Recipe: Rabbit and black olive pie

rabbit pieAbout 10 years ago I ate a rabbit and black olive pie at a now defunct Greek restaurant called Omega in Sydney.  I was reminded of it recently when eating in a different Greek restaurant that had the same thing on the menu.  Is this a real Greek dish?  I tried to find a recipe on the internet but an exhaustive search (i.e. the first page of Google) yielded nothing.  So I tried to recreate it.  The result was different but still delicious.  Please accept my apologies if I have inadvertently insulted a culinary artefact of the Greek culture by my amateur reproduction.



1 rabbit (about 1.2kg), jointed into 8 pieces (ask your butcher to do this if you like)
Some plain flour, seasoned with salt and pepper, and 1tbsp unseasoned
2tbsp butter
2 tbsp olive oil
1 large carrot, finely chopped
2 rashers unsmoked streaky bacon
1 onion, finely chopped
1 stick of celery, finely chopped
75mL white wine vinegar
150mL white wine
1L chicken stock
2 bay leaves
A small handful of kalamata olives, pitted and finely sliced
1tbsp fresh oregano, roughly chopped
1tbsp thyme
70g butter, chilled and cut into small cubes
70g lard, chilled and cut into small cubes
280g plain flour
Salt and pepper
1 egg, beaten


Pat the rabbit pieces dry and coat then in the seasoned flour.  Heat 1tbsp each of butter and olive oil in a frying pan over medium to high heat.  Brown the rabbit pieces in batches and set aside – they should sizzle but not burn.  Do not crowd the pan. Deglaze the pan with the vinegar – it should bubble furiously.  When reduced by about half, add the wine and reduce by half.  Strain this liquid and set it aside.

Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a casserole over medium to high heat.  Fry the bacon and onion for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add the celery and carrot and cook for another 5 minutes or so, stirring occasionally.

Nestle the rabbit pieces amongst the vegetables, and add the deglazing liquid and the stock.  If you are using commercial concentrated stock or stock cubes I suggest making it up with more water than the packet directions say – you will be reducing it later on and you don’t want it to end up too salty.  Or you could omit stock altogether and just use water.  Add the bay leaves.  Bring to the boil, reduce the heat to a bear simmer.  Cover, leaving the lid slightly ajar, and simmer until the leg meat is tender – about 1.5-2 hours.

Meanwhile make the pastry.  Combine the flour, butter, lard, and a pinch of salt in a food processor until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.  Tip into a bowl.  Gradually add up to about 3-4 tablespoons of ice cold water whilst mixing with your other hand, until the mixture comes into a ball.  Be patient.  You will not believe the mixture will come into a ball, but it will, and you will regret adding too much water once it does.  Shape into a fat disc, wrap in cling film and chill for at least half an hour.  Do not skip this step.  It makes the pastry easier to roll.

When the rabbit is tender, remove the rabbit pieces and put to one side.  Strain the cooking liquid into a jug.  Allow the fat to rise to the top and any “bits” to settle at the bottom.  Skim off the fat and strain again into a clean pan, leaving behind the bits.  Boil hard until reduced to about 500mLskimming any scum that rises as you go along.  In a separate pan make a roux by melting a tablespoon of butter, adding a tablespoon of plain flour, and cooking for a couple of minutes, stirring frequently.  Pour over the reduced cooking juices and stir until it thickens, making a good gravy.

When the meat is cool enough to handle, using your hands, take the rabbit meat off the bone and shred.  Rabbit is absolutely full of bones so be careful (a) to get into all the nooks and crannies to get the meat out and (b) to make sure no bits of bone get into the flaked meat  Mix in the olives, oregano and thyme.  Chill until you are ready to assemble the pie.

Grease a 22cm pie dish (or round cake tin).  Cut off ¼ of the pastry and put to one side.  Roll out the remainder into a circle and line the pie dish. Put the pie filling into the pastry.  Pour over enough gravy to come almost to the top of the meat (keep any left and serve with the pie).  Roll out the smaller piece of pastry into a lid and lay over the top.  Press down on the edge to seal the pastry and trim off any excess.  Cut a few air holes in the lid and, if you wish, decorate with the spare pastry.  Glaze with beaten egg.

Bake for 45 minutes at 200C (conventional) or 180C (fan). Rest for 10 mins before serving.  I like serving skordalia as an accompaniment.  The pie is also excellent cold, eaten with mustard or chutney (as I am doing now).

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Review: The Stepney City Farm and Pals

The Stepney City Farm has successfully sorted the sheep from the goats; less successfully the sheep from the chickens.

