For the Record

When you have to get up from the dinner table every 15 minutes it’s either because you’re reaching an age where your bladder can no longer be trusted or because you own a record player. I remember the amazement of the first CD player; the quality of the sound and more than anything, the fact that you could listen to an entire act of an opera or a whole symphony without having to turn the record. What a breakthrough! So why am I back at the turntable, dusting the shellac?

Of course the shellac went the way of the dinosaurs after the war, to be replaced by the much less brittle, but hugely more static vinyl. That’s when we started to need covers for our players, to prevent large dust balls forming at the needle and the stylus skipping lightly over the whole surface, leaving an indelible impression that could be heard at every subsequent playing. But back to shellac for a while, just because it had such a huge impact on music. A 78rpm (that’s rounds per minute, the first standard speed for records) was commonly 10″ and could record only 3 minutes of sound. The 12″ pushed it to just 5 minutes and there was the limit. Which is why every pop song to this day is still roughly 3 and a half minutes long. Even though we have been free of this restriction for over half a century, we still stick to the 3 minute song.

There is a certain nostalgia to the turntable and all its paraphernalia, which probably is why it has not completely died out. In fact it is seeing a bit of a resurgence, especially in Japan, where the waiter is likely to run off in the middle of your order, because he has to turn the record over. Talking of turning the record, we have a Bill Evans boxed set of 4 records and I swear the whole box could have fit on one record! There can’t be more than 4 minutes of recording on each side, because I’ve hardly sat down when I need to get up again.

There is something comforting about the sound of vinyl. Its very shortcomings recommend it. Like the irreplaceable compressed sound of the radio, it speaks of old times when life was easier. Or maybe life wasn’t really easier and we were just younger and more energetic. But banished be the maudlin thoughts! A kind friend has gifted me a wonderful record of the Supremes being just that. I dug up this old video of them. Of course if you released such a thing nowadays, there wouldn’t be a dry seat in the house.

How times and tastes have changed!

I’ll let you in on a little secret when it comes to sound equipment we are very much Second Hand Roses (see musical note). Eddie bought the amplifier, but all the other equipment has been given us by our friend Jin. When he feels the need to upgrade his audiophillic bits, we get the pre-loved ones. He is so particular about his stuff that even after more than 5 years of use, he sends us the equipment in its original box, complete with the plastic wrap each piece came in. It’s quite incredible and also incredibly generous of him, because I’m sure it could be sold for a fair penny. So there we are enjoying the spoils.

Before I wrap this rambling up, here’s the…

Musical Note:

Second Hand Rose, in case you are younger than us and that is increasingly the case, was a song made famous by Fanny Brice ( in Ziegfeld Follies of 1921, which I wasn’t around to see. and famously reprised by Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, which I was.

A bit of History

The very first recordings were of course not made on a disc at all, but on a cylinder, a silly idea, if ever there was one. But then hindsight makes great inventors of us all. Thomas Edison is the man normally credited with the invention of recorded sound, but as is so often the case it was more of an evolution. In 1860, one epically named Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville recorded the first sound ever. And here, for your edification is that recording. It was actually supposed to just record and not play back, which seems pointless. It’s hardly Maria Callas, but it’s the kind of thing we techno geeks find interesting.

Then in 1877 came Edison with his “Mary had a little lamb” recording and the rest is history. The recording below is a recreation Edison did in 1927, as he had recorded over the original and not kept the cylinder. Either he was not a particularly sentimental man, or he was oblivious to the monumentous moment he had created.

The first phonographs could record, as well as replay. But they replayed only about a dozen times before the cylinder was worn out and had to be shaved bald for new recordings.

The original idea was of course to preserve moments of historic significance like, say Queen Mary addressing her peoples. But the peoples soon found they’d rather dance than be addressed and the sales of the new sound Jazz swept the world, Enrico Caruso became the first world famous tenor, thanks to his using every free minute to scream into another trumpet.

In 1887 Emil Berliner patented the gramophone and flat record and founded various record companies, Deutsche Grammophon among others. The flat disk could be reproduced much more easily and our friend Caruso could stop recording endlessly onto individual cylinders. Various improvements came along, but the one that really mattered was a long way off. I’m not talking about the CD, but about electric recording. The difference in quality between a record and a CD is nothing compared to the huge jump between acoustic and electric recordings.

