Sunday, 22 August 2010

Bread, and a rant about flour/food shops

I would prefer to write this because I have done some marvellous baking experiments lately, but when it comes to bread, I am rather stuck in a rut.

I do, however, have some pictures of some successes, which is remarkable for two reasons:

  1. I rarely remember to photograph anything; and
  2. I actually had some successes.

When I was in England for three months, staying with my father, I managed to get an incredibly good sourdough starter going. Remarkably, I left it on the windowsill near the Aga for the entire time and it never went mouldy or off in anyway. Possibly the heat of the Aga was mitigated by the chill of the single-glazed window, and created the perfect temperature for the yeasts. I was also chuffed that whatever wild yeasts were picked up from the air happened to be successful ones for bread-making.

I stuck to my usual sourdough, which is a variation Dan Lepard’s Barley and Rye loaf. I use rye only, because it is easier to find. I often make this because the proportions are so simple:

  • 300g unbleached strong flour, 200g other flour, 300g water (plus the usual refreshed starter).

With easy-peasy proportions like that, it’s a trivial matter to substitute or mix flours or liquids. I have a plain/rye/beer dough proving as I type this.

My father will not eat real bread, and stuck stubbornly to Tesco’s Tiger loaf (marginally better than Mother’s Pride, but still like polystyrene), much to my dismay. To mitigate the rubbish, I got into a routine of making at least one loaf of proper (albeit white) bread each week for him - 500g organic unbleached bread flour (Dove’s Farm), about 12g dried instant yeast, 300g water.

This was mixed until messy and porridgey, and left in a bowl overnight in the fridge or near the Aga for an hour or two. No kneading was involved.

This was then messily put into a well-oiled 0.5kg/1lb loaf tin, and put in the “hot” Aga oven, for about 45 minutes.

The results speak for themselves - magnificent loaves, no kneading or fuss at all. Possibly helped by the fierce heat of the Aga, which made loaf after loaf of perfect bread. My god, I miss the Aga:

Back in Melbourne, I revived my semi-dormant starter which had lingered at the back of the fridge for months. Two different experiments follow.

One, baking in a pot. I would have used a Le Creuset, but ours are ridiculously massive and the dough would have spread out like a pizza, hence the bodgy Pyrex.
This wasn’t bad, except for the shape (odd), the texture (spongey) and the bottom (soggy). The flavour was okay, but I can’t be bothered repeating the experiment with the Pyrex dish. Maybe I will try with cast iron…

Two, VERY wet dough (with about a tablespoon of treacle, for fun) slapped and stretched around a la Richard Bertinet (SO messy - found bits of dough that flew off mid-slap all round the kitchen later), baked on a pizza stone which had heated up in the oven set to its maximum temperature (300˚C! It set the smoke alarm off) and with a dish of cold water in the bottom:
This worked brilliantly, although the BEEP BEEP BEEP of the smoke alarm was rather annoying. I will definitely repeat this method again. I also love a little treacle in a rye dough - great colour and flavour. I would be interested to try malt with barley flour in the future, too.

Gratuitously, here's a shot of some quince preserve I made (quinces poached in the pressure cooker for 1 hour, with water, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, a bit of vanilla pod, then cooked with raw sugar until jammy. Pressure cookers are a godsend for quinces!):

Finally, a digression on flour and flaky foodie foisters:

When I was in England, the most experimental that I got was using different rye flours - my favourite in England was the Balcheldre Organic Stoneground Rye Flour. Compared with how much I pay in Melbourne for inferior flour, this is incredibly cheap at £2.55 for 1.5kg. Moreover, it was the best rye flour I have encountered - not too fine, not too light. It had ‘bits’ in it, and made a lovely, dark, gutsy loaf.

It was slightly gutting to see how much easier it is to get good, interesting flours at the supermarket in England. Woolworths has improved a little here in Melbourne, as I can get organic rye, buckwheat etc under the Macro brand, but there is still very little choice. No choice, really, in who makes the flour and no choice in the flour and grade of flour. Lots of bread-mixes which have rubbish added to them, and which are inedibly salty.

