We've learned all manner of new skills in the past year or so — some which we'll keep on practising, others which we might run out of time for. But for things like sourdough bread and home-cooked meals there are some decent alternatives
In that spell last year when nothing was on the shelves, we all dug deep, prayed, stayed safe — and tried making our own food. We baked loaves of bread — whether standard, sourdough or banana — and many of us tried different things too.
At one point, I even tried fermenting my own kombucha, using a foolproof starter pack that promised to make it easy. A week into the process I was delighted to see that, just as promised, some sort of layer was forming on the top of the sweet, black tea that is the base liquid. Success! I thought; this must be the promised ‘scoby’!
That was until I opened the lid, and discovered that instead of a jelly-like topping, my kombucha had grown a thick, green layer of mould. Undeterred, I tried again; this time the layer was even thicker, but just as green.
Channelling my inner W.C. Fields (‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.’), I decided to close up that chapter of my life, before I even got to attempting sourdough bread. In part, it was due to the fact that I’d become fairly good at the standard yeast version; but I was also warned off by the words of John Wright, a lifelong and fearless forager, in his piece for Country Life last year, saying that sourdough was the one fermentation method he was ‘truly dreading’.
Some bandwagons are worth getting on; others you’re best off just waving to as they pass you by. That’s what I told myself, at least, until I came across Jason’s Sourdough a few weeks back, and gave it a go in several of its varieties.
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As well as standard ‘majestic malted’ types, there are also Italian, Baltic and New York-inspired versions, each with a different taste; and even an olive-and-basil version which is basically bread ready-dipped in basil-infused olive oil. All were good, but the Majestic Malted is truly superb — both hugely tasty, and something which feels like it must be doing your innards some serious good: there are no preservatives, extra sugar, or other artificial nasties.
It got me to thinking about the whole debate between making your own, and buying ready-made. There’s no doubt that cooking from scratch is hugely rewarding, and if you have the time, the ingredients and the skill is the best way to eat.
There’s also increasingly little doubt that the opposite approach — buying ultra-processed food that’s been stripped of nutrients in the name of flavourings and shelf-life — is probably the worst way to feed yourself. Work by the likes of Tim Spector is horrifying and reassuring in equal measure, in its common-sense insistence that ‘real’ food is the way to get (and stay) healthy.
When you don’t have the time for making it yourself, you need to find other routes to get there, as with Jason’s Sourdough. For ready meals, for example, Cook are excellent at selling home-made meals (if you’re lucky enough to have a branch near you), while Charlie Bigham’s range have a similar ethos and are increasingly easy to find on supermarket shelves. ‘Charlie’s macaroni cheese’ is regularly requested treat for the children in our house, but he’s been branching out recently, beyond the classics into more exotic fare.
I recently tried a butter chicken with pilau rice and a chicken pad thai. Both were good — very good. Were they better than you might manage yourself, given a decent cookbook, a cupboard full of herbs and spices, and a couple of hours spare to rustle it all up? Honestly, probably not; but they marry the convenience of bung-in-the-oven ready meals to ‘proper’ ingredients (there are no partially-hydrogenated whatnots, nor umpteen different words for sugar hiding on the label) of the sort you’d genuinely use yourself. And anything that helps make it quicker and easier to eat smarter can only be a good thing.
Elisabeth Luard chooses Andrew Whitley’s sourdough bread as one of her greatest recipes ever
We'll leave it up to you to decide whether the soup or the sourdough is the star of the show
From sauerkraut and kombucha fruit leather to pickled plums and honey marmalade, the art of fermentation is one well worth