While I was working in the music industry, I was given a commemorative centenary boxed set of historical recordings by EMI, formerly known as “His Master’s Voice” and on it is the same piece of music recorded a year apart, once acoustically and once electronically and the difference bowls you over! Suddenly there are nuances, there is soft sound and all the instruments can be heard individually and not as an indistinct sound soup. It’s quite stunning. Unfortunately I can’t find the acoustic recording of the Danse Macabre, so you’ll have to make do with Caruso in 1902 and Stokowski in 1925.

By the way, the name of the dog who posed for “His Master’s Voice” was Nipper. I am font of utterly useless knowledge.

Here’s Nipper listening to his master’s voice.

Risotto is a Soup

There is a basic problem with risotto: It’s a soup! If you’re aiming for a rice dish, you’ll definitely get it wrong. Think of it as a soup and chances are you’ll get it right. Now before all of Italy starts screaming bloody murder, let me explain. I assume we are all agreed that risotto should be creamy, smooth, almost flowing and not a lump of rice that can be sliced with a knife. And yet, that block of glued together rice grains is what you often get served and the reason is that the correct consistency was achieved at high heat inside the pot it was cooked in. Once it got to you, it had already started to congeal and your last spoonful was as luscious as a mouthful of plaster of Paris.

So the long and short of it is; if you think it’s much too liquid in your pot, it will be fine on the plate. If you serve it very hot, your guests might even think it is really to liquid, but at the last mouthful, they will be silently thanking you.

The correct texture of risotto in the pot

In the video above, you can see the texture of the risotto just before I served it up into the plates. Yes, it really IS a soup! And if you think this is surely not going to be right when you serve it up, below is the evidence to the contrary:

Delicious to the last spoonful!

There you go!

There are as many recipes for risotto as there are housewives in Italy, so i really rather reluctantly add mine to it. Risotto Milanese is traditionally made with beef stock and bone marrow, but having a fair quantity of chicken stock and no bone marrow to hand, I made it with the former and without the latter. But I had confit garlic in the chiller, which made a great addition.

Risotto Milanese my way

  • 200g Arborio rice
  • 50ml white wine
  • 800ml chicken stock
  • 50g-60g branch celery
  • 100g brown onion
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp saffron strands
  • 50g butter, cold, cut into cubes
  • 50g grated Parmesan
  • juice of ½ lemon
  • generous black pepper

Start be cutting the celery and onion into very small dice, about the size of a grain of rice. If that’s too much bother, chuck it into a food processor and whizz it around until you’re more or less at the correct size. Try not to turn it to pulp, though!
Heat up your stock and leave it to simmer gently. Put the saffron into a little bowl and moisten it with some hot stock.
Heat the olive oil in a heavy cast iron pot and fry the onion without browning until it is very soft, about 10 minutes. About halfway through, you can add the celery. When it’s all nice and hot, add the rice and stir it to coat. Keep frying for about 3 minutes, again without browning anything. If there is a danger of it taking colour, pour in the wine immediately.

Pour in the wine, if you haven’t already done that and stir to evaporate completely. Most recipes will tell you to use dry white, but I’m actually happier with a fruity white (I’m saying fruity, not sweet!) and the juice of half a lemon added right at the end. Add in hot stock, bit by bit, stirring all the time. I’m going to say something very controversial now:

It doesn’t matter whether you add the stock bit by bit, or all at once.

Except that if you add it all at once, you better be damn sure the quantity is correct, or you’re making porridge. I know it doesn’t matter because I tried it both ways and could not taste any difference at all. The stirring is the important thing and of course it is so much more fun to be adding little by little and watch these grains remain coated with stock that becomes creamier and creamier. So do as you please, but keep stirring.

Taste your rice every now and again and continue to adjust the salt level, but keep in mind that there is a lot of reduction happening and your stock will naturally have salt in it already, and you will be adding quite a bit of salty Parmesan, so be careful. Add you saffron together with the stock you soaked it in after about 10 minutes of cooking. You will be stirring for about 20-25 minutes, depending on how soft or hard you want your rice. It should by right still have a little bite to it, but you’re making for for yourself, so you’re the boss. One piece of advice, though. When you taste for doneness, don’t taste a grain or two, take a half a spoonful. Two or three grains will feel fine, if they are a bit hard, but if you have a whole plateful of it, it’s not going to be pleasant.

Your rice is cooked to a wonderful soup, you turn off the heat and now you add your handfuls of cheese and stir like a maniac. Add the cold butter and don’t let up with the stirring. Once it all looks like risotto, you can ladle it into plates, grind pepper onto it and serve.

P.S.: Listening to opera is obligatory when making risotto, singing along is optional.

