In December 1999, I spent my last Christmas with my father. Three days earlier, we’d bade my mother a final farewell. As I’ve probably said before, her death was a shock. Six weeks prior, she’d had surgery. By all accounts, it was successful although the procedure meant a protracted stay in hospital. Cleared of nasties, she was doing well and then suddenly took a turn for the worse. Back in ICU; back into theatre, twice; organ failure and dialysis; in and out of a coma.
Skipping the long version
If you aren’t inclined to reading, scroll down to the short version.
Things in common but not friends
Let me be clear. I loved my mother, but she and I were not friends. It was, to say the least, an uneasy relationship. We had little to say to each other and although we would have had things in common, now, I doubt they would have been enough to have transformed our relationship. Some of my profound enjoyment of traditional crafts – knitting and crochet – I get from her. And cooking. She was a good cook. My parents’ dinner parties were legend. The celebration for my 21st birthday was a garden party which, except for the cake, she catered.
This collage, is of photos of Mum and I. At different times in our lives. The first time I came across the one of her in the centre, it was like looking at myself. I’ve never forgotten that weird feeling. The bottom right photo is one of me, at about the same age.
Opposites in magnets (and in life), attract, but the like poles repel. Perhaps that was my mother and I: too alike. It took fifty-odd years to acknowledge that – even after she had died and I found that photograph. More than twenty years ago.
No conversation – then
Having little in common, there wasn’t much to talk about. I don’t remember any profound or really adult conversation with her. Only once, that I can remember, did I ask for advice about cooking. When I cooked my first Christmas turkey nearly thirty years ago. Next time I wanted to ask her advice about something – also cooking related – some eight years later, I couldn’t. Although it made me momentarily sad, it did make me remember her kitchen ritual for the sauce I had wanted to make. Also for a Christmas meal: traditional British bread sauce which is traditionally served with roast chicken or turkey.
Not a baker
After she died, my sister wasn’t interested in our mother’s personal recipe book – to which I refer, pretty frequently. My
now famous chicken liver paté, and which I sell at the market is hers, and in that book. She also had two different editions of the Good Housekeeping Cookery Book. I got one, my sister, the other. I still use it and it taught me how to make marmalade and it’s my go-to for certain basics.
While my mother was an excellent cook, she always said she couldn’t bake. One vivid memory of such an effort was a birthday cake. My sister had commanded pink. Pink. Very. Pink, it was. And
hacked sculpted to turn it into a cake shaped cake. For years and for some reason, I believed that I, too, could not bake. That I have become a relatively accomplished baker of certain desserts, shortbread, biscuits and now, sourdough bread is, to say the least, ironic.
The absence of conversation, however has changed. Over the last year or so, I’ve had more conversations with “mother” than I had with my real Mum in the thirty six years I knew her.
Blame it on Lockdown
Last year (2020 in case you’ve forgotten), and when we were in hard lockdown a chef friend in the village started a Facebook group – what’s for supper? It started, among other things, my now ritual photographing of our supper, stretching the imagination (and the budget) as far as it (would) will go. The other starter was, literally a starter: a mother or natural yeast for making bread.
Having been scared of yeast, I resisted baking bread. Also, it’s not something one can do on impulse. Until then I had tried baking bread a couple of times and had long wanted to literally do it from scratch. That included my own “mother”. With no other distractions, let alone plans, and with encouragement from Pixie who, at that stage, had her own, well established jar of glop, I started my journey.
Uncle Ritchie and Auntie Doris
The first “rule” of making one’s own mother, I’m led to believe, is giving her a name. Of course, being who I am, I was not going to give her a conventional name. Not female. I chose “Uncle Ritchie” because he was the only baker to trade I’ve ever known. I remember the bakery next door to his and Auntie Doris’s (she of my birthday cake) house. And the big ovens… Nearly forty years ago, it was demolished to make way for a block of flats (apartments). I digress.
So, in late March, my sourdough journey began. I mixed equal parts of flour and water in a jar, religiously closing the top, feeding Uncle Ritchie every day. On day two, I think, there were a couple of bubbles. Then, a few days later. Nothing. Dead. Like baker Uncle Ritchie has been for the last thirty something years.
killed suffocated him. I’d closed the lid too tight. He couldn’t breathe.
Rinse and repeat
I don’t do well being
challenged thwarted. I was determined to try again; if Uncle Ritchie wouldn’t oblige, I was sure Auntie Doris would. She’d come through for me before. So again, I mixed equal parts of flour and water in a jar, religiously closing the top – not too tightly, but tightly enough to keep the fruit flies out. I fed Auntie Doris every day. On day two, there were a couple of bubbles. Then more. But I noticed a layer of water forming at the bottom of the jar. A few days or so later the water had risen to the top.
I had drowned Auntie Doris!
Third time lucky
I was not going to accept defeat. Not from a fungus.
The universe was sending me a message. I’d resisted, right from the beginning, the obvious choice – my own mother’s name. Her given name was Ursula, but she was always known as Ula (pronounced Yoo-la). “Ursula” has significance for another reason: it’s the name of a former teacher who became a mentor and good friend. I tried again.
By the end of April, Ursula was a bubbling jar of glop with a veracious appetite and which needed to be used.
It had taken just over a month, bit with hindsight, seemed longer. As everything did when we were in that hard lockdown.
The short version
For detailed instructions on making your own natural yeast, download them here.
The first sourdough bake off
Having consulted GoG*, I found that although Ursula was growing out of her jar, I didn’t really have enough for anything worth while, and I found recipes for “discard”. As it’s called, and for when mother grows out of her
dress jar. My first effort was scones (or as my American friends call them, biscuits). I chose those because I wasn’t confident of my kneading skills and, and, and….
For a patch, I made those quite frequently. I took a batch along or our first skelm social engagement when lockdown restrictions eased a little. They were a hit. The recipe’s here.
Then I graduated to rolls and bread.
I’ll save stories of those journeys (and how they ended up on my market stall) for another
*Good old Google
Until next time, be well
The Sandbag House
McGregor, South Africa
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