Tuesday, 26 February 2013

February 26th - Lambchop's getaway and Say it with cake

Dear Nigel,

A friend's brother has died and I just can't find the right words to say to him. Empathise, yes, - I lost my own brother four years ago and the pain still cuts at times. But what words can you use unless you've known the deceased personally? The only thing I can think of is to make cake. A hastily bought card seems cheap and insincere somehow . Maybe this is why we bake. Here is where we blend in our goodwill and wishes, sprinkle with tears and smiles - all part of the ingredients. The cake will have to be dense and moist - no airy fairy cake - sustaining and wholesome, perhaps a banana and pecan cake or a malt bread tea loaf.

In the end I opt for a  Banana and date loaf from the wonderful Lucy Young ( Mary Berry's sidekick, who deserves to be far better known). I steer clear of iced cakes for this is not a celebration cake.

There is deep fog in the Dale today as I drive through in Archie ( - sounds like a line from Postman Pat). This grim weather has put us all in a baking mood. I pick up the ingredients for the biscuits the children and I are making after school. We are baking Raspberry and chocolate fork biscuits from a lovely new book by Miranda Gore Browne ( a Great British Bake Off finalist) called simply 'Biscuit'. I have heard glowing endorsements about this book from friends, and I am always on the look out for new ideas and a twist on old favourites. This book seems to have a comprehensive selection of both. I am particularly interested in her 'Rhubarb crumble biscuits' (with raw young rhubarb and orange zest added directly into the biscuit dough),- and very seasonal at the moment; and the 'Langues de chat with milk chocolate ganache', as I'm a sucker for a fine, rich ganache filling.

Had an interesting cartoon moment as I walked through the village to pick the children up from the Honker bus. A small flock of sheep had escaped from somewhere and were wandering down the lane - six white straggly things and a small brown one trying to keep up. They were wandering into the pretty cottage gardens and grazing on all things green. Not much interest in the gardens at present apart from little clumps of green and white snowdrops bent over like mint imperials stuck on spears of angelica. Coming back again with the children we are greeted by the comic sight of three good-looking butchers in striped aprons all waving their arms around and chasing the sheep up and down the pathways. They weren't actually waving meat cleavers about - but might as well have been. Don't know if the sheep were escapees from the butchery, but today is Tuesday and killing is only done on a Monday. That's when the local farmers all come through with their small livestock trailers loaded up with the week's offerings. It was a scene reminiscent of a Helen Oxenbury Nursery Rhyme book.

You and I have a little catching up to do, and I start with your baking foray a week ago. As you plainly point out: 'I suspect the world doesn't need another cupcake recipe',and so you are setting about making 'something with a little more heart and soul.' I think we are definitely singing from the same hymn sheet, or whatever, here. The cakes you are making are 'little apricot and oat cakes (page 75) - cakes with 'backbone...(and) an interesting texture, which comes from rolled oats and dried apricots. It's as near as I can get to giving you a cupcake recipe.' (Now why doesn't that surprise me!) By page 79 these cakes have morphed into 'An apricot crumble cake'. I love the way recipes twist and change and pop-up again in a different form elsewhere. It makes them seem more real. They leap out of the page at you and onto your imaginary plate. There is no suggestion anywhere that this or that has been tried and tested many times over and amended  in a large impersonal cookery school. The recipes come out of the food and inclination. Much like home.

You are squeezing lemons for a lemon tart. As you say, a lemon at room temperature yields more juice than a refrigerated one. I agree. I often warm mine for a few seconds in the microwave and this has really good results too. Like you, I appreciate the tactile qualities and shape of my traditional wooden lemon reamer. Fishing out the pips never bothers me either. I note that you have added the zest and juice of a small blood orange to your traditional tarte au citron recipe and wonder what kind of frisson this is going to make - a kind of St.Clements? almost. As this is one of my favourite puddings (or do I really have to call it a desert?), I  will go looking for blood oranges when I'm next out. They should still be around at the moment, I think.

Now, here's an answer to an age old complaint of mine: why pastry shrinks in the tin. I always thought it was me stretching it too far and rolling too thinly, but according to you it is the amount of water you add to the pastry that does it. 'The less water you add, the better - too much will cause your pastry case to shrink as it bakes.'

I think we are probably introverts, you and I. We like our own space, the sound of silence echoing. You love 'the sound of snow falling in a forest'. I love the half hour before the dawn, the sigh after a storm and the next five minutes after someone's turned the tele off.