The Stepney City Farm has successfully sorted the sheep from the goats; less successfully the sheep from the chickens.

Where do you stand on the issue of farmers’ markets?  Some years ago they became the bougie foodie’s only place to shop.  You could just sense the smugness from the Bugaboo set with their hessian bags walking down to a car park filled with stalls thinking “Fools!  Think of the food miles and all those farting cows that are going to spell the end of humanity!  I’m not going to be part of that!” as you head shamefully into the local Tesco.  Well, the shoe is on the other foot now.  Books like An Economist Gets Lunch by Tyler Cowen and A Greedy Man in a Hungry World by Jay Rayner have called shenanigans on the locavore movement, pointing out that higher animal welfare standards, greener farming practices, lower carbon footprints, or whatever other policy might govern your shopping decision, are not entailed in buying food that is local/organic or whatever the latest buzz word is down at a farmers’ market.  To the contrary, the most responsible decision in many cases is to shop at the supermarket.  Now the message is “No!  It is you who are the fools!  Didn’t you know that the comparative advantage of New Zealand in producing lamb means buying English is actually worse for the environment?

Play a literal game of "Duck, Duck, Goose".

Play a literal game of “Duck, Duck, Goose”.

I’ve basically given up worrying about it.  Not because I don’t care, but because you pretty much need a masters degree in food policy to even enter the argument whether local biodynamic spinach is the more responsible choice than the normal stuff in the supermarket, and I am just a normal guy out to keep myself fed.  My priority is to source the best quality product I can, and I think it follows from that that I do tend to buy locally and in season where it matters (imported asparagus and unripe tomatoes in December just don’t taste good), and organic free range meat, because I think happy animals make for better eating.  There is a separate set of questions about what to be buying in the first place e.g. less meat because it’s terribly bad for the envonment, or less of certain types of fish because there might be none left if we continue as we are.  But you have given your answers to those questions well before you set foot in any type of market – be it super or farmers’.

So today I am going to give a big plug to the Stepney City Farm, the Farmers’ Market held upon it and the associated Farm Cafe.  I’m not going to claim that this new (in parts) local institution is going to solve the world’s food sustainability problems, nor am I going to condemn it on the trivial basis that it might be more efficient to ship a truckload of carrots to Sainsbury’s than a carload to the farmers’ market.  It’s just a good thing all round and deserves some support.  And not just because I am a Stepney citizen hoping that the area will one day be known for more than just its fried chicken shops.

Fun for all the family at the cow and pigeon enclosure.

Fun for all the family at the cow and pigeon enclosure.

The first good thing about it is that, unlike most (or even possibly all) farmers’ markets in London, it is held on a farm.  You can go and look at the sheep and the goats and the quails while you do your morning shopping, and chat to the allotment owners about how their raspberries are coming along, and who wouldn’t want to do that?  Not a lot of the produce sold at the market is from the farm but some of it is, lately broad beans, corn, kohl rabi, and plenty of eggs of various sorts.

The second good thing are the market traders themselves.  Now I won’t lie, this is no Borough Market.  It’s pretty basic.  There are normally about 8-10 stalls selling bread, meat, cheese, vegetables, fruit,  and latterly fish (BIG plus in my book) including a few that I think of as hangers-on perpetuating the idea of “farmers’ market as luxury food rip-off merchant” – the hummus stand (why wouldn’t you make your own?), the chutney stand (ditto – here’s a good start – and hardly a staple in any event), the biltong stand (ah, yes, we’ve run out of biltong dear, nip down to the farmers’ market, would you?).  You can’t count on it to have everything you would need for your weekly shop, but that’s not the point.  If you have to shop for food, you might as well make it a pleasant experience, and this is.  It has good stuff, the quality is excellent, and my local Sainsbury’s didn’t sell rainbow chard, rye flour, or Doddington cheese last time I checked.  (You must try Doddington by the way – it’s my new favourite cheese.  Made from unpasteurised cow’s milk, it’s like a less hard parmesan, tangy and strong.  It makes a good rarebit.  And the cheese guy is hot).  The meat counter is particularly to be commended, where you can get such delights as chicken hearts, gizzards, and even lamb breast.  Now I have been laughed at in the face at a respectable Islington butchers for even asking for lamb breast (ha ha, mate, it all gets sold for kebabs!), but it is a fine cut and the fact that you can get it here reasonably regularly without raising an eyebrow is reason enough to go. The fish guy’s selection is limited but top quality, and he sells the sort of stuff we should be eating more of – squid, whiting, gurnard. I made an outstanding fish curry from the gurnard (if I do say so myself), and whiting makes excellent fish and chips, although sadly you never see it sold as such over here.

chickensThe third good thing is the cafe.   You can now officially get good coffee in Stepney.  And tea, if you like.  And a good lunch – handsome bacon sandwiches, frittata, soup, vegetarian mezze plates, that sort of thing.  I had a smoked trout sandwich the other week, with pickled radishes, and it was bloody delicious.

