Welcome to Lovely Greens

My blog focuses on country living projects including diy tutorials, home cooking, and recipes for handmade bath and beauty products. Click this image to see my project gallery! All the best, Tanya from Lovely Greens x

How to make a Better Strawberry Pallet Planter

Use a single wooden pallet to create a beautiful and rustic planter ideal for planting with strawberries or other edibles.

Getting Started Keeping Honeybees

Linda Tillman of 'Linda's Bees' writes on how you can get started learning about and keeping honeybees. A great guest post for anyone interested in learning more about beekeeping!

DIY Healing Eczema Balm

Learn how to make a healing balm for dry and inflamed skin with this video tutorial. Made with Neem oil, it's a natural product perfect for those suffering from eczema and psoriasis.

Grow your own Beauty Garden

Learn how to create your own beauty products using flowers and herbs from your own garden. This is the first post in a series and focuses on the types of plants you can grow for different types of skin.

How to Make Natural Soap Series

This is the first of a four-part series showing how you can make your own handmade and natural soap at home.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Manx Food & Drink Festival 2011

This is the second time I've visited the Manx Food and Drink Festival and though it was great in 2010, it was even better this year. Much was to be had over the 24-25th of September including demonstrations and tastings from local producers, on-site competitions and shopping and even celebrity chefs. This all set in a new and beautiful venue with generally good weather made for an eventful and delicious Manx weekend.

While last year I attended as a casual spectator, this year I was on hand as stand-coordinator and representative for the 'Allotment Forum' - a rather stuffy name for a fun and informal association of public allotments on the Isle of Man. Enthusiastic volunteers from three of our allotments offered the opportunity of joining up with the grow-your-own movement, a chance at winning a box of allotment vegetables & preserves, and plenty of on-site advice on organic gardening and trouble-shooting. It was a lovely two days and I met so many interesting people including those who had gardens or allotments of their own and even a few who wanted to offer their own land for public gardening. But probably the most exciting visitor we had was the hunk of daytime cookery - James Martin! During his book-signing, Brenda (from the Douglas allotment) and I invited him to come down for a tour of our stand and an introduction to what we're all about. Not only did he follow us down then and there but he also graciously pulled the winning ticket for our vegetable box raffle - as Brenda said "What a star!" :)

The Allotment Forum vegetable box raffle

Though I wasn't able to get away from the stand for much of the time, I did have a wander around the event with my husband on Saturday. Folk dancers were twirling in the sunshine and the great smells and Celtic music created just the right atmosphere to put smiles on everyone's faces. The location was a winner as well with the little field below the Nunnery providing a wind-free and green setting for some of the finest food on the Isle of Man.

Manx folk dancing and music

Radcliffe Butchers was one of the more popular stands and their juicy selection of fresh local lamb, beef and pork was definitely the star attraction. A family butcher based in Castletown, they offer local free-range, organic and rare-breed meat alongside specialty sausages, pies and other deli goods. The craft of butchery was also on display and a long queue of customers formed in front of Christopher Lennon who skillfully hacked and sliced the meat to perfection.

Fresh local meat from Radcliffe Butchers

The Individual Cake Company was a very busy stand as well and their beautifully decorated and mouthwatering cupcakes were difficult to resist. One little old lady stopped by our allotment stand to buy herself a raffle ticket and in leaving forgot her carton of cupcakes on the table. We lost her in the crowd but about five minutes later it opened up again and we spotted her with a distinct look of distress on her face. She spied her cupcakes in the same instant and her anguish was instantly replaced with sheer delight at finding her little treats again. And I don't think I've ever seen anyone snatch anything away so fast in my life!

Cupcakes from the Individual Cake Company

At one point I spotted a fellow hauling a case of cider away from the Apple Orphanage's stall. Though their new cider was debuted at the event, I sadly didn't get the chance to taste it for myself. Made from 100% apple juice, they allow only the wild yeast on the apples to ferment it, as tradition dictates. This is opposed to conventional cider production which requires less than 80% apple juice and the use of commercial yeast. So you can bet that I'm looking forward to the next opportunity to have a taste of natural local cider! I just love what this company is doing on the island in general - though they have their own orchard, most of the apple juice they use comes from the average Manx back-garden. Anyone can bring in their apples to them and in return you receive a fair share of the freshly pressed juice. The remaining juice is then fermented and/or bottled and then sold on to the public. The cooperative business model they've created not only helps to reduce local apple wastage but creates products that everyone can enjoy.