Early Light Cocoa

I have a rather medieval habit of waking up in the dead of night, getting out of bed and roaming the rooms of our home. It isn’t exactly Rebecca floating across the bay windows of Manderley, but you get the idea. The habit of sleeping all the night through to wake in the morning is a relatively new one. From the early Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution, people would go to bed just after sundown, sleep for a good 4 to 6 hours , wake for an hour or two to say Matins, ruminate or just have sex and then get another 2 to 3 hours of sleep before having to herd the sheep, or paint the chapel, or whatever it is the Medievals did.

There is a calmness to the dead of night and the first weak light of the sun that follows it that I enjoy tremendously. The worries of the day before seem smaller as the dawn brings hope in things renewed. And then there is cocoa. I’m not talking of the bagged sweetened powders ready to be poured into a steaming glass of milk or (God forbid) water, but of the properly assembled mix of roasted cacao powder, sugar and milk. Forget those Godiva tins, those Fortnum sachets and buy yourself some very basic Van Houten cocoa powder. It should be the same thing you put into cakes, bitter, witout a trace of sugar or filler, just plain fine powder.

I’ll give you my recipe, but this is really just the way I like to drink my cocoa. You may find you like it sweeter, or maybe you want it aphrodisiacally bitter, or with a little cinnamon added. Whatever rocks your bed, embrace it. And do yourself a favour! Do not at any time! Ever! Make your cocoa with water. The result is an insipid, limpid swamp not worth feeding to a pauper.

The early light cocoa, the one consumed just before dawn, sends me back to sleep most efficiently. In fact, my mug is empty now and my eyes will hardly stay open, so I will bid you goodnight.

The Big Project

Eddie and I live in a small flat, so space isn’t exactly generous, especially if you collect all sorts of things, like we do. Nevertheless, we have this one room that’s been standing “empty” for years. It’s storage, it’s where some of the books live and it is where this huge painting of a piglet resides. Yup, that’s the one on top there. We bought it in Penang quite a while back and didn’t realise just how big it was. Galleries have huge empty white walls, so everything looks reasonably sized. Of course reasonable people will measure and go home and check, but then we are not reasonable people.

It arrived and would not fit into the lift, so the movers schlepped it up 20 floors. I am still mortified. Fortunately the thing is quite light. One of our neighbours in the penthouse had a concert grand brought up the stairs. The poor movers did it a few floors a day, so I’m told it took a month to get there. Fortunately they could just leave it in the stairs, as there was fairly little chance of anyone stealing it and carrying it away.

Born in the age of the CD, we have amassed huge quantities of them. Now is the time to decide whether that US3 album is worth keeping.

So yesterday we decided to set up this room once and for all! This meant moving shelves from the living room into what we grandly call “The Library”, though it’s really just the spare bedroom. We started by switching on the air-conditioner, which has been sleeping on the wall for the past ten years. It took an hour to locate the remote control, so called because whenever you need it, it is.

When we located the thing and at last switched the geriatric air-con on, it was at first so surprised, it did nothing at all. Then it sputtered, coughed and belched out a vast cloud of grey dust that immediately settled on the pig. The compressor in back groaned, the gears ratcheted the noise level up a few hundred decibel and then the thing surprisingly did all an air-conditioner is supposed to do. Miraculous!

Have you noticed how you don’t notice how much stuff you have until you’ve pull it all out of the shelves? It has taken over our sitting room and our lives. There’s so little space left anywhere, you have to go outside to change your mind. In fact I had to escape to the yet uncompleted “library” to write this blog. Cat has refused to come join me as she is still upset about the mess.

The cat is called Tikus, thought I mostly just call her Cat.

Cat is very obedient, leaves the room when you tell her to and generally behaves in a very uncatlike manner, but she has a nasty temper that no one can really fathom. She looks sweet, white and gentle and will purr and come up to guests, whom we always tell not to touch her and who invariably don’t listen. That’s why we always keep Dettol cream to hand. Maybe naming her Tikus wasn’t such a good idea after all. She looked like drenched rat when I picked her out of the drain outside Frangipani, but the name has obviously given her personality problems.

Here I am sitting writing this post, or rather here I am not sitting, because I’m taking this picture of where I am not sitting. In fact I am not even writing, because, obviously, I’m taking the picture. But now I am. Writing.
You’re probably thinking; where’s the mess? This is empty, but not too messy and there seems to be plenty of room. That’s because this is where everything is supposed to be going, not where is currently is.

