Review: TentMeals — Vegan Dehydrated Food I

Image 2

The summer is now well and truly here and over the next few weeks backpackers everywhere will be setting out for night or two — or even longer — camping out in the wild.

I mentioned a few months ago that I had been sent some of these meals to review. I was very keen to check out this vegan menu and I often have mails from vegans interested in home dehydration.  I hoped to have reviewed these before the TGO Challenge but too much stuff got in the way. However, I have been sampling them whenever I get the chance and I’ll split the reviews up into two.  In this first review I will concentrate on main meals.

Background

Dehydrated meals are good news for the hiker and lightweight backpacker. Not only are the meals light but they are compact, meaning they take up little room in your pack. They are reasonably easy to prepare. And now we have a whole range dedicated to vegans. I should point out I am not a vegan but I eat a great deal of vegetarian food (those usually with dairy products).

What are we looking for?

When hiking hard — and especially over multiple days — we are looking at food that keeps you going. Portions need to generous and the carbs sufficient to ensure you don’t get too deep into negative energy consumption. And we’re looking for something tasty. When you are struggling through dreadful weather for days on end the one thing you have to forward to is your evening meal. (yes, I know it is summer but I’m being realistic here).

I’m also very keen to avoid the taste of additives. Dehydrated food has come a long way in the last decade but I can still taste some of the stuff I used 15 eyes ago! That horrible preservative taste is something that drove me to dehydrate my own food.

So to the food …

 

You can see a main meal here. It comes in a vacuum packed plastic packet. Everything is about as compact as can be, as you can see from the size of my cooking gear.

I was sent three main meals; a Moroccan style main meal; and Italian style main meal and an Almond Jalfrezi main meal

Preparation

This is simple enough though those plastic bags are tough — you will need to use your knife carefully. These meals are designed to be cooked in your cooking pan, there’s no pouring boiling water (300 mil) into plastic bags (thank goodness). I simply added water to my pan, poured in the meal and then cooked on top of a lightweight alcohol stove. The packet said to add to boiling water and wait 7 minutes. I simply brought everything up to the boil and then placed the pan in my pot cozy for 7 minutes or so.  Seven minutes was about right so long as you make sure you mix the ingredients well before heating and again before you place in the cozy.

Portion Size?

The good news is that these are decent portion size, well the 800kcal size is (there is a smaller 500 below). Some of the commercial brands I’ve tasted are not enough. If you have been eating properly through the day (and maybe had a second breakfast) and then had some chocolate or other stuff with you for the evening, this size will be OK.

Taste

The first meal I tried was the Moroccan Main Meal. This is basically couscous with herbs, some finely diced vegetables, dried fruits and almonds.  This rehydrated easily enough and was certainly a good portion. I felt it lacked a bit of punch in the taste. The  dried fruits as herbs were there but very mild.  I may have added just a little too much water. 300 mil is about one backpacking cup of water. It is always easy to over estimate the amount of water you need for rehydration. It was not bad and certainly didn’t taste of preservative.

The Italian Main Meal was not dissimilar. The main ingredient was again couscous  this time with tomatoes, winter veg (carrot) and parmesan (style) shavings — whatever those are. And those almonds were there once more. Again this was a pretty mild taste, It was discernibly different  to the Moroccan but only if you concentrated hard.

To, both were fine but I would have been inclined to take some extra stuff along with me. Dried chilli flakes, some powdered cumin and some dried herbs would have made a big difference I think

If this two were a little underwhelming in the taste department the star of the show was the Almond Jalfrezi. This had a rice base and a nicely flavoured base sauce. Almonds were there in force again but this time accompanied by flakes of coconut flesh. A good dollop of coconut milk also dropped into the pan. Once this was all cooked and broken up it was rather delicious. Jalfrezi is traditionally a hot and spicy curry but don’t worry this is really quite mild. I would add a little more in the way of chilli flakes if it was me. A nice meal though.

Size options

I mentioned above that I tried the 800kcal (200 grams) sized meals. Each of them is available in a smaller combination of 500kcal (100 grams) — £5.50 and £4.50 respectively. On long and harder trips — particularly when the calories are being eaten at a high rate — I would be inclined to be repaired to combine and large and a small packet for one meal. However, for the simple overnights I have used for testing the main portion has been enough.

Conclusion

You can easily create meals that are as good, if not better, yourself. Most us though don’t have the time.

TentMeals are a good vegan or vegetarian alternative. They are seriously addictive free and free from any nasty aftertastes. Portion size is good and they taste nice — though a boost to the herbs and spice would probably work well.

