Here we are in it must be our fourth lockdown now. During all the others, after two weeks, numbers of cases, and deaths, began a strong and steady decline. Not this time. I'm guessing it's the more contagious strain that has kept cases and deaths high. And even though I see just now, after the lockdown has been extended another three weeks, after already two months, that even when case numbers are down, deaths still remain high. And vaccine rollout here is slower than many other countries. So, we have no guests, and won't until people can move between municipalities. Like all of Italy, and the world, we pray the economy will open again with the warmer weather at least.
So, despite skeptical neighbours in the small village, who I'm sure have heard of the crazy naked ice baths, I'm continuing my routine. starting with lying down, in bed, meditation. I used to sit ram rod straight on my yoga mat, but this is a gentler way to start the day and I've come to look forward to it. This, followed by Wim Hof breathing, ice bath, yoga and exercises. Every morning I wake up and can't imagine in a month of Sundays, as my mother used to say, even entertaining the idea of immersing myself in ice cold water. Shoot me now! But after the breathing, you feel energized and roaring to get out there into the pool, into the freezing, present moment, to hear the birds, check out the vegie garden and plants bursting open - it's spring. Every morning it seems like a miracle to feel so alive.
It is time consuming, but in lockdown, and no guests, time is not a commodity I'm short on. That takes me to 11am unless life calls - rare during lockdown. I've been living on my homemade sourdough bread since November! My weight is staying much the same, which puts paid to the low-carb theory of losing or maintaining weight! This could be either due to the brown fat produced from an ice bath routine (which speeds up metabolism) or because I try to eat during an 8 hour window, not eating after 7pm. This is me in February doing the Wim Hof horse stance exercise. Helena Christensen I am not. I'm 64 and so is my bottom. I don't feel too unhappy given the memory I have of my grandmother at her death at exactly my age. She looked like the hunchback of Notre Dame's Ice Age forebear - a low bar I know, but let me keep my bubble. I kept up the ice baths all through winter, often needing to break the pool ice with a pick axe, maxing out at 10 minutes once - normally three. During my 10 week Fundamentals Wim Hof course, five minutes/day.
The bread success goes up and down. Sometimes I make the best, highest rise bread with perfect 'ear', other times, even after I think I've become the expert, the loaf sinks like my heart and becomes more like a focaccia than a loaf. While sourdough is an infinite challenge, it can only keep you entertained for so long.
So I spread my wings and tried Pan de Cristal, which, I discovered, is one of the hardest bread types to bake. Originally from Spain, eaten with tapas, it has ultra light and open crumb inside while maintaining crunch on the outside. It uses 110% hydration, which for anyone, like me, who struggles with 75% hydration dough (100g of flour to 75g of water), leading to much eye rolling at the wet dough stuck between my fingers, to the sleeves of every cashmere jumper I own, tea towels, kitchen taps, bench and walls, even approaching success with this is quite the miracle - especially in cold temperatures unconducive to proofing. But success I had, for which I bow three times a day, for I know not how.
Following this mysterious task, next up to keep my home sick French palate from grief (I hadn't been to Paris since summer), was a baguette. Italian bread, to my taste, with the exception of focaccia and panini, has no substance. It could blow away in a summer breeze it's so light. I like a chewier, crunchier number for breakfast. And nothing is like a baguette for both chew and crunch. They are not considered easy, but after the 110% hydration of the Pan de Cristal, anything under 100% was going to be a walk in the park right? I later bought a metal baguette shaped baking tray, which I highly recommend, but this time all that held these little babies in shape was my will power.....and the overnight proofing. They took two days to prove and bake. I ended up with a baguette the crunch of which was deafeningly satisfying. So loud I made a video of it. Listen, this is sound porn. What I really needed was a podcast. If the visuals lack aesthetics, that crunch will carry you to heaven. Given I was so intent on getting as much crunch into my mouth at a time as humanly possible, I assure you the sub-par visuals are preferable to the sight of that, and keeps you focussed on the magical music of the baguette.
After some months chained to the most beautiful view in the world, on Lake Como, in Italy, as you do, I craved Asian flavours. It always happens after three months here. Italians sometimes ask what a typical Australian dish is, and I can only think of Pho, Tom Yum soup or Vietnamese whole fried fish. Because of our proximity to Asia, and so many immigrants, who love their cuisine as much as we have come to, there are Asian restaurants and takeaways on every corner, even in the smallest country town. We eat Asian food 4-5 times/week. These kinds of ingredients are impossible to find in Italy outside big cities, so thanks to Asia Market Online in Milan, two boxes filled with fresh cumin, turmeric, cardamom pods, coconut milk, basmati rice, fresh rice noodles, Pho sachets, mirin, fish and soy sauce, tahini, chopsticks and more, arrived on my doorstep. I made chicken curry patties (see below), Indian dahl and rice, pumpkin curry, my own humble version of Pho…all to spice up the ongoing sourdough journey.
Following this respite, the earlier baguette experiment brought on again a nostalgia for French food. Because I planted so many onions in the garden last autumn, the southern French Pissaladière came to mind, a deliciously salty caramelized onion tart with anchovies and olives. Normally eaten in summer with a green salad, I craved just a taste, now that the ground had thawed and an early spring was upon us.
Even if I hadn't written anything in an email, or spoken to anyone about my penchant for Pissaladière - I already know our devices hear and read everything - there it was on a youtube feed. I feel like I'm sharing the apartment with a Russian spy.
Here it is. Naturally I made the pastry myself.
In a small blip of an attempt to escape pure carb breakfasts, I toasted everything in sight, from almonds and walnuts to sesame, pumpkin and linseeds, to coconut flakes, honey, tahini, pink sea salt all mixed with oats and post-oven, added chopped figs, apricots and sultanas to make the richest muesli made by wo/man.
