Commonplace, Vol 1, Issue 2

In which the writer examines food export restrictions, and then talks a lot about bread.

Hello! This issue deals with some food supply restrictions that are appearing, and breadmaking, because that’s original and novel these days. As with many of my newsletter issues, it’s being written over a period of several days, so there may be some disjointedness. It’s pretty nearly impossible for me to sit down and write something like this in one burst, although I understand that Dan Hon manages it regularly.

A few policy notes, more because they’re in my head than because anyone was asking: recipe names in Commonplace will be all lower case unless they have Proper Nouns in (and I apologise in advance for sometimes not being able to identify these in Arabic, Chinese or other non-Indo-European Roman-alphabet languages). People I know in person will be referred to by first name only, because you either know them already, or the name is just a reference point. Authors will be referred to by full name the first time I mention them (or the first time in a while, maybe) and surname thereafter. Genders, where indicated by pronouns, will be as accurate and owner-preferential as I can make them at time of writing.

So, with that out of my head, I can get on with the rest of this. There’s a report in the Washington Times, appearing to have been written in Moscow, if the locative is anything to go by, which details the beginnings of pandemic-driven food embargoes. These are nothing new; countries attempt to control imports and exports of food all the time, for a wide variety of reasons - health, protectionism, sanctions, quality control, and probably more I haven’t thought of. Some of these new ones are for foods you could reasonably expect - wheat and rice, for instance, which are being either bought up by some countries, or having exports stopped by others. But some of them look very odd:

In Turkey, lemon exports are being curbed to ensure enough for use in a popular lemon-scented mixture often splashed on hands and face. Serbia has announced a ban on exports of sunflower oil. Egypt has barred exports of legumes for three months.

I cannot for the life of me imagine why Serbia wants to hang on to its sunflower oil so much that it’s banning exporting it, nor why this is relevant to the pandemic. It’s not a major producer, as far as I can establish, and also not a major importer. But these kind of localised decisions, which presumably make sense to someone somewhere, have weird knock-on effects. For example - and I verge over into blueskying here, or in less salubrious terms, making shit up - if the export ban is just a ban, it’s possible for farmers in Serbia to go “hell no, my market for sunflower oil is all export” and plant something else instead. If the ban is instead a guaranteed purchase at a settled rate, then a whole bunch of people who normally grow wheat or turnips will decide that the volatility in that market, even if it might make them more, is a greater risk than the newly guaranteed income from sunflowers. So Serbia’s supply of sunflower oil (and, one assumes, sunflower seeds) either drops or rises massively. Inevitably, that’s going to have an effect on neighbouring countries, because no export ban is ever perfect, and there’s very little (not nothing; Serbia does have border controls) to stop someone driving out with a few hundred bottles of sunflower oil in the boot, should there be money in it, or indeed, driving in, if the local supply collapses. And in the longer term, you can see restaurants whose style of cookery depends on sunflower oil closing up, changing direction, or even having more appear.

And also:

David Laborde, senior research fellow at the Washington-based Institute for Food Policy Research (IFFP), said [..] “In the last few days, we have a small country like Moldova which was saying, ‘Oh, because Ukraine and Russia are taking measures, we should do it, even if actually we don’t need it.’ This imitation, this domino effect is something we always have to worry about.”

… which sounds like it could be lots of fun. Interestingly, Ukraine crops up again and again when you’re looking at international food supplies. Apart from a few lovely people I know who are from there, and recent news coverage, I know very little about the place, and should probably do something about that.

Also relevant to thinking about supply lines and food: hydroponic herbs grown under LEDs picked by robots and not touched or possibly even seen by humans until they’re going onto the supermarket shelves. I lost about ten minutes trying to decide which words in that sentence to use for the link, and eventually decided that the only possible choice was everything after the colon, because that is still some mad sf stuff right there. I am completely unsure whether it’s good or bad in the longer term; right now it’s just weird.

Anyway. I made the mistake the other night of paging through Jane Grigson’s English Food while dinner (breaded fish, oven chips, zero effort) was in the oven, and the experience was very much related to shopping while hungry - every recipe looked so good, and I eventually had to put the book down. One of the things that did come out of the hunger-haze intact, though, was an intention to make Glamorgan Sausages at some point soon. These are a vegetarian sausage which uses cheese, leeks and breadcrumbs, and seems to date - in the vegetarian version at least - from about 1850, while there are some traces of a pork-containing form from earlier. Poking around on the internet indicates that they’re a known and recognised thing in the UK, although I’ve not come across them before. But they sound excellent, and I shall make them and report back.

While the plan to make Arabic flatbread (also from May Bsisu’s The Arab Table) was still in concept rather than motion, I was thinking about other bread-making. Not really my own - I can make bread, but it’s not one of my strong areas - but the bread-making from my childhood, by my mother and other adults, almost all women, that I knew. My mother made bread every second day, I’m pretty sure, both brown and white, and I’m honestly uncertain if they were soda-bread or yeast-based. I’m coming down on the side of soda-bread, but it’s more reasoning than memory. She also made buns (little Madeira cakes in a muffin tin), apple tarts, sometimes rhubarb tarts, things which were called cheesecakes but were not (layer of pastry, spoon of jam, layer of the Madeira mixture, in little jam-tart sized pieces), and very occasional biscuits (other than their existence, I don’t know what they were; “for visitors”, mostly). Bread was just one of the things in the array of baked goods, and all of it was enthusiastically consumed by my father’s apprentices and workmen in short order.