These might also appeal to backpackers flying abroad. In these circumstances I tend to avoid trying to carry dehydrated meat in my pack. Sniffer dogs love it. None vegetarians could easily use these as a base to which they could add other vegetables, cheese or dried meats.

All in all these have been a pretty decent offering so far. So, next I’ll be looking at porridge and breakfast meals.

TentMeals: High Energy Health

Review (to come) TentMeals

A lot of you will know that I am a great believer in dehydrating my own meals. This is mainly because my past experience of commercial dried foods was not good. However, I’m aware that things have moved on a lot over recent years.

I’ve been recently been sent some samples for review, from TentMeals. I shan’t be using these as Challenge Freebies or anything like that but I will be testing and reviewing them.

It has always been the additives that have done me in the past. This company promise ‘high energy and healthy’ food.

You can see their stuff here:

https://tentmeals.co.uk/pages/products

It all looks promising. I’ll be considering whether the portion size is adequate  as well as taste and quality!  The reviews might not come all at once but will start this week.

TGO Challenge: Fine Dining Report

IMG 6074

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Humphrey Weightman and Colin Ibbotson at the Boat Inn, Aboyne.

Well, I said I would report back on the Challenge dining experience this year (it was a pretty easy route).

A mixed bag I guess, but here goes.

On the journey up Kate, Humphrey, Colin and I had just enough time in Edinburgh to pop into the Café Royal between train connections. this is a fine establishment which is just a few minutes away from Waverley Station.  It has a fine interior the feeling you can get from the photo below. They serve good beers and decent food. We all took bowl of rather wonderful Cullen Skink. We felt as if we were starting our journey in luxury.

Cafe Royal Edinburgh

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Café Royal

 

That evening we ate at the Dornie Hotel, the sign-off point for Dornie. I’ve been here before and had a fine venison casserole. Sadly, this was not on the menu when we were there. We had perfectly acceptable pub meals even if the steak pie toppings were suspiciously the same dimensions as the serving plate. Brake Brothers I suspect.

Next up was the Slater’s Arms in Cannich. I once had a very odd experience here but on this occasion the welcome was warm and the staff couldn’t do enough for us. Nice fish and chips. Decent pub food if not spectacular.

Next up was the Fidler’s Arms in Drumnadrochit. This is a firm favourite for lunchtimes on the Challenge. The burgers were good and the beer excellent. A piece of cake for pudding was a little odd.

Then it was on to the Mountain Café in Aviemore for breakfast. This is a wonderful place (set on top of a gear shop) which serves wonderful breakfasts. We told Dan and Christy from the US that this was the only place to have breakfast. Dan was so delighted he was quite prepared to spend the rest of his Challenge in there! Not a cheap breakfast but excellent quality.  I am unable to go through Aviemore without having one of they full breakfasts!

That evening Kate, Dan, Christy and I found ourselves in Glenmore. The Squirrel café had already treated us well. is there any better welcome for a pair of tired feet than their apple strudel and ice cream? I doubt it!

In the evening we sidled over to the Glenmore Mountain Centre Bar. This is a truly wondrous place. It serves Cairngorm beers (superb) and provides really good home made food. The steak and ale pie is particularly recommended. This is a proper hime made pie with proper home made pastry — none of that flaky nonsense. Every hiker should sample one of thee pies once in their career.

At Braemar Croydon recommended that we went to Gordon’s (with Shap McDonnell) for breakfast rather than the Old Bakery. This was a fine breakfast with high quality ingredients. An old fashioned kind of a place but very hospitable. In the evening we ate at the Old Bakery which was pushed to the limit dealing with all the Challengers. Good pub food such as lasagne. I had fish which was passable but had a freezer look about it.

The days after we were in Ballater. The Alexander Hotel served a perfectly acceptable — if not exciting — evening meal to Humphrey, Kate, Colin, Rob Slade and myself. we took breakfast the next morning in the one café that was open from 7.30 — I forget the name but it was a good breakfast.

At Montrose we had a rather long-winded meal at the Asian restaurant in the high street. We seemed to wait for hours as they struggled to cope with numbers. The food, once it arrived, was fine (except for the started that Colin and I had which was stone cold). Breakfast at the Coffee Shop was great — a basic greasy spoon. The less said about the food at the Park Hotel for the TGO Dinner the better! Still, we don’t go there for the food.