But it was always the sourdough that called my name. There's something about the living nature of a starter, called pasta madre in Italian. It's like having a pet you constantly care for, make sure it's happy, make beds for it in different corners of the house so it will be comfortable, talk to and play with it. It's a constant presence in my life. I wake up every morning thinking about how happy, or unhappy, it will be today. And when I have something to which I have added it and I'm proofing it overnight, it's the thing that lures me out of bed every morning, even before my routine. I can't wait to see the living bubbles in my dough. Peaking at it in the wee hours of the morning is par for the course. On days when there's no baking, and yes, they exist, I endlessly research about how to keep my starter healthy and active.
I hit some lows, where my loaves came out flat like frisbees, even after I thought I'd mastered the art. I made such quantities I gave away most of it to bewildered and happy neighbours. I marched so much down the road, I sheepishly admit that at one point they started asking if they could regift some of the abundance to their neighbours! So determined was I to get to the cause of my flat bread spell, I began watching hours of youtube videos and reading about the '15 most common mistakes of beginner sourdough bakers'. To keep the starter active and happy, you have a mountain of starter to find things to do with (you have to discard more than half each time you feed the starter). So I made sourdough starter pancakes every morning for a while there - yummy with onions and soy sauce! And of course delicate crackers to have with aperitivo, cheese and charcuterie. At this time I was living with meat eating Workaway/house sitters who were living in the villa upstairs, while I inhabited, and still do, the servants quarters like a monk. The simplicity suits my current baker's persona, not to mention the austere morning regime. (Normally I prefer to save the planet with my vegetarianism....but do love it when I have an excuse....ah hem). I would normally be in Australia for our summer there, but the pandemic has quarantined me at the villa since February last year.
The problem with the Belgians, Sarah and Sidney, is that while my breads were looking more like flying saucers, theirs were coming out high, fat and perfect. They, who had never baked a sourdough loaf in their lives, but decided to learn since I was so obsessed about it, brought a Belgian/German mindset to the operation. They had a thermometer and measured the surface the bread proofed on, the ambient air temperature, weighed everything with electronic scales they just happened to have on hand in their campervan. I, instead, was tipping flour and water into the starter jar, judging quantities by the consistency it was last time, as my devil-may-care personality had dictated. They researched and found the very best German youtube video teacher to find out what went wrong when they had a mini failure. I can't say I seethed exactly, but envy began to torment me. I wanted that proud, satisfied smile Sidney had every time his bread came out of the oven.
Even before meditation, my youtube and insta feeds knew every nuance of my bread baking shame. When I turned off my alarm in the morning, there they were, feeding me every possible remedy, utensil, process or theory the vast network of ideas and consumables had to offer for bread baking. Was this a comfort that I was known so well, I was seen? Or was it creepy that the only deep understanding during this lockdown came from a computer program?
Without stopping to nut out this existential dilemma, I was further enticed by social media trolls. I bought an electrically heated mat to proof the bread on. I researched home made alternatives to proofing boxes because the world of covid bakers had depleted the online supply and none could be sourced anywhere. I went down the rabbit hole of flour properties that affect strength of proofing, what protein content, where it was grown, what grade, bio or not, what type of water (unchlorinated) to use in the starter. One indisputable fact I came to know, was that the rising of a loaf is more dependent on the strength of the starter than any other single factor.
During my despair, we had a booking! Yes! A booking! A flamboyant businesswoman from Milan had chosen Villa Ponti Bellavista for her birthday celebration. And she wanted us to cook!
The Belgians were sensible enough not to want to have any contact, no matter how distant or brief, with 12 strangers during a pandemic. So I engaged our dear local French/Italian cook Olesia and her husband Giovanni, who keenly agreed to come and make fresh gnocchi and help me with the evening. I say help, but in fact with or without sensing I was in way over my head, she took over. Thank you Olesia.
When the guests arrived, one, an artist friend, had made a birthday card depicting the villa spiral staircase on one side and the lake and villa on the other. It was so gorgeous I began thinking of ways I could get our hands on it!
Olesia proudly boasted that I had made the 'Australian' pork cheeks, daring me with her eyes to deny it. In fact it was a melt-in-your-mouth Belgian recipe made by Sarah the day before, using a quixotic medley of ground cinnamon, gloves, gingerbread biscuits and other secret ingredients her mother had taught her.
I did, however, make the caramelized cherry tomatoes, minestrone and freshly baked sourdough bread - and no, the loaves did not look like Sidneys'.
There were enough beef cheeks left over for me to still be eating them from the freezer months after Sarah and Sidney had returned home across the Alps.
Guests woke the morning after, to my less than perfect, but perfectly tasty bread for breakfast, and a wink of Lake Como's glory - Villa Ponti Bellavista's mountain god.
You will be pleased to know that my baking skills during this latest lockdown have gone from this unfortunate overproofed mess - yes, I'm ashamed to say was for breakfast the morning after the party where I was baking for 12 people, in a cold kitchen, so I decided to use the oven light overnight, as advised on youtube. It was too hot and long, so I woke up in the morning to:
And now I have progressed to this happy second attempt at sourdough croissants. Still not perfect, still not a light open crumb inside, but I have to say I was proud enough to post it to the #villapontibellavista insta to modest acclaim. I learnt most from Sarah and Sidney about precision, which has paid off. While there's still work to be done, and much to be learned, they tasted amazing. And there are still more in my freezer if anyone is brave enough to drop by....now that, today, it was announced our region will return to Orange Zone next Monday 12 April. Yay!!!!