Wholemeal flour from Lode Mill, Cambridge – and a loaf of bread

Lode Mill, a working, eighteenth-century water mill, is in the grounds of Anglesey Abbey, a Jacobean house near Cambridge which is built on the grounds of a medieval priory. The mill itself operates on the first and third Sunday of every month (subject to the water level), and is open to the public who can view the mill workings, and buy the oatmeal and wholegrain flour produced there. Saturday’s visit to the winter gardens at Anglesey Abbey saw me buying up armsful of flour bags and quizzing the miller in enormous detail, all to keep you happy.

There has been a mill on this site since the Domesday survey, but the current mill is only about 300 years old. The building has four storeys; a ground floor; a stone floor where the mill stones are kept and operated; and two upper storage floors. This huge central shaft (the wheel you can see here is the spur wheel which drives the gears under the mill stone) is made from a whole sweet chestnut trunk; other wood in the mill building and wheels is seasoned oak, which, according to the miller, is as hard as iron.

There are four pairs of stones, each of which has to be dressed (cut with chisels) every ten uses to keep them sharp for grinding. The resulting flour is pushed from the outside edge of the mill stones and falls down a chute to the ground floor. It takes 30 seconds and ten tons of water to make 1 ½ kilograms of flour.

If you’re using wholemeal flour for bread, it’s a good idea to mix it with some strong white flour. An all-wholemeal loaf made at home can be chewy and dense; it’s especially hard on very young jaws. (A primary-school aged Mr Weasel was, in an episode he recites every time he eats a sandwich, told off by a school dinner lady for hiding a homemade, wholemeal sandwich in his pocket; he wanted to get out of the dinner hall and play, but chewing the bread was taking so long his friends had left without him.) For one large loaf you’ll need:

3 sachets instant yeast
30g honey
625ml water at body temperature
500g wholemeal flour
500g strong white flour
30g salt

Half an hour before you start, put the flour in a warm place.

Dissolve the yeast and honey in half the water. Put the warm flour in a large bowl with the salt and make a well in the centre. Pour all the yeast and honey mixture into the well, and mix with your hand until it’s all soaked into the flour. Add the rest of the tepid water and continue mixing until you have a soft dough. Knead for ten minutes to develop the gluten in the dough; you should end up with a soft, stretchy mass. Return it to its bowl.

Flour the top of the dough and use scissors to score it; this will help it to prove faster. Leave it somewhere warm until it has doubled in size (an hour or so in a warm room), then knock all the air out of it, kneading for a couple of minutes. Divide the dough into six pieces, and form them into balls. Arrange the balls in a cake tin, flour them and leave the tin in a warm place again until the bread dough has doubled in size once more.

Put the tin gently (without knocking it about) in the oven at 225°C for half an hour. Check to see that the bread is done by taking it out of the tin and tapping the bottom; if it sounds hollow, it’s ready. (Be careful; wholemeal bread takes a bit longer to cook than white bread does. Exercise judgement.)

This flour makes a lovely, malty bread. Enjoy it toasted with honey, and bask in the smell filling your house.

Anglesey Abbey gardens, Lode, Cambridge

Thanks again to Kalyn at Kalyn’s Kitchen for organising Weekend Herb Blogging.

I spent Saturday morning walking around the winter gardens at Anglesey Abbey, near Cambridge. The gardens are remarkable all year round, but the winter shrubs, the famous snowdrops (inedible, I fear, but extraordinary; there are more varieties of snowdrops at Anglesey Abbey than anywhere else in the UK) and the icy, misty walks you can take around the grounds make a sunny, late January/early February day the best time of year to visit. Weekend Herb Blogging was foremost in my mind, so I scurried around looking for plants I knew to be edible.

One of the first shrubs I saw was this witchhazel (Hamamelis). Witchhazel displays these remarkable flowers from January to March. The flowers are delicately scented and last a long time on the bare twigs. In extreme cold, the petals will close, so the flowers are frost-hardy and a real mood-lifter in the long cold months.