But there was one stand out establishment on this trip, the Boat Inn at Aboyne.

Since I was here two years ago the dining too has been refurbished but the welcome was just as warm and the food was found by all to be exceptional. This was worth a diversion for (or in our case a massive road walk afterwards). Sadly, the miniature train that runs around the roof was broken. We all had a three course lunch, it was that good. wonderful crab dishes and fabulously big and beautiful fish.

So, the Boat Inn was a clear winner. sadly, I won’t be going this way again on my next Challenge as I’ve done that road walk two challenges in a row. However, if I was feeling really hungry …

Review: The Eagle Barge Inn, Laggan Locks

I’ve heard about this place on many occasions but had not visited until a week or so ago. Great food I was told. Stay at the Great Glen Hostel (a great hostel) or camp by the Locks and eat at the Eagle. Nothing, though, prepared me for an actual visit!

We arrived at the Locks about three in the afternoon. After a while watching a boat coming through the locks we popped over to the Eagle.

The Eagle is a large barge, one of the continental ocean going barges rather than a narrow boar. Entering through the small door you find yourself in a wonderfully warm and welcoming environment. On the right of the door is a wood panelled bar and to the left an eating area.

We sat down with fine pints of good real ale. And then we began to chat to the proprietors  and what a laugh we had. They are not locals (although they have lived in Scotland for some time) but are from deepest Essex, Romford I think. It was if the Essex contingent from Gavin and Stacy had turned right on the M4 by mistake and had continued north for 400 miles or so! I make these comments in the best possible light — they were as warm and welcoming and outrageously funny as you could expect.

The Eagle does food and we fancied eating a real meal rathe than relying on dehydrated stuff. A sign on the wall said food orders must be made by three in the afternoon; it was four. I hazarded to enquire whether we could still order food. You can — came the reply — but only if you order NOW! The chef had some lamb shanks in which he would cook for us in a red wine and rosemary sauce. We quickly ordered. it’s OK he explained, I just have to pop not the kitchen and put the lamb on! You can’t get more personalised than that!

We got chatting. Music is a bit of a theme here and notices ask for musicians to identify themselves. I owned up to being a guitar player. Oh, we have one of ten came the reply. We can have a few tunes later. Sadly, I don’t know the names of my hosts but she played the concertina I think and the chef oldie he had started to learn the squeeze box. I ventured that I had always hankered after playing a squeeze box; e disappeared into the kitchen and bought out his instrument and then let me fiddle around for it for a while.

We trotted off to the hostel and returned at 7 ish. While we were waiting for our food we chatted with some of the boatmen at the bar and had a look at a lo of family snaps.  Our food was simply superb.

This is a cook who knows that he can do some things very well and I guess these are the daily specials. Our lamb was long cooked and fell beautifully off the bone. It is easy to ruin a red wine sauce with too much rosemary but our cook had got it spot on. The food was served by the cook directly from the roasting dish; there was no doubt about the provenance of this bit of food — it had been made for us.

This was as good a meal as I’ve had anywhere over the last few years. We finished off with home made apple pie and ice cream, the pie being just as well judged as the lamb.

Eccentricity comes with this place and it all adds to the experience. I wanted a bottle of wine and waited patiently while the women at the bar cooed over baby photographs. It was a nice wait. When the wine finally appeared we realised we had no glasses on our table. We asked the chef. He shouted to the bar. What? You want glasses as well came the reply!

At the end of our meal I felt quite knackered and we decided simply to withdraw to our beds. What you’re going? What about the music? We left to shouts of, ‘he’s bottled out, bottled out he has …”

The Eagle has its own Facebook page which is well worth checking out. You’ll see that music is a bit of a thing here and sessions are regularly hosted during the season. When we passed through they are thinking of opening a couple of evenings during the winter simply because local musicians were demanding it — this is apparently such a good place to play.

If you find yourselves walking this way, don’t hesitate to visit. This is a great place and a great laugh. Book in for a meal. But remember you have to arrive by 3 in the afternoon; it is worth planning your walking route around it.

Eagle Inn Facebook Page

Review: Cafe Siabod, Capel Curig, Snowdonia

Great outdoor playgrounds tend to come with great cafes. Snowdonia’s Llanberis has, arguably, the most famous of these cafes in the country _ the great Pete’s Eats. Over on the other side of the Glyders life is a bit quieter and for a long time the Pinnacle Café has held sway. But the Pinnacle is no Pete’s Eats.

Now there is a new cafe option in Capel, the Cafe Siabod, and very good it is too.

