Friday, February 10, 2012

Hedgehog and fox

This is not a British bush tucker recipe for dealing with some of our local mammalian fauna. Nor is it a recipe for one of those traditional dishes, such as "toad in the hole" or "pigs in blankets" whose name belies the ingredients.

I am afraid today I have decided to wax philosophical. In his essay about Tolstoy, Isaaiah Berlin used the Greek proverb "the fox knows many tricks, the hedgehog knows only one but he does it well" as a starting point for his analysis of the theory of history presented in War and Peace.

My blog strives for a certain foxy quality. Recent posts have included marmalade, Bengali fish curry, parsnip and ginger soup, and pickled pears. And yet in the kitchen I am as much hedgehog as fox. Along with all the jams, soups, stews, snacks, pickles and curries, there is the daily ritual of breadmaking using natural yeast. I have almost given up writing about this (at least for the time being); not because there is nothing to say but rather because I find it so hard to explain this trick to those who do not already know it themselves.

I can write a recipe for a curry, a soup or even a pickle, and I know that a vaguely competent cook will be able to follow it and produce something similar and quite probably better. But however carefully I explain the technique of working with wet dough, how to tell when it has proved, how to shape the loaves and assess whether they are ready to bake, how to slash them and transfer them to the oven, I know from experience that the only person who has any hope of following this to produce a good loaf of bread is somebody who is already an accomplished baker. I guess it just involves too much implicit knowledge, and too much skill which is not part of everyday kitchen activity to be something you can communicate in writing.

This difference is also reflected in my attitude to books. I love cookbooks and generally have at least two newish ones on the go in my kitchen, from which I draw inspiration. However, I have only ever bought one bread book (Peter Bertinett's marvelous Crust) and although I have learnt a great deal from it, I have only every cooked one of the breads from it. And so the many fine bread books out there - English Bread and Yeast Cookery by Elizabeth David, The Handmade Loaf by Dan Lepard, etc., etc. - hold no appeal for me whatsoever.Why? Because my own breadmaking is about perfecting one type of bread. I use a wettish dough, made primarily with white flour (with admixtures of about 10% wholemeal flour, malted flour, rye flour or oat flakes or combinations of them), leavened with a natural yeast starter, generally with a slow first proving and a faster second rising, and baked in a very hot oven.

I improvise and experiment a little around this formula and occasionally branch out into other things like pizza or focaccia, but I have absolutely no desire to make a different kind of bread for each day of the week.Indeed, the very idea goes against the grain of the deliberately repetitive process of perfecting one type of bread which, for me, is the essence of breadmaking. 

Anyway, I shall stop writing now. My inner hedgehog is telling me that it is time to slash my sourdough batards and put them in the oven. And my inner fox is reminding me that I have to nip out and buy some wonton wrappers (for chinese dumplings), fresh coriander (for Bengali chicken wraps) and margarine (for flapjacks).

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