I’d love a witchhazel for our garden, but they don’t like the very alkaline soil we have here. (The village we live in used to have a chalk quarry, and my garden comprises about a foot of decent soil before you get down to solid chalk.) They thrive in an acid soil; one of the best home garden specimens I’ve seen is in Mr Weasel’s parents’ garden; they live on the edge of a very peaty, tannic moor. Different varieties flower in oranges, reds and yellows. The yellow plant pictured is Arnold Promise – I’m afraid I wasn’t able to find an identifying label for the red plant below. (If anybody knows what variety it is, please leave a comment!)

Witchhazel is not precisely edible, but it’s used medicinally, and the Cherokee tribes used its inner bark, cooked down to a syrup, for healing wounds, soothing sore throats, and as an astringent. We still use it for its astringent properties these days, and you can make your own tincture by taking a few twigs in winter, before the plant flowers, scraping the bark off and soaking it for a few weeks in a half-water, half-vodka mixture. (Dilute the tincture again with two parts of water before using.) It’s good dabbed on oily, teenage skin.

Viburnum is another plant which flowers on bare twigs in the winter, and here I’m luckier with my grotty soil; viburnum will do well anywhere as long as it has decent drainage. Surprisingly, the berries from Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn‘, with its intensely scented, pink flowers, are edible both raw and cooked, and don’t taste at all bad. (You’ll need two bushes if you want the fruit; viburnum is not self-fertilising.) It’s the flowers I want this for, though; the scent from a viburnum bush in the winter will carry for metres in the cold air, perfuming everything around it. Dawn starts to flower in the late autumn and just keeps going until winter is over. I bought a very young specimen in the garden shop when we’d finished our walk; it’s going in front of a laurel tree in the garden later on today. The plant (and its flowers) is hardy down to below -10°C.

The gardens at Anglesey Abbey are planned beautifully. After a winding walk through flowering winter shrubs and red-twigged cornus, you’ll come around a corner into a stand of silver birch trees like something straight out of Chekov. The silver birch is an amazingly versatile plant; in Prague last year we saw tiny boxes made from the pressed outer bark, sap-scented and warm to the touch. (Removing this papery outer bark does not kill the tree.) The inner bark can be pulverised and used as a thickening meal. Birch tea is made from the leaves, and a medicinal tea from that resinous inner bark.

Sap from the tree is sweet and delicious, and the birch can be tapped like the maple, although too much tapping can kill the tree. In England, this sap was traditionally used to make beer. I found a recipe from John Evelyn’s 1664 Sylva or a Discourse on Forest Trees and the Propogation of Timber in His Majesty’s Dominions (a good read if you are interested in 17th-century fencing techniques) for the beer, which, if you can get your hands on a gallon of birch sap, will be just as good today as it was 350 years ago.

To every Gallon of Birch-water put a quart of Honey, well stirr’d together; then boil it almost an hour with a few Cloves, and a little Limon-peel, keeping it well scumm’d. When it is sufficiently boil’d, and become cold, add to it three or four Spoonfuls of good Ale to make it work . . . and when the Test begins to settle, bottle it up . . . it is gentle, and very harmless in operation within the body, and exceedingly sharpens the Appetite, being drunk ante pastum.

More on Anglesey Abbey tomorrow. They’ve got a working watermill at the back of the gardens, where I had a very interesting chat with a miller and bought a sack of some flour ground on the premises. Watch this space for some excellent bread and discussion of the sharpening of millstones.

French onion soup

A friend of mine is visiting New York for work at the moment. I received an anguished message from him about a French onion soup he experienced at the Crowne Plaza off Times Square. I quote him in full, because it made me laugh.

‘The soup itself is quite nice, but is plugged by a solid lump of melted cheese that is about the diameter of a Camembert, and an inch think. We’re talking essentially an entire Camembert’s worth of American plastic cheese. I don’t mind a delicate top to the bowl, but you could have taken this out, chilled it, and made plastic cheese sandwiches for a hungry family of six.’

