Little John

Little John 1

Me (left) and Cam (right) in front of the entrance to the cheese factory

I was delighted to be asked back for a second cheese making session in Brockley yesterday with Cameron Rowan, one of the four founding members of Blackwoods Cheese Company. In January I went along on an afternoon milk run to the Commonwork Organic Farm in Kent. On that day we added cheese culture and rennet to the still-warm milk and called it a day – leaving the curd to set over night. Yesterday however, Cam went on an early morning milk run, so I came at mid-day to see the magic happen. I arrived to find not only a batch of Graceburn on the go, but also a 150 litre vat of Blackwoods’ new washed-rind cheese, Little John.

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Cam checking the curds

Named after a cheese-thief who was banished to Australia for his crimes, the Little John is still in the experimentation phase; a little less culture here, a slight change in temperature there. The acidity level the next morning is the first indication of whether it is a good batch or not – if it hasn’t risen too much, then its time to get excited.

Every five minutes or so, Cam gently lifts and turns over a handful of Little John curd in the vat, leaving a small depression. The whey that gathers there is still slightly cloudy, which means that the curds are not yet ready to cut. It feel like nothing I’ve felt before – under a thin film of cream, it is soft and smooth to the touch; luke-warm and moist with a texture that is at once gelatinous and brittle. The Blackwoods boys rely on their understanding of the look, taste and feel of the curds at this crucial stage. Cutting too early or too late could ruin the batch and waste a morning’s work.

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Checking the pH and temperature pre-cut

The waiting cheese-maker is like a good slips fielder; ready to spring into action when the moment comes. The whey gathers clear in the depression and its time to cut. Fingers spread, we carefully lift and turn first the top layer of curd, then the middle and finally reaching right down to the bottom of the vat. The curd pieces gradually become smaller and smaller as they slip through our fingers. Where some cheese makers would use a harp to cut the curds, Cam prefers to roll his sleeves up and use his hands. The curd pieces should be no bigger than a 1p coin to let the whey drain out evenly when the curds are hooped; lifted out of the whey with a ricotta mould and drained through blue cheese cloth.

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New-born Little Johns

Its amazing how quickly we made a vat of curds and whey into  26 cheeses, packed tightly inside a cheese-cloth lined mould and compressed to squeeze out the remaining whey. The cheeses then get taken back out of the moulds, turned and replaced several times before going to Neal’s Yard Dairy‘s maturing facility in Bermondsey. This morning I got a text saying the acidity had only risen to 5.2 on the pH scale – in Cam’s words, ‘boom, not bad at all!’.

You can get hold of one of Blackwoods Cheese Company’s delicious cheeses directly from Cam, Dave, Rory and Tim at Brockley Market, Herne Hill Market, or Greenwich Market. Alternatively, you can also buy it from their friends at Neal’s Yard Dairy in Borough Market and Covent Garden. Look out for the 4/3/14 batch of Little John, its going to be delicious!

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Urban Harvesting


Alf with the pigs

Me with the pigs in Somerset

Growing up on the rural Devon-Somerset border I have always been aware of the crops the other side of the hedgerows and the animals grazing the fields. In our back garden we grew our own vegetables and had chickens scratching around, laying eggs in all the wrong places and getting in the way of our football games. I’ve missed this while living in the city, but you can’t take the Westcountry out of the boy and I’ve found a surprising number of ways to harvest produce in an urban environment.

1) Foraging;

In Norwich in the summer there is an abundance of elderflowers to be made into cordial; if you know where to look there are sloe berries to flavour gin and blackberries for pies. The Rosemary used in the Anchovy and Rosemary Butter came from a bush just down the road.

2) Allotments;

Norwich is a green city, it is home to more than 1,619 allotment plots on 18 sites. The average rent is £40 per year for a 250 square meter plot; plenty of space to keep you in vegetables throughout the growing months. The only problem is the waiting list, which was three years when I last checked; clearly a popular option!