You may know the Cafe Siabod better as the old Service Station that is just on the right as you head up the A5 towards the crossroads in Capel. Earlier this year the cafe was converted by mountain runner Paul Hodges and (I think) his partner Dorina. I was hear earlier in the year just after opening and it was promising. A couple of months or so later and I was pleased to see that they see to be doing rather well.

I first came across Romanian Dorina when she was working at the Hotel Bryn Tyrch a few hundred yards away. At the cafe she is joined by her sister Gaby (hope I’ve got the names the right way round) who is in charge of the cooking. Gaby is quite a large women. Don’t get me wrong I’m not really making any personal observations but in the hills there are times when you want your food to be prepared by someone who looks as if they understand what you want to scoff down!

The cafe itself is high, spacious without being impersonal. There’s lots of space for the tables which after the cramped tables and benches of the Pinnacle is something of a relief. There’s a big wood burning stove in one corner and a couple of large leather sofas in which to sink into.

Breakfasts are the main thing at these cafes and Cafe Siabod doesn’t disappoint. THe food here is good, local produce and is clean prepared with non of the grease that you all too often find. During the say the day the cafe offers serious mountain staples such as lasagne and chips. They will also prepare packed lunches for walkers if you order them the day before. The food is good and the prices reasonable.

Some of you may also be interested in the overnight parking option as there is a lot of car parking space here.

Cafe Siabod seems to be the cafe of choice now for a number of mountain instructors who rendezvous with their clients here, and this is no mean indicator of quality. Cafe Siabod is warm, friendly and should be checked out if you are in the area.

There is no website but there is a Facebook Page which gives a flavour of the quirky-ness of the sisters. Nice people.

Pyrenees: Food

After fuel, food is the subject of most Pyrenean enquiries.

Firstly, you are really not allowed to bring in home dehydrated meat products. Don’t be tempted. Sniffer dogs love this stuff! Secondly, commercially dehydrated foods might seem attractive but they are very expensive and — bluntly — often taste horrible. On the other hand Spain and France will often provide you with a great range of natural products that have a long shelf — or pack — life when in the mountains.

As with the sourcing of fuel, the first trick is to build in time for supply. Even small supermarkets and markets can supply the things you need.

Here is a quick guide.

Carbohydrates

Pasta, rice and cous cows are all readily available and easy to prepare using the pot cozy system without utilising a lot of fuel. The weather will be warm and more often than not  yoga re looking to create nice flavour combinations without the need for a lot of cooking.

Cheese

Mountain cheeses last a long time in the pack, after all this is what they were designed for! Look for local hard cheeses.

In supermarkets you will always find chefs ‘rapée’ or packets of grated cheese _ usually a kind of Gruyere these. These packets last for ages and are perfect for throwing on cooked pasta.

When in the mountains you can often find cabins that sell cheese. Try it. It is usual lovely stuff

Garlic

I never worry about onions but I do sometimes carry garlic which I soften in olive oil — usually I do bring this with me, decanted into a small camping container. I don’t really want to lug around bottles of olive oil!

Tomato Puree and Vegetable Puree

A tube of tomato puree can be useful. In some supermarkets you will find near it a tube that looks similar but is in fact a puree of tomato, onions, garlic and other vegetable produce. This is great stuff; snap it up if you find it.

Ham — Jambon/Jamon

This might be counter intuitive to some, but cooked ham will also keep a long time in your pack. Past, grated cheese, some torn ham and a sliced tomato will provide you with a great meal.

Saucisson

Mountain cooked sausages. These are usually very hard, salty and packed with energy — everything you need when hiking in warm climates. This stuff is about a thousand percent more effective than any energy bar!

Fresh Fruit/Tomatoes

Good things to carry and —again — stashed in the middle of your pack they will stay firm and fresh for longer than you might imagine. Apples are good but also consider carrying under ripe peaches, plums and so on when you can.

Bread

Buy baguettes and carry them in your pack side pocket. Pain Complet or Pain de Compagne will last longer. In supermarkets you can find flat breads or tortillas sold in packets and you’ll always ind some of this stuff in my pack.

Powdered Soups

The French and Spanish are great campers and almost anywhere you go you will find big ranges of dehydrated soups and sauces. In my experience these are always for superior to the stuff that we can buy in the UK. A vegetable of tomato soup is a grab base for a pasta meal — just add to the water you are cooking the pasta in.

Dried milk is also for some reason far superior as well.

