Thursday, 17 December 2009

A visit to Gilchesters Flour Mill

We buy all of our ingredients from a wholesaler in Glasgow called Greencity. One of my favourite brands of flour is Gilchesters. They are based in Northumberland, where they both grow and mill all their grain. Their doing both the farming and the milling means that they can tell us absolutely everything about their flour, from the soil it was grown in to the speed of the stones that ground it. They can even, should we wish to know, tell us the name of the driver of the combine harvester which brought in the crop.

Although I really like such an amazing level of traceability, what I enjoy about the flour is the way it behaves when I use it to bake. Both their wheat and spelt flours make lovely doughs which feel just right in the hands. They also bake into a well structured and very flavoury loaf, and do so consistently.

So it was a great pleasure to be able to visit their mill on Monday. Our map was not as up to date as it might have been, but Andrew Wilkinson did not seem in the slightest bit put out at the lateness of our arrival. He was also extremely generous with his time, showed us all over the operation, and shared his astonishing depth of knowledge about grain nutrition, the subject of his PhD.

This conversation was, for me, the real joy of our visit. As well as learning a great deal of detail concerning topics about which I had previously only a cursory knowledge, I came away inspired and with a feeling of something like validation about the whole grain, naturally leavened breads that I like to make. It's not just that I think they taste better (and by 'taste', I really mean everything about the experience, from the fragile crispness of the warm crust in the hands to the comfortable satiation after eating). It is that there is a great deal of research which describes in detail the ways in which these breads are nutritionally superior to those produced by the chorley wood process, around 85% of bread in the UK.

Gilchesters flour is grown and milled with these nutritional qualities very much in mind. It isn't the reason we buy their flour; we do that because it makes super bread. It is very reassuring, though, to know that behind this lovely flour is a deep and knowledgeable concern for our nutrition.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Levelling the Steamie

My brother-in-law Ben visited us on Monday, eager to get his hands calloused with a little building work, so he, Matthew and our friend Dave - downstairs neighbour and Boss of the Job - got on with making the walls of the Steamie ready to receive the roof.

As the Steamie is at least a hundred years old and not of the finest construction this involved some considerable mixing of rubble and cement and tipping into gaps and other bodges. There are 'bellies' on the walls of thirty centemetres, the walls were sitting at several levels. In addition some of the walls are double-skin brick, one single-skin brick and one a brick and stone combo. However, on a beautiful sunny day they got it levelled.

Checking the to see if the chasm is filled

Ben got to do some brick laying to build up a low corner of the building; the girls had to be restrained from clambering on piles of half bricks and the rickety scaffolding; Matthew and Ben hauled rubble around and we filled up all the weely bins for the tenement with stuff (why do building sites acquire stuff?). Finally, as the sun was setting at about three in the afternoon, Dave got the damp-proof layer down and the walls level. This means that on the next fine day when we're not baking and the Boss isn't on another job we can get the A frame for the roof made. Seems a tall order for December, but we hope it can be done before Christmas.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Buttermilk Scones

When the owner of Reuben's asked if we could do scones for the cafe my thoughts turned at once to buttermilk scones.

Simple buttermilk scones have no additional fat (i.e. no rubbing in!), no eggs (critical for us as we have an egg intolerant daughter) and use the reaction of the lactic acid in buttermilk with the alkali of bicarbonate of soda to rise - so you don't get that baking-powdery taste to them.

Simple, I though, be there in a jiffy. Oh, how wrong! Three weeks later, countless batches of scones baked, many inches added to the waist line in tasting, and almost (but not quite) getting fed up of making and eating scones, I think I've cracked it.

I started using a recipe in Catherine Brown's Scottish Cookery with the addition of soaked raisins and sugar. It was delicious, but too wet to handle. Somehow the scones got wetter and wetter as I tinkered with levels of soaking water, fruit and buttermilk. After about five batches which were more batter than dough I had the wetness level under control, but couldn't get the cooking time right. In the end I realised that although putting the scones in the oven on the back of a batch of bread was economical for fuel, the kiln shelves we use to mimic a bread oven were cooking the bottoms too quickly. So I moved the shelves, and, bingo, the scone I'd been looking for. Luckily the cafe agreed, or I think I might have been put off for life!

Here's the recipe.

Buttermilk Scones

160g fresh milk and 20g buttermilk culture, or 180g buttermilk *
100g raisins
40g hot water
30g light muscovado sugar
150g fine wholemeal flour
100g plain flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 dsspn demerera sugar

24 hours (or 12 if you have a warmer house than us!) before you want to make the scones mix your buttermilk culture into the fresh milk. Pour the hot water onto the raisins. Cover both and leave at room temperature.

When you are almost ready to cook preheat your oven to 225C.

Butter a baking sheet and dust with flour.

Mix the sugar into the soaking raisins and stir well.

Sift the flours, salt and bicarb together into a mixing bowl.

Make a well in the centre of the flours.

Mix the 160g of the buttermilk into the raisins and sugar and pour them into the well into the centre of the flours.

Working quickly, using a fork or wooden spoon, work the flour into the liquid until it is all incorporated. You want to do this as quickly as possible, the lightness of the scones depends on it!

Tip the dough straight onto the baking sheet and, with lightly floured hands, pat it flat and shape into a circle. Taking a long knife cut the circle into six sections, flouring the knife between each cut. With a pastry brush brush the top using some of the retained 20g of buttermilk (don't use too much), then sprinkle the top with demerera sugar.

Pop into the oven and bake for 10-12 minutes, until the top is pleasantly golden brown.

Attempt to wait until it's cool before breaking into farles and smothering with butter, jam and creme fraiche.

* We're lucky here in Fife that buttermilk is reasonably easy to get hold of. I use a lot of it, so I maintain my own culture. This is very straightforward to do. Fill a clean jar with milk almost to the top, stir in a dessert spoon of the dregs of your last lot of buttermilk (or a bought pot). Leave at room temperature until it has very slightly solidified. Then refrigerate. Mine usually lasts 10 days or so before getting a slight sharp smell, at which point I usually bin it. I try to refresh the culture once a week to keep things sweet and fresh!