Poor him. (I am keeping him anonymous so he doesn’t get any death threats from Americans fond of plastic cheese.) French onion soup isn’t really that hard to get right, but not many restaurants seem to bother trying; the very worst I’ve ever had was, shamefully, in Les Halles, the old market district in Paris. Les Halles is meant to be the birthplace of French onion soup, and Le Pied au Cochon is meant to be a restaurant which specialises in the stuff. Ha. It’s rubbish. The stock’s insipid, the rubbery onions haven’t been left to caramelise, and there’s no booze in sight. The cheesey bread lid is mostly bread, and the whole leaves you with the sort of hurt feeling you get when someone you trusted has stolen your teddy bear and sold it to buy drugs. Avoid.

The cheese you use here is important, but you do have a choice open to you. You can do it the Les Halles way and use Camembert on your giant crouton, which is delicious and, when stirred into the soup, makes it creamy and cheesey and gloopy and glorious.

I consider we’ve been overdoing the soft washed-rind French cheese thing recently (I have discovered a local source of Epoisse, and that Tartiflette the other week had enough Camembert in it to keep your arteries busy for a good six months). So I went the other way with our croutons, and topped them with sweet, stringy Gruyere (actually Swiss, but who’s checking?). Gruyere has a special affinity for the sweetly Madeira-caramelised onions in this soup; try it instead of Camembert some time and see what you think.

To serve six as a starter or four as a main course, you’ll need:

3lb onions, sliced
1 small wineglass Madeira
2½ pints good beef stock or good consommé
Open-textured white bread (ciabatta or a French loaf) – 2 slices per person
1 slice Gruyere per piece of bread
3oz butter
Salt and pepper

Put the onions in a large, heavy saucepan with the butter, and simmer, stirring every twenty minutes or so, for longer than you think you should. You’re aiming to cook these to a golden, caramel unctuousness. I didn’t use a kitchen timer; I put the DVD of Ziegfeld Girl on and sang along with Judy, running to the kitchen occasionally to stir, until Lana Turner did her tragic thing with the stairs and the chaise longue at the end. (Those who are not Judy Garland fans can just set their timers for 132 minutes, but you’re missing a treat.) The onions will have cooked down to a fraction of their original volume.

When your onions are done and you have spent a quiet five minutes being surprised at how Hedy Lamarr was able to look fantastic walking down stairs with fruit on her head and invent spread-spectrum communications without turning a hair, throw the Marsala into the hot pan with the onions and let it simmer away to nothing. Add the stock or consommé, turn the heat right down and bring slowly to a simmer again.

While the soup is coming up to temperature, prepare the croutons. Toast thick slices of bread (I used a grill pan to get good dark, charred lines on each slice), lay the cheese on them and put them under the grill until the cheese starts to brown.

Serve the soup with a crouton floating on top. The soup should soak into the crisp crouton, its heat softening the cheese. Slurp the lot quickly while it’s still deliciously hot.

Beans on toast – with a twist

Beans on toast, you ask? Has she gone mad? Not at all. It’s been a stressful week, and I need comfort food. This fits the bill perfectly. Baked beans straight from the tin – I can take them or leave them. But baked beans which have been worked on a bit, with the addition of a smoky bacon, lots of garlic and sweet fried onion, some darkly smoked chilis and gouts of black, glossy treacle or molasses are transformed to something beyond good. They become positively delicious.

I enjoy this dish with a lot of kick from the chilis. If you prefer a bit less heat in your beans, reduce the amount of chipotles in adobo you use.

Chipotle peppers are actually Jalapenos, smoked until dark and full of woodsmoke flavour. You can buy them either dried or in a jar with adobo, a rich, tomato sauce. (This is a tin I bought last year in America. In the UK, chipotles in adobo are available from the Cool Chile Company; Sainsbury’s carry them in their exotic foods section. They’re addictive. If you buy one jar, buy several, because you’ll want more later on.)

You’ll need:

1 tin baked beans
2 onions, sliced finely
12 rashers smoked, streaky bacon, diced small
6 cloves garlic, sliced
3 chipotles in adobo
1 tablespoon adobo sauce
1 tablespoon black treacle or molasses
large pinch salt

Saute the onions, bacon and garlic together in a medium saucepan with a large knob of butter until the onions are soft and the bacon is cooked through. Upend the tin of beans into the pan, and add the chilis and adobo sauce. Bring everything to a simmer, and add the treacle and salt. Stir well, taste to see if it needs more treacle or salt, and serve piping hot.