 

Use these ingredients with thought and you can have great and varied meals. In a town or village this basic approach can easily be supplemented with fresh vegetables such as green beans.

 

Eating Out

Finally, a word about eating out which is nice occasionally. Lunch in the meal to hunt out. Local bars and bistros will often provide a great, home cooked, daily special. Portions are usually good.

In all kinds of ways lunch is a better bet than an evening meal. An evening meal is nice but you will find choice limited. If you like steak and chips you’ll be OK. You might find yourself getting very fed up of confit of duck — which is the tourist staple here. If you are a vegetarian then it is most likely pizza I’m afraid, although these will often be cooked in wood burning ovens.

Special Meals

If budget is not too much of a problem you might surprise yourself. A few years ago I was stranded in the Spanish village of Torla for a couple of days after a storm. I decided to waste time by having a proper lunch. The restaurant looked nice but still welcoming. The clientele included bank clerks and ladies out for lunch. The staff didn’t mind smelly walkers. And the food was absolutely sublime. Not cheap but a real experience.

Routebuddy Begins to hit the Heights

Updated 25/10/11

Routebuddy, the desktop map planning programme for Mac OSX (and now also Windows) has just reached version 3.1 which brings with it a number of welcome improvements for UK-based hikers, walkers, etc.

Routebuddy’s recent move from v.2 to v.3 was by all accounts very significant and involved a complete re-write of the software. Routebuddy claim that the new modular design of the program will allow for quicker development and help future proof the programme. But Routebuddy 3 was still short of many of the features that a lot of outdoor people would consider to be standard. One of the biggest disappointments was that Routebuddy 3 didn’t deal with height data.

Routebuddy 3.1 has dealt with the height data problem, at least for those of us in the UK who are using OS maps. Height data form international maps (mostly US) will be along shortly.

The good news for Routebuddy users is that this is a fine implementation of height and use of height data. Plot a route — or click on a route — and then right click with the mouse or trackpad. Select properties. A new information panel  is displayed  which carried a wealth of information:

  • Total distance;
  • Flat distance;
  • Ascent distance;
  • Descent distance;
  • Min altitude;
  • Max altitude;
  • Total ascent;
  • Total descent.

An Elevation button pulls up an elevation schematic which displays your route rather niftily.

The new Routebuddy system now gives me more height-based data than my Anquet system did.

This is a classy implementation of height and bears well for the future. When I reviewed Routebuddy 3 a few months ago a had two gripes with the program. the first — lack of height — has now been dealt with. The second set of comments/complaints that I made were to do with route handling and I made a couple of recommendations for editing routes and for continuing existing routes that I think will revolutionise the program.

Routebuddy tell me that they are working on improvements to the route tool and I’m encouraged by the height work, both in terms of the speed with which this has been delivered and the way it has been implemented. Routebuddy has taken a bit of a thumping on the net recently and some of this criticism was justified and some may have been a little unfair. But with 3.1 Routebudy has begun to deliver quality improvements that will be welcomed by critics.

Routebuddy 3.1 is not just about OS map heights. The program has had a significant speed hike — and RB 3 was no slouch. And the importing of large and complex route datasets has been improved. Colin Ibbotson discovered that somehow RB had developed a bug (between 2 and 3) which effected large routes and Routebuddy say that they have now fixed this. Colin has some of the most complex routes imaginable and I think one of the problems he was having was that the program seemed to have ‘hung’ while it was computing data. RB 3.1 now brings up a dialogue box that shows import progress which should mean that people aren’t tempted to Force quite their program to get things going again.

I think there is still a bug with the import function. Once the progress bar has reached maximum the box doesn’t seem to want to disappear. Is the thing still importing? Well, once the route appears on the screen you can bring up all of the route details as described above (height and everything) _ but the import dialogue box is still there! However, once you get one this foible import is quick — but this does need to be fixed. I can only get rid of the dialogue box by quitting Routebuddy!

Ed — import features have now been considerably improved with 3.1.1

Apparently there was a debate within Routebuddy as to whether they should put out a quick update to include height or whether they should wait a little longer and put out a major update with a number of additional features. My advice was that if height worked they should get this update out quickly. Maybe the speed of the update has left us with the import foible but this is not really that serious.

With the 3.1 upgrade Routebuddy has shown us that it can listen to specialist users and incorporate their request reasonably quickly and to a high standard.

