Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Terrible Uses for Common Plants - On the Cliffs

Sorry for the delay, I've been on holiday down in Dorset. But that did give me some great opportunities for taking phototgaphs of plants that are perhaps a little less common here.

A little reminder of what this blog series is about. We are surrounded by beautiful and amazing wild plants, and those who came before us understood that they had many amazing properties to heal and make us better. Some of that understanding was well founded but, sadly, the vast majority of it is now known to be cobblers and indeed many of those uses are outrageously dangerous.

So with no further ado, here's the second part in this series - plants pictured on holiday, by the Sea, in Dorset.

Vipers Bugloss (Echium vulgare)

I didn't need to go as far to photograph it, but it makes a magnificent display on top of the cliffs near Durdle Door at this time of year so I'm happy I did. 

This is a glorious plant, it has sort of spiky leaves, but for me the stand out feature is blue pollen on red stamen filaments (the dangly 'male' bits int he flower). Its a glorious thing to see a mass of it in a field, although I gather it may be fairly invasive in parts of the world where it is an introduced species. Here in the UK we can simply enjoy it for what it is. 

It thrives on chalky ground, and does extremely well on sand dunes. And it seems quite resistant to pollution, thriving in places like abandoned brick and cement works.

Its one of the borage family, but you shouldn't be putting flowers of this one in your Pimms. It contains a range of pyrrolizidine alkaloids that will destroy your liver over time. Although I should think the occasional flower might not be as dangerous as all that it isn't uncommon to have an adverse skin reaction from handling the spiky, hairy leaves. So it can ruin your liver and give you a rash - best not to touch it.

An interesting thing happens when the flowers fall and leave the seed pod behind. The pod itself is vaguely reminiscent of the shape of a snakes head, and from that we may perhaps have our first encounter with one of the most hilariously absurd concepts in herbalism. The Doctrine of Signatures. 

A whole book could be written on this venerable and ancient nonsense. This pseudoscientific claptrap goes back at least as far as Dioscoridies and Galen, and has been supported by theologians and other quacks over milenna. The idea is that if something resembles a body part or something else, then clearly the purpose to which God or the Gods, or nature, or whatever other force you imagine intended it to be used for that. So the shape of liverwort leaves means it is meant to be used to treat liver problems. Lungwort might treat lung infections. And should you fall upon a fine specimen of Phallus impudicus one might suppose someone could be in store for a very interesting night.

Culpepper said it is the finest cure for any kind of venomous bite (it isn't), and related that Dioscoridies said that it would protect you from such bites (it won't). It had a range of other unremarkable claims associated with it, such as protecting against passions, tremblings or swoonings - the kind of thing charlatans love to say because it sounds good but doesn't mean anything.

Bluntly you shouldn't be using this plant to treat anything internally or externally. There is no evidence of efficacy, and it can be seriously poisonous. It is, however, quite beautiful. Leave it where it is.

And if you're bitten by a snake, call an ambulance.

Wild Cabbage (Brassica oleracea)

Perhaps I'm easily pleased but of all the wild plants I find by the coast, this is one of my favourites. Its an incredibly variable plant, due to hybridisation with the innumerable cultivated cousins. Its basically the same plant as cabbage, kale, cauliflower, sprouts, broccoli and their huge variety of overlapping forms, and of course that breeding has impacted on the wild population. But to an extent the breeding of these plants must also be playing upon variability that exists in the genomes of wild plants. The wild cabbage I've found on cliffs in Dorset isn't the same plant as the cabbage growing on steep slopes by the steps up to Whitby Abbey. And the so-called Monks Cabbages of Tynemouth do not resemble those clinging to clifftops in Kent. 

Its a fascinating plant. It grows a rosette of leaves in its first year, which are thicker and more succulent than those in any domestic variety. In its second year the store of nutrients in those leaves support a huge effort to produce flowers and seed. Opinion is split among foragers as to whether it should be gathered, and although to the best of my knowledge it has no specific legal protection, I would be cautious. Unless you know the site your're on and its history, leave it alone - how awful would it be if you were part of the decline of one of the very, very few truly wild sites. And in all honesty if you're by the coast you'll find plenty of other delicious wild edibles so that isn't a problem.