Because it is currently here. On the dining table, on the floor and all over the damn place. We opened boxes! Now, opening boxes that have been closed for a decade is a very, very bad idea. If you haven’t looked at it in the last ten years, you won’t miss it in the next ten, so my advice is to throw the whole box in the garbage unopened and save yourself a lot of heartache deciding what to keep and what to chuck. Just chuck it all. The same goes for the single cup left over from a set of 12 that your aunt gave you for your wedding. Throw it. If you liked the thing that much, you wouldn’t have broken eleven of them in the fist place. I’m hardly Marie Kondo, but I do believe in getting rid of excess stuff that is not giving you pleasure and if you’re using something once every two years, it’s definitely not pleasuring you enough.

The fun part of all this tidying and parting with things is that we get to hang paintings that have been leaning against the shelves for ages. We have a fair amount of them, none of them particularly expensive, some gifted by friends and they all give us immense pleasure. My advice to young people? Start buying artwork early, buy what you can afford, buy what you like, not what you think will make you money. We still have the very first painting we bought and 30 years on I still pause in front if it and take it in.

The OTHER thing that will keep you sane while you live in a hovel is access to the drinks trolley! The one thing not to block is the isle to the booze. You’ll need it. Oh, and stock up on beers, they go down surprisingly fast when you’re condemned to hard labour.

Yes, that’s a little frog. Don’t look at the Economist Style Guide. It was a mistake.

Japanese Fried Noodles

When you wander the streets of Tokyo late at night, drunk and hungry, forget the sushi and head to those little places that sell fried udon, add plenty of chilli flakes and the morning will be only half as painful. Well, as you’re not likely to be wandering those streets anytime soon, here’s how you can make them in the comfort of your own home. Preparing all the ingredients can be a bit of a slog, I admit, so do it early, have a drink while you chop and mix and enjoy the work.

Fried noodle recipes always look a bit daunting. Once I had written it all down, it was just a long list of seemingly never-ending things to do. But it’s really very simple, trust me. I have broken it down into very clear sections, so as long as you remember that you can’t really screw it up all that much, you will be fine.

All that you need:

  • 50ml soya sauce
  • 80ml mirin (or sake, or rice wine)
  • dash of white pepper
  • ¼ Chinese cabbage
  • 12 Japanese shishito chillies (or 4 green chillies, cut into quarters)
  • 5 spring onions
  • 1 Tbsp sesame seeds
  • chilli flakes to taste
  • ½ Tbsp ginger garlic paste (see Note)
  • 400g udon noodles
  • 2 tsp sesame oil
  • 250g minced pork or beef (or lamb, but preferably not chicken)
  • 2 Tbsp oil

Step 1 – Getting ready:

Getting ready is always the most time consuming part of cooking. In a professional kitchen it takes up 70% of the time. That’s the bad news. The good news is that you can do it hours in advance and then when it comes to cooking time, it’s all really quick.

  1. Start by mixing the soya sauce and mirin and stirring in a little finely ground white pepper.
  2. Cut the quarter cabbage into 2cm strips.
  3. Cut the top and stalk of the shishito chillies and cut them in half lengthwise.
  4. Cut the bottom white part off the spring onions and chop it roughly.
  5. Cut the top green part of the spring onions into 1cm rings.
  6. Just before cooking, or at most half an hour before, pour hot water over the udon noodles to soften and separate them.
  7. Drain, put in a bowl and toss with the sesame oil.

Step 2 – Starting the wok:

  1. Put one tablespoon of oil into a wok and heat on high heat.
  2. Make sure your cabbage is completely dry, then add it to the wok and fry until the edges start to brown and the middle part is still a little crunchy. Do not salt or pepper the cabbage at all!
  3. Remove from the heat and keep. You can do this up to an hour in advance, but keep the cabbage at room temperature.

Step 3 – Ready to serve:

Keep calm, read the points below and then just remember the order of the items I’ve underlined and you won’t go wrong. Hopefully.

  1. Heat one more tablespoon of oil in the wok until smoking hot.
  2. Add the mince and stir fry for just one minute, then spread it out in the wok and leave it to fry until all the water at the bottom of the wok has evaporated and the mince has browned. Resist the temptation to stir it, or it won’t brown at all. Once you see the edges go brown, you’re ready.
  3. Add the ginger garlic paste and stir fry for one minute.
  4. Add the shishito chillies and the white part of the spring onions and fry for one minute.
  5. Now add the udon noodles and fry for one minute.
  6. Pour in the sauce and continue to stir fry until the sauce has thickened and is coating the noodles lightly.
  7. Add the fried cabbage, stir in, then add the green part of the spring onion, the sesame seeds and half the chilli flakes, give it a quick stir and dish it out.
  8. Garnish with more sesame seeds and the rest of the chilli flakes and take it to your guests with a flourish.