I’m still desperate for those route tool improvements but I think I might now chose RB 3.1 as my preferred planning tool for routes in the UK. One final thing on speed. I said that things seem to have speeded up all round and with this I seem to have lost one of my route complaints. In my review you see that I was getting very frustrated with the way in which it was too easy to end a route prematurely — something has happened with 3.1 that makes this less of a problem.

So, I’m (so far) impressed with the new update. Now, lets have an improved route tool!

Bread Project: Baking Your First Sourdough

So, by my reckoning, those of you who have been creating your own sourdough will be in a position to bake their first loaf over the next few days, or over the weekend. This post contains a basic recipe but it also aims to deal with the kind of questions (I hope) that a first timer is likely to ask. I will miss things, so please respond by adding a comment to the post and I’ll respond as soon as I can.

This is my method. I’ve experimented a lot over the years with different methods and ideas and this is by far the most consistent. It is the method championed by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall.

I usually start towards the end of the evening. It takes 5 minutes to mix together the ingredients. I then kneed the dough in the morning, leave to prove during the day and then bake when I come home in the evening.

Ingredients

We’re making either a simple white sourdough or a wholemeal version. (I’ll deal with other variations is a later post). The quantities here will make 1 large loaf or two smaller ones. Just as a guide 2 small loafs will last Kate and myself a week although I often bake a big loaf for the weekend — this stuff goes quickly).

White Loaf

  • 500 grams of strong white flour
  • 320 mils of lukewarm water
  • 2/3 tablespoons of sourdough starter
  • 10 grams of salt

Wholemeal Loaf

  • 300 grams of wholemeal flour
  • 200 grams of strong white flour
  • 320 mils of lukewarm water
  • 2/3 tablespoons of sourdough starter
  • 10 grams of salt

Note, that although there is not much difference between the two, they do handle differently

A Note on Flour

Some books suggest that it doesn’t matter about the quality of white flour. This is not really my experience. You need to stick to a strong white flour although I’m not sure that the brand really matters. I regularly use Dove Farm organic flours which are now available in many larger supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s and Tesco (as well as in most health food stores). I also use Allinson strong white, Coop strong white and Sainsbury’s own brand strong white.

Equipment

You’ll need a baking tray or roasting tray with shallow sides. You can buy mesh baking trays which slip into the oven. These allow air to circulate under the bread as well. They work well but I just usually use a baking tray.

 

Step 1: The Sponge

Just before you retire for the night!

Put half of your flour ingredients into a bowl (so, 250 grams of white flour, or 100 grams white & 150 grams wholemeal).

Add two to three tablespoons of sourdough starter.

Add the 320 mils of lukewarm water (I tend to weigh this on my digital scales = 320 grams).

Mix together with a spoon. You will have a sloppy semi liquid. Cover with cling-film or clean table cloth.

This will take no more than 10 minutes.

 

Step 2: Kneeding the Dough

Measure out the salt.

Next morning add the remaining flour to the bowl and mix.

I try and use just one hand to mix the ingredients. You can, of course, use a food processor or a mixer but I find hand mixing is easier, quicker and involves less washing up!

When you start mixing the dough will feel very spongey in character — hence the term ‘Sponge’!

As the mix comes together add salt — I tend to fold this into the mixture in two or three goes.

If you have some flour at the bottom of your bowl that has not incorporated into the mix just add a touch of lukewarm water to help it along. This additional water (be very careful with amounts) is often called ‘the bathe’

You should now  have a gloopy but solid piece of dough.

Put the dough on a work surface. Work it with the palm of a hand, stretching out the dough from the centre. Repeat a few times and the dough will noticeably come together more effectively. Sprinkle the work surface with a little flour.

Now kneed. There are many ways of doing this. I usually pound the dough with my knuckles and as it comes together more I then tend to drop it onto the work surface from a height. This is therapeutic! But, do not over-kneed just for the sake of it. As the bread kneeds it sticks to itself rather than the work surface.

What is happening here is that we are developing the glutens in the flour and these (as they develop) give the flour an elastic feel. I reckon I usually spend about 10 minutes on this part of the process.

Shape into a ball and put back in your bowl. Cover with tea towel or clingfilm.

 

Step 3: Proving the Dough

When you get home from work it is time to do a little more work.

Your dough will have risen a bit. You might see signs of fermentation in it, little bubbles on the surface of the dough or a little secreted liquid at the side of the bowl.

Lightly flour your work surface and remove the dough from your bowl. Kneed a little more.

Take a shallow sided baking tray and apply a little vegetable/olive oil to the base.