3) Roof gardens;

Edible roof gardens absorb water, clean the city air and promote green living in an urban environment. In the past growing food in London has been a pipe dream for many, but developing roof space into gardens is opening up acres of previously unused space. Urban gardens have been endorsed by Boris Johnson as part of the capital’s Climate Change Adaptation Plan.

4) Guerilla gardens;

In the city of Los Angeles there is 26 square miles of arable land, enough space to grow 724,838,400 tomato plants. Guerilla gardening is Ron Finley’s way of reclaiming the streets and providing an alternative to fast food; projects for the mental and physical health of the community. His team of volunteers dig up vacant lots across the city and plant fruits and vegetables; “we’ve got to flip the script on what a gangster is; if you aint’ a gardener, you aint’ gangster, get gangster with your shovel, ok? and let that be your weapon of choice”.

5) Aquaponics;

Dan Barber is a chef and researcher. His research into aquaponics led him to Veta La Palma in South West Spain where he discovered “A farm that doesn’t feed it’s fish; a farm that measures its success by the success of its predators; a farm that is literally a water purification plant… farming extensively, not intensively”. Aquaponics relies on creating a self-sustainable ecosystem, which is why the farmers at Veta La Palma don’t scare away the birds who eat 20% of the farm’s fish. The pinker the flamingos’ feathers, the healthier the system is and therefore the tastier the fish will be. Companies like FARM:shop in London use aquaponics on a smaller scale to inspire the local community to grow and eat their own food.

The act of harvesting fruit and vegetables, whether they are foraged from the wild or cultivated in a garden, is the best possible incentive to eat a healthy diet free from processed foods. Gardening is a therapeutic process that sustains the body at the same time as satisfying the mind. There is nothing like the feeling of planting a crop, tending it, and cooking straight from the garden; as fresh as fresh can be.

The Emperor’s new Bread


Sourdough in the oven

Sourdough in the oven

Over a pint in the Fat Cat on Friday, I was told to ‘get off my high horse’ by a friend who had recently read Bread barons on the way out. It made me think how the rise of factory-made bread has banished the artisan baker to the much scorned realm of the middle class. In defence of the artisan baker, who is busy hand-crafting his or her wares as we are tucked up in bed, I would like to set the record straight.

Society has been fooled into demanding the impossible from our bread through an increasing industrialisation of baking and a corresponding distance between the factory-made bread on our supermarket shelves and the age-old traditions of baking.

Even before the dawn of the Chorleywood process, Britain was fast industrialising its bread production. In Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery, she describes the factory baking process of 1957; ‘Baking takes place in a 12-sack travelling plate oven, 75 feet long and 8 feet wide and with a capacity of 2,640 loaves an hour’.

In the bread factories of 1957 dough was proofed for at least two hours before being baked. The proofing process in commercially yeasted bread is where one strand of fast acting yeast converts gluten and other carbohydrates into carbon dioxide gas which makes the dough rise. Though the measuring, kneading, shaping and baking were being done by machines, the principles of bread making were the same as those used in small independent bakeries.

Since the Chorleywood process arrived on the scene in 1961, from the mixing of the dough to the final product leaving the oven takes less than 90 minutes. It uses twice the commercial yeast of the methods used in the factories in 1957. The Chorleywood process uses  a mix of chemicals to bully the ingredients into action. While sourdough takes up to 12 hours of proofing, the Chorleywood method uses a fast mixer to speed up the process.

Sourdough Bread

Sourdough bread

Contrast this to the way we have made bread for hundreds of years. The use of sourdough culture in bread makes the bread rise in the same way as commercial yeast, just more slowly. However, the health benefits of using sourdough culture are twofold: firstly, the culture relies on natural air-bourn yeasts, of which there are many different strains. These yeasts are able to break down more carbohydrates in the flour; making the bread easier to digest. Secondly, the presence of naturally occurring bacteria in the culture also means that the bread contains probiotics, which are proven to be good for the health of the stomach.

