Sunday, 6 March 2011

Barking Mad in the Botanics

A  further installment of photos from my recent trip to Edinburgh Botanical Gardens.

Since starting this blog and trying to take more photos, I've been struck by the different scale and perspectives that characterise people's photos. C's photos are often architectural details - carvings, door lintels, high up on buildings (he's tall!). My friend S will produce close-ups of tiny details of flowers or food. I tend to take photos of broad vistas and landscapes. I suspect I could devise some kind of personality theory based on habitual photography style. If I had the energy. It's certainly true that C and S are both detail people, while I am a big picture person, and tend to think in generalisations rather than concrete details.

I remember reading about this notion of habitual scale of perspective in a book on creativity by choreographer Twyla Tharp. She suggested that you should practise changing your scale of perspective - from broad to narrow, from large to small, in order to develop your creative faculties. (You understand that the number of books on creativity I own is in inverse ratio to the amount of actual creative activity I undertake. Same goes for books on time management and dieting!). So I have been trying to focus more on visual details and close-ups when taking photos, just to see what happens.

In the Botanics in February, there isn't much in bloom, and not all that much in leaf in the gardens. Undistracted by pretty flowers, my eye was drawn more to the shapes and textures provided by the trunks and branches of the trees. Once I started looking, it was amazing how much colour and texture tree bark provided in the drab winter garden. So here is my little exhibition of bark! I haven't retouched any of the pictures. These are the real colours of the bark.

This last picture is my favourite. The pattern on the bark makes me think of the indistinct figures in the weathered stone carvings on a medieval church.

Doorway of Notre Dame - Paris, July 2009
 - ironically, my close up of architectural detail, not C's.
Look at these picture of Rosslyn Chapel too.

Friday, 4 March 2011

An Edinburgh oasis

On Sunday, there was a whisper of spring in the air and so we finally made it to Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh - or The Botanics, as everyone in Edinburgh calls it,  to look at the new visitor centre. It's only been open for a mere 18 months. Sigh.

The Botanics is one of those places that makes you want to weep with gratitude for its existence. It is a beautiful space, full of well-thought out distinct gardens: Chinese Hillside; Peat Garden; ; Scottish Heathland; native woodland; arboretum and a giant 165m long herbacious border backed by a two storey high beech hedge. It's a big garden  - 70 acres - but it feels even bigger than that, because the landscaping and planting means you move in and out of different sections, immersed in the immediate environment, and unaware of other areas nearby.  It's backed up by serious scientific credentials and activity. But as far as I'm concerned, it's just a lovely place to hang out. It's also always immaculate.

Inverleith House Gallery and spring crocus in the Botanics
The Botanics frequently hosts - and presumably initiates - imaginative collaborations with artists - exhibitions and installations, either in the Botanics gallery, Inverleith House, or integrated into the planting or glasshouses. There is a whole series of large glass houses - starting with the elegance of the victorian palm house with its palm and orchid display, and moving through different glasshouses, each representing a different regional microclimate - very welcome on a chilly day. The gardens also boast the largest collection of rhododendrons in the world.

We used to visit the gardens regularly. The Botanics were literally on our doorstep when we lived in North Edinburgh. Our flat backed onto them. The Botanics were effectively our back garden. We looked out onto a seemingly endless vista of noble trees.  We would pop in most weeks for a stroll about, and had great pleasure in watching the seasons progress in the succession of budding, flowering and defoliation which marked the passing year. We also fed the very tame, very fat squirrels a lot - spent a fortune on peanuts.

Construction for the new visitor centre started when we were still living next to the Botanics. Infected with the cynicism of disappointed middle age, I confess we watched the progress of the building works with the pessimistic assumption that whatever finally emerged, it would be too large, ugly, a blot on the garden landscape and a basically just a big tacky shop and cafe.

