A Better Loaf

Monday, 1st May, 2023

I make bread several times a week, alternating between white and brown. My sourdough starter dates from 2009, and if I don’t keep making bread, it will die. The same principle goes for yoghurt, but my yoghurt starters tend to last a couple of years before gradually weakening and needing to be replaced. This year, because of high electricity prices, I have been experimenting with more economical ways of baking bread. To switch on the big oven for 50 minutes just to bake a single loaf seems very extravagant. So I’ve been using my mini-oven. Unfortunately, this doesn’t result in as good a loaf as baking it in the big oven. The top of the loaf gets overcooked and the rest of it dries out too much before being cooked through. Baking it at a lower temperature for longer does not work. In search of a solution, I stumbled on this lidded ceramic  bread pan from the French brand Emile Henry. Reviews were mixed and it’s an expensive product, but I decided to order it anyway and try it out. The results far exceeded my expectations. That lid, with its all-important holes, is what produces the magic. It traps just enough moisture inside the receptacle to produce a good rise and prevent dehydration, but not so much that the loaf would come out soggy. I now have the most perfect loaves I could possibly wish for, cooked in my mini-oven. I wish I’d discovered this wonderful earthenware bread baker earlier. My lidless metal loaf tins will now all go to recycling.


Colin’s Circles

Wednesday, April 5th, 2023

March was wet and cold, and April is brighter, but still very cold. Undeterred, the grass is growing apace and Colin the gardener decided to make his lawn artwork as neat and perfect as possible when I told him I needed a photo item for the website to reassure visitors that we hadn’t gone into total hibernation. “I’ll do a double cut,” he said. “One cut today and another tomorrow.” So this is the result, viewed from upstairs yesterday evening. I’m sure you could take a compass to it and Colin’s geometry would be pretty accurate. This morning, however, the frozen dew had painted the circles white.

The rear of the property looks very different. It is an active builders’ yard, with a team of half a dozen workers, who work from 8am until 4pm. They do not disturb B&B guests, whose rooms are on the south and east sides of the house. The building work is on the north and west sides, well away from guest bedrooms and the breakfast room. The Annexe was essentially demolished during March, leaving little more than a bare brick shell. At the beginning of this month the joists for the upper storey were put in place, which immediately makes it look more like a house.



Raise the Roof

Tuesday, February 28th, 2023

February always races by, thank goodness, as it is my least favourite month. Tomorrow work officially starts on the annexed cottage. The architect’s drawing shows what it will look like in seven months’ time and the photo below shows its current, dilapidated state. One minor change to the drawing is the window under the porch roof on the left. This will be removed and replaced by a new dedicated front door to the cottage, which is at present accessed by a door at right-angles to it. There will be two matching doors, one for the cottage and one for the service areas of the main house. The current crazily  spread-out bungalow will become a compact two-storey west wing, joined to the main house but also neatly blocked off to conform with fire regulations and also to enhance privacy on both sides instead of the current arrangement whereby the cottage’s kitchen protrudes into and under the main house via a long corridor, creating a lot of wasted space and a major heating problem for the cottage.

The roof of the central part of the cottage will be raised to make space for two bedrooms and a spacious bathroom. The chimney will be replaced by a modern flue serving a wood-burning stove. The internal walls of the cottage’s ground floor will be removed, creating a vast open-plan ground floor living space from what is currently a living-room, a small corridor and two bedrooms. The cottage’s new kitchen will be at the northern end, which will retain its current single-storey status. The cottage’s old kitchen and associated corridor will revert back to the main house and will be repurposed as a much-needed storage area, utility/laundry room and boot room. I will be able to relocate one washing machine, a dryer and my rotary iron and linen press there. I will also be able to set up a large sheet-folding table, which will be much better than using a bed as a folding surface for superking sized sheets.

In days gone by, the main house did not have a kitchen. The cottage was built as servants’ quarters, and its occupants (groundskeeper husband and cook/housekeeper wife) were expected to cook meals for their masters in their own kitchen and pass it through the serving hatch (which still exists) into the pantry, whence it would be taken to the dining room. This room, along with most others in the house, still has a bell to summon the servants. The bellboard still works in parts and is in the pantry. The pantry, with its original swing door, is now the secondary kitchen, which is used by B&B guests to eat takeaways or to have early self-service breakfasts if they want to check out at crack of dawn.

I will post updates and photos of the works to the cottage over the next seven months.

Winter Warmth

Sunday, January 1st, 2023

Before Bressenden starts to prepare for its sixth year of hosting B&B guests, the quiet, largely guest-free period of the dark weeks around the solstice provides an opportunity to reorganise the wood shed and use up old stock, particularly as a fair number of trees came down during the recent storm. There are now new piles of logs dotted about all over the garden that will need to be collected, seasoned and stored. At this time of ridiculously high energy prices, a log fire is no longer an occasional treat but an all-day provider of heat. With long nights, short days, cold temperatures and often atrocious weather, the temptation is simply to hibernate. But this winter’s favourite pastime involves beating the hell out of enormous slices of tree trunk with an axe and a mallet. One learns by trial and error. It is strangely satisfying to go out in all weathers with thick leather gloves, protective goggles and tough shoes (essential to avoid toe injuries from falling steel, iron and heavy logs) and get to work in the sheltered space of the wonderful shed that Robert Ghent rebuilt for us. A second axe and a couple of heavy wedges are essential accessories and valued friends when an axe head gets stuck fast in an unyielding piece of wood. How satisfying, though, to wield these traditional tools with their smooth hickory handles and then to enjoy the fruits of one’s labours at the end of the day. Colin the gardener says that those who chop wood get warm twice. How true!

