Towards the end of 2018, I was privileged to join a group of chefs, writers, farmers, archeologists, photographers and filmmakers for Terroir Tuscany. One thing unified us all - food: its provenance, history, politics, production and sustainability.
Hosted by Charlotte Horton of Castello di Potentino, our breathtaking setting, and Arlene Stein of Terroir Hospitality, we spent 7 days learning from each other and local expert producers. We would meet each day after breakfast for talks in the importance of terroir and the power and politics of food today and throughout time, with a particular emphasis on the unique region of the castello, with its history pre-dating Etruscan times.
Charlotte and Arlene had worked immensely hard to curate a programme which enthralled, educated, entertained and moved us all. Talks, discussions, debate and hands-on workshops filled our days, whilst our evenings were spent sharing wonderful, locally-sourced food and the castello’s delicious wine. And as the evenings stretched into night, we would gather in the courtyard, warming ourselves by the open fires as we listened to the sounds of the guitar and marvelled at the star-strewn Tuscan skies.
Every day we learnt from a different expert producer from the region. We made cheese - delicious ricotta and pecorino, - we picked olives and tasted the new season’s oil, we made bread from ancient grains and recipes, we toured the castello’s vineyards and cellars, tasting wonderful local wines, we observed the Teatro Porco, as the local expert butcher prepared an entire pig for meat and charcuterie, we made fresh pasta and foraged wild plants and fungi nestling in the local hillside.
And we ate. Oh, how we ate! Cooks, chefs and restaurateurs were legion amongst us and, each afternoon, a posse of volunteers would gather in the ancient castle kitchen to make the evening meal. Baskets of vegetables and herbs filled the ancient fireplace and an impromptu menu would be devised from that day’s offerings. We shared ideas and knowledge, whilst learning so much under the relaxed tutelage of the some of the world’s most accomplished chefs (peppered with a Michelin star or two). How could it be anything but relaxed, as we prepped vegetables, meat and grain around an ancient table, stone sink in the corner and glass of wine in hand. So many cooks, so much joy and laughter and not a single broth spoiled.
This Terroir was a life-changing opportunity. What we shared and learned touched us all. An awareness of terroir and consideration of what it means should be important to each one of us. Its influence is impossible to overstate and should be paramount to everyone working within the food sector. Terroir is more than just a region of land. It is at the core of every community. It is the history, culture, politics, power, sustainability and the future of food production. It should be at the heart of all we do.
And if we put it at the core of what we do, we all become its ambassadors. We learn, we share, we influence, and we create both the power and will to change.
My week at Castello di Potentino has changed my view of the world and my community. For me, the world has now become smaller and my community so much larger. We gathered under its ancient walls as strangers from disparate parts of the world. We left as friends.
We're delighted to announce an exciting new venture with the fabulous sourdough expert and chef, Hilary Cacchio, Hilary is author of the wonderful Sourdough Suppers, a seasonal guide to eating and savouring your daily sourdough. My heart warmed to her the minute I read the phrase 'serve with a good wedge of sourdough' throughout the book. Although I may have been influenced by the Prune, Armagnac and Honey Ice cream Sandwiches (made with brioche, of course!). Oh my! Hilary spends half the year in France and half the year here in the UK, teaching sourdough baking in London for schools such as Bread Ahead, Divertimenti and, formerly, Leith's.
Our shared passion for food and our love of sourdough has drawn us together and now we're putting our heads together to come up with a wonderful residential bread making course in the heart of the beautiful French countryside. Plans are coming together for October 2019, when we hope to offer a French- inspired baking and cooking course, taking in local markets and mills, to make the most of the fabulous fresh seasonal produce and traditionally milled French flour.
We'll keep you posted with updates, both here and via social media.
In the meantime, feel free to drop us an email at email@example.com if you want to register your interest. There's no commitment at this stage, but those on the mailing list will be first to hear details of the full package once booking is live.
We make hot cross buns every year, but this year I thought I'd take a look at the tradition, where it comes from and look at a more traditional recipe to our normal fare. So, I dug out my trusty Elizabeth David English Bread and Yeast Cookery. Published in the '70s, it's a weighty tome, but a great start when you really want to get to grips with something. I was rewarded with a wonderful verse of the well known rhyme that was previously unknown to me:
One for the poker,
Two for the tongs;
Three for the dust pan,
Hot Cross Buns!