Well, we couldn't have been more wrong. It's not just a visitor centre. The John Hope Gateway, as it is called, is apparently a ' biodiversity and information centre'. Whatever it is called, it is a triumph. It is a beautiful building, dressed with wood and grey stone which blends perfectly into its setting. Yes, there is a shop and yes there is a cafe (not sampled yet). There is also a pleasant exhibition space - currently host to a specially commissioned craft and biodiversity exhibition - and an informative collection of quirky, imaginative displays about botany and the scientific and environmental research of the Botanics. It is just stunning. A well-designed, gracious building, which showcases the fantastic work being done by the Botanics staff, in the gardens and across the world.

Arty Tights!
A specially commissioned exhibition of tights made by students at Edinburgh College of Art,
using plant based textiles and dyes.

Oh, and I forgot to mention: it is free to go into the Botanics. Yep. Let me type that again. It is free to go into the gardens. So you can pop in at any time. Or every 18 months in our case.

If you are in Edinburgh and want to make a 'jaunt' to the Botanics, please note that the bric a brac 'shop of dreams', Duncan & Reid, is a mere couple of minutes walk from the East Gate of the Gardens, and the Circle Cafe - gorgeous food, relaxed ambience and friendly staff - is another couple of minutes walk further along the road. 5 minutes on the number 23 or 27 bus from the city centre. Make a day of it!

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Experiments in Sourdough

There are certain types of cooking activity guaranteed to produce a beatific sense of satisfaction in the maker. A row of neatly labelled jars of home made preserves. A well-risen cake. A tray of crisp biscuits. Homely, heart-warming produce, that also points to a certain level of technical skill. Surely, most satisfying of all is the production of a loaf of home-baked bread. Even tipping out one of those square loaves from the bread-machine generates a swelling of pride in the chest. But let me tell you, the self-congratulatory pleasures of these kitchen achievements pale into insignificance compared with the thrill of gazing upon your first loaves of sourdough bread, made with your own home-made sourdough starter.

Is there anything more beautiful, more satisfying than this sight?

I don't know when the concept of sourdough bread entered my consciousness. I think I read something in Dan Lepard's Saturday Guardian column last autumn. Next thing I'm avidly surfing sourdough websites.  Turns out,  there are loads. The world of sourdough is a thriving if somewhat obsessive subculture. Then I found myself impatiently checking my diary for a period when I would be around to deal with the daily 'feeding' of my fledgling sourdough starter. I finally got around to it after Christmas.

For those of you who don't know what the hell I'm talking about, a sourdough starter is the leaven that makes sourdough bread sourdough. Rather than using commerically produced yeast, you create a mixture of flour and water, which if left to ferment, over time starts to cultivate naturally occuring yeasts. You then keep this starter 'alive' i.e. with active yeast, by periodically feeding it with more flour and water. The starter is supposed to create bread with a superior flavour and keeping properties. These starters keep indefinitely, as long as they are fed, and there are accounts of starters which are hundreds of years old. Although there are naturally leavened breads in food cultures across the world, it seems to be in the US where there is a cultish, sourdough community. San Francisco Sourdough is the self-crowned king of sourdoughs, although there are others. There seems to be a culture of swapping and gifting sourdough starters, and traditions such as Amish friendship bread are built on the notion of giving sourdough breads and cakes to friends and those in need. Call me sentimental, but I am a sucker for this kind of thing.

Anyway, my foray into sourdough was motivated by culinary curiosity, rather than any altruistic impulses. After a false start,  I managed to create a sourdough starter that survived its first week, and metamorphosed into a pleasant smelling, yeasty, bubbling mixture (the first one went grey and rank-smelling after a week). Incapable of following a recipe, I bodged together bits and pieces of recipes from here and here and here - and probably other places I've forgotten. I used 1 US measuring cup of wholemeal bread flour, 1 cup of bottled spring water, 1 tablespoon orange juice and 1 dessertspoon of malt extract in the first mix. I then 'fed' it at least daily, and even twice a day sometimes, by discarding half the mixture and adding in 1/2 cup spring water and 1/2 cup wholemeal bread flour. I left it 10 days before I first used it, although after a week, the mixture was doubling its size in about 6 hours, which is supposed to be a sign that it is ready. Once the starter is mature, you can keep it in the fridge, and just feed it once a week.