Apple juice and cider from the Apple Orphanage

The Farmer's Den Farm Shop set up their tent in one of the most photogenic places on the site and I couldn't help but get a shot of its down to earth fresh veggies against the beautiful stone facade of the Nunnery. Open at the Pooil Vaaish Farm at the Arbory in Castletown, they can also be found setting up shop at the island's farmers' markets. All naturally grown, their selection of local and seasonal vegetables and fruits rival that of the produce we grow at the allotments. I just love that they have their Kohlrabi in prime place on their table as well - I wish more people would give it a go.

Farmers' Market against the backdrop of 'The Nunnery'

And if you need some gorgeous dishes to display your culinary masterpieces in, just head over to Faye Christian's Ceramics. I'm still raving to people about the pottery class she gave us in August and can happily say that I use many of the pieces I made on a daily basis. I was so pleased to hear that the class even inspired the creation of her new dark brown mugs - they're just below her right arm in the picture. How wonderful is that?

Faye on hand with her lovely ceramics

The Isle of Man Creamery was another very busy stand and the queue to buy cheese was sometimes twenty+ people long! With an assortment of different cheeses including Mature Cheddar, Red Leicester, Ploughman's Pickle and Mango & Pineapple and a special deal of three blocks for £5 you can understand why. My favourites are definitely the more mature cheddars and I was pleased to pick a packet up for fifty pence at the close of the show. I've also heard on the radio this week that the Creamery have struck up a deal with an American company and so Manx cheese is now going to be available in some swanky shop across the pond. I'm not sure how I feel about that though - it's great to expand local business but the food miles on that cheese will be incredible. It goes against everything that protectionism of local food stands for.

Huge crowds for the Isle of Man Creamery stand

The weirdest thing I tried at the show has got to be the mushroom ice-cream that Greeba Mushrooms was offering tasters of. The recipe was invented in partnership with Davidson's and is an extremely creamy and slightly fungi-flavoured concoction. The thing that turned me off wasn't the flavour, which I thought unique, but the little pieces of rubbery mushrooms that I can only think were included for decoration? Otherwise I'd say that the icecream would probably be interesting with savory dishes. A dollop served with tender pork medallions might be delicious.

Greeba Mushrooms...and tastings of Mushroom Icecream!

Staarvey Farm was brave with their outdoor display of potted herbs and rainbow selection of preserves and cordials. We had a heavy shower at 4pm on Sunday and I hope they didn't suffer too much! I've happily become accustomed to seeing their wares at my local Shoprite and support the idea of buying local condiments. Marketing data aside, I imagine that many who try to buy local produce and meat often end up purchasing conventional ketchups, mustards, relishes and jams. I hope that someday we'll see a little kiosk of local preserves at every Tesco and Sainsburys across Britain.

Staarvey Farm herbs and preserves, including cordials

Two lovely gentlemen from Manx National Heritage hosted a butter-churning demonstration next to our alloment stand. They learned their craft from an artisan at the Folk Museum at Cregneash and allowed people to have a go at both churning the butter and paddling it dry. I have a butter churn at home as well and I love both the butter and the buttermilk it produces. Purchased at the shop, buttermilk can tend to be sour and thick but straight from the process it is sweet as cream and the consistency of whole milk. They gave me a great tip on how to get my hands on some of the butter paddles they use so I'll be off to scour the antiques shops in Peel sometime soon. It's amazing how sturdy and useful antique tools are, especially compared with their modern counterparts.