I particularly like this with toast cut into soldiers. It has been suggested that this is because mentally, I am about eight. I am ignoring these suggestions and going to play dressup-teaparty with the cats.

Yorkshire pudding

I’ve had a couple of emails following yesterday’s post about roast pork, one asking what a Yorkshire pudding is, and one asking whether I can post a Yorkshire pudding recipe. I’m very pleased to get a chance to write about this; Yorkshire pudding is a traditional English roast meal accompaniment, it’s delicious, it looks impressive if you cook it properly and tastes great.

Yorkshire pudding was historically served as a first course to fire up the appetite. These days you’ll find Yorkshire pudding with gravy as a main course in restaurants in certain areas of Yorkshire, and it’s presented as a crisp and delicious side dish in homes all over the country.

This is a batter pudding, but it is not the same as the American popover; the batter is less rich and results in a lighter, crisper and airier finish. Some people prefer to cook individual small puddings in muffin or fairy cake tins; others (my mother among them, and she makes some of the best Yorkshire pudding I’ve eaten) prefer to cook enough for everyone in a single, large roasting tin. The batter rises purely as a result of the air beaten into it expanding in the very hot fat and dish you use. You’ll need to cook your puddings in a convection oven or in a single layer very high in a regular oven. Before doing anything else, heat the oven to a blistering 220°C. If you are roasting a joint, you can bring the oven up to this temperature for the last fifteen minutes of cooking, then remove the joint to rest while the puddings finish. To make four individual puddings you’ll need:

75g plain flour
1 egg
75ml milk
50ml water
Salt and pepper
1 teaspoon of beef dripping or goose fat per pudding

Put a teaspoon of fat in each depression in the muffin tin, and put the tin in the oven to come up to temperature. Sieve the flour into a bowl with the salt and pepper, and use the unbroken egg to make a depression in the middle of the heap of flour. Break the egg into this well and use an electric hand-whisk to slowly incorporate it into the flour, adding the milk and water gradually as you whizz. Transfer the batter to a jug. (Some Yorkshire pudding batters need to stand after you’ve made them; this one doesn’t, which is . . . pleasing.)

You need to work as fast as you can now; make sure you don’t allow the oven or the pan to cool down at all. Quickly pour a quarter of the batter in each of the oil-filled depressions and slam everything in the oven again as fast as you can.

Twenty five minutes later, your puddings should have risen and turned golden. Serve immediately (a cold Yorkshire pudding will deflate slightly). These soak up gravy beautifully. Enjoy.

Roast pork with crackling

Cripes. Make that “Roast pork with award-winning crackling”. A few years after I wrote the post below, the recipe ended up being tested on the Guardian’s Word of Mouth blog, where it beat the competition hollow. This would be unremarkable it that competition hadn’t been Hugh F-W, Delia, Prue Leith, Good Housekeeping and Simon Hopkinson. Get to it with that hairdryer.

These days, it can be hard to find meat that hasn’t been treated in processing with water and glucose to make it moister and heavier. Even when your joint of pork is free from these additives, it can be difficult to treat it in a way that results in roast pork with a popcorn-crisp, crackling skin. When you do manage it, puffed, salty crackling is a delectable thing of wonder. The technique has a lot to do with using varied cooking temperatures, and absolutely everything to do with making sure the skin is prepared properly before it even gets anywhere near the oven.

Modern joints are harder to raise a crackling skin from than the joints I remember from when I was a little girl. This has a lot to do with consumer demand for extra-lean, muscly meat, which just doesn’t have enough fat to make the magic happen. Look for a joint with plenty of fat under the skin. This is a 2kg rolled loin: enough to serve six people with plenty for sandwiches later. Although convenient, rolled joints are also hard to make crackle, especially where the skin meets the roasting tin. Don’t despair, though; you can still make it work with a bit of preparation.

