At the end of October I was in Cornwall for a wedding. “Who’s getting married?” folk asked when I told them what I was up to this half term. “My second cousin”, I replied. She is a dear lady who is a couple of years older than me, and this wasn’t her first rodeo, if you know what I mean. At the wedding was her grandmother, aged 98. This 98 year old was married to my grandfather’s brother. My grandfather, his brother and his sister were all farmers in Oxfordshire, around Banbury. The family bond was cement-strong, and when my grandmother married into this family she caused a ruckus by wanting to live outside the family farm and have her own household. Understandably, her kids, close in age to her nieces and nephews, all rubbed along despite living on different farms and grew up together, being very close. At the wedding was also a family friend who grew up in the same village as my mother. He was also from a farming family.
Over the years this large family gets together for weddings and funerals and the occasional big birthday party. I remember going as a teenager and finding these events rather dull. And then, after the death of my mother I found them rather harrowing as her brother and cousins would declare how much I was like her and I found it hard. This wedding was a little different. My Dad wasn’t there, through ill-health, and so I had unfettered access to mum’s cousins and family friends and it was enlightening.
Both the family friend who had grown up on a farm and the father of the bride had ended-up not farming, for various reasons and both really feel that loss keenly. My uncle is still farming – by the skin of his teeth – a bit of relief milking over in Ireland. But the farming has all but gone. I heard of the lack of legacy but also, the lack of potential. I guess, also there is the loss of status of being a landowner. I find it so sad.
My brother, who is a good few years younger than me, asked why I have a stronger bond to these distant relatives than he does. And apart from being older, I couldn’t really answer him. But I think I know why, now. When I was little, and staying at my grandparents, I would often cajole them into showing me the cine films that my grandmother filmed in the late 70s. During these whirring short films depicting hot summers, epic harvests and attempts to fettle farm machinery into life, I would be shown whose farm it was, who was in it, who was related to who and see the pride about the hard team work that made farm life special. I felt proud to be a part of this farming family, despite the fact I lived in Weymouth and my dad was a local journalist.
The family friend told me that this family, the Vicary family, is special and unique. We have spread far and wide but we still have a strong connection to each other. We all know we’ve had highs and lows – had arses in our lives and been arses in return. But ultimately, we are the progeny of good people and in the end, we love each other. We don’t own an acre between us, but it’s not forgotten.
I’m about to run out of paper bags, and in ordering some more from Vegware, it occurred to me that I tend to make choices with care for the environment in mind and that I should let you know about this. So here is a braindump of all the aspects of my business which help make a difference.
Energy – we buy green electricity from So Energy, so the electricity comes from renewables. That’s the oven sorted.
Hot water – our water comes from a biomass boiler, so although there is an issue with particulates, the energy itself is renewable and carbon neutral. I use environmentally friendly washing up liquid and detergent.
Cleaning – I clean the oven with bicarbonate of soda and vinegar, so no nasty chemicals going down the drain or on the oven.
Flours – I use stoneground, organic flours either from Doves Farm or the watermill at Little Salkeld. Organic farming protects the soil and encourages biodiversity.
Ingredients -I source most of my ingredients from Suma, a co-operative based in Leeds, and my deliveries come once a month or so. This saves on multiple trips to the supermarket. I try to buy fair-trade, so the sugar is fairtrade.
Packaging – the bread you buy comes in recycled paper bags unless it is the rye bread. I have found that if the rye bread isn’t in plastic the crust becomes rock hard and unpleasant. This is an issue, but it is the only single-use plastic that this business uses.
Bags – I have considered getting some swanky cloth bags printed with my logo on, but I simply couldn’t justify the cost, and I have decided to carry on reusing the many cloth bags that we as a family have accumulated over the years. I hope you don’t mind. I’d rather reuse these than buy new.
Real bread – the bread I bake uses simple, whole ingredients with no additives. I am putting money in the pockets of producers and co-operatives, not food chemical manufacturers and food factories.
If any of you are interested in real food, I can recommend a couple of writers to look out for. Joanna Blythman is brilliant. I’ve nicked this image from her Twitter feed, and it sums up my attitude to food.
Last week, on Tuesday evening, I mixed up the levain for the Dense Danish Rye bread as per usual to let it get all bubbly and lovely so that it would be ready and active for mixing and baking on the Wednesday. Now, you might remember that last week saw a dramatic shift in the weather and autumn finally hit us. That morning I had in fact scoffed at a photo shared on social media of someone’s sourdough starter all wrapped up in a heating belt. “Pppfff. Don’t need that. Just need more time.” And then I looked expectantly at my rye bread levain. Hardly any bubbles at all. So for the first time this year I utilised the bread proofing function on my oven to speed things along a bit. This week I started on the levain earlier in the day to make up for the coldness and give those lovely bacteria more time to work their magic.