Other houses I was in (schoolmates, relatives, neighbours, random people for whom my father was fitting kitchens) also had homemade bread pretty much as a matter of course, and more or less the same array of baked goods, with occasional variations. Actual cakes were something of a rarity, made for birthdays only. I remember with startling clarity coming across the phrase “cut-and-come-again cake” in a book around the age of 8, and demanding to know why we didn’t get such things. I don’t recall what the answer was, though. One classmate’s mother frequently made chocolate Rice Krispie squares, which were much envied by others, and it was only much later I realised that this was considered distinctly sub-par by other parents, in the realm of “not real baking”. The same woman was responsible for the first pizza I ever ate (frozen, heat in oven type), around the age of 11, and I suspect she was never really much of a cook - a position that’s far more common now than it was then. This was completely opaque to us kids, and indeed I think we felt we got better and more interesting food from her.

I don’t know when bread-making stopped being a regular thing. It was still ordinary when I left primary school in... 1989? or thereabouts, and after that I lose track a little, because the slightly longer school day, the considerable amount more homework, and the change of friend groups (my secondary school had one pupil who had come from the same primary I did, and he was two years ahead of me) meant that I just wasn’t in other people’s houses as much. My mother’s death in 1987 meant that there was a change in the food dynamic at home, too, although my father still made bread reasonably regularly, and still does.

Certainly by the time I started paying attention to food in the sort of semi-academic food-as-concept way I do - which was probably not until the early 2000s - bread-making had become, like jam-making, making one’s own sauces, and growing one’s own food, a little hippy-ish, old-fashioned, not really in the spirit of the roaring Celtic Tiger. And sometimes efforts to pick things up from the older generation hit odd rocks. Tanya moved to New York, and phoned home at one stage to ask her mother how to make brown bread. “Well, you know yourself…” her mother said. “I don’t, though,” said Tanya, but the actual process was hard to get to, because phrases like “ah, it’s the same as everyone else’s” and “and you just do it as usual from there” kept cropping up.

That has changed in more recent years; people have begun to make bread again. In some cases, it’s been a hipster thing. I don’t think anyone in Ireland took or takes Kinfolk very seriously, but at the same time you see bits of the aesthetic cropping up, and we have the Airspace thing going on in our coffee shops, the same as anyone else does. Bread-making goes along with that, although it has to be sourdough, the starter needs a name, and it’s good if it came from somewhere else and has a proper lineage. I exaggerate only slightly; there are forums out there dedicated to sourdough bread that go into depths of nerd-dom that need to be seen to be believed. This is also true of beer, whiskey, coffee, hot sauce, knitting, RPGs, and horticulture, to be fair, so it’s not like the bread-makers are alone. In other cases, it’s people deliberately picking up what their parents used to do, or in some cases their grandparents. And right now, it’s people going “I’ve always meant to learn to make bread, now seems like a good time.”

All of this lead up to making the flatbread itself, which, spoiler, turned out fantastic.

It’s not a complicated recipe. It’s essentially a very simple yeast bread, wheat flour, no frills. The two differences are that there isn’t really a second rise - when it’s punched down after the first rise, it’s rolled out to less than a centimetre thick, and left for only about ten minutes to settle. At the same time, the baking tray that it’s to go on is in the oven, preheating to 260C, with a dusting of flour on it. The loaves are then put on this hot tray, and back into the hot oven for only about 6 minutes. This, I am pretty sure, simulates the tannur oven wall on which they would traditionally have been baked. And they pop up from it, forming flying-saucer disks of bread. It’s soft on the outside, but there’s still a distinct crust, and it’s super-fluffy and a bit hollow on the inside.

I’m pretty sure that these are going to become a regular part of my cooking. They’re too good not to have reasonably often. The surrounding text of the recipe implies that they don’t keep very well, but it might be some time before I get to actually make sure of these - at the very least, these two were devoured in short order.

I had reduced the recipe to about a quarter of its original amount, and I suspect this made the balance of dry and liquid ingredients behave a little oddly, because I had to add almost half as much again of water as was indicated before the dough came together. I’ll pay careful attention to that when I get to trying the larger amount as written - I’m aware that reducing recipes for baking isn’t a simple matter of divide-by-X, but I’ve little idea of how exactly that looks in practice. I’m also aware that flour in different countries can be extraordinarily different. Katherine, who learned to bake in the US, and then did so in Italy, and then in Ireland, says she had to relearn to bake in each country because the flour was so different. So it remains to be seen which effect was in play here. Anyway. Success!

Commonplace has had an excellent reception already, and a good few subscribers even since the first issue. Feel absolutely free to forward it on to people you think might like it, or just make them subscribe, for their own good.

This issue has been brought to you by May Bsisu, a day of gardening and napping, late night tea and sandwiches, and the advent of personal mask-chic. Eat well, and I shall write again soon.