NOTE:          You can replace the mirin with sake or rice wine, or stock, the Chinese cabbage with white or green cabbage, the shisito chillies with any other fresh chillies (watch the heat!), the spring onions with wedges of brown or red onions, the chilli flakes with chilli oil, the ginger garlic paste with chopped garlic and ginger and the udon noodles with yellow noodles. You won’t get a Japanese noddle, but then, who’s watching?

If you are using ginger and garlic regularly, it is worth making a batch of ginger garlic paste and keeping it in the chiller. It will be good for at least 4 weeks. If not, just chop ginger and garlic finely and use that instead.

Ginger Garlic Paste

I always have 3 basic staples in my chiller and this is one of them. If you cook a lot of Asian food, it’s well worth keeping a jar of this ginger garlic paste at the ready. It saves you from having to chop everything up every single time and it can make a tasty dish just added to stir fried meat or vegetables. The other two staples are Dried Chilli Oil and Magic Noodle Sauce, which is useful for much more than just noodles. But you’re going to have to wait a little for that one.

A great staple to have in your chiller!

(makes 400g, about 12 Tbsp)

  • 150g garlic, peeled weight
  • 150g old ginger root, peeled weight
  • 100ml peanut or other vegetable oil

Crush and lightly chop the garlic and ginger.

Put garlic, ginger and oil into a blender and process to a fine paste. Try not to have the mix heat up too much in the process.

NOTE:          Your paste will be quite dry in appearance, with no visible oil on the top. It will keep in a glass jar in the chiller for a week or more.

BONUS RECIPE : Ginger Chicken

  • 200g of any boneless part of a chicken
  • 1/2 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 Tbsp Rice Wine
  • 1 Tbsp ginger garlic paste
  • 1 Tbsp oil
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • chopped spring onion

Marinate the chicken in the soy suce, rice wine and ginger garlic paste for about half an hour.
Heat the oil in a wok and stir fry the chicken in the smoking hot oil.
Serve with chopped spring onion. Done.

This Wine Tastes Like Schist

I recently scrolled through the pictures I took on a visit to the Fritz Haag vineyard in 2017. Fritz Haag’s vineyard has been around since 1605 and as far as anyone knows, it’s been in the family ever since. The white haired gentleman you see in the pictures is Wilhelm Haag who took over from his father Fritz who was, need I say it, not the original Fritz. At 80 Wilhelm still nimbled up the extremely steep hill to show us the Brauneberger Juffer Sonneuhr, the “Brauneberg Maid’s Sundial” on which you should not rely for the time at all.

The idea to plant a vineyard on an extreme slope may seem foolish, but in decades past, the weather on the Mosel River wasn’t as hot and sunny as it is now and the angle of the hill caught the sun at a perpendicular, giving heat to the vines even in a dull summer. Of course it is impossible to use any kind of harvesting machines here, so everything from ploughing to pruning to harvesting is done by hand. The pickers are harnessed, because one misstep could send you plunging hundreds of meters down the crumbly slate hill and into the river.

It may sound hard to believe, but you can actually taste the slate in the wine (schist just made for a better headline). Terroir, that mythical animal, religion to some and pretentious fancy to others is really nothing but the wine’s ability to speak of where it comes from. It doesn’t need to be a great and expensive Chateau bottle to express terroir. If you return every year to that little village in Italy, or Portugal, Greece or wherever the innkeeper makes a little wine just for home consumption, you will recognise that wine instantly, no matter where you come across it. Your mind instantly takes you back to that inn, the sun in your face and a glass of cool wine in your hand. That is really all terroir is. Oh and while I’m talking, terroir isn’t just the soil, it’s a combination of all factors; soil, sun, weather, rainfall, flora, fauna, everything that defines the place.

Both history and sunshine in a bottle.

Terroir is what distinguishes a “regional” wine, for lack of a better word, from an international, commercial wine of generic taste. Think of an indistinct oaked Chardonnay, or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, a wine so Internationally successful that old world winemakers were falling over themselves to plant Sauvignon Blanc grapes and cash in on the trend.

I’m not saying these wines are bad. Some make for very pleasant drinking and they are so reliable, year in, year out, they make a very safe buy. Safe, but boring. Because after a while you feel like you are drinking the same bottle over and over again. These wines are produced to a specific taste profile, there is no bottle variation, not vintage variation, nothing. They don’t talk about the landscape, the heat, the dry arid soil or the winemaker’s passion, it’s just pleasant and pleasant will not do in the long run. We all need a slap in the face every now and again.