A Cold and Frosty Morning

Friday, December 16th, 2022

This photo was taken at 11 a.m., one hour before the sun would reach its highest point for the day in the azure sky. The moon is visible just above the treetops. It shows how little sunlight we have at this time of year, and a possible temperature of minus nine degrees Centigrade is forecast for tonight. The challenge is to prevent water pipes from freezing in one part of the house that lacks heating — the laundry room. It certainly is unusually cold for mid-December. Elsewhere in the garden the tree surgeons are busy felling trees and branches that have snapped under the weight of the snow.

White pre-Christmas

Monday, December 12, 2022

Thick snow fell last night, bringing an unusual realism to scenes usually depicted on Christmas cards, but seldom seen in real life in the south of England until at least January. The freezing temperatures and accompanying power cuts were not so welcome.

Paving the Way

Thursday, September 22nd, 2022

During the days that followed the death of Queen Elizabeth II, when the late summer weather acquired a noticeable chill, here at Bressenden we had the main part of our paved terrace repointed and the wobbly steps repaired and cemented into place. The paving slabs were pressure-washed earlier in the summer, which cleaned the pavement thoroughly but also had the effect of dislodging much of the old and loose mortar. Now it looks all of a piece and there is much less risk of slipping and tripping. There should no longer be unsightly weeds growing in the gaps — at least for a year or two. Phase 2 of this large job, the long path past the sun dial down to the pond, will be done later. Part of it will have to be relaid on a rebuilt base, The mill wheel outside the front door looks much better too.

A white elephant and a nail brush

Monday, August 29th, 2022

It’s quite a while since my last news item. That is because it has been an unprecedentedly busy summer. Guests have stayed here most days and we are almost fully booked until October.

When I started the B&B I quickly realised that I was going to need a lot of machinery to cope with the laundry. My initial hopes of contracting out laundry or hiring bed linen were soon dashed when what few services existed in this area proved to be far too expensive. The tumble dryer that I bought was a huge disappointment. Not only are these things expensive to run, but pure cotton bed linen comes out far more creased than when hung out to dry on a washing line. Creased sheets need more ironing, which again costs time and money. The only thing I ever use the tumble dryer for these days is as a fluffing up machine for laundered towels. But no more! With the soaring cost of electricity, fluffing up towels by means of tossing them around in hot air seems a ridiculous and extravagant waste of electricity. As from last week I have been burning up the calories with the aid of a stiff nail brush. Smoothing and buffing up freshly laundered towels with a stiff brush is surprisingly hard work but is also surprisingly effective. It works much like a suede brush on goat skin shoes. The big white elephant of a tumble dryer stands unused in the laundry room as a memorial to the days of cheaper electricity.

Strawberry Season

Saturday, June 18th, 2022

Yesterday was the hottest day of the year, at around 30 degrees Celsius from morning until evening. Strawberries that were pink in the morning were red and ripe by the evening. What can be nicer than to populate the breakfast fruit bowl with Kentish strawberries picked from the garden a few minutes before?

Regular visitors may wonder what happened to my colourful jars of jam. I reluctantly decided that guidance given by the Food Standards Agency confirmed my suspicion that the practice of decanting jam into containers, which might be opened and closed repeatedly for several days — or even weeks in the case of the less popular flavours — was not something I should continue to do. The risk of mould and/or contamination is simply too great. In addition, checking every jar every morning for signs of mould, not to mention carting all the jars to and from the fridge each day, was becoming too much of an onerous task, as well as taking up a lot of fridge space. When mould appeared, I would have to discard the whole jar, which was wasteful. For reasons of safety and hygiene therefore, I decided that sealed individual portions should replace my colourful array. Fortunately, Tiptree provides a good selection of fruit jams, as well as chocolate spread, honey and lemon curd. You will certainly find B&Bs that do supply home-made jams — and I have many memories of wonderful locally produced confitures eaten with my morning croissants in southern French chambres d’hôte — but in our damp English climate, especially when you live in the middle of the woods, mould is an ever-present hazard and I do not have the turnover of guests to warrant keeping ten flavours of jam in an unsealed, non-vacuumed state.

A Golden Cascade

Tuesday, May 24th, 2022

We have reached peak season, for guests and rhododendrons, and the diary is full for the next couple of months. I don’t have much time to go in the garden, but while walking up the drive I was surprised to notice this magnificent laburnum tree half concealed in the woodland to the right. You can see in the photo how far to the left and the right its branches extend, poking their way through rhododendrons and pines, all jostling for space and light. What is less obvious is how tall this tree has grown. The topmost blooms (and there are more above the top of the picture) must be well over 50 feet above the ground. It is a shame that the tree is inaccessible, because its cascading golden flowers are truly spectacular. Here is a close-up of one of the blooms nearer to the ground. To reach it, one has to battle through a dense tangle of bushes and brambles. But what reward awaits the treasure hunter!

Laburnum flower