Butter churning with Manx National Heritage Volunteers

Time-tested recipes for Christmas puddings, mincemeat and other delicious goodies were served up with Victorian charm by the proprietors of Aaron House. Their guest house along the promenade in Port St Mary provides delightful room and board with an authentic Victorian experience. Christmas pudding is a bit boozy for me but the scores of people crowding around to take home one of theirs is a good indication of how delicious they must be. Whenever I see a Christmas pudding I always have to wonder how old it is - you see, the older it is in years the better its supposed to be. I have a friend whose mother made one for him when he was born and every year she diligently tops it up with brandy and gives it a pat. He's now nearly forty years old so I don't doubt that it will be a merry occasion when the thing is served up - if no one keels over from alcohol poisoning first.

The Victorian culinary experience from Aaron House

A stop by the Isle of Man Beekeepers stall is always a delight. I took their beginners course over the winter and am looking forward to starting up my own hive next Spring. The variety in taste and texture from one hive's honey to the next is incredible and the four honeys in the below photograph all have their own attributes. Nearly everyone has heard of clover honey and heather honey so its easy to understand that the bees' forage is what makes all the difference in flavour. Interestingly enough, some of the best honey comes from hives in cities, even small cities like our Douglas. The variety of flowers, herbs and trees in a city makes for healthier bees and delicious honey.

Honey from the Isle of Man Beekeepers Association

Faye Christian's brother is Pentti Christian of Ellerslie Rapeseed oil. Somehow that connection didn't click in my brain until the show and I think I'm going to have to send both of them some of my soap made using his oil. Though generic vegetable oil also comes from rapeseed, it can't even compare to the rich golden goodness that Pentti produces. It's similar to virgin olive oil in texture and it has a delicious nutty flavour that goes well with a number of dishes. The way I hear it he was originally trying to produce bio-diesel, presumably for the farm, and in the process happened upon this culinary winner. Happy accidents and all :)

Faye's brother Pentti, proprietor of Ellerslie Rapeseed Oil

And lastly, congratulations to Mohammed Hoque of the Taste of India in Ramsey for winning this year's 'I Love Manx Chef Competition'. It must have been tough being under the scrutiny of such high profile judges. Good on him for going the distance, and using Manx chillies as well! I don't doubt that he will be receiving a lot of new custom this autumn, us included.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Rosemary, Kelp & Tea Tree Oil Soap

Ooooh...I just love the smell of this soap. I whipped up an experimental batch yesterday using kelp powder and tiny pieces of dried bladderwrack then scented it with rosemary, tea-tree and ginger essential oils. When breathed in it really clears the lungs and invigorates the mind and I can tell that this is going to be wonderful to use in the dark days of winter.

Bladderwrack is a type of seaweed often found growing on northern seasides and has anti-aging properties when used on the skin. Studies have shown that those using bladderwrack gel on the face noticed increased elasticity and decreased skin thickness in just over a month.

Sea kelp is another type of seaweed and if it grows in your area you'll be familiar with its long whip-like form lying washed up on the beach. Containing incredible amounts of vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids it is often used in facials and other spa treatments. Like bladderwrack, sea kelp has been attributed with increasing skin elasticity and even helping subdue the signs of aging and wrinkles.

Rosemary is a scent that not only stimulates your energy levels, but also helps to tone your skin and increase moisture levels. When used in hair products it also stimulates your follicles and can encourage hair growth.

Ginger essential oil can be beneficial to the skin, especially in the healing of wounds and bruises. It is quite intense though so those with sensitive skin should be more careful when using it.

Tea Tree essential oil has a deep, almost menthol, smell which is probably one of clues that it is used to treat sore throats and chests. It's also used on the skin for its powerful fungicidal, anti-biotic and anti-bacterial properties. Though again, those with sensitive skin should be cautious when using tea tree oil.

Rosemary and Tea Tree essential oils are used on the skin and hair for their anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and stimulating properties. While Rosemary is wonderful for aches, pains and mental fatigue, Tea Tree helps to heal acne, cold sores and fungal infections of the skin. The scents of both are also an excellent therapy against migraines and tension.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Eastern Young Farmers Club - 2011 Craft and Produce Show

Two wonderful events made for a fun and lively 'Grow-Your-Own' weekend! The Manx Food and Drink Festival took place over both Saturday and Sunday, with me coordinating and manning the 'Allotment Forum' stand. Then quite last minute I found out that the Eastern Young Farmers Club were holding their annual Craft and Produce Show on one of the same days. It's been at the back of my mind to enter it this year but I had no idea when and where it would take place until about a week ago. Even though I knew I'd be swamped with the other event, I was determined to enter some of my veg and baked goods into the show.