There is obviously no better way to understand wine and its terroir than to actually go there, see the landscape, smell the air, talk to the wine maker and taste lots and lots of wines from one region. Fat chance of that at the moment! Every two years, Eddie and I join an eclectic band of friends for wine and culture (not too much culture, though). It’s a group that was started by our friend Thilo, who through a convoluted series of circumstances became friends with one of Germany’s foremost wine writers and this fine gentleman leads our tours.

Jens Priewe, our friend and guide not too impressed with the speed of wine service in Lecce.

It’s enormous fun and not at all serious, but you still learn a huge amount about each region and its wines. After tours of Sicily, Steiermark in Austria, Puglia, and the German Mosel we were planning another tour of Sicily in October, but damn it if the pandemic didn’t get in the way! So many pictures, so many memories, so many hilarious moments, but as they say; you had to be there.

At the danger of boring you out of your wits, I’m going to share more stories of our past travels soon. We don’t know when there will be future ones.

May the 4th. Be with us.

And so we have been told that we can open for business again. Out of an abundance of caution, we decided to limit our first week to just Fuego, with areas demarcated for tables, walkways taped to the floors and capacity limited to one seating only. I think this is the time for us to be civic minded and think of people before we think of money. I would honestly have expected the MCO to last until the active cases had dropped under 1,000 and daily new cases under 50 for at least a week. I guess it was becoming too expensive for everyone. So I guess the responsibility to prevent a second outbreak falls to the people. Us.

The staff are very excited to be able to open and work again, especially on May the Fourth, so they came up with the silly line in the header. The atmosphere was wonderful, all the guests cautiously friendly, the staff smiling behind their N95 masks and then the evening took on a very biblical dimension. A double rainbow turned up like a slice of hope after the deluge.

A slice of hope after the deluge

My old friend Jin texted me this morning saying Unicorns may have been celebrating the end of MCO, but then quite quickly suggested we should grill the unicorns and serve them with a glittery mustard sauce. He’s that kind of a guy. Of course he is right; mustard sauce is excellent with horse meat and a unicorn is obviously a horse. I can’t see it having been half as successful as a mythical animal had it been a pig.

Now horse is a perfectly normal thing to eat in Luxembourg and France and most of Europe. Maybe that’s the real reason for Brexit? I have to admit that the Boucherie Chevalines that populated every village in my youthful days are becoming a rarity. Isn’t it strange that we can eat cute piglets and soulful-eyed cows and wooly sheep, but shudder at the thought of biting into a horse steak. Born out of necessity, the cheap alternative to beef had become a pricey specialty when my grandmother used to take us to a small pub that served it with a rich mustard sauce spiked by handfuls of garlic. It was always a delicious lunch, even though you’d stink of garlic for days afterwards.

A Horse Butcher in Sancerre

This story was supposed to be all about happy rainbows and signals of hope and see what you’ve done, Jin!! But honestly, there’s only that much you can say about rainbows. Pot of gold at the end, somewhere over and then as Seiichi our jazz musician friend that we were having dinner with pointed out, there is Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Double Rainbow which I shall leave you with for this morning. And before you ask, NO, we don’t serve horse meat at Fuego!

For those of you who are interested in the moral history of horse meat, check this out:

The Incomparable Toast

Rare are the times when you pick up a toast, butter it generously and bite into it to be instantly transported to a better time in a worse off world, i.e. the past. The soft crumb turned a golden hue, the crisp crust and the taste of natural goodness, in short a bead with substance and integrity. But before I turn into Charles Dickens, let me tell you there’s a recipe in this. In my early morning, when I had the house to myself in contemplative silence, I fancied a buttered toast and stuck the commercial bread I keep in the freezer into my sunrise orange toaster, buttered and bit into it and thought to myself: “What a piece of crap! Why am I eating this??” and why indeed?

It’s laziness, of course and a lack of time. So I devised to remedy the first and dedicate a bit of the second to the manufacture of a good, simple bread to turn into toast. Eddie had asked me for fluffy bread to eat sambal hae bee with (more on that another time), so trying to kill two birds with one stone, I set out to study a little. My most excellent bread book by Eric Kayser (The Larousse of Bread) has wonderful recipes, but they all take hours to make. I want a bread I can make in less than 2 hours, start to finished loaf. And I’m happy to say; I managed it 1 hour and 30 minutes! Now don’t let the idea of 1½ hours work frighten you. You’re mostly going to be loafing around, cup of coffee in hand while your loaf does its own thing. It really is no work at all. If you have a stand mixer. If not, go buy one!