In herbalism, cabbages have been put to such a bewildering range of uses that, were they to all be true, it would be astonishing that anyone ever died at all. Culpepper had the most wonderful sentence "The cabbage or coleworts boiled gently in broth, and eaten, do open the body , but the second decoction doth bind the body". So it makes you shit and then stops you shitting? That doesn't seem entirely reasonable. It also stops you being drunk or sobers you up, cures kidney stones, resolves menstrual problems, protects against consumption, cures scabs, I mean the list of things it can do is amazing. Even if you've got sore joints, burn a cabbage and mix the ash with pig fat before rubbing it on. 

Eating cabbage was more or less universal in Britain until very, very recently. Indeed cabbage and kale formed such an important part of our diet that parts of cities were given over to the cultivation thereof, and for much of the year one might be subsisting on potages containing kale, withered root vegetables, grain and little else. Yet people suffered from all of those ailments. It doesn't work. 

Cabbages, in all their forms, remain a wonderfully useful and healthy foodstuff. But don't be fooled - they aren't a herbal panacea. Wild or otherwise.

Birds Foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus)

This unassuming little wild flower was one of those that first opened my eyes to wildlife. It likes exposed ground, seeming to thrive on slopes by the sea and inland. For such an unassuming plant it has a bold yellow flower, making it easy to spot and contributing to its plethora of local names. It was called bacon and egg plant where I grew up, but wherever you are if you're in the UK you'll find another name for it. Ladys slipper, cocks and hens, butter and eggs, take your pick. While it thrives in many locations, it is near the sea where it can produce some of its most magnificent displays, with wind swept slopes above cliffs often producing aromatic, bright yellow banks of flowers. This is where it is truly most at home.

And like most ubiquitous wild plants it has found many herbal uses over the years. And they're all bad, without exception. Like most very common plants it seems to cure nearly everything, including anxiety, depression, insomnia - all things that are hard to measure so are great claims for disreputable charlatans to make. But the use that really should worry you is that some herbalists recommend its use for tachycardia - thats rapid heart rate, to you and me.

Lets assume you've got a fast resting heart rate - you're sitting, feeling uncomfortable and your heart is going a mile a minute. You could go to a doctor but instead you look at an online herbal site and it tells you that a tea made from this plant will help. I've got that outside, you think, so you go and gather it in and put the kettle on. What you haven't been told is that the plant contains a significant concentration of cyanogenic glycosides. Its a big scary phrase, right? Well what it means is simple enough 'cyanogenic' means it makes cyanide, 'glycoside' is single sugar molecule. It contains variants of sugars that when metabolised make cyanide. Or in other words as this plant is crushed up and gets into you, you make cyanide out of it. And now things are going to get a bit nasty.

Once you've got cyanide in you, histotonic hypoxia comes next. That means the enzyme you have that has the job of making ATP, which you need for everything where you spend energy, can't do its job, cyanide stops it. You can't now use oxygen to make ATP, and your cells respond as if they're hypoxic - and your heart starts beating faster to make up the shortfall. But that doesn't help, you aren't really short of oxygen, you just can't use it...

The result? Well for most people, they get better in half an hour or so. Thats why you can eat some apple pips without it killing you, they also contain cyanogens. But lets be clear - giving a cyanogen containing tea to someone with an abnormally fast heart rate can very easily kill them. Don't do this. In fact don't do anything because a herbalist says so on the internet.



Thursday, 13 June 2019

Terrible Uses for Common Plants - In the Garden

You know when you suggest doing something almost as a thought experiment, and then everyone gets all excited so you have to do it? And you know that moment when you think about it and you realise its a much bigger project than you thought it was going to be? Yeah. That.


To cut a long story short someone tweeted some really, really bad advice about injecting herbal abortifacient herbs. The kind of advice that could very quickly lead to death if followed. And I suggested, half in jest, that I should take pictures of garden and wild plants and blog about some of the truly dumb uses to which they have been put. And everyone loved the idea, so now I've got to do it.

But its a bigger job than can be done in one blog post! So I'm going to aim to do maybe one of these every couple of weeks, the brief being very simple. (1) I need to find the plant somewhere and take a picture of it, (2) I'll talk about the plant, where its found, maybe some folk lore and (3) I'll point out at least one truly awful use to which it has been put.

I'm going to start with some of the most mundane plants imaginable. In fact, they're all in my own garden. And their herbal uses range from reasonable through to terrifying and just plain silly.

Here goes...

Southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum)

This is one of my favourite garden plants, being wonderfully aromatic, pleasingly rugged, and providing a greyish green textural splash of colour. Its also easy to cultivate from cuttings and tolerant of most garden situations. I always keep some of it growing on the outside of my front hedge where it can be rubbed for the smell. Some years the children playing in the front street rub most of the leaves off for the smell, which is fine, thats what the plant is for. It is NOT for abortions. Thats a really bad idea. But I'll get to that.

Some of the common names give away its historical uses. It has been called 'garderobe', due to the smell supposedly putting off clothes moths and other insects. Does that work? Not in my wardrobe. And it has also been called 'old man' and 'lads love', probably referring to the quaint notion that it might promote facial hair if burned and applied in a lotion (spoiler: it won't). 

Southernwood is one of the wormwoods, closely related to plants like mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) and has many of the same sinister traditional uses. It is when we turn to how this plant is viewed in intimate relationships that encounter bitter sweet names suggestive of  more a sinister use. 'Lads Love', 'Maids Ruin' and 'Lovers Plant'. It was believed that this plant was an emmenagogue, or in other words in large enough doses it is meant to stimulate menstrual flow. Yes, thats right, if you were late for your period you might take an enormous dose of this plant in the hope that you might recover the situation by, errm, bleeding. 

The wormwoods contain compounds such as eucalyptol and thujone, which both stimulate fluid flow at mucosal membranes and act to stimulate uterine muscles. The word 'emmenagogue' is a good one to look out for in old herbal texts, because while it literally means 'to bring on menstrual flow' it is usually used euphemistically for 'to bring on an abortion'. This up an extraordinarily dangerous thing to do, risking neurological damage in an unborn child (if it doesn't work as an abortifacient) and permanent harm to the woman attempting an abortion this way. It is worth remembering that in days gone by options for women seeking to control their own fertility were few and far between, and while individuals were no more stupid than they are now the degree of desperation an unwanted pregnancy could cause in an era when that could mean ruin drove people to extreme remedies.

While a small amount of southernwood in liver gravy is delicious, rather like a little sprig of its wild relative mugwort is likewise a fine and according to some a traditional ingredient in a tomato pasta sauce, please remember that Artemisia can cause internal bleeding, nausea, and even potential neurological damage so eating these plants in best avoided. Its impossible to know how many people, historically, were harmed by this, or indeed how many were made to look ridiculous by wearing it on their faces in place of beards. But please, please, please, if you have a morning after 'situation' to handle, go to a pharmacist. For the love of spaghetti, don't attempt a home herbal abortion.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris

I go back and forward as to whether thyme is my favourite culinary herb. Its certainly delicious, in all of its forms. I've gathered it wild on mountains in Crete, as a garden escapee in Northumberland, and I'm never without a few plants in the herb bed. You can buy a pot of it from the supermarket for about a quid, split it into multiple pots, harden it off in Spring and plant it out. It will thrive anywhere with some sun. In the kitchen it is wonderful with chicken, beef, pulses, root vegetables, indeed its hard to think of what it doesn't go with. But thats not to say that some of the purposes to which it has been put aren't, well, stupid.
Wild Thyme, Thymys polytrichus in Dorset

Cultivated Thyme, Thymus vulgaris
The Thyme you'll most likely encounter is of course the culinary kind, and whichever variety you're growing its a variant of Thymus vulgaris. Of the three wild species in Britain the most common is T. polytrichus, which I find to be almost as tasty as the culinary type. All species contain the compound thymol, which is a phenolic compound that is a passable antiseptic, and which imparts the aroma and flavour of the plant.

While its not likely that you'll ever do yourself any harm eating it, I wouldn't recommend following any of the ancient herbalist advice. It isn't going to cure you of whooping cough, as was once believed, nor is it going to 'release trapped gas' or act to protect you from having nightmares, as Culpeper suggested. Nor is it likely effective against warts or sciatica. Gerard insists that it will cure leprosy (it won't - Mycobacterium leprae is a hell of microbe to take on armed only with herbs). And whatever the ancient Romans or Greeks believed, burning thyme as incense won't make you more courageous in battle.

