I am obsessed, so many things, so much to do and the days fly by. I am reminded again that one of my more developed obsessions is with bread and baking in general. I blame Iris Edna for this, she made me love bread far too much.
The king of the bakers in Port Fairy was of course, Little Tommy Digby of whom I have written often and who still looms large in my thoughts and food dreams, his contribution to my life of food and eating was boundless influence and even today I can still taste the pastry, the Neapolitan slice and the jam roll and the dozens of other cakes and breads that he made daily for Caddies in the back room with the great wood and gas brick ovens that gave such a special taste.
Alas the king is no more, retired to his fathers stone house at the East Beach and playing the organ at the church, his magic is passed on to others but they do not, as far as I know, have the same touch for the bake house as he did. Well at least not as far as I am concerned.
A magazine crossed my desk today, compliments of the peak body of the bakers of Australia. It made me very nervous and yet also reflective. Have I got the right to demand wood fired ovens made from brick, have I got the right to want breads that are made from superb flours with real yeasts and sour dough starters, have I got the right to demand from my local baker, cakes of great quality and taste, jams that are real, sugars that are free from chemicals. In fact the whole thing free from chemicals. I think I do, but alas I may well be alone in this, since most bakers these days seem not to be able to make breads from scratch, cakes from beginning to end. At least that’s the way the magazine sees it.
Lets look at this one thing at a time. Ovens seems like a place to start. Let me start with a question... why is it that Italian Pizza makers and Jamie Oliver all seem to think that a wood fired oven is essential to life and limb and, while I am at it, a trip by anyone to Costante Imports in Bell Street Preston, will garner you a small, but impressive (steel it has to be admitted) outdoor oven, along with some of the great Italian cooking delights, you will leave there with a much deflated wallet. The food cooked in these things does taste different, it has a more earthy, rich and round taste. Why is it that bakers who have been lucky enough to have found premises with wood fired ovens installed, cannot bake enough bread to keep up with the demand. But please, tell me someone, and I am prepared to be wrong here; are the stainless steel and glass, free standing, plug in, on wheels ovens of todays bake house any better/worse/same as wood fired or for that matter gas ovens?
Is this whole issue a little like the unwashed baking dish of my mothers past, made the best gravy and roast meats to perfection, roast potatoes that you would travel to eat. A clean stainless steel roasting dish is just not the same. But then again it can be me, I have noticed as I grow into maturity, a decided tendency to reject the new and spiffy and rely on the old clobber. Mind you there are some things that you just have to have, blenders, mixers, induction cook tops and oh, I would say about a million or so small, but in my case utterly essential tools and appliances which no kitchen of mine could ever possibly not have.
Turned the page and became nauseous. They are now introducing a bread that is made with gelatine. Gelatine is for Jellies. Claims that the bread is made much softer and delicious with the addition of this product. I could feel the spirit of Tommy Digby move at that moment, as if to haunt the page and try to expunge it from view.
So much flour is grown under less than ideal conditions and so much of the wheat and grain is grown with way too many chemicals. Its all about production and money money money. Its about way to much of our wheat and grain farms being taken over by multi nationals and using the same techniques as are found in the USA, developing mega farms. Bugger it, I want to see Australian farms left in the hands of farmers who have farmed and grown on them for generations, I don’t want to see us loose our quality and our standards. I am also alarmed to see that GM modified flour is fast becoming a reality and that is not good.
Google organic flour and you will be surprised to see how few growers and mills there are, it is not of major interest or impact in the over all sales and these would have to come from the bread manufacturers of the ubiquitous white sliced loaf, sold and eaten by millions, I don’t know that even amongst the artisanal bakers of bread, you could actually buy a loaf that is baked from certified organic flour. It may be that owing to some regulation and price manipulation, the cost of a fully organic commercial loaf would be too high.
But lets take a look at the operators of the bakeries in Australia. I am sure that in some there will be found men and woman who have served their apprenticeship and have learned their craft and cooking ability. I have in my possession a hotel training manual from the kitchens of what was the Victoria Hotel in Little Collins street. This hotel was the hotel that served the vast majority of country people who came to Melbourne for various reasons, it offered great clean accommodation and a dining room that specialised in foods similar to what would be found at home. It boasted an almost self sufficient kitchen and amongst the things that they did was to bake their own bread. The manual covers all the steps and moves in detail for not only bread, but cakes, biscuits and deserts. It is, by any standard a revelation and should be used today by the many bread shops which dot the landscape offering mediocre food and called by themselves, artisanal. Indeed it may well be an art, but it certainly lacks the taste and food values that, as an indulged fellow in a town of just 2000 people, came to accept and expect from the three bakers in town. I wonder what sort of courses are offered and their content in the food teaching facilities today, are the young bakers required to undergo some sort of formal training, or is it a matter of learn as you go on the job, you wonder how much learning is needed to simply add water and stir well to the 'bread mixes' that are supplied by head office. Mind you to know just what is in those mixes would also be of enormous interest.
Sadly we have become a society that accepts that mediocre is good enough, that bread the like of which I grew up on is no longer widely available and that should you be lucky enough to have a great baker near you, then you are going to pay extra for the bread. Complain bitterly I say, bitch and moan and you will get good results. Do not accept second best, maybe the odd time, specially in the area of human relations, but when it comes to food, no way. Or bake your own bread...
1 kg bread flour (slightly higher Protein content)
780 mil water
20 grams salt (I usually add 1.5 desert spoons of cooking salt)
1 teaspoon dry yeast
1 level dessertspoon of sugar... no more.
Put all the above into a container (I use a 10 litre plastic bucket with a lid) that you can leave it in overnight. Use the handle end of a wooden spoon and mix until all is combined. The mix will look lumpy. With 20 minute intervals ... wet your hand and pull the dough from the corner (4 directions) into the middle, stretching well. By the end of the fourth round, your dough will be silky smooth and a little on the wet side. Put it to sleep overnight.
Turn your stove on to 240 Celsius and put into it a lidded cast iron casserole pot. The idea is that it should get as hot as the oven. Meanwhile sprinkle a little flour around the perimeter of the container, release the dough and do a bit stretch of the dough upwards and fold to the other corner, this is called stretch and fold. Do this for all 4 corners, twice. Wait until the pot and oven have reached heat, remove the cast iron casserole, sprinkle it well with flour, carefully lift the bread into the pot, replace lid and return to the oven. Cook for 30 - 35 minutes with the lid on, remove the lid and cook for a further 10 - 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool on a wire rack. Simple, delicious and rewarding.