste buds, a source of vitamins lacking in the foods available in the preceding colder periods, but also, because they are rich in minerals, a medical tonic.
This must have happened in Britain up until the Middle Ages or even later, when this island like Italy in the early 20th century was rurally impoverished and food for free was a larder to be plundered. Against the herbs and greens picked are dandelions, chicory, lovage, borage, sorrel, burdock, burnet, as well as wild varieties of the garden herbs, chervil, thyme, mint, watercress, oregano, rocket etc. More are known by local names both in English and Italian. For instance in Kent, Sorrel was known as Tom Thumb’s Thousand Fingers and of course, dandelion was Piss-A-Bed.
Some are hot, some bitter and others acidic, but appear to be used together in the same medicine-chest salad. I prefer to take my dose in a mixed soup, (Italians, unlike most of my family, seem to have a highly developed taste for raw bitter greens and salad leaves) which I will write about in spring with photographs and recipes.
Wild garlic was also picked and I still use it, cut and eaten when the leaf is young or cooked if larger. My sister has a little wood in her garden full of ‘ransoms’, which have never been subjected to herbicides or other chemicals, important when foraging. As I sit here tonight, with the temperature plunging below -6c, I find myself in need of some of that tonic and plan borage fritters, wild garlic tarts, lovage soup and sorrel or rocket pestos. Oh, roll on Spring.
Above is a snap of my borage plot in flower in June, just in time to add to the Pimms.

Monday, 5 January 2009

In the Wood

One of the advantages of living in the ‘wood is that we are still only 25 minutes from Central London. As the tube train strains up the hill out of the metropolis the passengers feel the fresh, cool rush of air into the compartment, a sudden atmospheric change from the sultry fumes and dust of the city streets, the streetlights fall away and some stars can be seen. I love returning from a stunning opera at the ENO or a late night viewing at the Tate Modern and walking home inhaling the scent of spring, sweet night time smells like our front hedge shrub honeysuckle (Lonicera nitida) or linden (Tilia cordata) blossom. The photograph was taken at our local tube station on such an evening.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

A Discerning Client

I have a new commission, for a CD cover artwork and layout. The brief, as always with the Loose Torque Label, is to match the visual theme to the music, in this case, as always, free improvisation. I find most music will paint a composition in the mind, however the picture that resonates within me is often far from the intended impression, although as it happens, there is no intended impression here. (Which could make it harder still.)
There is a particular look of a free music album, either hand painted/drawn or textually reproduced digitally, sometimes incorporating postmodern text and implying complex underlying patterns in scribbled form (admittedly, like the music itself), the whole suggesting a sort of quintessence substance that tells you at a glance you are buying into a free form sound. Very cool, but maybe a tad clichéd.
The trouble is that all art is a current reflection of art that's gone before. Worse than that, a down right copy of what has gone before. For instance, a lot of advertising graphics at present hark back to the 70's, swirls, paisley, flower power etc. I did that stuff in the 70's why would I what to do it again? It's the same for me with this free music post-modernist look, been there, done that!
Of course, I can only revolt like this because the client happens to be my husband, otherwise I would be pulling my forelock and saying,
aye aye, captain! Above a rejected piece. Ho hum, back to the drawing board and the morning tea in bed (supplied by the client) negotiations.