Rosemary (Rosemarius officinalis)

Another essential cullinary herb, and another that is easy to grow and to use. Best grown from cuttings, and its a good idea to do so every couple of years because it has a habit of growing to full size, thriving for a while and then unexpectedly dying. It was, hilariously, believed that it would grow for at most 33 years until it reached the height of Jesus, and that its blue flowers were obtained when Mary spread her blue cloak over the bush en route to Egypt.

Most of its herbal uses are relatively harmless. Its likely that the phenolic compounds extracted from it can have some antimicrobial activity, and as an ingredient in soaps, hair washes and the like it is most pleasant. Perhaps this is why some of its more bizarre supposed characteristics are to do with how men and women interact. It was believed that a man who was unmoved by the smell of rosemary was incapable of loving a woman. And as if that isn't weird enough, it was also believed that if rosemary thrived in a garden that was a sign that the man was not master of the house, but that the woman was. Now what precisely this alludes to is somewhat lost in time, but the link between rosemary and sexuality may also be part of why in it formed part of wedding bouquets up until the renaissance.

Just in case it isn't clear - in real life Rosemary neither knows how tall Jesus was and is not a determinant of how 'manly' a man is. It is in fact just a very tasty, very easy to grow herb that is quite agonostic as to your gender. 

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)

Few herbs get more of a bum rap in folklore and traditional use than parsley does. I mean to us its a harmless garnish and unsung hero of many a cooked dish. But to the ancient and indeed medieval mind it is a far more sinister creature. The Greeks saw it as emblematic of death, and in Britain this is another herb associated with women being in charge of a household, although confusingly if a virgin germinated the seeds she would be doomed to have the devils own children. And if you're not a virgin you should still sow nine times more seed than the plants you require (because it has to go to hell and back nine times to germinate), and only on Good Friday, because then the Devils link to the plant is broken by that. But, in truth, whichever variety you grow (be it one of the old English curled leaf varieties or the trendy Italian flat leaf) its an easy plant to grow by sowing in modules in Spring, and plant it out wherever is most convenient for the kitchen. Yes, I know, I'm tempting (traditional) fate by transplanting it because that brings bad luck for, oh, I dunno, reasons. Something to do with the spirits that protect the plant.

If the fish in your pond were sick, Pliny believed that Parsley would cure them. And Gerard informs us that if you boil up the roots and the seed you've a cure for poisoning. Neither of these claims seem to have any truth to them. 

It is tempting to assume that much of this lore is associated with parsley having a wide range of lethally dangerous relatives. Many in the carrot family (to which this belongs), including things like hemlock and water dropwort, are immensely harmful. Or perhaps it could be because one of its constituents, apiol, is responsible for the fact that some in ancient Greece used it as an abortifacient (as noted by Hippocrates). In fact apiol in various derived forms was sold for this purpose until frighteningly recently, as can be seen from cases of death as a side effect of apiol abortions described in the Lancet as recently as 1957. It can cause liver and kidney damage, and many deaths were associated with it.

As ever, and I can't believe that anyone on the internet maintains otherwise, I must advise that herbal abortions are a bad, bad idea. But lets be ever so glad that, for most of us, in most places, there is no longer a need for this.

Monday, 3 June 2019

Dinner Diary: Rhubarb and Custard Meringue Pie

We have lots of rhubarb at this time of year, and until the gooseberries ripen thats the only fruit on the plot. Nut there are only so many crumbles we can eat, and as we had guests over for Saturday night (but didn't know how hungry we'd be when we got back from Strawberry Fair) I thought I'd make a showpiece dessert rather than main course.



And its a bit of a construction, this one, but really easy to compile if you have the skills to make each component.

Start off with a basic shortcrust pastry - I made up just a handfull with 100g of butter, 200g of flour and a pinch of salt. That was rubbed together to a crumb before working in enough water to make a stiff pastry, which went into a covered bowl in the fridge while I made the rest of the dessert. 

I had about 600g of rhubarb which was then cleaned, chopped, and stewed with enough water and sugar such that it wasn't too sour when tasted, until it was gooey, at which point I added enough cornflour (about a dessert spoon full) in a water paste and cooked it in for a few more minutes, until I couldn't taste the flour any more. Once cool, thats the fruit filling ready to use.

