Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Plaiting memories

Tiny tight plaits - a bit different from plaiting my daughters' hair!

I work in a local sewing workshop part time; it fits in very well with school, and the women there have become valued and trusted friends. We regularly put the world to rights over our sewing machines, and if ever I'm feeling low, a day or two in the workshop helps to sort out my mood and get me laughing again.

A while ago one of the women approached me with a rather unusual jewellery request;  about a year previously her daughter's pony had had to be put to sleep, and she was devastated. They had saved some of the tail hair with the thought of having it made into a keepsake but all the firms they had found online were prohibitively expensive. Would I be interested in making a bracelet with the hair for her daughter's 18th birthday which was coming up?

I will confess, I was taken aback. I had no idea such bracelets existed but a quick google showed that yes, they do, and yes, they can be very pricey. I agreed to go ahead, with some trepidation - but as I began to sort and plait the strands and create a unique piece, I found myself becoming rather emotional, thinking about the girl I knew, about how sad she had been and wondering how she would react. I found myself plaiting good wishes into that short braid. Mr DC said that he though it was all a bit odd - but I was pleased to hear she had been thrilled with it.

I select the longest hairs and place them one by one into a small bundle 

I mentioned this to the teacher at the stables where my girls ride, and she said that she knew about these bracelets and they were popular amongst both people who have lost their ponies and also those who are looking for quirky gifts for horse owners. Within a couple of weeks one of the horses at the stables was sadly put down and I was asked to make another bracelet, which I gladly did. This time Mr DC was with me as I gave the bracelet to the riding school owner, and when he saw how moved she was to receive it, said that now he understood why I had been willing to make it.

Since then I've made a few bracelets, mostly for people whose ponies are very much still alive; but this month there was sad news about the pony my girls had their first lessons on. She had died, at the grand old age of 35. Their teacher wept as she handed me the hair they'd carefully saved, and I wept as I made the jet black bracelets.  I don't know how many of the bracelets are ever actually worn; I suspect most are keepsakes that are looked at occasionally. They do remind me a little of Victorian mourning brooches, and I try not to think too hard about that. I feel very honoured to be trusted to make them. 

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Trial and error; or, my adventures with sourdough

Well, I promised last time some sourdough action; I can't pretend it's been smooth sailing but now, finally, I feel I'm getting the hang of it.

I started off using the River Cottage recipe, which produced a loaf that looked OK, and was definitely tangy, but a bit flat and without the holes it should have.

So I tried a variation, which had far more water and resembled a dough monster until cooked, when it ripped itself apart.

Undeterred, I carried on, and came across James Morton's advice to bake it in a cast iron casserole dish and finally, a lovely well risen loaf! But Oh. My. Viciously sour to the point of being inedible.

I will admit, I was tempted to give up at this point and if I hadn't been so determined (some might say stubborn) I would have stopped there and then. But then I read somewhere that underfeeding the starter  can cause sourness. And that the method I was using was actually bound to maximise that. Aha!

I fed my starter twice a day. I started to follow James Morton's white sourdough recipe. I started proving in bowls instead of just on the counter. I baked everything in a scorching hot pot. Bingo! Delicious bread, risen properly.

But still, the texture wasn't quite right. I ordered Brilliant Bread and started to go through it, learning new recipes and novel techniques for kneading and I think I've now discovered my very favourite recipe - it's Pain de Campagne, which is a loaf risen with normal yeast and flavoured with sourdough starter.

One morning I accidentally added too much water and the dough turned into some kind of monster, but this time I knew how to knead it and prove it without adding more flour. It overflowed the proving bowl and flolloped into the cooking pot. And when I cut it the next morning and saw the open, holey, chewy texture I'd been craving, I swear I heard angels singing.

It's all gone now. I'd better make some more!