Fluffy, with a crisp crust and it’s easy to slice too!

This loaf is everything you want in white bread. It has a soft, well aerated crumb and a crust that stays crisp, even if you wrap it in cling film or put it into a plastic bag. It also tastes great and it’s done in three easy steps.

Perfect White Sandwich Bread

Makes one natural sandwich loaf (my tin: L 26cm, W 10cm, D 8cm, about 2 litres)

For the instant poolish:

  • 100g plain flour, preferably organic and unbleached
  • 10g instant yeast
  • 100ml water at room temperature

To finish the loaf:

  • 400g plain flour, preferably organic and unbleached
  • 20g caster sugar
  • 4g / 1 tsp fine Brittany salt
  • 250g water

Step One – 5 minutes work, 30 minutes rest:

You’re making a pre-ferment, which will add a little acidity and a deeper, more developed flavour to your bread. This is where we cheat and pretend it’s been a long drawn out process.

Take out the bowl and hook attachment of your mixer. Mix 100g flour and 10g instant yeast in the bowl and stir in 100ml water straight from the tap and if you’re the filtering kind, make sure your water is at room temperature. Mix well, cover with a damp cloth and leave to rise for 30 minutes. When I say damp cloth, I mean one that you have quickly held under the water without getting it sodding wet. It’s wet, but not dripping. Do NOT cover the bowl with the plastic cover the manufacturer may have provided. You need air to get to your ferment.

You’re done, go make a cup of coffee and read the newspaper for half an hour. There’s no need to go check, just set your alarm.

That’s how sticky, gluey your dough will be.

Step Two – 15 minutes work, 20 minutes rest:

Add in the rest of the four, the sugar and the salt and switch on the mixer with hook attached. At the lowest speed, slowly pour in 250ml water, again at room temperature. Once the dough has come together, increase the speed to the next level and leave to knead for 15 minutes.

In the meantime, butter and flour your tin and preheat the oven to the max. If it says 250ºC on the dial it will probably give you just about 230ºC on the thermometer, which is what you want. You need your oven to be very hot!

Note the depressed middle?

Once the dough has been kneaded for 15 minutes, it’s time to slap it into the tin. The dough is going to be very wet and sticky, so use a scraper, or a spoon to heave it into your buttered and floured tin. Try to keep it in one piece. It’s going to want to stay in a lump in the middle, so dust it with flour and squeeze it to make it fill the tin. You want to have a depression at this time, but only in the bread. See picture!

Dust with more flour, cover with the cloth and go have a 20 minute shower. Make sure your oven is heating up!

Step Three – 0 minutes work, 20 minutes baking time:

Your bread should by now be trying to leave the tin and fall off the sides. Put the bread into the oven and bake it for 20 minutes. It should be nicely browned and sound “hollow” when you tap it. Take it out, turn the tin to get the bread out and leave the thing to cool down. You will be able to cut a slice in about 15 minutes, but it will be at its best in a couple of hours. If you want to keep it for the next day, make sure it is completely cooled before wrapping it in cling film.

There’s One in Every Village

Now you might be wondering what every village has or at least used to have. The Village Priest? The Village Idiot? Sometimes one and the same. Or maybe the Village Bicycle? Which, incidentally is not a method of transportation, even though it does get around. What I meant was the Village Baker. In times gone by every village had a baker you could take your loaf to and who would, for a small fee, bake it for you. Of course then everyone would know whether you were capable of a good loaf, or were just a pretty face, whether your destiny was Marriage or a romp in the shed.

Our little village of Belval had one such traditional baker, who even in the 1970’s in affluent Luxembourg produced the three pound loaves preferred by frugal working class families. I’d like to say “like my own”, but that’s not technically true. We were middle class, my father running a men’s clothing store, but many of my relatives used to work in the iron ore mines on which Luxembourg’s original fortunes were built. You’d be shushed coming in to play with your cousins, as the father of the house would be asleep in the afternoon, because of the night shift. In my definitely rose tinted memory it was an idyllic life in the stone cottages the mine owners provided. They had a kitchen, a small sitting room, two, sometimes three bedrooms, a coal cellar and originally an outhouse, which mercifully vanished when I was still very young.