Now to shape the dough. If you are making two loaves use your digital scales to get two equal-sized lumps.

Flatten out the dough. Then place the finger (or two fingers) of your free hand onto the middle of the dough. Taking one edge of the dough pull this up and over your fingers (and then obviously pull out the fingers). Move the dough around a bit in a circular direction and repeat, pulling in dough from the edge again.

This process doesn’t take too long but what it does is strengthen the structure of the dough — you’ll see what I mean as you go.

Shape into a ball (or two balls).

Place on your baking tray/sheet. Cover with a clean tea towel. If you have two loaves you might want to ensure that the towel (or cling film) is arranged so that the two separate loaves don’t touch each other.

Leave to stand — ‘prove’ — for an hour or two. The dough will expand. Books often say leave until it doubles in size but I rarely leave it for more than an hour and a half.

 

Stage 4: Baking

When you get home, pre heat your oven to top whack. I arrange the shelves of my oven so the bread sits just above half way.

I place a small dish of water on the floor of the oven. This creates a slightly damp atmosphere and it is this that gives the bread a nice, crispy, crust.

White Loaves

Wholemeal loaves keep their structure and the ball shape that you rolled out. White loaves can ‘sink’, i.e. they spread out to a flat disc. If this happens simply take out and repeat the shaping process (the bit that gives the structure) so that you have a proper 3D ball again.

Now we need to ‘slash’ the top of the loaf so that the rising hot air in the loaf can escape. Baking books often talk about doing this with a razor blade! I find kitchen scissors work well and sometimes I use a sharp, serrated, bread knife.

When you buy artisan breads you’ll see the slash pattern in the top of the bread. Three cuts or incisions should suffice. But, traditionally, each baker has their individual slash pattern and so you might want to design your own — for a while I used to make the mark of Zoro but nobody every noticed!

Place the bread/tray into the oven.

Timing

This all depends on your own oven. But:

  • Do not open at all during the first 15 minutes or so (or else everything will deflate);
  • Check at 30 minutes.

In my oven 30 minutes is enough. Check the loaf. It should be crisping up. If the top is beginning to darken (or if patches of burning are there) it is ready. If the bread still looks a little anaemic or undercooked you can given it another 5 to 10 minutes. Just check at five minute intervals. You won’t ruin the bread.

You know the bread is ready when you can tap the underside and it feels hollow. You should automatically be at this stage.

Turn out the loaf/loaves onto a metal grid — the one from your grill pan will do — and leave to cool.

I know eating bread fresh from the oven is brilliant but try and let it cool down a fair amount, even if you are eating it a little warm. Cut into it too early and you’ll often find a very hole-y bread next day.

 

Shape and Appearance

Sourdough is really ‘interesting’ bread with ‘interesting’ knobbly bits and ‘interesting holes’!

The texture will be tighter than commercial breads and you’ll often find a few holes in it as you cut through. But this just adds to character. Most importantly it will taste sublime!

 

Minimum Times

Sometimes you have more time on your hands and can do things during the day. Always try and stick the first stage over-night. The next stage requires about 5 hours (minimum) of proving.


Storage

A loaf will last me three days or so. The bread freezes well and I tend to automatically freeze a loaf if I make two. If you really want that freshly baked taste you can take the bread out of the oven at about 15 to 20 mins and then freeze. To use simply put in an oven and give it another 15 mins (minimum) although I never bother with this — straight freezing works so well.

 

Back to the Sourdough Starter

You will obviously need to top this up. I normally start to ‘feed it’ again two or three days before I’m going to be using it.

 

The quantities easily scale up — 1 kilogram of flour will produce 2 large loaves or 4 small ones.

Next I’ll look at some variations on the theme.

But get baking. And let me know how you get on.

 

 

Winter Project: Bread?

Bread

I was sitting at Shrewsbury train station recently and got chatting to a couple of hikers. I was recognised! This happens with alarming frequency. This blogger has been outed on the tops of mountains, in train stations, in highland pubs and on the top of a number of summits. I was even ‘spotted’ in the Pyrenees and once in the centre of Soho.

These two were complimentary about the blog and they particularly mentioned the Photography Project and the Dehydration Project. These were both winter projects, a little off message perhaps but designed to give me something to amble on about during the long nights. “What’s the next project?” I had no idea.

We got to talking about food, after all there is a direct correlation between thoughts of food and the end of a long walk. A lot of walkers seem interested in good food and we were in Shropshire which is one of the organic farming centres of the UK.

