Why I bake my own bread

Baking bread is not that difficult

Home baking, 75pc strong white, 25 pc wholemeal

I LIVE exactly halfway between not one, nor two but three good local, independent artisan bakeries so why do I shuffle downstairs at 7am most Mondays to bake my own? Because despite the wide range of loaves they can’t give me what I want. And because of my teeth.

Sorry but I am not too enamoured with sourdough. That may come but not yet. Nor do I want Fancy Dan varieties with offbeat flavours. I’d like a nice tin loaf, please, for sandwiches or a good old British bloomer. And do you have any rolls? I don’t mean breadcakes.

And then there’s the crust. Do you have any soft loaves? You see, this all started before all I got for Christmas were two expensive front teeth implants and the ones I had got were dangerously loose. I wasn’t going to risk them on a hard crust. I asked for a sandwich loaf in one place, got a funny look and was offered a ciabatta. I didn’t want slices with holes in.

I got seriously cheesed off with one bakery which at first didn’t open until lunchtime on Saturdays “because we like a lie in, too.” Seriously, I thought they were in the wrong job. And they only baked rolls at weekends. Things are better now but for me the damage was done.

Now I could have gone to a supermarket or a chain bakery but we all know that most of what they sell is pap. The only alternative was to bake my own. If I produced pap, it would be my own pap.

I had form. I had tried baking before, mostly self-taught from books although I did go on a short half day course in return for a write-up in a magazine. I wasn’t great. My wife was supportive but I knew deep down I didn’t cut the mustard in the bread department. I also tried a breadmaker but this is the Chorleywood of home baking. So I gave up.

Then when my front teeth started rattling in my mouth – the worst moment was when one flew out across the room while running a seminar for journalism students – I went back to baking. Somehow, this time it all started to come together.

It wasn’t just white loaves. I experimented with Portuguese-type bread, mixing white and cornmeal. Then I discovered the joys of malted flour. There was white seeded bread and currently it is wholemeal, half and half with strong white, to up my fibre intake. I want to live a long and active baking life.

I tried fresh yeasts and dried yeasts until an artisan baker told me he couldn’t honestly tell the difference so now stick to dried.

Seduced by the lines and whorls of artisan loaves I bought my own Banneton baskets until I realised that slices from the middle of big, round kilogram loaves didn’t go in the toaster (the long ones do). So it’s back to tins: vintage, high-sided two and one pound tins, Hovis tins and non-stick kilo tins with their sleeker, lower lines. The baskets are for high days and holidays.

I have still a lot to learn and a lot to bake. Fougasse will be next. I use olive oil and sometimes lard, ignore the instructions to add sugar on the flour packet recipes, use milk or whey instead of just water, add beer. From a few basic ingredients I can spin a baker’s dozen of loaves and more.

I now have two, sturdy front teeth and no longer go in peril of a crusty loaf. But it’s too late, I am smitten by dough. And I’ve discovered there are others like me.

It’s not that I have completely shunned local bakeries. My two loaves a week (one goes in the freezer) are supplemented by a local bakery’s seeded cornbread which we hanker for. Although I am going to try and copy that.

But my old dodgy teeth and artisanal snootiness over split tins and bloomers have opened up a wonderful new world.


Egg mayonnaise? It’s what he would have eaten

funeral tea


I’VE BEEN to two cremations inside the first eight days of the new year and each had a funeral tea. And it’s got me thinking.

A British funeral tea usually has pork pies, sausage rolls and Scotch eggs, at least around these parts. Then there are sandwiches, all food you can eat standing up or sitting down with a glass of something in your hand.

Now most people will probably nibble away without thinking but I have always appreciated that food is more than just the ingredients on a plate. It comes with tradition, ritual, memories and a good deal else.

Even so, I was quite taken aback – and charmed – by the offering at the first, of a 93-year-old woman, who had once been my mother-in-law.

There was bread and dripping (on breadcakes), properly seasoned, and slices of ‘raw’ black pudding as well as the pork pies and sausage rolls. Humble though these foods were, they each represented aspects of her life.

The bread and dripping – bread and scrape we used to call it when I was young – remembered her childhood in a terraced house in backstreets Leicester. She would sit on the steps eating a crust, her reward for helping to clean the house – and the steps.

As a young woman in the West Riding of post war Britain meat was still on the ration but a friend made her own black pudding: blood, fat and oats boiled up in muslin.

