All the water, all the yeast, half the flour

Food politics
Bread dough pre fermentation

I’ve been making bread for a long time, mainly using a simple recipe that I know by heart.

It’s very straightforward – a kilo of flour, 600ml of water, 20g of salt and 10g of yeast.

It makes an unpretentious, dependable loaf, but has the flexibility to take on new forms. Substituting half the flour for wholemeal, or mixing it up with a hundred grammes of rye or a couple of handfuls of oats makes the finished loaf very different, but borne of the same simple recipe of a kilo of flour and 600ml of water.

I’ve strayed all over the place, of course. I’ve bought book after book about baking bread, and tried dozens of different methods. High hydration loaves (don’t bother), sourdough, milk loaves, baguettes, all of them. All have their place. All are good, but still the simple recipe remains a backstop in my kitchen.

A kilo of flour and 600ml of water.

Some things are best left as they are. Some things don’t need to be messed with, don’t need to be improved, and this is one of those things. It isn’t fancy, it isn’t artisanal, but it is good and honest.

I’ve done one thing, made one tiny change to this decades old routine, and it’s worked. It’s made things better.

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Etxebarri, by Juan Pablo Cardenal & Jon Sarabia

Etxebarri, by Juan Pablo Cardenal & Jon Sarabia

A couple of years ago, I bought a pizza oven, a proper one, one that took four people to lift into place. I burn kiln-dried logs in it, and it hits almost 500c. It cooks a pizza in about two minutes, maybe less, and those pizzas are like nothing else I’ve ever tasted. The wood is alchemical, it performs magic, its smoke and heat grabbing hold of the food, enveloping it, transforming it. Later, when the fire burns down and the heat seeps away a little, I often roast a chicken in the oven, next to the glowing coals, an hour and a half or so of gentle, smokey heat. It’s the best way I’ve ever found of roasting a bird.

I’ve been converted to wood-fired cooking. It isn’t easy, not in the slightest. Controlling the fire and choosing the right moment to cook is a balancing act, a game of judgement and skill, one which I often get wrong. But that’s half the fun, that and smelling of smoke for the rest of the day.


Rok, London

Eating out
Rok, London

We had a weekend in Shoreditch the other week, and stayed at some achingly hip hotel, the type that has a lobby that people use as an informal shared work space.

I’ve honestly never seen a higher concentration of Macbooks anywhere.

For dinner one night, we ate at Rok, a loosely Scandinavian place on Curtain Road.

Rok ticks all the Shoreditch boxes – exposed brick painted white, open kitchen, big focus on smoked things, industrial type furniture, artisan this and that, and it’s absolutely wonderful. The dining room is stark, entirely white, warmed up with big pendant lights and bare wooden tables, bar and shelves. It’s understated and business-like, and most of the business happens in a tiny open kitchen tucked into the back of the space, a streak of smoke staining the wall over what’s evidently a ferocious grill.

The menu is broadly divided up into starters, mains and sides, not that these things seem to matter anymore in a world of small plates, and we started with a couple of pickles, a small dish of pickled carrot and a similar dish of beetroot. Each was light and fresh, barely fermented. Good. More…

The Taste of Portugal, Edite Vieira

The Taste of Portugal, Edite Vieira

Portugal is very small, a slim slither of a country clinging on to the side of the Iberian Peninsula, battered along its western coast by the most magnificent of Atlantic breakers, its interior parched under a southern European sun. The strip along the bottom is a tourist haven, its capital, Lisbon, one of the most fashionable destinations in Europe right now, and its second city, Porto, looking set to steal that crown.

It’s a wonderful country, with a varied and elegant cuisine that’s indebted to both the mighty Atlantic and the scorching Mediterranean.

Here, salt cod is king, vast slabs of bacalhau hang in every grocers, ready to be rehydrated and turned into salt cod fritters or cakes, patties of cod fried in breadcrumbs until irresistible. Then there are sardines, grilled over charcoal on a beach in the Algarve, served with nothing more than a little too much salt and a good squeeze of lemon, or preserved in brightly coloured cans, each a work of art in its own right. There’s chorizo from Spain, and olive oil, and cakes and pastries, the famous pasteis de Nata,  the very best of which come from a shop in Belem, a short tram ride outside Lisbon, the shop with the blue awning, whose pasteis will change any day for the better.

Portugal is an excellent place to visit and an excellent place to eat.

Edita Vieira’s book, The Taste of Portugal, was originally written in 2000, and is now in its fifth edition, and there’s good reason for that.

Vieira’s book is as comprehensive a collection of Portuguese classics as you could hope to find. There’s plenty of salt cod, plenty of sardines, but also the taste of the country, stews of rabbit and chicken, kid marinated and cooked slowly in red wine, suckling pig.


Anthony Bourdain’s rillettes

Food & drink
Anthony Bourdain’s rillettes

Rillettes is about as old-school a dish as you can get – and a tragically hard-to-find one. It gets right to the heart of what’s good: pork, pork fat, salt, and pepper. Kick off a meal with rillettes and you don’t have to wipe the plate rims, garnish the entree, or remember to keep your elbows off the table. Rillettes is something you serve friends – and people you already know you like.

I miss Anthony Bourdain already.

He was my kind of cook, and he cooked my kind of food – big, gutsy, quietly sophisticated, a generous nod to tradition and never, ever, ever straying far from the very central point of cooking and eating.

Flavour is everything, and it has to taste good.

I found Kitchen Confidential explosive, a glimpse into another world, written by a man who struck me as a punk, poet, and artisan rolled into one. It felt dangerous and authentic, raw and unfiltered. It still does. It still has a power to grab me and to drag me into all those many American kitchens.

Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook has featured proudly on my shelves for a long time. I use it often. It’s a go-to for French cooking, full of authentic recipes written with care and love, the chef’s methods, techniques and sometimes, short-cuts thrown in for good measure.

I’ve taken it from its shelf this week, sadly and defiantly, and I’ve re-read large parts of it. Bourdain wrote like a prince, his turn of phrase was elegant and at times beautiful. His death came too soon, and it’s a great loss, but his work remains, and I’m grateful for that, because it’s genuine, authentic and it has more clout than all of those bad boy celebrity chefs rolled into one.

Bourdain was the real deal. Never forget that.