Every year the Isle of Man Eastern Young Farmer's Club put on a local competition of home-grown vegetables, fruit and flowers as well as hand-made confectionery, preserves, photography and artwork. With both adult and childrens' classes and entry prices at only £1, it's an inclusive little event that anyone can take part in. There aren't any expensive prizes to win, just recognition from your peers, the fun of friendly competition, and the knowledge that all proceeds will go to a good cause. The proceeds of the entry fees and the money made from the auction of items will be given to a local charity - this year, the Autism Initiatives.

5-Vegetable Displays

Entries for the show had to be taken in early on Saturday morning to the Working Mens' Institute in Laxey but I also needed to open the booth at our other event at 10am. My plan was to drop off my entries at 9, rush to Douglas and man the booth for a couple of hours then come back in the afternoon to see if I'd impressed the judges enough to win. The good news is that I managed to get everything done, including an allotment pit-stop to cut some Strawberry Spinach for a last minute entry. The bad news is that in all my flustered rushing about I managed to back the car into a light-pole. Even worse is that I was driving a courtesy car since ours is in the shop at the moment (not my doing thankfully). Anyhow, I don't think I'll ever hear the end of 'Women Drivers' in this house again.

Categories for Beet-root, Marrows, Turnips, Carrots and Onions

But I'm so glad that I was able to participate this year and also to have the chance to see what others are growing. Gardeners from all around Lonan submitted their prize specimens, some of which have been carefully nurtured since January. You could see the looks of pride and joy on some of these gardeners' faces when they spotted a coloured card propped up against their entries - especially if it was red. I always try to walk into these types of competitions with no expectations and the mentality of 'it's about the effort not the winning.' But to be honest, there's no greater thrill than finding out you've won! I entered into seven of the categories and am very pleased to have placed in all of them. Two first prizes (red cards), four seconds (blue) and one third (yellow). Of course there were some categories that only had a couple of entries but pooh-pooh on that - I still have a little card!

My first and second prizes for Biscuits, 5-Veg Display, Bread and Onions

But probably the most proud out of all of us had to be Mr. Ian 'Popa' Quayle who scooped up nearly all the first places in the fruit and vegetable categories. From carrots to onions to apples, his top class fruit and veg wowed the judges and shamed the rest of our efforts. I thought my onions were big at around 600g each but his monsters were probably double that size. He also produced the heaviest turnip, the loveliest potatoes and the most gigantic pumpkin of the show. He has reason to be proud! One of the other categories that he dominated in was the leeks and he let me in on his secret of growing them big: starting them early and potting them up individually.

After seeing all his wins it made me even prouder to have beat him fair and square in the 5-Vegetable Display. I wasn't sure that my unconventional veg would interest the judges but my arrangement of Kohlrabi, Spaghetti Squash, Strawberry Spinach, Quinoa, and a yellow Courgette won the day! I was up against some real contenders in that category - Ian's sprouts, spuds and turnips were arranged nicely in box and my allotment pal Steve had some gorgeous leeks, onions and parsnips. I'll bet that the competition for this category will be fierce next year!

Ian Quayle and his enormous pumpkin

Overall the event was great fun and I'm already looking forward to growing some entries for the 2012 show. I even spent Saturday evening flipping through catalogues and reading up on 'Exhibition' vegetable seeds and how to grow them to enormous sizes. Even though I'm not a professional farmer and I don't have the years of experience that he has, maybe I could give Mr. Quayle a run for his money. And even if I don't win I expect that he will savour his victories more if he has some determined competition. But then again I expect Steve might try to out-do us both! If it weren't for me entering in my 5-veg Display at the last minute he'd have had that one too. Hmmmm...I think I might need to 'peep over the fence' next year and keep an eye on him! All in good fun though - there's nothing more fun and lighthearted than bantering with other keen growers and it's part of what having an allotment is all about :)

Some of Ian Quayle's First Prize wins

The heaviest turnip of the show

Marrows on display - my pal Steve's won!