Rather like a politician who promises great things during the lead up to the election then turns into a tyrant when in power; the Chorleywood process gave Britain the soft white loaf it craved in the post war years. Since then it has reigned unchecked and sales have increased at the same rate as the indifference of the public to the poor quality of the product. We have been fooled by the bread factories of the quality of the ‘boiled wool’ (David, 1977) that passes as bread. All the while we have fooled ourselves as well; ignoring the testimony of our taste buds and the groans of our digestion.

The Chorleywood process accounts for 80% of bread brought in Britain today, but what about that other 20%? With regards to flavour, texture and nutrition, the Chorleywood process today is all together as useless as the day that it was born. The demands of society created the beast, and I believe that if we keep demanding more from our bread then we can slay it once and for all.

But what about the left-overs?

‘Good husband and huswife, will sometimes alone,

make shift with a morsell and picke of a bone’.

(Thomas Tusser, 1528-80. Heading to the month of January in The Cookery Year).

The fact that the developed world wastes half of its food has been all over the news this week. Our farmers waste food during harvest, storage and transport and of the perfectly good food that is left, a hell of a lot is wasted because it doesn’t look quite right or isn’t quite big or small enough. Our supermarkets bin so much edible food due to over-cautious sell-by dates; will they donate it to groups that need it like FoodCycle? You must be joking. What ingredients finally end up in our fridges count themselves lucky to have got this far, but our failure to then turn all of those components into meals is astounding.

Now, everyone drops their toast jam-side down every now and then and not all of us have got the stomach to scrape it up and eat it; a certain amount of inedible waste is inevitable. But I can’t help thinking that the average consumer’s attitude to food has languished of late. Mrs Beeton’s Cookery and Household Management shows just how far we have strayed since the book’s publication in 1861. Unlike Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Minute Meals where you only have to blink and there’s a plate of bruschetta, a chicken korma and a sticky toffee pudding on the screen, Mrs Beeton believes that cooking is not something that should be rushed. For each of her recipes she provides ‘a list of the ingredients, a plain statement of the mode of preparing each dish and a careful estimate of  its cost, the number of people for whom it is sufficient, and the time when it is seasonal’.

One hundred and fifty two years later, though the housewife still exists, it is more likely that both parents will be working. In life today the average family finds less time to engage with the provenance of their ingredients and the process of cooking a meal.

But I find that an enjoyment of cooking leads to an interest in the shops I frequent. I personally have three great passions in life; cricket, food and sex. It is natural for me to play cricket all summer long and to follow the progress of the national team throughout the year. Equally, my love of food is just as much to do with where it comes from as it is about the way in which different ingredients compliment each other. It’s funny how my pursuit of my second passion gets me far more of my third passion than the pursuit of my first!

In the preface of Mrs Beeton’s first edition, she states that ‘there is no more fruitful source of family discontent than a housewife’s badly-cooked dinners and untidy ways’. The aim of her text is to promote a holistic attitude to housekeeping that includes every aspect of sourcing, storing and cooking with local, seasonal ingredients. Although most of us today have less free time than her target audience, I think that a lesson or two taken from her philosophy would help us cut our waste significantly.

Bread barons on the way out

The big British ‘bakers’ such as Hovis and Kingsmill are cutting our bread with crap. I use the term ‘bakers’ loosely because the practice is more like alchemy; in factories across the UK, Hovis mixes flour improvers, preservatives and other E numbers into their dough with little or no regard to the ramifications on the health of the British public. According to the Real Bread Campaign, any ingredient other than flour, water, yeast and salt is ‘by definition, unnecessary’. The Food Standards Agency rules that churned milk and salt are the only ingredients allowed in butter; add anything that doesn’t come from a cow’s udder to a carton of milk and it can no longer legally be called milk. These staples are as pure now as they always have been, so where did British bread go so wrong?

