As you can see here, any hope of winning the JVC bake off on the grounds of elegance and finesse were pretty much a goner from the moment I decided to bake a cottage loaf. I had been thinking of cooking something much more fin de siècle: I had fantasies of glistening absinthe-soaked madeleines or gold-flaked pets-de-nonne. But for a movement so interested in taste, there is surprisingly little actual eating taking place in the literature of the aestheticism; and does anyone ever tuck in for a good feed in a Henry James novel?
Lumpy, brown, and weighing in at two and a quarter pounds each (as promised by Eliza Acton’s ‘Very Plain Directions to a Quite Inexperienced Learner for Making Bread’), these twins were never going to win a beauty contest and are definitely not decadent. But it happened to be William Cobbett’s 250th birthday the weekend I had time to fire up the oven and – although, to be fair, I know we can barely claim him as a Victorian – he is the best advocate of a good loaf I have come across.
Cobbett’s Cottage Economy (1821) is one glorious radical rant about the dispossession of rural labourers from their customary goods, with recipes for beer, bread and straw-plaiting stirred in. If you fancy tasting the new-fangled economic diets Cobbett hated so much (he was an inveterate enemy of the potato) take a look at our post on Bentham’s baking: nothing, Cobbett thought, but the recipes of an ‘old shuffle-breeches band … who have been moving all their lives from garret to garret, who have seldom seen the sun, and never the dew, expect in print’.[i]
Domestic perfection not being my strong point I was quite taken by Cobbett’s promise of what awaited me as a baker: ‘Give me for a beautiful sight a neat and smart woman setting her bread! And, if the bustle does make the sign of labour glisten on her brow, where is the man that would not kiss that off, rather than lick the plaster from the cheek of a Duchess?’[ii] But time was pressing, anti-Malthusian distractions unavailable, and Cobbett’s recipe called for a bushel of flour (56 pounds, as I eventually found out). So I dug up Eliza Acton’s English Bread Book for Domestic Use (1857) online to find a recipe I could follow according to the rules of the JVC bake-off.[iii]
I would have liked to follow Acton’s ‘Surrey Receipt for Good Household or Cottage Bread (from the Wife of Parish Clerk)’ just as a nod to Cobbett’s local origin. This, however, suggested gathering grain from an allotment or gleaning the fields. The season was against me, and anyway I am not sure that much wheat grows in the allotments of south-west London. So it was back to basics and ‘Very Plain Directions’:
* A quartern of flour (3 ½ lbs)
* An ounce of fresh German yeast mixed with 1 pint of warm milk and water
* Salt? (I think Acton forgets to mention salt as it is in all her other recipes – I added a scant tablespoon on my own initiative)
Bread was still a hot political issue at the time Acton was writing. This, her last book, has whole sections on adulteration and the need for better state regulation of quality following the French model (yes – the French have always had better baked goods than the British). Although the new German yeast Acton recommends was making rising and fermentation more predictable, she still advises the inexperienced to make dough in the (to me unfamiliar) old method of ‘setting a sponge’. This is the same method Cobbett suggests: make a well in your flour, pour in the fermented yeast, milk and water mix; stir in enough of the surrounding flour so as to make ‘a thick batter, in which, remember, there must be no lumps’, then scatter flour over the top of the batter and leave covered with a cloth in a warm place. When the yeast bubbles and breaks through the flour surface after an hour or so, it is on to the next stage.
Not much gets left in peace in my kitchen. Bubbles had broken the surface though, so it was time to move on. One thing that hampered the next stage (stirring in the remaining flour from the sides into a dough) was the sheer quantity I was dealing with – even when starting with ‘merely a loaf or two’ as Acton suggested. I began to wonder if I should have used this old, patched-up, wooden bowl picked up at a Sussex country fair: perhaps this is what Cobbett means by a ‘bread trough’?
In a floury phone-call to my mother mid-stir, she remembered her grandmother’s earthenware bread-bowl: more than a foot across at the top tapering gently in a conical shape. Perfect for this method and used daily, apparently, in making bread for her 13 children in an end-of-terrace house in Bolton. Chastened, I shut the children outside the back door, and got down to more serious kneading.
The great advantage of this method of bread making is, once you have done the kneading there is no knocking back, no need to ‘prove’ the loaves in a second rising in the tin: just stir up, knead, leave for an hour, slice into a couple of slabs and into the oven it goes.
Cobbett suggests two hours of baking, Acton says little on timing. An hour was plenty long enough to give a hollow knock on the base of each loaf, but perhaps 200 °c is greater than Cobbett’s fire of dry two-and-a-half inch fagot sticks. The result: not pretty, not light, but with a good, even, dense crumb and crisp crust.
- The two loaves stretched to breakfast and packed lunches for four days: not bad; but in the end the drying crumb was up-cycled into a rather more popular treacle tart (the politics of cheap sugar in the later nineteenth century can wait for another day).
I was awarded a 10 for the first slices of bread, by the way. In retrospect I think this was because my tasters had been shut in the back garden with a wind chill factor of minus 5°c for 40 minutes whilst I whomped the dough with gusto. It’s hard to beat oven-fresh bread and butter at any time, I reckon: but it’s even better when your fingers are blue and scarlet with cold; and much, much wiser to please the baker.
[i] William Cobbett, Cottage Economy (new ed. London: William Cobbett, 1826) np. Online at books.google.co.uk
[ii] Cobbett, Cottage Economy, np.
[iii] Eliza Acton, The English Bread Book for Domestic Use, Adapted to Families of Every Grade (London: Longmans, 1857), pp. 129-135. Online at books.google.co.uk