You make quiet food. Pared back, gentle, calming food. Food to contemplate, that won't shout for attention. Tonight it is 'Bulgur and bacon'- a pilaf of 'homely grains and juicy nuggets of mushroom'. It is the kind of simple dish that appeals to me for supper.


Wednesday, 20 February 2013

February 19th - Leaving Nigel and a little Scotch mist

Dear Nigel,

I'm flying off to Aberdeen today and there's been a bit of a problem. The problem is you, my dear. You've put on a bit of weight of late - 2 kilos to be exact - and so I think I'm going to have to leave you behind, sitting on my blanket chest, staring out like a forlorn Heathcliff. It's a choice between you and a pile of knickers, and I'm afraid the knickers won.

So we are to be parted for four whole days. Will my culinary universe cope without your gentle prompting? I expect so. The best part about going away is relinquishing control of the chopping board and eating something lovingly made just for you for a change. No menu, no choice - and as long as it's not carrots everything will be fine.

We had this conversation, did we not, earlier this week - you with your aversion to eggs and me to carrots. Amazing that one simple ingredient could cause such a physical reaction, even after all these years, because of childhood compulsion. No child should be forced to eat something they really don't like, however tiresome this may seem to a parent dealing with such a fussy eater.

Sitting in a cafe in Departures, in alien territory, I am people watching. As Richard Curtis noted in 'Love Actually', there really is the full spectrum of emotion played out at airport gates. Maybe not the huge outward display pictured in the montage to the film, but traced on the faces of countless passers-by,  the trickle of emotion withheld. There is greater variety, a firmer purpose, and the trail of lives lived on different paths all crossing in one place.

I could comment on the quality of the food - bland - but what's the point, I'm only here for the coffee. And it is good. The caffeine hits the right spot and I revive. I note that the lemsip tablets I've been taking contain 50mg of caffeine in each two capsule dose - great, unless you're trying to relieve a blocked nose and headache so that you can get a good night's sleep.

Joy oh joy, I arrive exhausted to find you've beaten me to it. I turn to the bookshelf and there, staring me in the face, is a pristine copy of 'Tender - volume 2' by Nigel Slater. Minus its brooding Heathcliff it is, nevertheless, you in all your unbridled glory.

I am reading up about Rhubarb in 'Tender'. My first revelation is that there are different varieties for early, mid and late season. Why this has never occurred to me in regard to Rhubarb I have no idea since it is so obvious in other fruits like Raspberries. The variety I planted was the fairly bog-standard nursery variety of Timperly Early - 'a thin-stemmed heavy-cropping variety..(which) you can pick until early Summer'. Perhaps this may warrant another trench of Valentine (with its heart-shaped leaf, exceptionally sweet and prolific), or Victoria (a lovely old variety with thick maroon stems and red and green flesh); varieties which crop from June onwards. My mum loves to marry stewed Rhubarb with Raspberries, so a later variety would be good.

One of the best ideas I've heard in a while is your idea for the huge amount of superfluous juice that comes from the stalks as they cook. Now I'm one of those slutty cooks who take 'cooks privilege' and stands at the cooker with bowl and spoon removing and devouring all that wonderful sharp and sweetened juice that would "simply ruin that lovely pie" you're making. Your great idea is to pour it into glasses with jagged ice cubes - you, using up your latent aggression basic-instinct style to smash up the ice cubes with an ice pick (always knew you had it in you somewhere, Nigel!) and top it up with sparkling mineral water. My own Rhubarb needs a few weeks yet to start really cropping, but this is one drink I'm sure to be making. I hate to see any kind of waste.

I have never tried using Rhubarb with fish, although I have seen countless recipes suggesting it. But the photo of Mackerel with Rhubarb and sherry vinegar (page 1131) looks very striking indeed. You say that the rhubarb 'brings out the inherent sweetness of (the) mackerel'. Leaving the Rhubarb whole, rather than as  a puree, in all its fuchsine vibrancy 'alongside the shimmering silver of the mackerel, makes for a beautiful and extraordinary supper.' Strange how we so often shy away from things we have never tried, preferring to stay with the tried-and-tested when there is so much out there waiting to be discovered if we did but venture out occasionally. So, with the lure of a painterly food portrait I will get some mackerel in. The use of capers is optional, but I think they may be the very thing to sting the taste buds, and, after the blandness of a cold, this is what I'm searching for.