The most important part of the house however was the little garden at the back, which abutted all the other gardens. This is where life happened. The real entrance to the house was here and not up the small path to the front door. For most of the people, the ring of the doorbell ringing was greeted with trepidation. It could be bad news or maybe the priest visiting, which was usually worse. Except for Sundays, the front door was always firmly locked, the neighbours walking round the back, down the little lane, through the back garden to the kitchen door, which except for the deepest winter was always open. There would be a big three pound loaf waiting to be sliced by hand, slathered with molasses for the kids and “Greiweschmalz” for the working men. “Greiweschmalz” was lard, flavoured with fried onions and boy was that good! If you worked in the mines, you could kill a 5000 calorie lunch and not put on a pound, so lard was not your enemy.

I have been looking for pictures of these types of cottages, but there is nothing at all to be found, maybe it was all a figment of my imagination? So instead, above is a collage of the steel works my uncles used to work at. The beauty of the lost industrial landscape dominated everything in the south of Luxembourg and everyone lived by its rhythm. The sirens marked the beginning and the end of shifts, it summoned the wives to the kitchen to get lunch ready for the men who would be on their way home, tired and in need of a bath and a cold beer. In those days Arbed and the mills were the uncontested lords of the land. When Arcelor Mittal bought it all, they got empty mills, but a glorious company headquarters.

A.R.B.E.D in capital letters announced to the world who was in charge in this country

That got us far from the three pound loaves that inspired yesterday’s baking. Baked in wood fired ovens, they had a thick, almost black base and an incomparable flavour. With the memory of this flavour in mind and after eating rubbish bread for the last 6 weeks, I took the plunge and made bread! As I said, I’m not a great pastry chef and I’m a worse baker. I tend to just slap it together and hope that by using good flour, the outcome will be edible. I mean; can it be worse that the loaf that’s presumably “so good you can even eat it on its own”, a loaf so inconsequential, you are likely to derive more sustenance from the bag it comes in.

The Village minus the Idiot. He went overseas.

I’m dithering and not getting to the point, the point being Bread. Good, dense, nourishing and full of flavour. I can’t promise you a perfect loaf, but I can promise you an easy one that will taste good. Which gets us back to the Village…. Baker.

Rustic Rye Bread

One 640g loaf

  • 200g organic rye flour
  • 200g plain flour
  • 10g brown sugar
  • 10g palm sugar
  • 5g fine Brittany salt (or 8g plain salt)
  • 15g yeast
  • 250g cold water

Mix the two flours together and sieve into the bowl of a mixer. You will probably have some grainy solids left in your sieve. Check them for twigs or stones and make sure there are no weevils in there and then toss them into the fours. You want this in your bread for texture.

Add the brown sugar and palm sugar. If you don’t have palm sugar, add a total of 15g brown or even white sugar. Palm sugar is less sweet, so you need more. Add the salt, mix all together, then add the yeast.

Attach the hook to your mixer and set the speed to 1. With the machine running, slowly our in the cold water. Once the dough has come together, leave it to knead at the lowest speed for 5 minutes, then increase to 2 and leave to knead for 15 minutes. Your dough should be slightly wet, but not too sticky. If the hook comes out quite clean, you’ll be on the right track. Take the loaf out with lightly floured hands, shape into a ball and return to the bowl. Cover with a wet cloth and leave to rise until doubled in size. At tropical temperature and humidity, that’s about 45 minutes.

Knock the dough back and shape it into a torpedo shaped loaf and put it on a lightly oiled baking tray. Dust generously with flour and cover once more with a damp cloth. The second rise will take another 45 minutes. After 30 minutes, give your loaf another light dusting with flour and slash it diagonally to release the air and ensure that the loaf does not crack when baking.

If your oven has a bottom heat setting, use this one to pre-heat and start the bake of your loaf. Crank it up as high as it will go. I set mine to 250ºC, which gave me about 230ºC on the thermometer. Do this as soon as you start the second rise or at least 30 minutes before baking. You need your oven to be very hot!

When it’s time to bake, spray your loaf with water and spray the tray around the loaf very generously, so as to create some steam, which will help the bread rise. Bake at bottom heat for about 10 minutes, then switch to fan assist or normal setting an continue to bake for about 10 more minutes. That’s a total baking time of just 20 minutes.

Hausfrauen Ratschlag

How do you know when your loaf is cooked? – Take it out, turn it around and tap it. If it sounds hollow, it’s done.

What if I don’t have access to “good” flour? I have made great bread with simple flours. Head to the Indian shop, or any shop that sells so-called ethnic foodstuff. Chances are you will find a flour that hasn’t been refined off the face of the earth. Atta flour will do very well and if you don’t have anything else, mix it with some seeds and oatmeal. I promise the end result will still be much better than anything you can buy in the shop.