Emails from Exile

Spring Asparagus and a Sourdough Recipe


Thanks for the email. It was a much-appreciated word from the outside world, don’t worry I did anti-bac it on arrival. I will try your recommended recipes this week and heed the invitation to slow down, I am now taking as long as possible with each and every meal. A glacial pouring of milk over my cereal, slow cooking porridge as if it was a shoulder of pork (or floret of cauliflower), and last night I spend an hour lazily pouring stock into my risotto, stirring with the patience of a zen monk.

The first week of lockdown has finished, day seven of yoga with Adrienne complete and I think I have read every word Robert Macfarlane has ever written. It is a strange time for isolation, the day’s light is now extended into the evening, plants are waking up from winter and the sun thawing, softening and beckoning the world into the summer we have all been dreaming of. You cannot hold spring back and, at least for the natural world, this is a time of revival, however, a global pandemic can hold us back. As always, food is a redeemer and a liberator from the mundane. We have the spring vegetables just around the corner, but if I was asparagus I would stay in the warm, comfortable soil and give it a year, but luckily, they aren’t sentient and will poke their spear like heads up to be plucked. Last year, I almost drove my flat insane by including the vegetable in every meal I possibly could during its short season. Asparagus soup, lemon and asparagus linguine, asparagus frittata, asparagus soldiers, barbecued asparagus skewers and just simply drizzled them with an obscene amount of golden, melted butter. By the summer solstice (when asparagus season ends) we were all surprised when our pee didn’t smell of the vegetable.

Anyway, I have been thinking about how this email could be of use to you. I thought about recommending books (Sitopiaby Carolyn Steel or Lanny by Max Porter), films (Phantom Thread) or music (Steve Gunn and Squid), but as you had mentioned it, maybe a little amateur advice on making yourself some sourdough bread. It seems to be one of nations coping mechanisms for lockdown and I am hoping after all this ends we will stick to making this ‘proper bread’. Perhaps, like Dewey Finn in School of Rock, we need a quick ‘bread appreciation’ discussion before the baking begins. Sourdough bread was not invented by a bearded, small hatted, hipster in Shoreditch, the best guess is that it started in Ancient Egypt 6000 years ago. A bowl of pulverised grain (yum) and water was left out accidentally and some yeast got into it, it began to bubble. Humans being humans, decided to cook it and see what happened, it rose, it gained spirit and became bread. Flour and water became something which could sustain a population, it meant a need to cultivate the land with agriculture, but also cultivating a civil, co-ordinated system between farmer, miller, baker and eater. Did bread kickstart civilisation? Who knows, but the lack of it can definitely bring it down. Then, obviously not listening to your instructions to slow down, the supermarkets sped it all up. Forgetting traditional methods of making bread and using fast acting yeast, throwing in thirty more ingredients and fortifying vitamins to do it (which is all detrimental to our health, our local businesses and the taste of the bread). A long, slow sourdough fermentation unlocks all the goodness of a grain, making it more nutritious and delicious. It can be dauting, but I promise you will get so much satisfaction with each bread that comes out of the oven, even just for the smell.

This recipe is an amalgamation of different breads I have found in books, on YouTube and from fellow bread enthusiasts (my Mum). You may be better served listening to a professional, but I hope it produces delicious, or at the beginning, just edible bread. I will try and be concise, but it does take patience and you will find your own little routine. If ever there was the time, it is now.

For the starter, mix 100g of rye flour with 100ml of warm water, do this repeatedly for 5 days. The starter, or culture as it can pompously be called, will start to develop. Make sure you use your senses, if it starts to smell vinegary give it a feed, if it looks dull and lifeless give it a feed, if it smells yeasty and warm you’re on the right path and if you can see bubbles and activity, you’re almost there.

Before feeding each day, discard about a couple of spoonful’sof the mixture, but make sure you don’t pour the whole thing away.

This recipe makes two loaves, for one, just half.

Soon, you and the starter will be ready emotionally and physically to make bread. There are lots of stages to this, but they are all light work, think of it like adding layers of shade to a drawing or depth of detail to a story. I have made this a four-stage process, but you can adapt and change it as you go. It will get easier with each iteration.

Stage one: Make your leaven. Add 250g of wholewheat flour and 250g of strong white flour to a large bowl. Add 650ml of warm water to the flour. Add 6 tablespoons of your starter to the mix. Mix it all together and it should come to a smooth batter-like consistency. Cover with clingfilm (or an environmentally friendly alternative if you have) and leave for 10 hours. Get on with your quarantine, quaff multiple cups of tea, read a novella or maybe, just time it so you can leave overnight.

Stage two: Make that dough. Add 300g of wholewheat flour and 300g of strong bread flour to the leaven. Then add 25g of salt (essential, do not forget). Bring it all together, turning the bowl and folding in the flour from the side until it comes together into a round. You can knead the bread, but don’t be too precious, it just needs to become one discernible, not platonic, form. Now leave this to rise in a cool spot for 3 hours, before knocking the air out and folding it back into a round. Leave to rise for another 3 hours, then fold it again. You’re building structure and flavour with this repetition.

Stage three. Proof (prove) it. Slop your dough onto a floury surface, divide into two equal halves, for the two loaves. Now you are going to shape that dough. There are lots of ways of doing this, I would have a look on YouTube or search online for some visual learning, it is easier than it looks. I go for the ¾ fold, bring in the sides, fold over completely and cup and spin method. Got it? (seriously YouTube is your best bet). You will now have two perfectly formed round doughs and now they need a little relaxation. Pop into a snug fitting bowl or proving basket (highly recommended) and leave for 5 hours in the fridge.

Stage four. Bake for Britain. Whack your oven up to 230C. Heat a cast iron pan in the oven. Be careful here. When the oven and pan are ‘hotter than the sun’ you’re ready to bake. Tear a sheet of baking paper which will be big enough for your dough and carefully flop your dough on the sheet. Score a half-moon into the surface of the dough using a sharp knife, be confident with your slash (this will ‘let the fairies out’ or allow an even rise). Carefully lower the dough into the pan and then pop the lid on. Bake in the oven for 25 minutes with the lid on, then 20 minutes with the lid off.

Let it go as brown as you wish, I tend to lean on the side of ‘almost burnt’, but that’s just me. I am looking forward to hearing how it goes and receiving a slice in the post.

Stick it to the man,

Elliot x


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