The custard was really creme diplomat - which is creme patisiere folded in with whipped cream. Are you still with me? Good, you can get a recipe for creme patisiere here, and I made mine with two egg yolks, about a tablespoon of cornflour, about 40g of sugar, 175ml of milk and a dash of vanilla essence. Its incredibly easy to make and you should have this one in your arsenal, find one of the many online recipes that works for you and keep it handy. Once cool I mixed in about half as much again whipped cream, which technically gives you creme diplomat. If you can manage a but of icing and puff paste you now also know how to make a custard slice...

The third component was the meringue, which was Italian meringue. Imagine the inside of a walnut whip but actually nice. Whisk the egg whites (2) to stiff peaks. Heat half a cup of sugar to 121C with just enough water to get it dissolved (the less you add, the faster it gets hot enough) and slowly drizzle the now molten sugar into the whisked egg whites while continuing to whisk - in a rotary mixer this is a doddle. It'll start steaming as the egg whites are cooked by the hot sugar and will form a shiny foam - its ready, but let it cool before you use it.

Now everything is cooling, make your pastry case. You aren't cooking this again so cook it thoroughly, so blind bake it for longer than you normally would. And when its cooked and cool add the the rhubarb, then the custard, and top it all off with Italian meringue. Try to keep the top messy, so when you then put it under the grill to brown the top off (as you should, it only takes a minute) you end up with a dessert that looks as good as it tastes. 

This sounds like a really complicated dessert but it really isn't - if you've cracked a couple of core skills (creme patisserie, Italian meringue and pastry) then you're laughing, its the sort of dessert you put together in-between doing the dishes and getting things together for putting dinner on. Don't be put off by how many steps there are, and give this a go.


Thursday, 11 April 2019

Dinner Diary - Pigeon Breast Salad, Sea Bass and Couscous

Bit of an odd dinner yesterday but no less delicious for it. On Sunday I found a wood pigeon on the grass verge, just at the end of the street. It didn't look like it had been hit by a car, but was cold and post-rigor mortis, with just a single neck wound. Odd thing for a cat to do, but I couldn't place what predator had got it and just left it. Probably whatever had got it had been disturbed, but never mind I thought, its loss is our gain. I took off the two nice, plump breasts and put them in the fridge.

Just before I was about to cook dinner there was a knock on the door, and three of the neighbourhood kids were there. The oldest is about 9, the youngest about 6, and they were playing outside in the alley by the house where they'd found a dead bird. One of them had clearly been crying about it, so I thought I'd better have a look. I should add that you can't go out of our front door without the kids playing out in the court talking to you, its great really but you also have to be ready to answer whatever questions they have. I'm the weirdo with the front garden full of berries that they nick and chickens in the back garden, so its entirely natural for them to consult me about the dead bird. Anyway, it was another wood pigeon, and it was obvious how this one had died - its neck was ripped and it had a three pronged wound in one breast made by the talons of a small bird of prey. A sparrowhawk had got it, but as the kids were going to be playing out for another hour at least (having had their tea and it still being light) there wasn't any point leaving the pigeon there, the sparrowhawk wouldn't be able to come back for it. Talked to the children who were horrified I'd picked up a dead bird, asked why its different to eating chicken (which they all do), gave them some pretty tail feathers, and took the bird in for disposal rather than leaving it there. And, of course, thanked them for telling me, I don't really want dead animals lying on the ground next to my house! So suddenly we were up to two pigeon breasts each. 

The plan was a light pigeon breast salad with a mix of other tasty salads. When I went past the fishmongers stall at lunchtime I spotted he had some nice little bass, so I snaffled one of those too, took it home, filleted and skinned it, and left it marinating in a little lemon juice and salt.

We had a lentil and seed salad yesterday and it was delicious, so I took the leftovers (brown lentils cooked until nearly soft, with toasted quinoa, sesame, sunflower and pumpkin seeds tossed in with a little salt and pepper, lemon juice and olive oil) and added in some couscous and more lemon juice.  Thats great with fish. We also had plenty of greens left over (chard, Alexanders, rocket and three cornered leek) so I put that aside to go with the pigeon breast salad. 

I also made another couple of salads. I grilled some halved peppers for 25 minutes or so in the skillet, and added sliced tomatoes, olive oil, seasoning and oregano, and left it to cool and for the flavours to infuse. A really simple and rich dish. And as I've also got the last of my beetroot crop from last year in (red, white, some yellow, a mix of the remnants from last years crop) I microwaved those beets whole until tender, and after cooling peeled them, diced them and added some to a bowl with feta cheese, three cornered leek (a delicious oniony wild green), and a dash of oil. Thats a salad thats always good whichever green you add - its especially good with rocket in it, but I fancied something sharp. 