When times got better she enjoyed a salmon sandwich, and there were these laid on as well, although the salmon she enjoyed came in a tin while her great grandchildren today snaffle smoked salmon.

The tea – a lunch really – was held at the old people’s home in which she died and the residents were invited. They would have remembered the dripping and black pudding and, perhaps, the fish or meat paste sandwiches once part of a Northern working class funeral tea. Old folk in Barnsley, I am told, still favour sandwiches of polony sausage, which spreads like paste.

I enjoyed what I ate and would have done so even more if I had known why I was eating it at the time. Just as a photograph, a tune or a smell can bring back memories, so can the taste of food.

The second funeral tea was more middle class with spring rolls, mini toad in the hole and, very Sheffield, bowls of chips.

It got me thinking what I would have at my funeral tea: confit of duck, anchovies, olives? But I also love an egg mayonnaise sarnie. Sadly, that will be one meal I won’t be there to eat.

It’s a stock picture above which represents neither tea. After all, you don’t take your camera to a funeral, do you?

Monica makes it so bella!

Monica in the kitchen at Bella Donna

I’VE held back from reviewing Bella Donna, that sparky little Italian restaurant on Sharrow Vale Road, Sheffield, even though I enjoyed it from the first mouthful. I didn’t think I got the best out of it first time round.

It was my fault, not that of the owners, Monica Caravello and Caterina Hammond. I had researched the dishes – and there were many things on this Sicilian menu I was dying to try – and then I didn’t have them.

“Look, there’s fritti misti, you like that” said my wife, and my mind went back to the dish I had at the celebrated Gatto Nero on the shady side of the canal on the Venetian island of Burano . So I had it, nice but Sharrow Vale was never going to win, was it?

So I returned with the same friends and this time had exactly what I wanted to eat. Like the starter melanzane ammuttanate (£5.90), a souped-up Sicilian version of the classic melanzane parmigiano. Baby aubergines come stuffed with mint, pinenuts and anchovies in a sauce of tomatoes and mozzarella and the parmigiano is replaced with pecorino. It was gutsy. It was a belter. It was the sort of dish a member of the Cosa Nostra might order before he went on the night’s business.

Then I had the ravioli (£11.50) which was what I should also have had first time round: stuffed with broad beans and ricotta in a mushroom, pesto and walnut sauce. Presentation can be a bit hasty – this came buried under a mound of rocket – but this was another dish going nearly over the top for flavour. It tasted like it wanted to be eaten with gusto. So it was.

The aubergine starter

The premises used to house a very standard sort of Italian restaurant and I was slow to notice the place had changed until I stopped one day to look at the menu. Many of the dishes were out of the ordinary. Heavens, they did chick pea fritters and other Italian street food.

I realised I’d first met the owners when they took over the restaurant at Michael Menzel’s eponymous wine bar on Ecclesall Road, Sheffield, in the early 2000s. Monica had come to Sheffield from Sicily by way of Barnsley. Since then they have had a succession of places in the area.

The room is long and thin with a semi open kitchen at the far end and a bar by the door. It fairly buzzes with atmosphere and if you half-close your eyes you could imagine you had discovered some little out of the way gem in Italy itself. It helps when there are Italians also eating there!

On our first visit Caterina was front of house and Monica was cooking and you could tell that here food was taken seriously. She invited me to taste what was cooking in her big pots . On the second visit Monica had left the kitchen to work the floor while Katerina had the night off.

Under all that greenery are ravioi!

I ate with fellow blogger and Italophile Craig Harris, who has written so vividly here https://craigscrockpot.wordpress.com/2018/10/14/review-bella-donna-sharrowvale-or-is-it-palermo/ about his first visit.  He was with his wife Marie.

This is one of those restaurants where you fancy almost everything off the menu and then you’ve got the blackboard specials to contend with. As the pair have got more confident about their customer base the menu has gradually got more Sicilian and a good thing, too. Even more than France, Italy is a country full of regional cuisines.

So doubtless I shall be going back, if only to try a whole plate of Sicilian street food,  mussels with chickpeas or one of those rich stews the kitchen cooks up.

Bella Donna is at 352 Sharrow Vale Road, Sheffield S11 8Z. Tel: 0114 268 5150

The restaurant

Is it worth meddling with a medlar?

What do they look like to you?