Categories for baked goods

Childrens' vegetable artwork

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Manx Mixing Bowl

A friend just gave me one of the best presents ever - a traditional Manx mixing bowl. In the past, every household on the Isle of Man had a bowl that looked pretty much like this one. What a truly wonderful gift and I'm really looking forward to using it to make a fresh batch of bread tomorrow. I'm also making a couple of things to enter into the Eastern Young Farmer's Show on Saturday and I suspect that this bowl is just the lucky charm to help me scoop up a prize :)

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

The Clan of the Cave Bear: Hollyhock Tea

I've just finished re-reading one of my favourite novels of all time - The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel. It was a different experience this time since my knowledge of plants, flowers and herbal medicine has increased dramatically in the twenty-some years since reading it the first time. But I smile to think that if it weren't for this book, it would have taken years for me to discover an interest in herbal medicine and foraging for wild food.

At the same time I cringe at some of the silly things I did after reading the book the first time. Well apart from some of the more adult themes in the book which I probably shouldn't have been reading at age ten, I also thought I'd experiment with foraging for myself. After all, Ayla was the same age as me and if she could do it, so could I! I recall munching on different leaves I found in the forest behind our house and also talking my siblings into doing the same. It scares me to death to think of what could have happened since at this time I couldn't have told you the difference between Digitalis and Clematis .

I think that I was probably not alone in my amateur exploits in wild food, and I'll bet that I wasn't even the youngest. In our modern world filled with supermarkets, pharmacies and industrial food production there seems to be a universal longing for a simpler and more natural life. And in 1980, The Clan of the Cave Bear was one of the first mass market novels that satisfied this attraction to a life of survivalism and existential purpose. It introduced a world before everything we now take for granted: no cars, refrigerators, houses or even matches. Yet somehow a world like that did once exist and the people who lived there survived...and thrived. No one truly knows what life 30,000 years ago was like but the picture that Auel paints for us is one that many people gravitate to. But though she alludes to back-breaking hard work and the inherent dangers of some of the herbal remedies I'd say that overall the romanticism of living at one with nature down-plays the peril.

Even so, safe and possibly effective herbal remedies are introduced in the book and I'm interested in experimenting with them. Long gone are the days of nibbling on random leaves but still I am very much aware that when experimenting with herbs, wild-food and mushrooms that you must do it with both care and knowledge. In Britain there are a handful of cases every year of accidental poisonings and even death from making mistakes with food - most of them will involve the consumption of a Death Cap mushroom but I recall stories of people who have died from eating rhubarb leaves as well. So with my experimentation I'm going to leave it at simple and safe remedies from plants and trees that are easy to recognise.

Hollyhock is a herbal remedy mentioned several times in The Clan of the Cave Bear. One of the excerpts is as follows:

"Hollyhocks are good for soothing irritations, sore throats, scrapes, scratches. The flowers make a drink that can ease pain, but it makes a person sleepy. The root is good for wounds. I used hollyhock roots on your leg, Ayla."

Hollyhocks growing in my allotment

In looking through my herbal medicine books, including the Enclycolpedia of Herbal Medicine as well as online sources such as Medicinal Herb Info I found that the uses for Hollyhock today are much the same as described in The Clan of the Cave Bear. Though the leaves and roots seem not to be used as often as the petals anymore, the modern and historical use of Hollyhock to treat sore throats and coughs is well known. A flower that in the past was standard in most gardens, the Hollyhock is now less popular and seen more in 'Cottage Garden' plantings. I suppose I'm not a trendy gardener then because I love this flower and have had it around for years.

Both the fresh and dried flower petals can be used as an infusion or a decoction and it seems a very safe herbal remedy to use since it was once commonly enjoyed as ordinary tea. Hollyhock comes in an assortment of colours and it doesn't really matter which one you use for your remedy. I chose to use white flowers so that I could more easily spot dirt and insects. To begin with, I thoroughly rinsed several flowers after letting them sit outdoors for a bit to give any beasties a chance to escape. Plucking the petals from the flower I ended up using two handfuls of them with a little more than a cup of boiling water, making an infusion. After allowing them to sit for about fifteen minutes I strained the liquid off and poured it into a mug.

