Give us This Day our Daily Flour

First I would like to say I am not good at cooking. When you look at the best chefs on Saturday Morning Kitchen the one piece of equipment that you will not see on their counters, unless they are doing a ‘teach in’, is a set of scales. Jamie the Chief Chef of Essex says things like ‘add 30 milliitres of water’ and then just pours the liquid from an un-graduated receptacle. Good chefs have signature dishes which they have spent years perfecting and often containing foods which are patently designed never to appear on the same plate. They either have the genius to make these things taste good together or they are so famous that there is a bit of ’emperors new clothes’ going on. When they demonstrate the cooking of these dishes it is all by look and feel. They are masters of their art like any virtuoso so they don’t need a recipe or scales.

I like using a recipe that I can see and check. Culled off the internet or from book, of which I have many, I never put the oven on without having a recipe close to me. I also measure everything. I have two scales, a number of measuring devices, spoons, cups and I am totally reliant on timers of which I have access to four in the kitchen. Nothing I do is left to chance. I have eaten at the hands of many a ‘Jamie’ like cook who insists that they never measure anything. They may not know it but their food is often heavy or light on one thing or another. They don’t realise that the recipes in their cook books, which they ignore, have been developed to get the correct ingredients and the proportion of those exactly correct. The fresh faced Chief Chef of Essex is not as young as he appears. He was born in 1975 so that makes him 45 next birthday. He has been cooking for all of his adult and a lot of his young life. He started in his dad’s pub, went on to work in Antonio Caluccio’s as a pasty chef and then went on to work in the River Cafe restaurant in Fulham. He can pour an unmeasured amount of liquid and get the correct amount in the ‘mix’ because he has done it countless times.

Anyway with my recipe books and measuring tools I took on the challenge of making bread. We have developed a fondness for sourdough toast so the idea of making my own became a ‘must do’. Not because I am too mean to buy loaves from our local artisan bakers but because, as I have said, it is a challenge. I have had mixed success but my last sample was probably my best. The thing with sourdough bread, I believe, is that there are no shortcuts. I also believe that to ‘do’ a good sourdough takes time and needs the ingredients measured. The thing that is key is the ‘starter’. Simply, if you don’t know what that is, it is the replacement for the rising agent, usually yeast, and it takes some time to create. Look up a recipe if you want but it is just a case of mixing flour and water and doing that everyday with the mix, pouring away half, until your starter is ready for baking. Once you have used part of the starter for your baking you do not throw the rest away but continue to ‘feed it’ every day discarding half until you are ready to bake again. You can ‘arrest’ the development of the sourdough but adding more flour than water or putting it in the fridge but, from my point of view, and may be this is due to my ‘must measure’ approach to cooking, I have to have my starter constantly available for when I have the appropriate amount of time to create the masterpiece. I have been nurturing this little darling every day for six months. They tell me that the best sourdough starter comes from San Francisco and that is because of the type of natural yeast that exists in the air there. My sourdough starter definitely has the natural yeast of Suffolk.

As you can imagine keeping a starter ‘active’ takes a lot of bread flour. One kilo equals about thirty five ounces, so at four ounces per day you are looking at using a bag of flour every eight’ish days. That does not take account of using the flour for making the bread, either sourdough or the other varieties. So our shopping lists always have the obligatory bread flour. Strong white, wholemeal, spelt or rye they are all there. When we first went into this crisis, like many others, we were a bit slow in thinking that there would be panic buying. All the toilet rolls were gone before we thought about needing a new pack. Never mind, we thought, once the panic buyers had filled all the spare places in their homes then the missing goods would be back on the shelves. So all our shopping before the complete lock down was to try for toilet rolls, rice and pasta. Not to store but to use! The most worrying thing, from my point of view, was the lack of bread flour in any of the shops we visited. It is difficult to understand panic buyers but I would never have believed bread flour would have been on their ‘must hoard’ lists. You can imagine that all over this land millions of households will be retrieving the bread maker, that they have almost forgotten, from the under stairs cupboard. They will be dusting it down to be brought back into use with the bread flour that they have stockpiled over the previous weekend. What they probably forgot is that, for some reason, bread maker bread lasts about four nanoseconds before it becomes as hard as a brick.

So short of some bread flour to keep my starter fed I decided to look further afield. Unlike many non-panic buyers we were lucky enough to get a online shopping slot. It was some way ahead so after making our initial selection I continued to check every day to see if the ‘out or stock’ bread flour was back in stock. Yesterday was the last practical day that we could edit the order. When I logged on there was around 150,000 online shoppers ahead of us in the queue. After one hour and forty five minutes, you guessed it, no friggin bread flour. My starter will go hungry unless I can find another source. All the online suppliers, the niche flour makers, have stopped accepting new orders. For heavens sake! I know that it was panic buying that emptied the bread flour shelves because before the crisis there was always very few people in the ‘home baking’ aisle and absolutely no one by the bread flour. I could stand there for ages trying to remember which flour I was short of. Make a list you say! I always do but it is never in my pocket by the time I reach the shop.

So to all you ‘bread flour panic buyers’ just a warning. Flour can be invaded by weevils if left unused and you will have plenty left if that bread maker doesn’t float your boat!