So I commend the Stepney City Farm/ers’ Market/Cafe to you.  Not because you will sleep better at night knowing that your money hasn’t gone to an “evil corporation”, not because locally sourced chickens are going to stop the world from burning to a crisp over the next hundred years, not because it’s a good place for little Jamie or Saskia to learn how to pronounce “ciabatta” (although it is), but simply because it is a good, community spirited project that makes our little corner of London a better place to be.

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Review: The Albert Square Chop House

chop-news-bodyOne of the many ways you can bifucate the world of restaurants is to divide them into those with and those without overtly descriptive parts to their names.  So, “Le Gavroche”, for example, versus “Romano’s Ristorante Italiano“.  What can the inclusion of a descriptive part of a restaurant name tell us?  Well, a lot, but not what you might expect.  Take “Cafe” for example.  This word you cannot trust.  You could be lumped with Cafe Rouge, or be transported to the heights of Le Cafe Anglais.  “Ristorante Italiano” is more helpful – it means “don’t eat here” in Italian.  None of the capital’s great Italian restaurants’ names contain these words (think Zucca, Bocca di Lupo, Locanda Locatelli, even the less elevated Ciao Bella).  “Bar and Grill” is similarly to be avoided – it means nothing more than the place will have sticky tables and smell faintly of vomit.

What about “Chop House”?  I love the phrase “Chop House”.  “Chop” is used adjectivally here, but it’s also a noun, so it indicates rather pleasingly both what you might get and how it might have got to you.  “House” has a hospitable ring to it, as if they are welcoming you into their home (which could be a mixed blessing, depending whose it is).  But when applied to actual Chop Houses the sense of the appellation isn’t necessarily what you get.  Mr Thomas’s Chop House in Manchester is pretty orthodox.  It has a fine Victorian interior and the portions are so hospitable you simply won’t finish them, viz the family sized steak and kidney pudding I struggled to get even 1/3 of the way through when I was there last year.  But the Quality Chop House in Clerkenwell, London, recently re-opened to much accalaim is a different story altogether.  It too is a restored Victorian place but “Chop House” belies the standard of the fare.  You won’t get a fatty slab of lamb or beef there, hanging over the side of the plate.  Oh no.  When I was there it was all fried artichokes and aioli, char-grilled mackerel, that sort of stuff.  “Chop House” it ain’t but “Quality” it most certainly is.  It’s probably doing itself a disservice calling itself the “Quality” Chop House (you’re really thinking “Quality Hotel Airport East” aren’t you?) but its qualities are such that they don’t need me to recommend them.  Go.

My most recent exposure to somewhere calling itself a Chop House is the Albert Square Chop House in Manchester.  It came to my attention via a website that claimed it offered the best Sunday lunch in Manchester so I thought I’d give it a try. (We really wanted to try the much hyped “The French” but it is closed on Sundays.  Boo).

The place is trying very hard to get it right and in many respects it is.  It offers a well devised, traditional, seasonal British menu with apparent thought given to the sourcing of ingredients.  It offers more than just token choices for vegetarians.  The wine list is extensive and well put together.  It is modern – open kitchen; leather booths juxtaposed against exposed brick and air conditioning ducting.  It is smart.

It is, however, falling short of its aspirations.  For a restaurant with such an emphasis on wine, it was odd that we had to ask to see the wine list.  This request provoked a look of delighted surprise on the waiter’s part.  The wine glasses themselves are frankly ridiculous.  No serious wino could have chosen these mammoth, clunky, awkwardly shaped, thick-glassed, round rimmed, cumbersome vessels.  There must have been a job lot of theatre-prop sized chalices going cheap.  When the wine was actually poured, we had to intervene in the waiter’s apparent attempt to fit the entire contents of the bottle into my glass in one pour.  They did however have one thing over their London cousins – once the first pour was in our glasses they left the bottle with us and then left us the fuck alone to top up as we saw fit.  Smart places in London would do well to observe this practice.