Overall I can report no ill side affects and that I found the taste of the tea very refreshing. Though it's mentioned in The Clan of the Cave Bear that the petals can have a sedative effect I didn't find that to be the case with my own infusion. Instead it had a floral and soothing taste/feel and my energy level didn't change after drinking it. And after having a cup, I can understand how it can relieve sore mouths and throats and sometimes even thirst.

I plan on drying some of the flowers and storing them away for when I've got a cold. If they're successful in soothing my throat when I'm feeling miserable then I'd have to say that I'll make regular use of Hollyhocks as a herbal remedy. I already have them growing as ornamentals and the idea of giving it a useful purpose is really pleasing!

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Foraging for Rose-hips

It's that time of year again and the hedgerows are heaving with fruit. But with most people intent on collecting juicy blackberries, the vibrantly coloured and perhaps mystifying rose-hip is often overlooked. Maybe it's because they are a suspicious red colour or maybe it's because they're a fruit that's never seen in supermarkets. Whatever the reason, the conclusion is the same: there's more to collect for yourself!

Rose-hips are the fruit of the rose bush and in the summer are found as a swollen green part of the stem just underneath the flower. Every rose left uncut will eventually produce a hip but some will appear in the summer and others later in the autumn depending on species. To my knowledge all rose hips are edible, though some varieties have better flavour than others.

Blessed with a delicate fruity taste and rich in vitamins A, B and C, Rose-hips can be used to make an assortment of products including jellies, syrups, teas, wine and even cosmetics. Both the fruit and the seeds are edible but you should not eat rose-hips whole due to irritating hairs which are found inside the berries. These hairs must be removed either by filtering during the cooking process.

The best variety for making edible products is the hip of the common wild rose, also known as the Dog Rose, Latin name Rosa Canina. It produces small, firm, deep-red hips that are rich in flavour and easy to find and harvest. They are available in the autumn but it's said the best time to harvest them is directly after a frost. Being that birds favour other foods over these hard seed-laden hips, you can often find them hanging onto bare branches in the darkest days of winter. If you choose to use them to make edible products please know that it's not necessary to separate the seeds from the red fruit as both have their own nutritious values. But of course beware the hairs mentioned previously and make sure they are excluded from your end product.

Dog Rose (Rosa Canina) and hips from the same species

Japanese Rose (Rosa Rugosa) and hips from the same species

However, my main purpose for gathering rose-hips this week is to use them in making cold-process soaps. Dried and ground finely, both the seeds and the outer red hips are great for naturally colouring soaps and their anti-oxidants help extend the shelf-life. Another bonus is that their gritty texture creates a medium exfoliation which can be used both in soap as well as other cleansing products. The interesting thing about using rose-hips to colour your soap is that while the outer red berry will produce an earthy red colour, using the seeds will result in shades of brown. Therefore the fruit and the seeds must be separated if you wish to get a nice red colour. Though the hips of the dog rose can be used in soap-making, it's so small and fiddly to cut and clean that the investment in time is not really worth the end result. However, there is another rose-hip which is perfect for the job: the Japanese Rose-hip.

Differences in soap colour caused by different parts of the rose-hip

An introduced species in Britain, the Japanese rose-hip (Rosa Rugosa) can be found growing along hedgerows and even on vacant land and roadsides. They also seem a popular plant for municipal planting and here on the Isle of Man you can find them all over the place - they skirt the edges of many a public footpath and our small airport carpark is absolutely teeming with them. The scent of the flowers in summer is absolutely intoxicating and the hips they produce can grow to the size of a small plum. This makes them ideal for turning into rose-hip powder by a small producer.

After separating the seeds and most of the pith from the flesh, I put the flesh in the oven at a low heat for about three and a half hours until it's bone dry. Repeated pulsing and sifting, especially of all the itchy little hairs, results in a fairly fine powder that can be used sparingly in soap recipes and any larger pieces left over will make you a nice pot of tea.