From the customer’s perspective, there is an increasing distance between the way our brains process the food on offer and the way our bodies then process that food. The human body functions best when it receives a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, pulses, grains and lean meant and fish, but the influx of salt, sugar and fat (the fast food trio) into our diet on a daily basis has devastatingly altered our ability to identify what we should be putting into our bodies. Our eating culture has arrived at the point where we are forced to trust the dietary information on the side of a packet instead of trusting our bodies to tell us what they need.

Wholemeal Sourdough Bread

Wholemeal Sourdough Bread

As for where that food is coming from, never has a manufacturer so literally had its fingers in all the pies as Premier Foods, Britain’s biggest food producer. As well as Hovis, brands such as Sharwoods, Oxo and Mr Kipling are owned by this industrial food giant. How is it possible to truly care about the quality of the food you are responsible for when your day is spent in a boardroom desperately trying to manage twenty three different brands and running at a £1Bn deficit all the while? As the recession continues to wrap it’s coils around the country, Premier Foods is showing signs of decline. Michael Clarke, Premier Foods CEO, recently closed two Hovis factories, cutting 900 jobs due to rising wheat prices and falling demand for a product that is increasingly recognised as floppy, tasteless and indigestible.

Sliced bread

Sliced bread made using the Chorleywood process

The deficit that Clarke is trying to reduce indicates that big corporations might not hold the answers to the future success of the British food industry. If half of those 900 newly unemployed bakers find work in small independent bakeries; or even better go on to set up their own bread businesses, it would be a step in the right direction. Small bakeries offer far greater variety than Hovis and, if the principles of the Real Bread Campaign are followed, produce a more nutritional, tastier loaf.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Chorlewood process, an innovation that was developed to make a softer loaf that would keep for longer. The process uses twice the yeast of traditional bread and facilitates the production of huge quantities of identical sandwich loaves. This is what the people wanted in the post war years, but now we are demanding both more and fewer from our bread, that is, more quality and fewer ingredients. Chorleywood bread has had its day, the renaisance of artisan bread is at hand.

YOtopia

“YOtopia, YOtopia, YOtopia!” The familiar refrain jolts me from my soma-induced sleep this morning as it has for the last four hundred and twenty seven mornings since I began my service. It echoes around my small bedroom, bouncing off the damp walls, filling the flat with noise, just as it fills me with a sense of perfect contentment.  Men from the company fitted the ‘call to work’ technology the day before my first shift and this morning it reminds me of the debt I owe YOtopia.

sushi-conveyor-belt

Walking through the old town used to be dangerous before I joined the company. Squatters lurk in the shadows of run down buildings. Are they looking for shelter? or their next victim? The orange light of a small wood fire dances behind a boarded-up shop window as I pick my way through the rubble in the streets heading towards the new town. Now that I am part of the company, my journey to work goes unhindered. I wear my bright orange YOtopia branded clothing like an impenetrable suit of armour. I pass the guarded checkpoint with a flash of my ID and the change in scenery is remarkable. The streets here in the new town are paved with perfectly clean artificial marble and colourful lights in the shopfronts dazzle the eyes. The streets are empty here, but not for fear of being attacked; simply because it is early in the morning. I continue my journey, the sky is still dark.

The restaurant comes into view as I enter the shopping center. Though I know that I am in good time, I check my watch. Fifteen minutes early, no need to panic. I smile at my co-workers as i walk through the automatic doors. The openers have already switched on the internal climate control and programmed the day’s motivational messages. As I swipe myself in at the till, the big television screens tell me to stretch regularly during long shifts. I should be fine today though being as I’m only rotad in for nine hours. The system recognises my identity and welcomes me with the same “YOtopia, YOtopiaYOtopia!” that woke me this morning. When I think of this mantra being heard every twenty minutes in two hundred restaurants across the UK, I can’t help but remember the eateries of the past; small, isolated businesses unable to compete today in the glorious age of corporations.

I realise that I have been thinking dangerous thoughts and turn my attention to the day’s tasks, beginning with going to the deep freeze to get the salads needed for today’s service. As I pass an upstairs window on the way to the freezers I catch a glimpse of the sun rising over the new town; the tinted windows of majestic concrete skyscrapers glinting in the warm morning rays. The management assures me that in just three more weeks I’ll be moving into one of those spacious new living spaces. What a day that will be, to leave my old flat in the slums and take my place in the new world, the place I’ve earned after working sixty sixty-hour weeks.