Right, the food.  To start I had ox tongue with parsley and radish.  The tongue was well cooked but it was served hot, piled up on top of radish ribbons which thereby lost all their crunch and were reduced to a sad, floppy and pointless accompaniment.  Joe had a beetroot and cows curd salad which he said was fine but not much to write home about.  My main course was roast rump of beef “served pink” with all the trimmings.  I imagine it may well have been pink when it was carved, but by the time it got to the table it was cooked through – too much time under a heat lamp I suspect.  It was, however, an excellent piece of meat and perfectly tender.  The accompaniments were hit and miss – a correct Yorkshire pudding, very good gravy, but the saltiest carrot/swede puree I think I had ever tasted.  Roast potatoes were too taut.  You have to rough up the surface of a potato for it to be crunchy when roasted.  These had hard, rather than crunchy, skins.  Joe had a Jersey Royal salad that was very dry and claimed to be served with a “slow-poached egg”.  I assume that by this they mean one of these 3-hours-at-55-degrees things, which I’ve seen done very successfully at places like Bohemia, Jersey, and my own kitchen.  It’s supposed to result in a state of almost suspended animation – a very slow flowing egg yolk with amazing silky texture.  This one was just a failure.  The yolk was hard, like a normal poached egg left in for too long.  The stuff arriving at other tables looked more tempting, such as individual steak and kidney puddings, and a whole roast chicken for 2 that looked regal, browned and inviting.

As for the wine, there was lots of great stuff on the list.  We chose a bin end of 2003 Castello di Bossi Corbaia, a Sangiovese dominant Supertuscan, a stunning choice and even better given that the list price was actually cheaper than the lowest advertised retail price on Wine Searcher.  So it is nothing if not good value, but happily also much more.

I don’t mean to sound too down about this place.  It has things going for it.  If I visited Manchester again and someone took me there I would regard it is a pleasant surprise.  But, without wanting to sound too much like a London snob, it’s got a way to go before it can rival most of the current field of British food proponents.

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A Cocktail for Summer

watermelonWine, gin and tonic.  That’s what I drink.  Wine when I’m the one supplying it (or I’m somewhere I can trust), gin and tonic if not, or as an aperitif, or if it’s before 11.00am.  Don’t do beer except in batter or pies, don’t really do scotch unless pressed, certainly no American whiskies, vodkas and so on.  When you look at it that way, I’m practically dry.  And as much as I like to think you can always find the right wine for an occasion, sometimes there’s just nothing for it and you just have to have a long, cool drink of some sort, especially in the heat we’ve been having lately, and the G&T can get kind of repetitive.  My closest grocery shop is a Bangladeshi (?) cash and carry that does plenty of things badly and just as many other things well.  One of the latter is the watermelons.  They donate a few for our annual street party to stop us complaining about their wheeling mutton carcasses around the neighbourhood in shopping trolleys.  It’s only possible to buy them whole so we’ve had to find extra uses for them (the watermelons, that is, not the mutton).  Here’s a very welcome cocktail, whether or not you include the gin.

Rahim Brothers Special Watermelon Highball

Pour the contents of a can of ginger beer into a blender.  Switch it on and chuck in chunks of watermelon to taste – about 200g gives the consistency I like.  Place a few ice cubes in a highball glass.  Add a dash of orange bitters if you like.  Pour in 30mL of gin.  Top up with the watermelon/ginger beer mix.  Stir, and garnish with a sprig of mint.

Makes 2

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Review: The Fish and Chip Shop

ampersandGiven that fish and chips is the national dish (curry aside, of course), you would expect it to be plentiful and of high quality in the capital.  Not so. Plentiful it may be, but the quality is not as wide spread as it ought to be.  The first meal I ate in my current house was fish and chips from the Ocean Fish Bar on the corner of Ernest Street.  I’m convinced it was just an enormous piece of very hard batter.

One rare exception to the dearth of fine London chipperies is Sea Fish, at 205 Upper Street in Islington, which in addition to having excellent quality fried fish (but poor, floppy chips), is BYO and opposite one of the best places to buy wine in the capital, namely the Sampler.

But there is a new entrant in the “quality London chippy” stakes, namely The Fish and Chip Shop, which is at 189 Upper Street in Islington, 16 whole doors away from Sea Fish, providing the deprived residents of Islington with the extra supply of quality fish and chips that they so desperately need.  Why they couldn’t have opened up at, say, 230 Mile End Road (to pluck a London address totally at random and in no way related to its proximity to my residence) as an alternative to the 6 kebab/fried chicken shops on that single block, I don’t know.