I'm planning to forage for more rose-hips over the next couple of months and by the time I'm through I'll have enough rose-hip powder and tea to last me until this time next year. For the little effort expended in tracking the hips down and processing them I'm able to not only have a supply of quality local product on hand but the satisfaction of making it myself. Whether it's rose-hips or crab-apples, blackberries or mushrooms, there's nothing more fun and rewarding than foraging for wild foods and materials.

Preparing the rose-hips

And the leftovers make a pot of tea

Friday, 16 September 2011

Purple Sprouting Broccoli

Just a quick note but I wanted to share a photo and my excitement at my first Early Purple Sprouting Broccoli of 2011! Last year the birds and other beasties made short work of my plants before they could produce so I'm really chuffed to see those little violet sprouts. I can't wait to collect these spears over the weekend and serve them up with our Sunday roast. Yum!

Thursday, 15 September 2011

The Good White Loaf

Don't get me wrong...I love brown bread, seeded bread, sourdough bread, flat-bread, well, any bread. But I also love a good white loaf! It's got a lot of bad press in past years for being bland and unhealthy but I feel that if you make it yourself, and do a bit of research on your ingredients and process, your product will be a loaf that you are both proud of and happy to enjoy.

Bread is made from just a few simple ingredients: flour, salt, water and yeast. Optional additives such as fats, seeds and fruits as well as variants of the basic ingredients and methodology can result in bread of different shapes, colours, flavours and textures.

White flour is probably the trickiest of the ingredients but if you know what it contains and what it doesn't then I feel you can use it with educated discretion. Traditional stone-ground flour contains all parts of the original grains of wheat: the bran, the germ and the endosperm. Literally pulverised with stone wheels at room temperature this type of flour contains all the natural fibre, vitamins, proteins, anti-oxidants and other goodies that the body needs to stay healthy. It can also be coarse and has a relatively short shelf-life, which is one of the issues that led to the invention of modern white flour.

These days wheat is generally processed in industrial roller-machines at high temperatures with the resulting flour then being bleached and sifted of all germ and bran. Because of this, the flour can be nutritionally deficient and is often supplemented with vitamin additives. I'd say that this is especially the case in the USA, where supplementing flour has been written into law, but a simple look on the back of your bags of flour will let you know what it contains, either in the ingredients section or the nutritional values listings.

Modern conventional roller milling and traditional stone milling

Types of flour are also determined by the type of wheat it's made from as well as its colour. 'Soft' wheat types are lower in gluten and higher in starch which make it ideal for multipurpose flour but very poor for making bread. 'Hard' wheats are naturally high in gluten and thus better for bread-making because gluten is what enables bread to rise. Wheat also comes in three main colours, red, white and amber, which will help give flour (and bread) its colour if left unbleached. Considering this, it is possible to use a stone-ground 'Hard' and 'White' (HWW) variety of wheat to make white bread flour.

Another flour factor to consider is buying local or imported. I live on an island that fiercely supports local food and we have the benefit a local mill and bakery which uses only Manx-grown wheat. But though it pains me to say so, the flavour of this flour leaves much to be desired and you can see from images on their website that they use conventional machinery to create their product. What I've been doing now is using the local flour in my bread but substituting 50% of the flour called for with a strong Canadian flour. Life is all about compromise!

The other ingredients of water, salt and yeast also have varieties that impact greatly on your bread as well. Spring water as opposed to tap water, sea salt as opposed to table salt and fresh and/or wild yeast as opposed to dry and commercial yeast. So many factors to consider and plenty of room to experiment and find the right balance for yourself.