I’M STILL not sure whether it was worth it. I’ve gone halfway across Sheffield to pick medlars – hard little brown fruit no one seems to have heard of – from trees and taken them home to rot in my cellar.

 Then I’ve boiled them up, strained the juices, added sugar and all I’ve got to show for it is two small measly jars. As for the taste, well, it’s fugitive. Perhaps I should have taken the hint for the common name for medlar is dog’s arse, as the French say, cul de chien.

You can’t eat a medlar until it rots, or blets, when it turns sweet. In ancient times, before oranges and grapefruit and fruit like that was available to the common man they were supposedly highly prized for their sugar hit in winter.

To eat them, peel back the outer casing, suck everything in then discreetly spit. For inside is a little ball of sweetish flesh encasing  large seeds you wouldn’t want to swallow. The taste and texture is midway between a fig and date. I picked some last year but lost interest after the first few moutfuls and they bletted to kingdom come.

The ones on the left have bletted

So this year I was going to make a jelly. My recipe, from Marguerite Patten’s ‘James, Preserves and Chutneys,’ said two pounds of medlars to a pint of water and I had just over that weight. I cut them up small and boiled them up. I was unsure if they would contain enough pectin and dislike adding the commercial variety so also chopped up a couple of Bramley apples.

They mushed up pretty quickly so they soon went into the straining bag for the afternoon. The liquid was dirty brown, like tea. Perhaps if I had left it overnight I might have got more juice – just a pint – which tasted pretty insipid.  I boiled it down a bit further to increase the flavour and added the juice of half a lemon – more to perk it up than for pectin.

Medlars with apples in the pan

It set on the second test but there wasn’t a lot of it, just enough for those two small jars. That brown brew cleared to a lovely whisky-type hue but medlar jelly doesn’t taste anything like eating one raw. The date-cum-fig effect has gone; instead it’s more like honey. I have just had some on a slice of bread and butter to confirm my impression.

It’s not been a complete waste of time but if I do it again next year I will need to pick many more pounds to make it worth the effort. Or I might combine it with other fruit. Dates or figs!

Medlar jelly – lovely colour and tastes like honey

No chips* as John cements his reputation

My dipped pork sarni

*Except on Fridays

A MAN in a bright orange boiler suit holds open the door and smiles. I say “I’ve heard the food is good here.” He replies: “Lovely.” And as if that wasn’t enough adds: “Gourmet.”

The chef may be familiar, big John Parsons, ex-Beer Engine, Plough at Hathersage, Food & Fine Wine, Druid at Birchover, Fancie on Ecclesall Road et al, but the place isn’t.

His new gaffe is called Canteen Kitchen because that’s exactly what it is: the works canteen at Breedon cement works, Hope. But it isn’t exactly what it says on the tin. Sure, there is a Full English for breakfast but there’s also Eggs Benedict and huevos rancheros and we’re in North Derbyshire not Mexico . Tomatoes on toast come with Arabic za’attar spices. Whisper it softly, there’s also avocado.

Fish and chips with pea puree

As it’s Friday there is a very good haddock for lunch with the crispiest of batter with pea puree and, just as a one day of the week treat, chips. It comes with half a pickled onion, gherkin and tartare sauce.

If you don’t go Anglo you can go Indian with bus station kofta with Muergez sausage, go Arab with felafel or nod to Italy with what seems ultra British, a Parsons’ signature dish – chunky beef or pork sarnie dipped in gravy with a bonnet of confit and crispy onions. “It’s the English version of the Italian panzanella bread salad,” he says, not altogether convincingly.

If you ever wondered what you might get if you put a restaurant chef in a works canteen (and I can’t blame you if you haven’t) this is it. But there are shocks. John, who is working for the first time in his life with his wife Anita, has banned chips from the menu except with fish. And by the end of his first week the roof hadn’t fallen in.

There is more. John is a man famous for his offal dishes who says “I like eating an animal from the inside out.” Yet at home these days he’ll go carnivorous not more than three times of the week. At work he’s hoping to make the menu half veggie. “I am conscious of the impact on the planet,” he says. But he’s still planning to give them liver and onions.

He is also conscious of the impact on his customers’ wallets. The food is as cheap as chips even if that dish isn’t much in evidence. Nothing is more than a fiver and most of the dishes are below that.

The company, the biggest cement works in Northern Europe, which employs 170 and has a good reputation locally for its generosity (John and Anita were preparing that night for a bonfire event for 1,000 workers, their families and Hope Valley residents) isn’t averse to locals popping in for breakfast, brunch or lunch for the same prices.