I know I was lucky to have a Waitrose near by, where the range was mind-boggling (they even had oak-smoked flour, which unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to try), but Tesco still had a decent range. Also, the flours were cheap. And organic.

Second point: upon fossicking through the cupboards at my father’s, I discovered two bags of flour from my previous visit - three years earlier. Not surprisingly, they were well past the Best Before date. However, when I opened them I discovered that there was not a hint of rancidity or staleness, which is all the more remarkable when one considers that one bag was rye flour and rye seems particularly liable to go horrible.

I used both for making the sourdough starter, and for baking bread. The results were delicious.

The white bread flour was Allinson bread maker’s flour, and the rye was Waitrose organic.

What I find interesting, if not troubling, was that this ostensibly ancient rye flour was fresher and sweeter tasting than the “fresh” stuff I buy in Melbourne. Perhaps proper bakers with more clout can get assurances from suppliers that the flour is really fresh, but for the amateur baker we must rely on shopkeepers who may not be as scrupulous about supply and storage as we would like. I regret to say that this is often the case with health food and organic shops, which not so much run by people as limp along. If anyone knows of a place where the owners and staff are actually serious and organised enough to not let food go off (and then sell it anyway!), I would be very interested to go there.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Attica - 6 August 2010

After reading various positive reviews (especially this one), I had wanted to go to Attica for my birthday last year. However, my PDC (my mother) wasn’t very enthusiastic after looking at the menu - I inferred that she thought it was too weird. We ended up going to Embrasse, which was lovely, but my Attica-desires remained unfulfilled.

When Attica was named in the top 100 restaurants in the world, and Mamma had experienced the deliciousness of “weird” food at The Fat Duck, she capitulated. In any case, I was going to be unashamedly selfish, and go where I damn well wanted.

I wasn’t actually clever enough to consider I might need to book well in advance, and so I couldn’t get a booking for my actual birthday. So, like last year, I had a “royal” birthday a few weeks later (and amused myself in the interim with a truffle I bought at South Melbourne Market).

Being an awkward sort of person, I asked whether it was possible to have the omnivore degustation adapted, so as to remove the meaty elements - leaving the fishy ones - and substitute with vegetarian courses where necessary. Having done this at The Fat Duck, I wasn’t too embarrassed about being a nuisance, and I was assured that this would be easily accommodated. I was, however, slightly taken aback when I confirmed my booking and was asked if chicken was okay. No, it definitely isn’t. No chicken, no pig, no beef, no lamb etc.

We were promptly greeted and seated. Tap water was brought out (and replenished countless times over the evening).

The table was set with a small bowl of salt flakes (I believe Murray River), house butter (which was excellent - and I am so picky about butter. If it isn’t French/Belgian, I will go without), and olive oil mousse.
The bread is, I believe, Dench (“Fitzroy bread”), and we had the choice of sourdough or seeded. We went with one of each and shared. I have bought both types from Dench, and they are superb. I liked that the bread was also warm.

My mother initially shunned the mousse, but after I tried it and observed how fantastic she was, she dug in with alacrity. The oil is apparently smoked, and then whipped and emulsified with xanthan gum, and topped with black salt. Fantastic texture and such intense flavour. I have never had olive oil that was quite so multifaceted - possibly thanks to the smoking.

The omnivore/vegetarian menu was discussed with me, and I agreed to do a straight swap with the equivalent vegetarian courses. I assumed - wrongly as it turned out - that the rest of the courses would be okay. More on that later.

Before the meal really got under way we were brought an amuse:

Heirloom carrots, chestnuts, fromage blanc and two types of broccoli - romanesco and, if I heard properly, pepper (the latter I have bought at South Melbourne Market - it’s delightfully purple but sadly loses its colour very rapidly. I was impressed that the colour had been retained).
The vegetables had been barely cooked, and one was able to appreciate the colours, flavours and textures. The tatsoi leaves were a mini-revelation as every other experience I have had with tatsoi has left me wondering what the point of it was.