So when the couscous was almost cool I seasoned (you want lots of salt and pepper for this) and cooked the pigeon breasts very briefly on either side in a skillet as hot as I could get it, before letting it rest while deglazing the pan with wine and butter to make a hot dressing for the green salad, and then cooked the sliced up and marinated bass in a cornflour coating. The sliced pigeon breast was served on the green salad and the fish on top of the couscous. 

And that was it. One of those dinners that looks absurdly complex but really isn't, made up of a mix of randomly obtained freebies (wild greens, pigeons a sparrowhawk didn't get to chow down on), easy salads, and essentially almost free ingredients cooked very simply indeed. Delicious Spring cooking.

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Dinner diary - First proper wild mushroom dish of the season

One of the great joys of Spring is going out and finding my first decent haul of wild mushrooms. That's a movable feast here in Cambridge, its such a dry city that we can end up missing the whole Spring season for mushrooms sometimes which is a real shame because there are some unsurpassed flavours and textures to be found among them.


Yesterday, despite it being surprisingly dry here already, I was fortunate enough to find this little haul. Top left there are two little thimble mushrooms (Verpa conica) which I left out in the end because they're really not great eating, top right we have a small stand of oyster murhrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus), the white ones in the middle are St. Georges mushrooms (Calocybe gambosa) and the ones that look like brains on sticks are morels, the highly prized yellow morel Morchella esculenta to be precise. Not by any means a huge haul, but more than sufficient for a slap up meal for the two of us. 

Oyster mushrooms you already know, they're very like the cultivated ones but a little firmer, meatier and more flavourful.

Now I'm going to say something heretical. I don't really rate morels. They're one of the big, chefs choice species and command an absurd price to buy (this link shows the rather less prized Morchella elata and they're flogging them for £80 per kg) but for me they're more fun to find than to eat, looking like alien sponges on the forest floor. Typically you get them on ground that was disturbed or burned at some point years ago, and while they're not that common here I know from another picker that there's at least one other patch in the city somewhere that I haven't found. The flavour is okayish, and the texture is at least firm. They are quite charming in their habitats.


For me the real prize of the day was the St. Georges mushrooms. Its a little early for them still, you get the odd one before St. Georges day (April 23rd) but they fruit more prolifically afterwards, as long as we get some rain. They're a marvellous mushroom, as I've gone into before. I'll leave this video describing them here...



This made dinner last night remarkably simple. The mushrooms were sliced, sweated down with a drop of oil and a splash of water (I'll go into why and how it is best to cook mushrooms simply to keep their texture and get an intense flavour another time), salt and pepper, and folded into the middle of omelettes (we've plenty of eggs from the hens in the garden at this time of year), and finished with wild garlic and a knob of butter, served alongside a nutty brown lentil and toasted seed salad and fresh wild salad from the allotment with a few wild leaves thrown in for good luck.

And that, for me, is Spring cooking at its best. Simple, easy, seasonal ingredients with fresh and intense flavours, and healthy. 


Friday, 1 March 2019

Regarding Sourdough Bread

We've been making nearly all of our own bread for years. I say 'nearly' because even I can be tempted by a tasty, fresh-baked interesting loaf at a bakers shop, and once in a while I get a craving for a cheese toasty and there's just no way anything but the pappiest bought loaf of sliced white will do for that. But other than a once every couple of months purchase, all of our bread comes from our own kitchen.

Like most bread wankers, we've got a regular loaf. For us thats a standard malted whole grain loaf made with dried yeast. Its a delicious loaf but variety is the spice of life, and our appreciation of it is boosted by having lots of other breads in-between. And sometimes that means sourdough.

Malted wholegrain sourdough.


I'm writing this blog post to sort of demystify sourdough culture, primarily for those who've been given subbings from one of our own sourdoughs. Its not an exhaustive guide or a list of recipes, the internet is full of those already. What I want to do here is talk you through the process so you understand how ridiculously easy and robust it is when you understand. Its not at all hard, and you'll be able to make artisan quality sourdoughs with ease.

I've summarised it in this video, but do read on for details.


What is sourdough?