So, is it any good?  Let’s deal with the less important things first.  To start, the name.  “The Fish and Chip Shop”.  Bit presumptuous, isn’t it?  Reminds me of “The Piano Concerto” by Michael Nyman – the inoffensive minimalist ditty composed for the Jane Campion film The Piano – and so named as if to sweep aside the 300 years of the genre that predated it.  Mozart composed 27 of them, pretty much all of which are in the standard repertoire, but you know, whatevs, Michael Nyman can have the definite article reserved for his briefly fashionable work, what with all of three commercially available recordings of it, as heard on your mum’s CD player circa Boxing Day 1993 and long since forgotten.

Back to the Fish and Chip Shop. Next complaint, it is ersatz, as is the current fashion.  Vibe wise, it’s not as bad as Poppies (excellent fried fish in Spitalfields, pretending to be a 1950s American diner), Mishkin’s (excellent Jewish deli-style food in Covent Garden, pretending to be a 1950s American diner), Ed’s Easy Diner (terrible diner food in various locations, pretending to be a 1950s American diner), or The Diner (2010s American diner pretending to be a 1950s American diner).  But still, why have “Kippers, Fisherman’s Breakfasts” on a window in distressed gold paint to make it look like it’s been there for 70 years when it hasn’t, and in any event when the establishment serves neither of those things?  If you’re going to give your restaurant a name that implies “no nonsense, what you see is what you get”, then why not make the interior follow suit?  I can understand the appeal of wanting to recreate a bygone era that is not so architecturally sterile as our current one, but sometimes I think you just have to suck it up.  Especially if you’re opening a chippy, where nobody ought to care about such things, or other things like highly stylized greaseproof paper for wrapping chips in, bearing the place’s (admittedly quite clever) logo (pictured).

Now that I’ve got that out of the system, onto the food.  Now there are glimpses of brilliance here, but the bottom line is that I really wanted to love this place (who doesn’t want to love a definitive chippy?) and, well, sorry, I don’t.  Let me explain.

“London particular fritters”, i.e. little pea and ham bon-bons, are delicious.  Whoever took the idea of pea and ham soup and turned it into something deep-friable is a genius.  The accompanying mustard sauce could be sharper (a theme to which I will return).  The prawn cocktail is pretty good too.  It’s served in an enamel camping dish, eschewing the aspirational tone often invoked by serving it in a cocktail glass (arguably going too far the other way though), and it is properly served at room temperature, not disgustingly fridge cold like something you might be served on an airline.  The marie rose sauce is pretty orthodox – erring on the side of ketchup mixed with mayonnaise – which is no bad thing, but it doesn’t have any of the pep of the better recipes for cocktail sauce.  (The best in my opinion is Mark Hix’s from British Seasonal Food – which includes tabasco, Worcester sauce, Pernod and dill, amongst other things).

As for the mains, a fish curry seems inviting but is a waste of time.  Mushy fish swims in a thin, insipid “curry” sauce (ha ha, it’s just a tin of tomatoes with a few cumin seeds in it; this fish curry by Rick Stein, which I made last week, craps all over it).  The mushy peas are mushy, and peas, but not “mushy peas” in the true sense.  I don’t mind that, because “mushy peas” are fucking disgusting, but I can understand why someone wanting true “mushy peas” might not be terribly impressed.

But what about the fish and chips?  After all, everything else is just a side-show, isn’t it?  Well, I’m afraid they’re just not that good.  Fried cod comes out as bronzed and elegant as a Henry Moore sculpture. Promising indeed.  But inside a perfectly crisp batter is just bland, disintegrating fish, with a slightly metallic edge, to be honest.  Accompanying tartare sauce is, again, not sharp enough.  Chips are better than the normal floppy chip shop chips (an English person is going to have to sit me down I’m afraid and explain why on earth these seem to be preferred up and down the land), but are neither particularly fat nor particularly crisp, being the only two properties one really should care about in a chip.

They serve wine in tumblers, which is unforgiveable.  Part of this “pretending we’re downmarket” trend when the prices show they are anything but.  They should get some proper wine glasses, and for that matter, some proper wine on the menu.  Fish and chips is a fine meal deserving of being accompanied by the finest wine available in the circumstances.   The wines are acceptable but there’s nothing exciting on the list.  Put cheap sauvignon on the menu if you must, but come on guys, this is in Islington, there are going to be plenty of chardonnay socialists out there, quite literally, wanting a proper Puligny Montrachet with their supper, and they should be able to get it.