The day before you eat, the skin of your pork must be dried thoroughly with paper kitchen towels, and scored well. Even if your butcher has already scored it, you will probably benefit from making sure the scoring is fine and regular, so you will want to add your own cuts to the skin. Use a craft knife on the cold skin of the meat (this is easiest when the skin and fat are cold and firm), scoring it in lines about half a centimetre apart. When the joint cooks, the fat will melt and bubble through those lines, crisping the skin it touches. Rub salt into the skin, as if the pork were somebody you are particularly fond of who is demanding a lovely exfoliating massage.

Now prepare to look slightly unbalanced in front of any visitors, and take a hairdryer to the skin of the meat until it’s absolutely bone dry. Wrap your joint in a teatowel and refrigerate it overnight. (The atmosphere in your fridge is extremely dry, and this will help any more moisture to evaporate.)

On the day you cook it, rub some more salt into the skin, making sure it gets through the cracks where you scored it and into the fat. Put a bed of onions at the bottom of a metal roasting dish and rest the pork on top of it. Heat up a large knob of good pork dripping or goose fat (use goose fat in preference to one of those white blocks of lard) over a high flame in a small saucepan and pour the searing hot fat over the skin, then put the roasting tin in the oven at a very hot 220°C. After quarter of an hour, lower the heat to 180°C and cook the joint for two hours, basting every 20 minutes. Finally, turn the heat back up again for a final quarter of an hour – this should cause your minutely prepared skin to puff up and crackle deliciously. (Keep an eye on it and leave it in for a few minutes longer if necessary.)

Every family has its own gravy method, just like Tolstoy said. (Mr Weasel tells me that this is not what Tolstoy said at all. Pshaw. It’s what he should have said.) While you rest the joint for ten minutes in a warm place, make gravy to your family recipe. Remove the carapace of crackling, carve the meat and divide the splintering crackling between the plates. Serve with Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, green vegetables and apple sauce. Hooray for the old days.

Best of Blogs award – voting has finished

Gastronomy Domine is a finalist in the Best of Blogs award (Best Cooking/Recipe blog). Voting has finished now – thanks to everybody who took the time to vote. There’s now a jury vote as well, and my understanding is that the results will be announced at the end of the month. Please keep your fingers crossed!

Cha gio (nems) – Vietnamese crispy spring rolls

nemsWhen Mr Weasel and I were living in Paris, we spent a lot of our time in one of the city’s Chinatowns, along the Avenue d’Ivry. It’s more a Cambodia-town or a Vietnam-town than London’s Chinatown, which is full of Chinese people and food; France is home to many more Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian people than the UK is, and this is reflected in the food.

One of my favourite Vietnamese dishes is these spring rolls, which are very hard to find in restaurants in the UK. Many cultures cook things wrapped in other things – there is the burrito, the Malaysian po pia, the fajita, the crèpe and . . . I suppose the closest English equivalent is the Cornish pasty. The cha gio stands head and shoulders above all of these – it’ s got texture and flavour to beat them all to a pulp in any contest of wrapped-up-things you may choose to imagine.

Cha gio get their texture, both crisp and chewy all at once, from the rice paper skins they are wrapped in. You can find these in good oriental supermarkets, and although they’re a little fragile when dry, they’re very easy to handle and wrap with. The finished rolls are wrapped in lettuce and herbs, making them taste fresh and light.

To make about sixty cha gio, you’ll need:

225g cellophane (bean thread) noodles
4 carrots, grated
8 dried shitake mushrooms, soaked
8 water chestnuts
1 dressed crab
12 raw tiger prawns, peeled and deveined
350g minced pork
1 onion
5 spring onions
4 cloves garlic
6 shallots
4 tablespoons fish sauce (nuoc mam)
3 eggs
15 x 25cm discs of rice paper (available in oriental supermarkets)

Sugar and water for soaking
Oil for deep-frying
Lettuce and mint leaves for wrapping

4 cloves minced garlic
½ cup nuoc mam
¼ cup caster sugar
1 teaspoon chili oil
1 diced red chili

raw prawnsSoak the noodles in boiling water and set aside, draining and rinsing in cold water after 15 minutes. Put the mushrooms, water chestnuts, crab, pork, prawns, onions, garlic and shallots in the food processor and pulse until chopped finely. Use your hands to stir in the fish sauce, the eggs, the carrots and the noodles.