Thanks to modern technology, I lost none to the poker, tongs or dust pan. Following her guidance ,my resulting dough was stiffer than I would usually make, but no less soft and tender. I made some traditional deep crosses in the dough after proving and then piped the sweetened flour paste into the grooves. I was delighted with the results and think I'll stick with this method in future years.
As for the tradition itself, it seems it predates even medieval times. Evidence of fruit -studded loaves made to celebrate Eastre and the rites of Spring go back to pagan times. Then, as is so often the case, Christianity took over the pagan traditions. The crosses were a later addition, and were commonly cut into all manner of buns, loaves and cakes by superstitious bakers (for superstitious customers!) as a way of warding off evil spirits (that were naturally responsible for turning them mouldy). Then, during the reign of Elizabeth I, when the puritans were trying to rid England of all evidence of 'popery' as they saw it, the use of the cross was strictly limited and the practice was abandoned. However, one exception was made. At Easter, the use of the cross as a symbol was seen as appropriate and so the tradition of a little fruited loaf with a cross on continued. Traditionally, the cross was a haphazard, deep-cut marking but as time moves on we see embellishments appearing in the form of pastry or citrus peel crosses overlaying the scored cross. These days, you can see the piped cross on most modern buns. And, of course, everyone outdoes each other to come up with a new and exciting flavour not thought of before. For me, these traditional buns are an absolute delight. In fact, next year I might just try those candied peel crosses. If it ain't broke...
Hot Cross Buns
(makes 12 generous buns)
650g Strong white bread flour
60g Wholemeal flour (wheat, spelt or rye)
65g Light brown sugar (or golden caster sugar)
200g dried fruit (sultanas, raisins, currants & mixed peel)
360g whole milk, at room temperature
90g cold butter (unsalted), cubed
30g fresh yeast (or 15g dried yeast)
1 tsp mixed spice
Paste for crosses:
20g caster sugar
2 tbsp milk
2 tbsp caster sugar
Place the egg and milk in your mixing bowl, then add your flour, sugar, spice and salt. Now crumble the fresh yeast into your flour, avoiding direct contact with the salt. Using your dough attachment, mix your dough on low speed for 1-2 minutes until smooth and well combined. Turn the speed up to medium fast and mix for a further 2-3 minutes until your dough is strong and elastic. Now you have developed the gluten, you can throw in the cubes of butter a few at a time, continuing to beat the dough. When the butter is all combined and your dough is smooth once more, you can add the dried fruit and mix in.
Now cover and rest your dough for about 1 1/2 hours until doubled in size. You can then turn out your dough on a lightly floured surface. De-gas and divide into 12 equal portions (about 120g dough each). Shape each piece of dough into a ball and place on a baking tray lined with baking paper. Cover and leave to prove for a further 2 hours (if your kitchen is warm, you may need less time; if cold, you may need more).
Meanwhile, prepare your paste for the crosses. Mix the flour, sugar and water together and place in a piping bag, with either a small nozzle or prepare to cut a small hole at the end of the bag.
Preheat your oven to 220C
When your buns are proved, pipe a narrow cross on each bun. If you have placed your buns in a 3x4 grid, you may find it easier to do this by running down the entire row of buns, rather than each individual one. Place them in the oven and immediately turn your oven down to 190C. Bake for 15-20 minutes, keeping an eye that they don’t brown too quickly - if so, turn your oven down by about 10 degrees.
Whilst your buns are baking, prepare your final glaze. Mix together 2 tbsp milk with 2 tbsp caster sugar in a saucepan. Heat gently until the sugar is dissolved. Allow to cool a little before using.
When the buns are baked and golden, place on a cooling rack and brush with your milky glaze. Allow to cool, but maybe just one won’t be missed whilst they’re still warm. After all, you were the one to bake them. It’s the least you deserve. Enjoy!
With the bakery so busy at this time of year, we have to prepare ahead with as much we can before Christmas.
Today has been a big baking day, tray upon tray of mince pies, several panforte and snowy drifts of ricciarelli adorn the worktops. Sausage rolls must wait until Christmas Eve - a baking ritual here at the White Cottage. I’d be in big trouble with the family if I dared to bake them beforehand. Christmas doesn’t start until that first sausage roll is baked and eaten. I am, however, allowed to prep the stuffing for the turkey and tuck it in the freezer until its needed.
Our stuffing this year will feature fennel seeds - I adore the combination of pork and fennel - with juicy prunes for their dark, fruity stickiness and the crunch of toasted pistachios. We have a ready supply of old scraps of sourdough here, but don’t buy some especially. However, do use good quality bread - even better, make your own!