As I come back out of the deep freeze, the manager’s voice booms out over the restaurant’s intercom;

‘YOchef seven three four one please present yourself in the manager’s office. YOchef seven three four one to the manager’s office please. Thank you’.

When I walk into the manager’s office I am handed an envelope from YOtopia HQ. My thoughts turn to my impending relocation to the new town. My day just gets better and better!

Outside the office, I rip the letter open and inside i find the following message;

‘Due to a nationwide reshuffle of staff, your services are no longer required. Please return your company clothing within the next week to avoid the items being deducted from your final pay cheque. We appreciate your service’.

Shop locally for good craic

You may as well have the craic with the self-service check out for all the banter you get out of supermarket employees. Unlike your Tesco Express worker, who has never met the CEO Philip Clarke and has no relationship with the suppliers, the shop-keepers that I spoke to today have an intimate relationship with where their food comes from.

Today I cycled around Norwich and had a poke around in five of the city’s best small food shops. I shop regularly in three of them and two of them I visited for the first time today after many recommendations. In all five the shop-keepers were happy to chat about their businesses, their customers, their suppliers and their work.

In no particular order, here are five shops that I highly recommend you visit…

St Benedicts Food Store

St Benedicts Food Store shopfront

Initially I was drawn to this shop for a fortnightly fix of Linghams chili sauce, but I soon realised that the herbs and most of the vegetables are far cheaper than the supermarkets. I recently stopped by and picked up a large courgette, an aubergine, a butternut squash, an onion the size of a football and two bunches of fresh herbs all for £3! The owner, Tom, runs a wholesale business as well, delivering to many of Norwich’s restaurants. This means that, unlike both the greengrocers on the market, you can have as much or as little fresh parsley, thyme or coriander as you like. The shop has an extensive Asian Foods section and there are rumours  that a new Mediterranean section might appear soon.

Fresh fruit and vegetables

Fresh produce in the shop window

Herbs

Tom (owner)

Quinton’s Butcher

Quinton’s is my favourite butcher in Norwich, run by two of the finest gentlemen in the city. In My second and third years of University I was lucky enough to live three doors down. I frequented it for bacon, sausages, black pudding and duck eggs and Mike even let me borrow his allen keys and his wheelbarrow. As well as knowing all of the neighbours, Mike has never told me the same joke twice which is incredible seeing that he tells me two every time I go in there.

Shopfront

Mike (left) and Chris (right)

Dozen Artisan Baker

Dozen Artisan Baker is an award winning bakery that bakes simple, traditional bread using flour, water, yeast (or sourdough starter) and salt. Their bread and cakes are made using organic flour over a long period of time in order to craft a product that is not only tasty, but also much easier for your body to digest. This is the kind of bread that we should be eating. Bread should not return to dough when squeezed.  Bread should have character, crust and a wholesome flavour, none of which are achievable in factory made bread that is produced very quickly and pumped full of artificial additives and flour improvers. Real bread should start to go stale after three or four days and we should find this reassuring; bread that is as soft on day one as it is on day seven is against the laws of nature! If we pay an extra 40p for a loaf in an artisan bakery now and keep demanding real bread, then as the production of real bread increases, the prices will surely come down.

Bread on display behind the counter

Cakes

Baguettes

Yeasted rolls

Amaretto Deli

Amaretto is a deli selling specialist Italian, Spanish and British produce. The shop is popular with the students at Norwich University College of the Arts and when you walk by the big shop windows you can see why; on display are home-made sandwiches, stone baked pizzas, delicious cakes and pastries and a selection of hot lasagnes, cottage pies, stuffed peppers and other savoury delights. The inside of the shop is tastefully decorated, the service impeccable, and when you can get any double-shot coffee for just £1.60 you are on to a winner.