The Good White Loaf
Makes two loaves

1000g Strong White Flour
600ml lukewarm Water
20g Sea Salt
10g dried Yeast
1 Tbsp Extra Virgin Olive oil

1. Measure all of your dry ingredients into a large bowl, ceramic if you've got one, and stir until well incorporated.

2. Pour in the water and oil and mix with a spoon and/or your hand until all the ingredients form a sticky dough. Then turn it out onto an un-floured work surface and begin kneading. The surface is unfloured because though the dough is sticky, it's picked back up by your main mass of dough as you knead it. And too much extra flour in your dough will make your bread stodgy in any case. Kneading is all about stretching the glutens of the flour until they become satiny and elastic. Once this is understood then I think it's apparent that the kneading style seen on television and movies is not the easiest, most efficient or even quickest way to get the job done. A good video which shows kneading among other great bread making tips and instruction is given by River Cottage on Youtube at this link. The few advertisements at the beginning are annoying but the video is great and shows how to make a round loaf if you'd prefer that style. Also, while you're kneading fill your ceramic bowl up with hot water and let it stand. The idea is that the warmth will be absorbed by the bowl and help the yeast to get a jump-start on life when the dough is put back inside.

Kneading the dough

3. After your dough has been kneaded you'll notice that it displays an even and satiny elasticity. It takes about 10 minutes to achieve and will make sure that your bread will rise properly - improper kneading will result in a dense and possibly unpalatable loaf. So once properly kneaded, form the dough into a ball and place it into the now empty ceramic bowl, which has been lightly greased with about a teaspoon of olive oil. Drizzle a bit of oil onto the dough as well and make sure to rub it into its entire surface. This oil helps to keep the moisture inside the dough and prevents it from drying up. Place a damp towel over the bowl and put it in a warm place to rise. Rising shows that the yeast are alive and producing gases and the dough should double in size before the next step - it will take about an hour.

Oiling the dough

Dough rising to double its size

4. Once the dough has risen, take it out of the bowl and punch it down flat with your fingertips, form it back into a ball again and put it back into the bowl. Allow it to rise again to the same size, then again take it out and punch it down until you have all the air bubbles out.

Punching down the dough

5. Now cut the flattened dough down the middle - the two pieces will become separate loaves. Select one and place it on a lightly floured surface and roll it up tightly like you would a swiss roll and pinch the seams in so it doesn't fall apart.

Cutting and rolling up the dough

6. Using your fingertips, press the roll down until it's fairly flat. Then fold one end to the middle of the dough and then fold the other end up and over as well. Now press it all down flat again. The point of all this rolling and pressing is to create structure for an unsupported loaf to rise and take a final shape. Without it, your result will be a bread puddle.

Flatten the roll with your fingertips

Folding and flattening the dough

7. Take one long side and roll it tightly towards the other long end. Pinch in the seam and tuck in the sides then rub flour all over the loaf and set it on a floured board. Repeat the process with the second piece of dough.

Two formed and floured loaves

8. These formed loaves still need to rise one last time, which is called proving, so put them into a warm part of the house and cover with a large plastic bag to keep them from drying out. It's now that you want to pre-heat your oven and the surface/pan you plan on baking on to the highest setting possible - my fan conducted oven goes to 250°C. You should also place a dripping pan or even a cake pan at the bottom of your oven at this time.

Proving the loaves in a bag

9. Proving will take at least half an hour and possibly another full hour depending on how warm the dough is. When you feel the dough has nearly doubled in size again it's ready to be baked. But before you start moving the dough, make sure get some water in the kettle going because you're going to need one cup of boiling water at the exact time you put the bread into the oven.

10. Once the kettle is sorted, take the pre-heated pan out of the oven and gently move your loaves to it. Take a sharp knife and score the tops of the loaves around a centimeter deep. Scoring not only looks nice but allows the bread to rise even higher once it's in the oven.

Scoring the loaves

11. Now pour your water into the pan you've placed at the bottom of the oven and move quickly to put the loaves into the oven just afterwards. Close the oven up and allow the bread to bake at this temperature for ten minutes. The steam from the water helps to create a moist environment for the last rise the bread makes before the crust hardens.

12. After ten minutes, turn the oven down to 180°C Fan (160°C Conventional oven) and allow the bread to bake for 35 more minutes. When you take it out, the bread will be golden brown and look similar to the image below. Try to let it cool before cutting it but if you can't resist, tuck in and enjoy a piece of it warm - I know I do ;)

The finished loaves