May 08 2011

Bread


Lambs and ewes bask in the sunshine on top of the hill sheltered from the strong south westerly, a wind so strong this Sunday morning that it pushes me back as, scrambling up to the top of steep field, I stumble through the gate following the distressed cry of a lamb and the frantic baaing of a ewe. As I run, its cries move away from me. Eventually I track it down in the next field occupied by my neighbours visiting alpacas.

As I struggle to undo the gate before they spot the tiny chap, the ewe races towards me ignoring all dogs; a quick shoo from me and a loud call from her and the lamb dashes safely back through the gate. Chaos is averted.

Panting I turn back and walk slowly down to the house. Across the valley Richard is ploughing a chocolate furrow against the backdrop of Dartmoor. The sky is white with seagulls following his tractor. The river Dart below us both sings azure blue in the sun.

Lambing was a strange business this year, dragging on for weeks. The Whiteface breeders on the Moor put it down to the wet cold autumn and the heavy snow of early winter which seemed to upset the natural rhythm of tupping and gestation. We have several barren ewes too which is a first. Larry, the only orphan lamb, has gone to live with our friend Alison and her pigmy goats so he’s in clover. She’s taken two older ewes too so now she’s a sheep farmer, I tell her!
Late spring is bursting prematurely into summer. A gaggle of sweltering Bank Holidays encompassing Easter and the Royal Wedding together with a severe draught has plunged the garden into confusion; everything is at least two weeks early and now with gentle rain and this warm wind, everything is racing ahead of itself. In classic gardener’s anxiety I’m wondering what will be at its peak when we open the garden for the National Garden Scheme in mid-June. I feel the old “If only you could have seen it last week “cliché coming on!

..the scarlet Embothrium…
It’s not yet mid-May and the embothrium is already scarlet against a blue sky while bluebells still carpet the banks. Peonies are breaking open from fat buds, roses even creep furtively into flower, euphorbia fires up the border as iris spike blue with gentle mecanopsis and yet we are still not safely into frost free territory. Pelargoniums clutter the green house and I dare not let the great avocado into the garden yet. He towers over me magnificently inside the back door, some ten feet tall now, far too big for the little glass house.

The polytunnel is gone, bought by an enthusiastic new couple in the village. I feel wonderfully liberated! Beans and peas will grow on its site until autumn when the small glass greenhouse will take its place once the tomatoes have cropped, provided of course, that we are blight free at last. I have lost tomatoes despite my best efforts for the last two years.
The old chicken houses having been carefully moved, mended and painted green, now stand in the orchard behind a smart new post and rail fence; chickens, liberated at last from their winter quarters in the farmyard, scratch and squabble happily in the long grass, I await a visit by fox or badger.

the bread oven in the garden
Last week brought a huge treat. My dear friend Felicity invited me to bake bread in her wonderful bread oven. Having cooked for years enthusiastically both professionally and for friends and family, my knowledge of bread making would fit tidily on the back of a large postage stamp. The reasons are twofold, or maybe three; first, I was given a bread machine years ago, second, we have a fantastic French Patisserie in our local town, as good as any you will find anywhere in France and lastly I’ve just been too idle to try! Just one day, and all is changed. My fresh yeast is already sitting in the fridge and a new enthusiasm has been ignited.

Felicity’s oven is a very large affair standing in a corner of her beautiful garden in mid Devon. It was built by her son, Fred, a couple of years ago. Fred has been the driving force behind Slow Food Devon for a number of years now and his enthusiasm and knowledge of bread making has culminated into this wonderful project.

..foccacia in the oven…
The day before my visit I dive into Tom Jaine’s “Making Bread at Home” and David Jones’ excellent bread making notes which I gleaned from a wonderful day’s cookery at Manna From Devon.
A Biga, that’s what I must make. I mix 8 grams of fresh yeast with 150 mil of warm water and 150 grams strong bread flour and I leave it overnight.
Next morning I use Tom Jaine’s Italian Country Bread recipe of 200gms of my Biga, 300ml tepid water, 15grm fresh yeast, 2 tsp. salt, 2 tablespoons olive oil and 250 grams each of white and wholemeal flour. I mix the dough, knead it for ten minutes and let it prove covered in a bowl in the car as I drive across Devon.
When I arrive Felicity is surrounded by huge quantities of proven dough in her glorious kitchen. My little bowl looks somewhat inadequate but I’m on a steep learning curve today so watch and listen. Together we knock down, shape and set bread to prove a second time in cotton lined baskets. Fred and Felicity’s husband, Simon lit the oven early in the morning so the temperature is already rising promisingly. Fred bakes Focaccia.
We have lunch in the garden. Tomato soup; “last year’s tomatoes and the contents of the bread bin” Felicity says. Eaten with the warm rosemary tinged focaccia, delicious I say.
Fred checks the oven; our dough is risen and ready. Fred rakes out the ashes, in go the loaves. The “door” is sealed. We sit around the oven in the sun listening to the sheep over the hedge and wait as the air is filled with the sweet smell of baking bread.

….the finished loaves…
Out they come one at a time on the great metal peel. We stand around congratulating each other and admiring the day’s work. I leave with my loaf and Felicity fills the still hot oven with a great dish of beans and deliciousness for their supper. I’ve had a wonderful day.

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