It reminded me of something the lovely Julie Palmer used to say in her yoga classes – that this time of year is tamasic, meaning that we slow down and that this is natural and should not be fought against. Again, I used to scoff at this, thinking that, well, you still need to get things done, so just plough on. I now realise this is a bit of a foolhardy notion. If the wee wild yeasts are affected by the seasons, then surely we are too.
In doing some internet searching on this topic I came across this Shakespeare sonnet which admittedly, is a bit morbid, but makes the ever-apt point that the time is now – enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think, and live in the present.
That time of year thou mayst in me behold When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. In me thou see’st the twilight of such day As after sunset fadeth in the west; Which by and by black night doth take away, Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest. In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire, That on the ashes of his youth doth lie, As the deathbed whereon it must expire, Consumed with that which it was nourished by. This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong, To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
I’ve not really written about ingredients and considering that they are fundamental to my business, I thought I should give them a mention. I get most of my ingredients in bulk from a Yorkshire-based co-operative called Suma. This means that I can get the best, often organic, often fairtrade ingredients at wholesale prices. (If any of you would like to order anything from Suma through my account, do get in touch).
Here you can see some of my white and bread flour bags. I buy these, plus the rye flour ,from Suma. I use Dove’s Farm Organics flours which are also stoneground and these retain more nutrients compared to when flour is ground with steel mills.
Other flours, such as the seeded flour mix for my seeded sourdough, I buy on an ad hoc basis from a local watermill in East Cumbria called Little Salkeld Mill. http://www.organicmill.co.uk
Milk, which I used in enriched dishes such as cinnamon swirls, babka and milk bread, comes delivered by local milkman, Andy Pratt. I use oatly milk for folk who need dairy-free versions. I use use organic cheddar cheese and organic butter.
My commercial yeast also comes from Doves Farm Organics and my sourdough starters are made from Doves Farm Organic flour.
I’m going to try to deliver some more seasonal breads, so look out for seasonal additions this autumn such as pumpkin and apples.
A fortnight ago, before the school terms started once more, me and my family spent a glorious week boating on the Norfolk Broads. Before I started packing for the trip, I idly checked the boat’s specifications and was happy to see that it had an oven. Right then. I’ll be baking bread: and so I took with me flour, yeast, salt, as well as a bowl, scraper and loaftin.
The oven was a gas oven, which I’d not used before for bread making, and the knob for controlling the temperature had its markings worn off.
The upshot was that I just baked my loaves and morning rolls on the highest heat and was truly delighted with the flavour I got on the crust.
You see, often, in the past when I’d visited artisan bakeries I would be put off the products because everything looks, well, burned. Now, having a slightly scorched crust on my bread as a result of the high oven on the boat, I am appreciating what this adds to the flavour.
So I am starting to bake the bread in my own oven at top-whack and am happy to say I’m getting a similar flavour. Woohoo!
Like many other families last week, we decided to celebrate the warm weather with a barbecue. Hubby decided we should explore cooking kebabs, so we marinated some chicken in some yoghurt that Needed Eating Up and some spices, and then I put together some of these hallumi and chorizo skewers. We used up some old cabbage and some carrots by throwing together some coleslaw. Hubby also suggested I buy pitta breads to fill with our kebab delights and coleslaw, but I protested and said I would make some. So that’s what I did. It was my first time making pittas so I was a little apprehensive.
After a few minutes in the oven, they mostly puffed up and then were toasted on the barbecue.
We’ve been hosting some friends from Japan and so much of my time has been spent out and about with them or cooking for them, so my bread making has taken a back seat. It was great to get back to my yeasty magic and make something new.
Things change. Harnessing the change is what bread making is all about. You need to accept and welcome change and let time do its thing.
It was the new year. It was apparent that our time in Japan was coming to an end. It was also apparent that our homeschooling journey was also coming to an end, and knowing that I would be back in Cumbria with time on my hands, thoughts drifted to what I should do with the time.
Food and cooking has always been an interest of mine. A few years ago I got involved in one of Jamie Oliver’s campaigns to promote cooking from scratch and helped all sorts of groups of folk around West Cumbria to have a go at cooking.
Whilst we were in Japan, my cooking came to a standstill. Our kitchen was tiny, we had hardly any cupboard space and our facilities were two gas hobs and a rice cooker. I intended to learn how to cook some Japanese dishes, but apart from miso soup, (which my eldest had to practice for school), I did virtually none. We ate out a lot.
Of course, back in rural West Cumbria, we don’t have the options to eat out as we did in Yokohama, so any yummy food has to be made by us in our kitchen. I did miss cooking and when we came back to the UK last summer I spent some time with my brother and his family and taught him the basics of making bread.
So I was trawling through Twitter, looking at Real Food-type accounts, and I came across the Bread Angels, which is a network of micro bakers who bake for their local community and some teach bread making too. I found a Bread Angel in the North West, Iain Every, who was hosting a ‘Run your own Microbakery Course’ and thought I should go for it.
Here I am, a couple of months later, going for it.