Saturday, 16 February 2013

February 16th - Student kitchens and pink Champagne

Dear Nigel,

I could have done with your help in the kitchen this afternoon - not the usual culinary expertise, more another pair of hands with a tea towel whilst I set to with the washing up. I do own a dishwasher but it's tucked away in a shed  - long story. Anyway, the upshot of it is I get home from a very long drive to Aberdeen and back to be greeted by something resembling the Manhattan skyline.

 Too tired to be angry I am intrigued by the sculptural dexterity with which Will and Tom have managed to balance almost every pan and piece of crockery I own in quite a small area. There are skyscrapers consisting of two mugs and three glasses in each, all balanced on top of each other, and stacks of pans showing off the remains of their contents. I use my forensic skills to try to work out when, or if, there might have been any washing up last done...I could have sworn I'd left the kitchen 'fairly' spotless last Friday. Tuesday's crepe pans seem to be here, and, judging by the number of plastic milk containers (and surely four pints a day is adequate) that pushes it back to about Sunday. Not quite a week then. A weeks' bill for the cattery is starting to look like a bargain in comparison.

 Am I alone in experiencing this kind of student kitchen in my own home every time I go away? Tom isn't even off to Uni yet, unlike the older four,and still he seems to be getting in training. He's grown the long curls and developed that lolloping gait that involves the head visibly rising and falling as I run along beside to try and keep up. Sentences involve few words uttered in a single tone, and apparently everything in life (such as picking up a cup of tea) involves a huge amount of effort on his part. The student kitchen seems to be part of the tradition too. And where does it come from? I don't believe any of these nice, well-fed kids ever came from homes with wall-to-wall salmonella and homemade rat-trails.

The morning sun takes me out into the garden and I am heartened to see the first flush of pink champagne rhubarb with its crinkled leaves of lime and acid yellow, more like the inside of a tightly-balled lettuce at present. I take my well-travelled old terracotta forcer and plonk it over one of the crowns. I am excited. This is the time of year I like best, rediscovering things once again. The crowns were new last year, a house-warming present to myself, and I had to stop myself from snapping off the sticks for cooking. The first year it is always wise to leave the rhubarb intact and let it die back into itself and store its goodness for the future. It will make stronger, better plants this year and be worth the wait. Soon I will be able to give Sophie and Molly, the way my Granny did me, a stick of champagne rhubarb each  and a pot of sugar to dip it in. Uncooked, sharp, indigestible... Wonderful!

You are making little prune puddings with caramel sauce (pg 69) as 'nothing makes (your) heart sink like a restaurant order of one pudding and four spoons'. I'm with you here; there's something very satisfying about finishing every scrape of your own little pudding, deciding whether to dive into the succulent middle, with its Agen prunes soaked in sherry, or to carve off the outside and baste in the brown sugar and cream sauce while the scalding fruit cools.

I'm not cooking today. I'm nursing a full-blown cold and refusing to cook. I had one of those judge-me-if-you-dare moments at the checkout, feeling as i was, like s***: My yummy friend Caroline was in front of me with her trolley of out-of-season asparagus, blueberries and smoked salmon; and me with every cold comfort food known to man (or more likely woman) in mine - Green and Blacks chocolate, extra-thick yogurt with fudge sauce, Heston's Earl Grey hot cross buns...in fact, nothing remotely healthy at all. Mostly eaten in bed and washed down with plenty of Blackcurrant lemsip, with as many synthetic additives as they care to add to it and to my anaesthetised taste buds.

Your dinner is Chicken with potatoes and dill. It looks like a good mid-week alternative: a basic chicken and mushrooms in cider, you cut down the work by adding the potatoes to the cider mixture to cook. The cream and dill are added right at the end to the reduced sauce. I have tended to reserve dill for eating with fish so I'd like to give this one a go. On another day.


Tuesday, 12 February 2013

February 12th - Pancake Tuesday and fried fish and bacon

Dear Nigel,

I'm away from home for a few days at my mum's and have just eavesdropped on one of the most pleasing phone calls ever.

I  left two hefty teenagers with a freezer full of ready meals (as requested, and against all my own principles) that required the most minimum of intervention on their part. After all, hand to mouth is about as far as it goes at that age, and words are fairly monosyllabic at the best of times.