Somehow we got around to bread. My new foodie mates were impressed when I told them I hadn’t bought shop bread for years. One of them told me he’s had a crack at it about ten years ago but found it just too much of a hassle.

Most of my bread is of the simple sourdough variety which — once established — is about as easy as it gets, using just flour and water (not even commercial yeast). Sounds great came the reaction.

How about telling us how to bake sourdough?

So, anyone interested? We could have a sourdough class going over the next ten days or so with a step-to-step guide for every day.

Sourdough sounds as if it is a real pain as it takes so long to ferment and prove. But this is its main selling point. You can cram the production of sourdough into a busy day. Set it up over night, give it all a quick need in the morning and then leave the bread to rise during the day. Prove and bake in the evening. It fits into a natural rhythm of things.

In the photo are two simple but delicious white loaves. On the right is the jar that contains the magic sourdough ‘starter’. The starter is a natural yeast culture that you create in the kitchen and top up as you use it. My current starter has been going for the best part of five years.

Anyhow: who’s up for a bread project?

Some Recipes: Plum & Rhubarb Compote & Baked Beans

This may confuse you but it will make sense to those who follow me on Twitter!

For Helen — Baken Beans

The trick is the tomato sauce.

Gently sweat onion and garlic in a frying pan. You may add chilli if you feel like it. When the onions are translucent and a tin (or two) or chopped or canned tomatoes. Add herbs if you want. Basil is good as is parsley. Be more sparing with thyme and it is probably best to avoid rosemary. Oregano works well. Fresh herbs are preferable. Save some of the soft herbs to add at the very end before serving.

Add tinned beans (or dried that have been soaked overnight).

Simmer sauce for at least 20 minutes. The longer you cook a tomato sauce the richer it becomes. Half an hour is even better if you have time. Sometimes I find myself adding a little balsamic or sherry vinegar.

Season at the end with a little salt and more black pepper (to taste).

This stuff comes alive with the addition of pork products. You could add some pancetta or streaky bacon with the onion. You could some some pork sausages to the stew — avoid silly seasonings and herby ones. Spare ribs would be a good if not exotic addition.

However, my favourite option is to take some cooking chorizo and cut into reasonably thick slices (about 5 centimetres or so). Fry in some oil before you add the onions and garlic. watch them carefully as they cook quickly. Get both sides nice and crisp but not burnt. Remove. Carry on as above and add the chorizo back with the beans.

This is great served on a piece of thick toast and even better topped off with a poached egg. Simple but stunning food.

Thinking about it I shall just nip up to the supermarket and buy the said ingredients. I shall top it off with on my own hen’s eggs!

Oooh, can’t wait.

 

For Fenlander — Spiced Red Plum, Ginger and Rhubarb Relish

From the Ottolenghi Book.

5 red plums, stoned and cut into quarters

1 red chilli halved and de-seeded

2 cinammon sticks

1 star anise

100 ml red wine vinegar

200g caster sugar

4 stalks of rhubarb (about 200g) cut into 3cm lengths

A small knob of fresh ginger, peeled, very thinly sliced and then cut up into strips.

 

1. Heat oven to 150c/gas mark 2. Place plums and chilli in a heavy-based saucepan and add the cinnamon, star anise, vinegar and half the sugar. Stir well and bring to a light boil and simmer for 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally and skimming any froth from the surface if necessary. the plums should have a jam-like consistency.

2. While the plums are simmering, place the rhubarb,ginger and remaining sugar in an ovenproof dish. Rub them together with your hands and place in the over (the dish and not the hands …) Cook for 20-30 minutes stirring from time-to-time until the rhubarb is tender. You should have cooked but intact pieces of rhubarb. Remove from oven and allow to cool.

3. Combine the plums and rhubarb and mix well. Remove the chilli and cinnamon and star anise. Transfer to jar/s to cool.

Ottolenghi reckons this will keep i the fridge for a week or two. Be careful with your jars and you can keep if for several months — well it hasn’t killed me yet.

 

I can’t tell you how good this is! It is amazing with pork chops or roast pork — this alternative to apple sauce. Best with belly pork I think as it cuts through that glorious fat!

It is also wonderful with grilled mackerel and especially good with home hot smoked mackerel (but that’s another story …)

 

If you like cooking get hold of the Ottolenghi book. There’s not a duff recipe in this collection of Med and middle eastern stuff.

The second Ottolenghi book Plenty is full of vegetarian recipes from the Guardian. Ottolenghi includes great meat and fish dishes.