Amaretto shopfront

Olives

Cured meats

Salame

Lunch options in the shop window

Chef Asa (left) and chef/owner Henry (right)

Italian christmas cakes

Ford-Yarham Greengrocer-Fishmonger

Steve and Pam pride themselves on their locally sourced fresh produce and the quality of their service and today both of these were spot on. They gets as much of their produce as possible directly from the farmers, which means that their fruit and vegetables have spent as little time out of the ground as possible. If you want to order rare products like monkfish or purple cauliflower, Steve is your man.

Shopfront

Fresh produce

Local fish and Shellfish.

Shopping locally is not just a transaction involving money and food. Shopping locally is an interaction with the community; it is an engagement in a product made or sourced by someone who more than likely appreciates your custom; and it is an investment in your health.

I truly believe that engaging with where our food comes from is vital to good health and happiness. In the UK we are fortunate to have so many good small shops on our doorsteps and supporting these local businesses is a must.

Beaten bin-diver turns to FoodCycle

On a dark night a few weeks ago I put on some black clothing and jumped on my bike. The time was 11.06 pm. My destination; the Co-op.

Having stashed my bicycle down a side street, I tip-toed towards the back of the shop where I positioned myself under a shady tree. Any expert in covert ops will tell you that if you don’t want to be seen doing something you shouldn’t be, perfect timing is crucial. The streets were deserted except for one chubby cat who, because i was so quiet and so cunningly hidden, walked straight past me clueless. I waited, and I waited some more. If I could just climb over the fence I would have access to all of the food wasted that day.

But sitting under that tree I wasn’t really waiting for the perfect moment. Truth be told, every minute that went by I became more and more aware that I would bottle it. Sure enough, five minutes later I retrieved my carefully stashed get away vehicle and cycled home with my tail between my legs.

In England the case of Williams v Phillips confirmed that ‘rubbish left for collection is not abandoned, so it can be stolen’. The police are loath to arrest bin divers because of the ethically sensitive nature of the foodwaste issue. However, as I hid under the tree I was very aware that if I did build up the courage to hop that fence, in the eyes of the law I would be guilty of trespass and theft.

A charity that navigates this grey area is FoodCycle. Their mission statement is to ‘build communities by combining volunteers, surplus food and spare kitchen spaces to create nutritious meals for people at risk from food poverty and social isolation’. Instead of taking food from bins in the dead of night, the FoodCycle volunteers pride themselves on explaining to shops the charity’s principles, asking politely if they would like to donate any unsaleable food, and saying thank you afterwards.

Two food-cyclers enjoying a free cup of tea

Here in Norwich the FoodCycle team assembles on a Friday afternoon and prepares a meal for 7pm at the Quaker Meeting house on Upper Goat Lane. For those who attend it is simply a matter of queueing up for a plate of food and sitting down to eat a table in the main hall. There are always baskets of bread set out on the tables and more often than not there is plenty for a second helping! FoodCycle provides a free meal, but it isn’t a one way street. Come with the intention to volunteer and the willingness to talk to new people.

The meal being dished out

The FoodCycle volunteers are split into four groups; the gatherers, the cooks, the servers and the washer uppers. I volunteered to cook last year and our task was to take the ingredients that had been acquired and work out the best way of fashioning them into a main course and a dessert. That means vegetarian stews, hot-pots, pies, curries and salads are common, and crumbles and fruit salads tend to be the options  for dessert.

My portion

If, like me, you are too nervous for bin diving then you can help prevent food wastage in another way; by mucking in at FoodCycle and getting a meal in return!

What came first, the Chicken Nugget or the Egg McMuffin?

A basket of potatoes

According to a recent survey, more than a third of 16 to 23-year-olds don’t know that bacon comes from pigs and two fifths failed to link milk with an image of a dairy cow.