I had a fairly grim first attempt at sourdough baking, which went in the bin after one slice. I then managed to produce an acceptable loaf i.e. edible but nothing special. Having learnt a few lessons along the way and finding a reputedly reliable basic recipe, I created the loaves in the picture of the top of the page. Very satisfying.  But this picture is the clincher:

Look at the 'open crumb' on that (as we bakers say ....).  By open crumb I mean all those lovely holes. It looks like proper sourdough bread - the sort you buy from expensive delis and the farmers market. It tasted like that as well. This type of bread is always going to be dense and chewy, but this bread was also soft, with a mildly sour flavour and a gorgeous crisp crust. It also keeps pretty well and freezes very well.  And it's so damn satisfying, creating this bread effectively out of nothing but flour and water. It's like alchemy - and very addictive.

The recipe I followed for this, my most successful sourdough bread so far is Norwich Sourdough Bread. For once I followed the recipe exactly. Mmmm - is there a lesson to be learned here? Follow recipes? I also think there are a few important factors in the way I approached it:

  •  I used bottled spring water (the first starter I tried to make which died, I made with tap water, whilst the second successful starter was made with spring water. Lots of sourdough recipes suggest you should use spring water).
  • The dough was very wet, and rather than machine or hand-kneading after the first knead, I used the folding technique,  - which is a way of encouraging the gluten to develop and those nice holes. 
  • I baked it using Dan Lepard's technique of cooking it in an oven-proof, lidded casserole dish. You put the dish in while preheating the oven, and then slide the risen loaf into it on parchment paper - a not entirely smooth operation, but the loaf survived. You then spray the loaf generously with water and cook it for the first 20 minutes with the lid on, to create a steamy atmosphere. This means the crust stays soft enough to allow the bread to continue rising during the first part of baking ('oven spring' we bakers call it ...). You then finish baking the loaf with the lid off. I think this would be a good way of baking any hand-shaped loaf, not just sourdough, as it prevents the loaf spreading out while baking.

This loaf wasn't quite as burnt as this picture suggests - but, to be honest, in typical Rosie style, I did manage to let it catch a bit on top. A very crisp crust. Ahem.

I've been a bit sourdough crazy for a few weeks. You have to discard half the starter in order to feed it and if you don't want to bake bread (or if, like me, you decide to make a second white flour starter, and you've already baked 2 large sourdough loaves from the discard from your wholemeal starter, and there are only 2 of you in the household ...) you do look for other things to do with it. It is galling to just chuck it in the bin. So last weekend, as well as our sourdough bread, we had sourdough breakfast pancakes and sourdough pizza. The pancakes were ok - the sour flavour worked well with maple syrup, but if I wasn't trying to use up sourdough starter, I'd probably stick with normal pancakes. The pizza was fab - thin and crispy and tangy. Highly recommended.

The new sourdough fad has also been justification for the purchase of a whole range of new, unnecessary kitchen equipment and cookery books. I obviously needed two new artisan bread books. To be fair, I bought the first one as a present for as friend, and it turned out he already had it, so I kept it for myself. The second was the replacement gift, and it looked so good I bought a copy for myself.  I had to buy a linen lined proving basket - who knew such things existed,  until you get sucked into the world of sourdough, and suddenly this seems vital.  I also thought a special dough whisk would be just the thing. This is actually is very effective - but hardly vital to the process. And I bought some dried San Francisco sourdough starter - just to see if it's better than my home made one, and in case I manage to kill mine (quite likely in the light of my success with plants).  Lastly I bought 2 'special' sourdough pots, to keep the sourdough starters comfortable in the fridge. Clearly, I've done something wrong here .........

Fact is, the initial attraction of sourdough bread was that it was supposed to be simple. All you need is flour, water, salt, a tea towel, a baking sheet or casserole dish and some baking parchment. If you are tempted at the thought of trying it for yourself, whatever you do, don't go to You just know what will happen. You have been warned!