The air around you is swarming with microbes. And I do mean swarming, they're everywhere. The surfaces around you are all covered in them. The food you eat is heavily infested with them. They're everywhere, all of the time. And thats fine, we've known that for a long time (although ironically that wasn't known in the time of Pasteur and Koch - the former, having discovered microbes everywhere but not that most were harmless became rather paranoid about it). Food in the open going off isn't about whether microbes find their way on to it, its about the way that the food is stored and handled creating specific environments where particular microbes dominate. Or in other words, if you store the same bread in the same bread bin, you get the same coloured spots of mold. Because the same conditions favour those mold species.

Sourdough is the same thing applied to certain species of yeast and bacteria. Yeast are simple fungi, they do most of the rising, making nice bubbles in the bread. There are a bunch of species you might find in a sourdough, and they're all cousins of the bakers and brewers yeasts you already know. But because they're wild ones, rather than the miracles of breeding that are used commercially, they're a bit slower, needing longer for the bread to get where you want it before baking. The bacteria are mostly what we call lactic acid bacteria, they're making it sour by fermenting the sugars mostly released from flour by enzymes from the yeast into lactic acid, which is the same glorious biochemistry as happens in yoghurt to make milk delightfully sour rather than off.

These things are everywhere, you've got yeast and lactic acid bacteria on you. Everyone has. And if you create an environment that favours their growth, then you too can have your own sourdough culture. Its really, really easy.

Ok then... How do I get sourdough culture?

You've got three options. You can buy one, either as a dried packet of mixed microbes or a wet culture, you can get one from someone who already grows their own sourdough, or you can isolate your own. None of these are hard. I'll only say I don't get why you'd use the dried culture, it doesn't save much time on isolating a wild one, and last time I saw a wet culture for sale it was £14.99, which is absurd. But if you choose to buy one then make sure its at least reasonably fresh. There's no point finding that its dead a week later when you could have made your own by then. Treat it according to the instructions it comes with and you'll be fine.

Alternatively, you may be lucky enough to get some from someone else. That also means you know someone who can tell you how to look after it, and thats great. But basically you're getting a way in thats brilliant and simple - there's no bad here.

But honestly? Making your own is a doddle. Its dead easy. You need four things - rye flour, bread flour, a container with a lid, and a little time. 

Wheat and rye with sesame, chia and sunflower seeds. Seedy breads are often dense, but delicious.

Making your own sourdough culture in 4 easy steps

1. Mix about a teaspoon each of rye flour and strong white bread flour with enough water to make a thick paste or very slack dough. Leave it until tomorrow in a loosely covered container - pick a corner of a kitchen work bench and leave it there.

2. Sniff it. Look at it. Poke at it impatiently. Then add another spoonfull each of white and rye flours, and enough water to get it to a thick paste again.

3. Ignore it for a day or two and nothing bad will happen, but each day you should be looking to add as much again as you have, until its growing gooey and yeasty all on its own. When you get as far as adding a couple of tablespoons of each flour, you'll maybe have to throw some away so you don't just have a house full of not-yet-ready culture.

4. After 1-2 weeks you've got a fast growing sourdough. Start making bread.

Ok, so how do I make the bread?

Oh, the internet is full of recipes for that. Its not hard. Make a dough by any of the recipes, and it will work.

My standard recipe uses 3 cups of flour (of which at least 1 is  white bread flour, but the others might be wholemeal, rye, malted wholegrain, or whatever else), 1 tablespoon of sugar, 1 teaspoon of salt,  and about 8 tablespoons (give or take) if my sourdough culture, with enough water to make it in to a fairly slack bread dough. By 'slack' I mean that I like it a little wetter than a yeast bread dough. If I won't be able to use the bread up fast then a third of a cup of that water is replaced with oil. Sometimes I add some bread improver, just a couple of teaspoons. Its easy to buy now, it contains gluten and ascorbic acid, both of which give the yeast a boost and stabilise the bubbles in the dough. And I might also add some other flavours - I've used all sorts like seeds, fruit, herbs, beetroot powder, take your pick. 

Mix the dough up, kneed for a couple of minutes, cover it up and rest it. Doesn't have to be anywhere hot but out of any drafts is a good idea. Let it double in size and then punch it. Let the air back out, and shape it. You can put it into a loaf tin now, or one of those posh baskets for 'proving' bread. Or on a well seasoned baking tray.