So is John. “I think when people in Hathersage realise you can have what costs £15 in a pub for a fiver they’ll come.” This seems to be going down well with customers (200 covers a day in the first week) but what about John and his missus? “I find it liberating. All you have got to do is cook nice food that people want,” he says, adding that “everybody knows everything about food these days, even if they don’t cook it, from watching on TV.”

For them, taking over the canteen was a big gamble. They had to beat off 37 other applicants for the tender. Then they both gave up good jobs, John as executive chef at the Scotsman’s Pack in Hathersage and Anita with a teachers’ learning programme. “We opened at 8am and nobody came. We thought, what have we done? Then at 9 the door opened and there was a rush,”he says.

The couple believe that nice food breeds nice people. Because it is fresh and cooked to order there is a bit of a wait so they talk to each other. Everyone returns their plates and cutlery, obviating waiting staff which keeps costs down and the price of meals. It is noticeable how many diners pause to thank the kitchen on their way out. “Thanks, that was amazing ,” says an office worker as she leaves.

While the kitchen has had a refit the dining room is still a bit spartan but improvements are planned. There is talk of a bistro with the same ethos as the canteen. For those, like me, who had not been before, the works site is an eye-opener with its golf course, fishing lake and bowling green. Who knows, there may be cream teas next summer. But probably not chips.

Canteen Kitchen is open 8am until 2pm Monday to Friday. Take Pindale Road at the Woodroffe Arms, Hope. Drive up to the barrier, with dipped headlights, and wait for it to open. There is a car park. Cash only at present. There is a Facebook page and Instagram at kitchen_canteen

Grandma Battye’s turkey trot

IMG_0644collectin the turkey by wheelbarrow at Firs farm 23-12-2017 10-10-54

I needed a barrow to get three turkeys to the car!

I’VE forgotten how many years we as a family have been getting our Christmas turkeys from Firs Hill Farm, Sheffield, but last year was a bit special. I had to borrow a wheelbarrow to get THREE birds to the car parked on Ringinglow Road: one for us, one for family and the third for a shopkeeping couple who couldn’t spare the time to collect it.

You’ll have seen the farm. It’s the one with all the geese in the field by the side of the road. The turkeys are kept inside in the barn.

I first met  Jim and Angela Battye when I visited their 230 acre farm to write a Christmas story for the Sheffield Star, naturally ordered a turkey and it was so good I kept coming back for more. It has become, as all the best things do, a bit of a tradition.

Sometimes we meet Angela at the local farmers’ market where  she takes orders or, failing that, ring up or do it online. The farm now has its own website and Angela a blog.


Geese in the field at Firs Farm

The family may have been in the turkey business for over 80 years but they have no wish to become modern day Bernard Matthewses. They sell the same number of birds each year: 250 turkeys and 180 geese. This year turkeys will cost £3.60 a lb and the geese £4.70.

“They all sell.” says Angela, who has now a large number of repeat customers. Many of them, like me, are first attracted by the sight of the geese in the field. They arrive as day old goslings in May. The turkeys are different breeds depending on the weight they need to attain.

This all started with Grandma Battye. If she made Yorkshire Puddings is not recorded but Jim’s grandmother Alice began selling geese and turkeys from her farm at Oxspring over 80 years ago. It was a useful sideline. His parents, Albert and Gwen, took over and 30 years ago he and Angela, brought up on a farm at Stannington, moved to Ringinglow.

A Firs Farm Christmas bird ticks all the boxes: locally produced so few food miles are recked up, particularly as much of their feed is grown on 50 acres of the farm given over to beet and cereals.

For Jim and Angela “things start moving after Bonfire Night.” Publicity needs to be set into gear and orders taken. The birds are slaughtered and plucked on site in the middle of December then hung for about a week before being dressed to order. Then they will be put into cold store with the buyers’ names attached.

Collection day this year is Sunday, December 23.  It’s always hectic. Then there will be a constant queue of visitors to the family’s farm shop, where people can also buy potatoes, vegetables, eggs, lamb (the farm has 500 sheep) and tubs of goose fat.

#Order from http://www.firsfarmsheffield.co.uk

Call 0114 230 1169 or email ambattye@btinternet.com

P1030472 Sue salutes the turkey 25-12-2015 18-25-36

Saluting the turkey