So, yeah.  Sorry guys, but I’m sticking with Sea Fish.

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A fine loaf of bread

breadThe fact that I’ve jumped on board the baking bandwagon probably suggests we’re nearing the end of the ride.  But as a pretty competent home cook (if I do say so myself) I have to wonder if this particular trend is doing more harm than good when it comes to “getting people into the kitchen”.  Because it’s one thing to come over all “anyone can cook!” when you’re throwing salad leaves together or boiling up pasta; it’s something else entirely to mislead people into thinking baking is something you can just dabble in from time to time and get right.  You can’t.  Funny isn’t it how on The Great British Bake-Off, a hushed voiceover tells us how difficult it is (“just 30 seconds too long in the oven can ruin biscuits”) yet the “how to” shows all tell us how easy it is.  The first episode of Lorraine Pascale’s Baking Made Easy was entitled “So Easy”; the tag line of Paul Hollywood’s Bread conveys a similar false sense of the level of skill required – “just mix, knead, prove, knock back, prove again, and bake!” – as if there were no room for error in any of those steps.  (By the way, adding the word “just” to the front of an instruction doesn’t make it easier).

Well, I gave it a go and I can tell you it bloody isn’t easy.  Not until you know what you’re doing at least, and once you’ve learnt something it always seems easy, doesn’t it?  I’m reminded of an anecdote about how Chopin taught the piano – he would just brush his student aside and say “no, like this!” and then rattle off the Revolutionary Etude, as if that was of any assistance to a novice.  (Upon trying to verify this it seems it is myth, but you get my point).

That’s the problem with these books and shows: with notable exceptions (e.g. Delia) they have no serious pedagogic value.  It’s almost as if they’re saying “look, we both know you’re watching this for the food porn value in a desperate attempt to delude yourself that you’re a foodie when really, you count it as ‘cooking’ if you decant your  M&S ready meal from its box onto a plate before eating it, so we’re not even going to try to convey the full amount of instruction required to execute this satisfactorily”.  To be fair, Hollywood explains what he’s doing in pretty thorough detail on his show, but like some sadistic magic trick, it just didn’t work for me when I tried it myself.  In particular, this innovative business of kneading bread on an oiled surface rather than a floured one didn’t work at all – I just ended up with a pile of kids’ party slime.

But concerned that there might be some souls out there who have taken up the gauntlet, tried, failed and given up entirely on the prospect of making good bread at home, I am going to try to describe how I have got to a position where I can competently make a serviceable loaf of bread, no thanks to any cook book or cookery show.

The aim should, I think, be to learn to make one serviceable, reliable, tasty loaf with a minimum of fuss.  You want something that will be good for sandwiches one day and toast the next.  It should taste better than what can be bought easily and cheaply, otherwise there is no point.  It should not be a “single use” or “regional speciality” so forget foccacia or fougasse and ridiculous things like that.  It should not take long to make, so forget sourdough.  I mean, it requires 13 hours’ proving time!  Now I have a pretty high tolerance for the preparation time to enjoyment time ratio, but really, starting to prepare my lunch the night before is where I draw the line.

So I got about experimenting and after much trial and error (mostly error) I have got to the point of being able to make what I consider to be a very fine loaf of bread and which I believe it will serve you well to be able to make.  File it away with knowing how to tie a bow tie, change a tyre, or read Homer in the original Greek – one of those things that you should check someone can do before you agree to marry them.

You will, I’m afraid, need a sourdough starter.  I made mine

This sardine salad has literally been "sandwiched" between two slices of bread.

This sardine salad has literally been “sandwiched” between two slices of bread.

using the St John “Mother” recipe from Beyond Nose to Tail.  The recipe for the starter is fine – the following recipes for bread were a disaster, which is a shame, because I’ve had bread from St John, and it is marvellous.  “Roll the dough it into a ball” it says.  It’s liquid!  It’s no more capable of being rolled into a ball than pancake mix!  But seeing as the starter recipe is not my own I’m not going to reproduce it here.  Instead I will direct you to Google or any other starter recipe, as I’m pretty sure any of them would do.  It is basically just a mixture of flour and water that has been left to ferment.  It’s hard to stuff it up, and only takes a few minutes to make (even if those few minutes have to be repeated each day for about a week to get it going).  Paul Hollywood’s recipe would I’m sure be fine, which is here.