For an amuse, I was impressed by how much thought had gone into the combination of elements and the presentation on the plate.

The first proper course was the famous snow crab. I must apologise for the gloomy picture, as the flash apparently misbehaved and I was already embarrassed about photographing my food. (I could only think of Giles Coren’s paywalled opinion on food bloggers, despite being married to one.)
This was presented on a volcanic black plate and did indeed evoke a snow capped mountain. The snow had a delicate horseradish flavour (surprisingly not an oxymoron - it really was just a hint of horseradish, rather than the usual blowing-your-head-off hit), and melted in the mouth. There were also crispy bits of puffed rice, jewelled rubies of barberry (deliciously piquant), and smooth and creamy crab beneath. Great mix of textures and complimentary flavours.

The next course was osmathus & crysanthemum broth, abalone, cuttlefish.
This comprised a little trivet of cuttlefish, abalone and dehydrated shiitake mushroom, with dried flowers, over which was poured a tea-like broth to gently cook the raw elements and rehydrate the dried ones. The broth smelled amazing, and had a lovely clear, slightly floral flavour.

What was a little disturbing was that I was told that “the dark bits” were slightly confit chicken wing.

Which was the first I knew about it.

I know I should have raised this at the time, because it’s not really okay to serve chicken to a diner who has already stipulated no meat (and that means poultry). And though I would always counsel other people in my situation to mention this to staff, I did not. And I ate it, because I am congenitally incapable of leaving food on plates. And it was very, very chickeny and somewhat spoilt the dish for me.

The rest of it was lovely, but I couldn’t stop thinking, “I just ate chicken”.

I just about managed to get over my shock and horror for “a simple dish of potato cooked in the earth it was grown”.
This was the subject of an article in The Age’s Epicure section this week, and I had been looking forward to it for months.

The King Edward potato is slow cooked for four to six hours in soil. (I exaggerated to my mother when I said, “Oh, about 40 hours…”). Like a completely topsy-turvey deconstruction of fish and chips, it had tiny slivers of tuna underneath, curd cheese (I think…?) and teeny tiny leaves. The potato had an amazing creamy, melting texture and an unexpectedly delicious soily flavour. The gastronomic properties of dirt clearly require further examination and experimentation, because the soil flavour was really good.

Next had “bass groper, almonds, garlic”. This was actually hapuka on the night. I have never had either fish, so I cannot comment on the sub, but the hapuka was superbly cooked - silky, but dense at the same time, and the roasted almonds were fresh and crunchy.
Alas, as it was served, I heard the dreaded words, “...and chorizo water”.

Oh Em Gee.

Again, I said nothing, but this was slightly distressing. The young man at the next table was far more sensible and did object to this when he was served the dish. It was obvious that he did not know - nor could not - from the description that any piggy elements were involved. Perhaps he had not mentioned dietary restrictions beforehand, but I had.

The properly meaty course came next: lamb, mushrooms roasted over wood, sauce of forbs. My mother asked what sauce of forbs was, and I hadn’t the foggiest. Fortunately this was explained to her as made from clover-type plants. Which makes me wonder what else there is in my lawn I could be exploiting.
I had: wild mushrooms, black lentil, eggplant. No lentils were discernible in this, alas, but the eggplant was superb - slightly crisp, largely silky. There were several varieties of mushroom, providing different flavours and textures (some chewy, some more delicate), and there was a generous, fabulous addition of chestnut puree. This was one of my favourite dishes on the night and ever. It is worth having the vegetarian degustation for this and I wish I had been at home and thus able to lick the bowl.Next: beef, seagrass, white cabbage. The cabbage element was the core of a wombok, and there had been some squid-ink action. The beef was certified Angus, although by that stage my mother seemed to just wolf it down (!!!).