In summer it'll be risen again in an hour or two but when its colder I don't mind leaving it overnight. Get an oven hot (200-210C) with a tray of water on the bottom shelf - this is important and really helps you get a good crust. Bake it for about 30 minutes, until it sounds kind of hollow when you flip it over and tap the bottom. And let it cool to 'set up the crust' before eating it.

And thats it. Its the easiest thing in the world.

If you have any questions, put them in below. Thanks for reading!

Monday, 19 November 2018

Dinner diary - Jugged Hare and Tagliatelle alla Lepre

So it seems little known that there's an Italian dish almost the same as the great English classic, jugged hare. And if you judge things right, you get a splendid two-for out of one big cook. If you've a chance to cook this then please, please have a go - this is one of the all-time classic dishes and it is of quite incomparable flavour. Hare isn't especially like rabbit - it is richer, gamier, darker, and just basically better. And this is from someone who you'll know, if you read this blog, loves rabbit.


To begin with, you must procure tour hare. If they're thin on the ground where you are, don't. If you can find a good game dealer who you trust then thats great. Ideally, you'd get the hare in its skin.

Now, if you do manage that (as I did with this one, but I'll spare the images of processing it for now) hang it head side down for a few days. I'd tell you exactly how long but you can't know. You know its ready when you brush aside the white fur on its belly and the fat under the skin is starting to turn green. That doesn't mean anything untoward is happening, it just means that the bacteria in its gut have done their job and its ready. Now skin it, carefully, and save all the blood you can.

When I got this hare, way back, I cooked the saddle in another dish and saved the rest alongside the offal (liver, kidneys and heart) and froze the lot. After defrosting, I marinated it. The marinade contains herbs (parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, bay), a few cloves of garlic, olive oil, blackberry (or 'red') wine, salt, pepper and juniper berries. Some marinade it overnight, some don't do so at all. I like to put it on in the morning and cook it later. Does it make a difference? Yes, it really intensifies the flavour. But some don't like that as much, its already rich and gamey enough. Yes, that is the rib-cage in there. Yes, you do cook that. And strip the meat off it. 
Sautee stock vegetables until just turning brown (onion, carrots, celery, all chopped relatively coarsely) and reserve. Now get the pan very hot. Save all the wet ingredients from the marinade and dry off the hare before browning it. The smell at this stage is amazing. You could, if you really wanted to, not brown it and go very old-school with this recipe - literally put it in a big pan or a jug, cover it, and cook it therein. But its better browned, you get a more intense taste. After its browned, put it back in with the marinade, the stock vegetables, and probably the rest of the bottle of wine you used and the offal. And then add mushrooms, and plenty of them. 
Deglaze the pan with the rest of your wine (I use a whole bottle, half in the marinade, half added later). Season it the stew, and cook it now for at least three hours in a low oven, until the meat is very, very tender. And now its time to perform some genuine magic. Remember you saved the blood? You're going to put it in the sauce. Take the hare out, and when its cool enough to handle (because you'll need to strip it off the bones in a moment), put the rich sauce on a very low heat but do not boil it. Those clever folk in Italy realised that this is even better with some chocolate in it, so put a square of dark chocolate in the blood, and take some of the sauce and put it into the blood to warm it up. Then slowly add the blood mix into the sauce, stirring the whole time, while keeping it warm but not boiling it. Watch the sauce take on a sheen, a shininess. Strip all the meat off the bones as best you can, break it up, and put it back into the sauce.  And now you're ready to serve - its great with roast veg, but I go for mash or baked spuds to soak up the gravy, and something like cabbage.

We had a guest over when we had this as jugged hare, but we had enough for a really hefty portion with pasta the next day (image at the top). It should really be pappardelle, but my other half prefers tagliatelle - thats the dish at the top there. Its basically jugged hare with pasta, and its great. 

There are many variants of this dish. Some put shallots in the marinade. Some add some spices. But however you do it this is one of the greatest game dishes you'll ever encounter - and if you've got game lovers coming to dinner its hard to think of a better thing to cook for them. If you can't get it with the blood in, don't be put off, its still a great dish without. But there's something of a spectacle to cooking the blood in, so if you can do that, its even better. And it really does lift the sauce to another level - if you can't get that, maybe a little butter won't hurt. 

And thats it - a slow to prepare but actually very simple dish. And hard to beat.