You will also, I think, need a freestanding electric mixer.  I have simply never been able to get good results kneading by hand, and any assurance that it’s just as good as a machine, you just need to do it for longer, is about as truthful as a claim that “you too can earn £1,000 a day working from home!” on an advert sellotaped to a telegraph pole.  Mixers are expensive.  I am sorry.  But really, better to know that you’re screwed if you don’t have a piece of specialist equipment before you make the attempt than after.

I think the following recipe is pretty much all you need.  It has a healthy crust but won’t break your dentures, a fine crumb, and a lovely bite to it (particularly nice when toasted, it has a tiny bit of “chew”, but not so bad as to tire your jaw out).

House Bread

130g sourdough starter
240g strong white bread flour
130g rye flour
1tsp dried/fast action yeast
8g salt
about 195mL tepid/hand-warm water

Place the first 5 ingredients into the mixer bowl, ensuring the yeast and salt do not touch.  Pour in about 150mL of the water and mix on low speed with the dough-hook attachment.  Keep adding water gradually until the dough is of such a consistency that all the flour has been incorporated but the dough leaves the sides of the bowl dry.  Be patient, add the water a bit at a time to achieve exactly the right consistency.  You may not need to use all the water, you might need a little bit more.  Continue to mix on low speed for 10 minutes.

Tip the dough out onto a floured surface and knead by hand for about 1 minute so that you can judge whether it is of the right consistency.  Hands aren’t that great for the hard work of kneading but to judge the consistency of the dough there is no substitute.  You are looking for a smooth, silky consistency.

Roll the dough into a ball.  Lightly oil the inside of a large bowl and place the dough in it.  Cover with cling film and place somewhere of warm room temperature to rise. (If there’s nowhere warm, I turn on the oven for a couple of minutes, then turn it off, and put the bowl in the oven).  Leave to prove for 1 hour or until at least doubled in size.

Punch all the air out of the dough by rolling it out and folding it over on itself.  Repeat a couple more times.  Roll into a smooth ball again, or a “baton” shape if you prefer and place on a floured baking sheet to prove a second time.  Put an upturned cup or mug in each corner of the baking sheet and make a tent out of cling film to cover it.  Leave at warm room temperature for another hour or more, until doubled in size.

Place a bowl of water in the oven and preheat it oven to 220°C (conventional) or 210°C (fan).  Slash the top of the loaf a few times in any fashion you like.  You need a very, very sharp knife for this.  I use a Stanley knife. Anything blunter and it will look like Freddy Krueger attacked it on a bad day.

Bake for 25 minutes.  Then lower the temperature by 20°C and bake for another 10 minutes.  Test to see whether it is done – it should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.  Remove the bread from the oven and cool on a wire rack.

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Wine: On Expertise (again)

Perhaps a journalist out there can tell me: does each publication have a list on the wall of tried and trusted non-stories that can be dusted off and reliably ventilated whenever it’s a slow news day?  You know the stuff: shonky builder rips off consumer; political-correctness-gone-mad as local council observes health and safety legislation; criminal sentenced according to guidelines; and so on.  Because if so, is it possible to remove “wine tasting found to be imperfect science” from it? 

I write a propos this tired piece from the Observer last Sunday.  Ostensibly about the “revelation” that professional wine tasters are actually inconsistent in their evaluations of wine, it is a thinly veiled attempt to stir up the reverse-snobbish juices by knocking pretty much any form of wine appreciation or expertise.

The reason this article is a non-story is because we know.  We in the wine world (which I extend to enthusiastic amateurs, not just professionals), know perfectly well that wines taste different to different people, and even to the same people in different conditions.  We know, and we don’t care.  Jancis Robinson’s website unashamedly records tasting notes of the same wines tasted on different occasions with different scores and notes.  Decanter magazine has regularly published different evaluations of the same wines by different people (much to its annoyance, I imagine, when readers write in pointing out, pointlessly, that a wine has been reviewed differently by different people).  I have been present in the room when people have been stumped in a blind tasting by a wine they have drunk on many occasions in the past.

To understand why we don’t care, we have to look at the context in which wine judging/evaluation (whether by experts or otherwise) takes place.  Hopefully we can all agree that wines taste different to each other (a point that even the Observer  article appears to accept).  Wine is also a subject of interest for some people, like football, cars, or pornography.  Given that wines are different, and interesting, is it not fair for those interested in that subject to attempt to evaluate the relative merits of different wines and offer their opinions to those interested in hearing them?  If it is fair, then (1) there’s nothing wrong in trying to evaluate the merits of wines; but (2) a little learning is a dangerous thing, so people should be aware of the limitations of doing so.