It’s so easy to make the stuffing ahead of time, taking only minutes to prepare, and beats a packet of Sage & Onion every time.
Good quality, free range pork sausage meat 1kg
Sourdough breadcrumbs 150g
Soft prunes, chopped 200g
Pistachios, roughly chopped 100g
Dried pink peppercorns 2 heaped tbsp
Fennel seeds 1 tbsp
1 egg, beaten
Zest of 1 orange
1/2 bunch fresh parsley, chopped
Salt and black pepper
A great use of any old bits of sourdough you might have lying around (or in the freezer). Don’t use fresh - best at a week old. If the bread is still quite soft, slice and leave it out for a few hours (or overnight) before blitzing into crumbs.
Simply combine all the above ingredients, excluding the meat and egg. When evenly mixed, add the final ingredients and mix thoroughly with your hands. Will keep for several days in the fridge, or freeze until ready to use.
,With the Dia de los Muertos looming, we thought we’d experiment with the traditional Mexican treat Pan de Muerto. Made with an orange-infused sweet dough, enriched with butter and eggs, the bread is shaped into a boule, then the ‘bones’ are overlaid, with a ‘skull’ placed atop the loaf.
I do love this time of year, when the nights draw in, the air is filled with the smell of wood-smoke and the world around us turns red and gold. These days the shops are filled with the most amazing autumnal squashes, gourds and pumpkins, of all colours, shapes and sizes. Inspired, we decided to use the leftover sweet dough from the Pan de Muerto to make some pumpkin buns. The orange dough was crying out for some chocolate, so each bun has a delicious chocolatey filling. Even if they hadn’t been delicious, I think we’ll have to make these again just for the aesthetic! Cute as a button!
I’ll leave you with a reminder of the ancient Gaelic celebration which pre-dated the modern observance of Halloween: ‘Samhain’ (from dusk on the 31st October to Dawn on the 1st November) – the festival marking summer’s end and the start of the dark half of the year.
Perhaps next year I should create a new loaf to celebrate Samhain. Perhaps half dark, half light - yin and yang. Now, there’s a thought…
Well, last week was a bit of a whirlwind! After the flurry of publicity following our two Gold Awards in this month’s World Bread Awards, we were invited to join Chris Mann on the Food and Drink Hour at BBC Radio Cambridgeshire. Chris, Emma and Heather were wonderfully welcoming and genuinely fascinated by the whole bread-making process. It may have helped that I went armed with a basketful of freshly baked bread and buns. Well, it would have been rude not to and we hate to disappoint. It turns out Emma is quite a big fan of our chocolate brioche buns!
The Food & Drink hour starts about and hour into the show, around the 60 mins mark, if you fancy giving it a listen:
Who knows, with all that enthusiasm for all things baking, maybe one of the team will be joining us in the near future to find out exactly what goes on in one of our workshops.
Whoop de whoop! Having entered some of our favourite loaves into the World Bread Awards last month, we have had to wait until now and the Awards Ceremony to find out how we fared. Having won Bronze, Silver and Gold awards in 2015 & 2016, the pressure was on!
But we did it! Gold for both our Five Seed Sour and our Scandinavian Rye. The former has been a favourite with our customers from the start (and winner of a Great Taste Award) so we thought it was about time we put it into the World Bread Awards. But the latter, our rich, dark, all-rye sourdough, is relatively new and a particular favourite of mine – not only because it’s a bakery staple for breakfast, lunch and tea, but because it took so very long to develop. Endless tweaking finally paid off, when the taste and texture finally met with the bread I’ve been dreaming of (and yes, I dream endlessly about food, both real and yet-to-be created! Don’t we all?).
So, perseverance and patience pays off. We all get there in the end. If you came along the journey with us – thank you. Now sit back, put the kettle on, bring out the butter and jam. It’s time for tea…
Bake at 180°C for about 30 minutes. If you have a digital thermometer, look for a brownie core temperature of 90°C. This will ensure your bake is crunchy on the outside and beautifully squidgy on the inside. If you don’t have a thermometer, check the edges of your brownies are shrinking away from the sides of the tin.
Allow to cool in the tin. When cold, cut and transfer to an airtight container where they will keep for as long as you’re able to resist them.
Everybody is looking for something different in their perfect brownie. For me, these are Brownie Nirvana. My work here is done.
Our workshops are run by award-winning sourdough baker Helen Underwood.