 But today is different. Today is pancake Tuesday and, for the first time in their entire lives, they are about to miss out on a certain unwavering tradition and ritual. And it is all too much to bear. So Tom is on the phone to my mother wanting instructions for knocking up a few pancakes. (Of course, he could look in one of my hundreds of cookery books, but it's rather nice that his first source of advice is Grandma. After all, this source of advice is completely reliable, unlike his mother's, it seems.)

Today you are making a wonderful dish of smoked haddock with potato and bacon (page 66). As you put it, 'the perfect marriage of smoked fish and cream.' I happen to love smoked fish but smoked haddock has a habit of repeating on me for ever more, so I'm particularly interested in a recipe such as this where 'cream and smoke produce a calm and gentle partnership, working in dish after dish.' The result is a more refined version of the haddock poached in milk that I am used to. I like the way the taste is layered up, layer upon layer, with the gently fried bacon and potato chips and then the haddock and infused cream sauce. Strong flavours, each one balancing and setting off the others.

 There are excellent smoke houses here on the coast in Northumberland, at Craster and Sea Houses, which I never fail to make a point of visiting on any trip up here. My Grandpa was a fishmonger here and the smell of Granny's fried fish and bacon is an amalgamation of scents that has travelled with me throughout life - no one fried a fish like my Granny with her black iron frying pan in her little 1930's outhouse - the mangle still in the corner, the pull down lid of the larder cupboard (with it's punctured zinc panels) covered in flour, and the little cream curved fridge with its chunky heavy door...a living history in action,never modernised, never changed for all her married life.

You have been to the butcher's and come away with some neck of lamb. You love the fact that you 'can make a fragrant, even luxurious supper out of something some people boil up for the dog'. This is where your butcher wins hands down, with the cheaper cuts of meat which need slow-cooking. You find the big supermarkets 'shunning this richly flavoured cut in favour of the neck fillet at over 12 quid a kilo.'

The recipe you make is for 'Braised neck of lamb with apricots and cinnamon' (page 62) - a great combination for these dank dark times. Your preferred starch of the moment is the fat, pearl-like mograbia (like large couscous), which is better boiled than steamed. This is one to look out for and possibly becoming a little more wider known and available these days. I have cooked with it in the past but it is always good to have your memory jogged again to consider using something on a more regular basis. I remember it being more substantial and certainly more  glossy and satisfying to look at on the plate. So I'll add it to my list this week along with the middle neck of lamb, or small shanks if this is hard to get hold of. The tang of the apricots cuts the fat in this dish like cooking apples work well with pork. There is a rich spicy mix with cumin, coriander seed, chili, garlic, ginger, lemon zest and cinnamon; and fresh mint and lemon zest to serve. This will banish the grey days of February and call to us of Moorish things.


Friday, 8 February 2013

February 8th - Edible perfume and greens from America

Dear Nigel,

I was doing a cleaning meditation - at least that's what I was trying to convince myself, dusting all the little bottles I choose to clutter my room with. I picked up one to remind myself of a wonderful day out last spring and caught something I hadn't recognised before. If food is the reason you live and breathe (OK one of them), then it stands to reason that you would want to surround yourself with it all day long. Your marmalade-scented house is another version of someone else's Grapefruit candle.

The perfume in question was Rhubarb. The next, Earl Grey and cucumber, the next Ginger and nutmeg. And there was coffee, and chocolate and Lime,basil and mandarin. Seems if you can't eat it then you naturally want to wear it.

I collect my friend Jill's linocut prints, so I was interested to see that Alice Waters the founder of Chez Panisse  in Berkeley, California uses them for the cover and throughout  her beautifully illustrated book ' Chez Panisse Vegetables'. Alice set up Chez Panisse over 30 years ago to share her love for honest simple cooking using organic  produce. Chez Panisse Vegetables, and the subsequent Chez Panisse Fruit, are her effort to share her recipes with us all. It's always good to see a different take on ideas from other cultures.

The first recipe I spot is one for wilted Amaranth greens. Now this is not a vegetable I have ever come across  but according to Alice 'the weed amaranths are very common, sprouting up in the cracks of sidewalks and in vacant lots, and taste much like their domesticated cousins.' The leaves are used in much the same way as other cooking greens. Alice says,'we make salads of small red amaranth leaves to accompany seared tuna and salmon tartare, and cook the larger leaves both alone and combined with other greens to serve in pasta dishes.' I wonder if some of these weed amaranths would grow in our milder west country climate. The variegated variety shown in the linocut plate has a very pretty leaf.