Most people interested in wine are aware of such limitations, although there is a residual scourgey amongst certain wine merchants of selling wine on the basis of, for example, “pounds per Parker point”.  Thankfully though, not all merchants are so mercenary, and indeed to his credit the proprietor of Planet of the Grapes thoroughly ridiculed me once for mentioning that a particular wine he sold had been given 5 stars in a recent review.  It didn’t make a scrap of difference to him, he sold it because he liked it.

Everyone knows that tasting wine in a show situation makes it difficult to judge; everyone knows that palates get jaded after trying lots of different wines.  Everyone knows that temperature affects the taste of wine; indeed Dom Perignon has made a (somewhat affected) attempt to prove the point, as Richard Hemming reports here.  Everyone knows that wine show medals should be taken with more than a pinch of salt (something I wrote about years ago here).  Indeed many wine enthusiasts would snigger at the idea that a wine should be purchased, let alone conspicuously enjoyed, only because its bottle was emblazoned with a show medal.  Indeed certain subcultures of the wine world will avoid wines given high scores by certain critics, in their own reverse-snobbish way.

But wine experts deserve being listened to nevertheless because they are, by and large, people of learning in the area, and whatever the limitations of wine judging, they have interesting things to say about the subject matter.  The better wine writers, I find, treat scoring not as some sort of precise ranking exercise, but as a indicium of relative quality, and wine descriptions not as something aspiring to the specificity of a patent application, but rather as a helpful impressionistic general guide to the character of a wine.  Enthusiasts about a particular subject matter like communicating with each other and wine judging is all part of the great dialogue between people with a common interest.  Whenever I read a review of a wine, I don’t think “only 16.35 points out of 20! I don’t buy anything less than 16.5!” I think to myself that the writer is saying “here is a wine I tried; I think you may care for it sufficiently so that I have written my opinion of it”.  I may file it away in my memory as something to look out for.  If it piques my interest I may buy some.  I may find I agree or disagree with the expert.  I may find that I agree with some writers more often than not. I find this exercise on balance helpful.  Surely it’s better than walking into a shop and simply picking something at random; certainly it’s no worse.  And it would be a bit dreary to explore your subject of interest while ignoring the views of others.

It seems to me this research misses the point entirely in that even if one or more experts evaluated the same wine differently on one or more occasions, that doesn’t render their evaluations any less valid.  It’s no Schrödinger’s Cat – no physics professor is going to lose any sleep about a wine being both “dry and savoury” and “hard and peppery”.  It can quite comfortably be both without upsetting the building blocks of the universe.  I suppose there is the risk that objective features of a wine (e.g. it’s acidity or alcohol level) can be misdescribed, but in my experience experts are pretty reliable about that to the extent they even bother with such mundanities.  The reader, too, should be credited with some knowledge – anyone reading a tasting summary of, say, German Rieslings, is hopefully going to know the parameters of that style and realise that a description of such a wine as being “fat” would have to be relative and import a completely different meaning than when used to describe, say, a heavily oaked Californian Chardonnay.

As for this point about people not being able to tell the difference between cheap and expensive wine, this is possibly the clearest non-point of all.  If you aren’t interested in wine, good for you if you can’t tell cheap from expensive, good from bad or whatever.  If it’s all the same to you, go and buy the cheapest bottle of wine you can find and knock yourself out.  But for those of us who are interested in the subject matter and do not want the monotony of drinking the same thing all the time, again it comes back to the uncontroversial point that wines are different.  Some wines are cheap and crap; others are expensive and crap; some are expensive and good; and some are cheap and good.  Part of the fascination is finding the ones that represent value to you, the taster, which is necessarily going to involve trying different wines at different prices.  Here, for example, Jamie Goode enthuses honestly and candidly about a good cheap Bordeaux.  Great.  But what are we supposed to do, drink it and only it because others are more expensive?  Are we to regard parsimoniousness rather than curiosity or enjoyment as the actual objective of our hobbies?

Finally the point about fooling people into drinking white wine thinking it is red.  I’ve been the victim of this prank only once and thought it was an odd wine unlike anything I’d ever drunk before and declined to try to identify it blind.  But the point is that it’s hardly a surprise that when people are deliberately deceived into thinking something is the opposite of what it is, their opinion differs.  That is why blind tasting of wines is my preferred method of evaluating them.

The problem isn’t that wine judging is unscientific (although it may well be); the problem is in the ignorance of assuming that those interested in wine elevate wine judging to the level of the scientific. We don’t; and to assume we do misses the point of the whole exercise.


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