I had: artichoke, tubers, soured sheeps milk, almonds. Both globe and jerusalem artichokes (which were roasted), and wafers of shaved jicama on top. I have always wondered - and said so - what jicama is like, because I see it at South Melbourne Market all the time. Tuberous nashi pear comes close.
A nice light course, which I needed by that stage. I was reminded how unbelievably good roasted jerusalem artichokes are. Note to self: eat more. (And they’re really rich in iron, too! Take note, vegetarians!) I’m not wild about globe artichokes, but these were lovely and fresh, and clean on the palate.

I was SO looking forward to this “savoury” sweet course, as I don’t really have a sweet tooth and I love experiments with flavours and expectations. It did not disappoint. It had many of my favourite food ingredients - beetroot, sour cherry, dried berries, yogurt - and a few surprises like the kiwi and avocado underneath. I loved the sorrel granita I had had at Embrasse, and I was thrilled to have it again. The dish was soft, crunchy, chewy, sweet, smooth, tangy, warm, cold… it had everything you’d want and it looked so pretty. I have also resolved to experiment with using avocado as a fruit, because this dish showed what potential it has.

Again, I wish I could have licked the plate. Stupid manners.

Finally: apple, olive, warm shredded wheat.
Much to my delight, Ben Shewry himself came out to serve this - I was extremely impressed, as I’ve never yet met a head chef when I’ve dined out, and these days one can’t always expect that they’re actually there on the night.

So. The dish. I could smell it before it was served and I got a fantastic hit of cinnamon.

Yes, it’s basically deconstructed apple pie.

Several types of apple - Pink Lady, Granny Smith and my favourite Braeburn - with custard and “crumble”, which was another amazing powder that Ben spooned on top. The warm crumble was sweet and wheaty and cinnamony and nutty and buttery and thoroughly delicious (yes, buttery powder. No, I don’t know how it was done, either, but it was brilliant). The apples were lovely, fresh fine ribbons, still juicy and fresh, which provided a welcome counterpoint to the intensely sweet crumble.

I said that I cannot ever have apple crumble again, because this dish is the pinnacle and everything else will be downhill. And it was lovely to have on a very miserable, cold, wet Melbourne winter’s night.

To my great surprise, it wasn’t all over. Whilst we politely declined the offer of coffee (though I slightly regretted this later, as I could’ve probably done with a tea), we were brought petit fours - which I forgot to photograph! Two cubes of chocolate fudge with black salt, and two tiny forks to eat it with. The fudge was very, very chocolately - it would have been excellent with an espresso - and I feel like I’ve had my chocolate hit for many months to come. It also reminded me that I must try fiddling with the fleur de sel and chocolate at home. I do have a weird love of salt.

Obviously because the last place I ate out at was The Fat Duck, that has raised the bar. Attica does do its own thing - it can hold its own as an excellent restaurant in its own right, and Ben Shewry demonstrates skill and intelligence in his menus and cooking. I don’t see a lot of intelligence in menus, so this is worthy of praise. What Ben Shewry and team do at Attica makes it worth visiting. I'm afraid that my run down of the courses doesn't reflect the complexity of the food at all, and I would struggle to remember all the components of each dish.

The service was good - the staff were friendly, professional (demonstrating a pleasing breadth of knowledge about the food) and were trying to make the dining experience as good as possible for guests. However, there were a few long gaps between courses, which is why the meal went for a whopping four and a half hours. I’m sure part of that was due to it being a very, very busy night. Unfortunately, it was a bit much for my mother, who fell asleep between courses.

My other quibble is about the meat in my dishes which I didn’t know about/wasn’t warned about. I had given ample warning about my requirements, and had suggested that if it was too inconvenient to adapt the omnivore menu, then I would have the normal vegetarian one. As I had been told that I could have an adapted menu, I thought I would be okay. This wasn’t the case on the night.

All right, so I didn't HAVE to eat it, and I could have sent it back, but I didn't feel comfortable doing that. I also don't think that I should have even had to consider whether I should make a fuss or not.

Does it detract from the overall experience? Reluctantly, I have to say, yes, it does. In Attica’s defence, it’s not as if I had the impression that the team didn’t care - I think they do, genuinely - so I hope that it was an oversight.