So this will be a cookery book to look after and treasure, unlike some of my old-and-abused Nigel Slater cookery books; dog-eared, stained, with folded corners, writing and scribbles. There is even one that seeks to pre-empt this kind of abuse by providing a vivid custard-coloured rubbery vinyl cover. This book is 'Thirst'. And, while at first glance one might imagine it to be a cocktail book for reading in the bath, or to aid the extremely pissed cook, it is actually a beautifully printed and photographed collection of healthy juices and smoothies. Wonderful combinations like Mango, Raspberry and Lime, and Grapefruit and passion fruit, which I would not think to put together myself. Obviously I go and look for the most unhealthy smoothie I can find and here it is, lurking in the back of the book: Strawberry Milk Shake. You say,'there is nothing remotely healthy about this. But then I see nothing wrong with organic ice-cream, full cream milk and fresh strawberries from time to time'. I console myself with the fact that all that calcium is good for young growing bones, and if i make a little too much for two small tots then...someone has to drink it up.


Tuesday, 5 February 2013

February 5th - World War 2 airmen and jewel - like marmalade

Dear Nigel,

The heavy snows have melted and 18 inches below there has been movement - in fact full-scale construction  going on. I walk Poppy through the four meadows and everywhere I go this guerrilla construction is underway, blocking my path. I've never seen such rapid development of mole hills. They must love the soft unhindered snow to work against in their mission to expand. Heedless of any planning permission they continue up the hillside and away from the stream. Fat cat joins us for our walk, slinking along in the shadow of the trees and when I spot her and call she turns her back and saunters home, tail held high in the air, like a child sticking out her tongue saying 'I don't care'.

I'm walking through the top meadow now and coming towards me with a long and easy gait is a World War 2 airman, his parachute neatly folded and hidden beneath a hedge, his leather helmet tight against his head. We stop and talk, the airman and I, and he is old and withered and gentle and correct in speech. We talk about the weather, the mole hills and the peculiar climate here on the top of the moorlands. 'Is there a community there in the village,' he asks, and I am surprised that one so close, who's farmed here so long, should not know.

Back home you are making marmalade, wallowing in the lengthy procedure and extraordinary pleasure because 'it is not every day you get the chance to fill the house with a lingering smell that starts as bright and clean as orange blossom on a cold winter breeze and ends, a day later, with a house that smells as welcoming as warm honey.' My favourite bit is on day two when you get the chance to squeeze the muslin bag and extrude the last bit of pectin from between your fingers into the preserving pan - there's something very therapeutic about this part of the procedure. Rows of neatly labelled amber jars on the shelf are a joy to behold, and we all like to feel a bit smug, occasionally.

Now here's a bit I might have to dispute with you about...'There is something heartwarmingly generous about marmalade makers. I can't tell you how many jars I have been given over the years. In my experience they like nothing more than passing their golden pots of happiness on to others.' All well and good, and I heartily agree with you. However, I think, like you, that the best part of the marmalade is in the making of it. In my experience, unless you are in a minority of households where there is a huge appetite for marmalade and toast for breakfast, most of us make far more jars than we could possibly eat. So we pass it on as gifts or offload it on unsuspecting village hall stalls to clear the space ready for the next batch. But maybe I'm being just a touch cynical here.

I'm looking for recipes in which to use up some old jars of marmalade, and I find one for marmalade cake. The recipe is taken from a wonderful book called 'Good things in England' by Florence White, published in 1932 and reprinted and published by the wonderful little publishing press Persephone Books; (whose books I would happily buy for their glorious printed endpapers alone, taken as they are from wallpapers and fabrics contemporary to their contents; - in this case 'Grapes' a 1932 screen-printed cotton rayon designed by Duncan Grant for Allan Walton Textiles).

Florence White founded The English Folk Cookery Association in 1932, and 'Good things in England' is 'an everyday book...an attempt to capture the charm of England's cookery before it is completely crushed out of existence.' One of the things I most like about her introduction to this book is the way that recipes were collated: 'A practical cook trained in historical research has travelled from county to county, talking to every one who appeared interested, stirring up their memories, and inspiring them to hunt up written and printed records. Articles have been written...letters have been published in The Times and advertisements inserted; some money prizes have been offered.'