Consumers today are prone to instant gratification in so many areas of life. Just this summer I went on holiday to Croatia knowing that there would be sun, a beach and some cultural interest. When I arrived I realised I knew next to nothing about the country’s history, Its politics or even its exact location on the map. What’s the point in bothering to remember these things when we can Google them at any time? We know when we leave the supermarkets that what we have bought tastes good, that it fills a hole, and that it is reasonably good value; so what’s the use is knowing where it comes from, let alone what effect it is having on our bodies?

It takes a nationwide realisation that standards have slipped to kickstart any progress. Take pubs for example. They are fundamental to British culture; the centre of the community. In 1971 we realised that the market on beer was dominated by a few big brewers producing bland processed beers. In 1971 CAMRA (campaign for real ale) was founded and since then ‘the number of breweries operating in the UK has grown fourfold to over 840 breweries.’

Living in Norwich, which has a pub for every member of So Solid Crew, i can attest to the outstanding range and quality of beers, stouts, ales and lagers on offer in our public houses. But what about the people inside them? The defining feature of the British people is no longer the stiff upper lip but rather the limp double chin and it seems that the fatter we get, the better we are at ignoring it.

Adnams‘ Broadside, brewed in Southwold, Suffolk

Just as beer plays a central role in the pub, a key player in British food is bread. The Real Bread Campaign promotes small bakeries that make traditional, long proved bread which is healthier than mass producing companies like Hovis and Kingsmill. A recent study by the Federation of Bakers shows that the market share of white bread was down by 3.2% on 2009, while healthier malted, grainy and seeded loaves have seen a sales growth of 5.1%. I think that Britain is taking tentative steps to becoming a healthier country and I really hope that in the next ten years the Real Bread Campaign will have the same snowball effect that CAMRA has had since the seventies.

Wholemeal Sourdough Bread. Photo by Annabel Dodebier

These three things will make Britain healthier:

1. Buying food that has fewer than 5 ingredients.

2. Buying food that is not processed and does not contain artificial ingredients.

3. Cooking meals regularly and buying ready-meals and takeaways occasionally, instead of the other way around.

Authentic sourdough pizza in the woodlands of Somerset

There is something exciting about arriving at my Mum and Dad’s bakery, Tracebridge Sourdough, on one of their pizza nights in the summer. Something about being with friends and neighbours in a mystical woodland, eating with your hands, and drinking lots of red wine, transcends the grind of day to day life.

After finding a parking space in the field, the intrepid guests follow the earthy smell of the wood-fired oven through the woods, over the hill, to an opening in the trees lit by fires and multicoloured fairy lights. First time visiters to Tracebridge Sourdough are often unsure of what to expect when they come out of the woods into the clearing where the bakery perches, looking down the valley to the Tone river. It is not a conventional restaurant. For a start, there is no cutlery and the food is served on wooden boards. When a customer’s pizzas are ready, their name is called out by the chef and the customer gets down to the business of cutting up their own pizza (some neater than others!) The best part is that the only advertisement needed to draw a regular crowd of sixty to ninety people to this secluded spot is the rumour passing through the west country of a magical rural venue that makes great pizza.

It is rare to find a place with such a diverse clientele; from the owners of the manor house to the local farmers; people from countryside and city alike. Word has reached as far as Bristol and London, which ensures that there are always new faces amongst the locals. Unlike a meal out in a restaurant where you might spend forty pounds per head on food and alcohol, at Tracebridge Sourdough you can get a pizza for as little as seven pounds and you are welcome to bring your own drinks: In an economic climate that sees many people tightening their belts, an evening out that doesn’t cost you the earth is a wonderful thing.

Regulars around the fire. Photo by Annabel Dodebier. 

Dad and Mum at work. Photo by Annabel Dodebier.

Me pulling a pizza out of the oven

Dough balls. Photo by Harry Borden.

Pizza night by candlelight. Photo by Annabel Dodebier.

It is local community based events like this that get me really excited about the food that brings these people together. In Norwich last year, I was involved with Foodcycle Norwich on Friday Nights. Are there any other community based food projects around in Norwich?  If you know of any, please comment and let me know!