Fill a mixing bowl half-full with warm water, and dissolve about six tablespoons of caster sugar in it – the sugar will help the rolls brown and help the sweetness of the carrots come through. Soak a rice-paper disc in this until it’s soft and pliable. Cut it with scissors into quarters. Place a dessert spoonful of the filling on the curved edge, fold over the adjacent corners and roll up, as in these photographs.

Deep fry the little rolls (I use a wok, which helps save on oil) until they are golden brown.

cha gioTo serve, wrap each one in a leaf of lettuce with some mint leaves. Dip in the spicy sauce and do your very best to nibble delicately. Delicious.

Those visiting Paris should run, not walk to Kim Anh (51 Av Emile Zola, 15e, 01 45 79 96), where the nems are . . . pretty much as good as these, only you don’t have to do all the work. (I lie. They’re even better, and they’re served alongside the very best Vietnamese food I’ve ever eaten.)

Five Food Challenges for 2006

Kalyn from Kalyn’s Kitchen (also up for the Best of Blogs award – please vote if you haven’t done yet) has tagged me with another meme – this time I’m to list five things I want to work on in the kitchen this year.

Knife skills
My knife skills are horrible. I’m fast, but I’m not very neat, and some tasks, like boning whole birds or filleting fish are only accomplished in this house with a maximum of mess. One problem here is my total inability to sharpen knives on a butcher’s steel. I may give in to technology this year and buy a knife sharpener that you don’t need an Olympic skater’s degree of precision to operate.

Regular readers will have twigged to the fact that I don’t really have much of a sweet tooth. Mr Weasel does most of our baking, and I don’t really enjoy cake-making that much; compared to a lot of what I cook I find the method very rigid, and I get a bit fed up with following recipes to the letter. I am not an obedient cook. Unfortunately, I’m not good enough at baking to be able to construct cake recipes in my head. This year I’m hoping to work on this, so by the end of the year I might just be able to make up some new ones.

Japanese food
I love Japanese food, but I don’t cook much of it; I have to go to London to get a lot of the necessary ingredients, and there’s a cultural subtlety to the cuisine that I need to read more on. Cooking in Japan (Nihon no ryori) is a blog that’s relatively new to me, but extremely informative on Japanese food. I’ve lined up a few Emi Kazuko books to buy. Miso and dashi are lurking in the fridge, ready to deploy.

Wild foods
We moved into the countryside last year, and we’re surrounded by woods and hedges brimming with interesting foods. Look out for more of this in the spring, when the elderflowers will be blossoming – honeyed elderflower fritters, elderflower cordial and elderflower champagne beckon. (The picture is of last year’s sloe gin – you can see how the sloes’ juices are seeping out and blending with the gin and sugar. This will be great when it’s ready to decant.)

A new kitchen
A poor workman always blames her tools. Strictly speaking, I blame the people we bought the house from. They built the kitchen themselves, and were enthusiastically incompetent carpenters and designers. The cupboards aren’t deep enough to fit plates in. Half of the doors have roughly carved flowers on them; they got bored halfway round the room and just painted flowers on the rest. The surfaces are about four inches higher than is natural or comfortable, the floor is covered with lino which seems to have been chosen for its startling resemblance to pitted industrial spillage, and the whole thing is tiled from floor to ceiling in a colour I like to think of as terminally-ill-frog green. (The agents’ details said ‘extensive splashback’.) Nothing is at a right-angle to anything else. Little tongues of Polyfilla slurp out of the edges of the units and the plug sockets. Still; it’s a big room, and when we can get it all ripped out and replaced, it’ll be fantastic.

Here’s hoping I win the lottery this year.

This, I’m afraid, is where this meme comes to die. Everybody I might have tagged has already been tagged (I come to this rather late). It could be worse. Your kitchen could be terminally-ill-frog green.