The marmalade cake recipe is supplied by a Mrs Wickens of Burford in 1928. It is a fairly basic cake recipe with the butter being rubbed into the flour and the marmalade added with beaten egg. The instruction is to bake for 'l 3/4 hour in Junior New World Cooker'. I think this very plain cake would benefit, in these less austere times, from a cream cheese frosting like you would add to a carrot cake.Perhaps I'll give it a go.


Saturday, 2 February 2013

On another note (no.3)

Heard yesterday from London's Zone1radio who want to feature my blog on their food programme 'In Good Taste'. Feel like a fraud....my only qualification is that I love food and I like to eat. Didn't even do 'O' level Cookery, and the Cookery class I did at college seemed to consist of me cooking leisurely and in slow motion and my best friends Fred and Elaine frantically doing my washing up so we could all catch the bus home. Still haven't got any quicker at cooking - don't think anyone would be coming to my restaurant, they'd all be asleep on the table before they reached the main course!

Friday, 1 February 2013

February 1st - The smell of burning rubber and Cerebrum for soup

Dear Nigel,

My landlord was busy setting fire to the road this afternoon. Not altogether quite sure what he was doing but it seemed to be some kind of a road repair with bits of tarmac, this being either an unadopted road or at the most a fairly uncared for and forgotten one. It was quite surreal to have to drive through a line of fire to get out. John was smiling pleasantly and I had visions something of a cross between 'the Wicker man' and a dream I have of being part of a circus act. I just hoped that the tread on my tires wouldn't start to melt as I crossed his line of flames.

As you seem to have taken a break for a couple of days - and I think it can be allowed once in a while, we don't want the creative juices to run thin - I look back to see what Imissed. January 1st, I was probably nursing a crashing hangover whilst you were virtuously making bread and soup. No prizes for who gets the most brownie points for a head start with all those New Year's resolutions.

 The soup is a wonderfully hearty bacon and celeriac (page 7) with a little seasoning of thyme, mustard and parsley. Celeriac is the most wonderful of substantial vegetables. Like Butternut Squash it lends a velvety, almost creamy texture when blended in a soup, and a milder taste than celery itself (but without all those horrible stringy things). It does have the unfortunate habit of looking like a prop from 'Silence of the Lambs', but that won't deter the most adventurous of cooks (....although slivers gently fried in olive oil might give you that certain sense of Deja vu...).

I made a soup the other day, and I want to share it with you - not because it was the most wonderful tasting soup - but precisely because it wasn't. It was Pak choi and Chilli (not one of yours, I hasten to add ) and it was, well, OK. I made it. We ate it. We thought 'this is doing us good, all these vitamins, minerals, fibre'. It took me back to certain wholefood cafes in the 70's and early 80's who specialised in worthy, enriching, brown-rice-and-lentil stuff. When, like the Emperor's New Clothes, we would nod our heads and say 'this is good'. It was certainly doing us good, but taste-wise? So we want better these days, and a poor tasting soup will not make the grade.

 It got me thinking, though. I wonder if anyone ever does any research into what recipes are actually made in all these cookery books, and which recipes are left by the wayside.(Obviously there are exceptions, Nigel!) Perhaps it is less-diligent testing and retesting of recipes; but I would guess that any kind of analysis would uncover a similar pattern, overall favourites, and others that should really have been left out altogether.

The accompanying cider loaf seems a good choice. I have made bread with beer in, with milk, yoghurt, and apple juice, but I'm not sure I have made a cider loaf before. As someone who likes to think of themselves as a cider connoisseur (when she gets time to think of herself at all), I am keen to give it a go. Your recipe contains 250ml of dry cider - lucky as that's all I've got in: some Duchy Originals vintage Herefordshire cider (2011) and some Waitrose vintage Herefordshire cider (2011). A blind tasting might possibly tell me that these are the same with different labels on? Anyway, a nice crisp dry cider (although absolutely nothing beats Dunkertons Black Fox).

 You are using fresh yeast, which even the supermarkets seem to be selling these days, which is good. There is a very old-fashioned take-me-back-to-childhood smell about fresh yeast which is completely overwhelming and all-encompassing. Usually I am time-pressed and less organised and resort to those little sachets of easy-blend yeast for convenience, but fresh yeast, when available is part of true 'Bread meditation'. I can understand why this is part of your ritual for bringing in the New Year. You say ' there has been a decade of New Year's loaves in this house.....kneading is a good way to start the year. Tactile, peaceful, creative, there is something grounding about baking a loaf on New Year's Day.'

So, bread and soup it is - a man after my own heart.