Four fantastic days at Otter Farm

If you saw the Grand Designs episode featuring Otter Farm, you'll already know something about the beautiful rural retreat and cookery school crowdfunded and built by award winning food writer Mark Diacono and his wife Candida. I know something about the joy and pain of building your own house, but to attempt something on the scale of a cookery school is either madness or genius! Mark has a delightful mix of both, an enthusiastic springer spaniel of a chap, who will definitely get you enthused about pretty much anything you can think of. He is also a grower of forgotten food, exotic fruit and makes wine from vines that stretch away from the cookery school towards the horizon. There are kiwis, sweet cicely, chocolate vines, Japanese wineberries and Vietnamese coriander, orchards of pecans, quince, almonds, Szechuan pepper and apricots, as well as a forest garden, a vineyard and a perennial garden.

I currently teach four day courses at Otter Farm and they are a fantastic opportunity to share what I know with smaller groups than I usually teach. I love the intimacy of a small group that gives everyone the chance for a little spontaneity and some personal interaction. The Otter Farm course programme features luminaries such as Diana Henry, Rachel Roddy, Gill Meller and Catherine Phipps - so say that I am thrilled to be included is a massive understatement. If you're interested in the courses outlined below, head over to Otter Farm to book - if you become a member there's money off and you can also do the courses as two dayers, for a full Naomi immersion.

Gluten Free Everyday focuses on the wholesome, delicious bakes that make week day meals a joy. The stuff you miss when you're gluten free. We make sourdough bread (gluten free of course), shortcrust pastry, buckwheat pasta for our lunch of homemade lasagne, moreish linseed crackers a a couple of little savoury tarts that you can take home for supper (they won't last the journey). Through the day I explain the flours that we use and answer questions about being gluten free. dairy free and egg free options are available if they are necessary for health reasons.

Gluten Free Celebration is all about party food! we'll make some light and tender olive or walnut bread, I'll demonstrate a genoise sponge and make it into a delicious cream filled, ganache topped gateau that we can slice into later. For lunch we'll make our own thin, crispy pizzas and eat them with some delicious salads from Mark's kitchen. After lunch, we will make a Yorkshire pudding batter and turn it into toad in the hole, (or roast veg in the hole) and make gyoza dumplings using our own handmade dumpling wrappers, which we will cook into some delicious pot stickers for you to taste before you head home with your fresh baked bread and toad in the hole. Dishes can be made dairy free if necessary for health reasons, but not all dishes can be made egg free.

Food for a Happy Gut (Calm) is a day based on my forthcoming book of the same name (check it out and pre-order here!). This is a day to soothe troubled digestion and learn about how your gut works and why it can be sensitive. Although Rome wasn't built in a day, I will give you tips and pointers  so that you can start eating in a way that calms, heals and restores comfortable digestion. We start the day by tasting some digestive bitters, that stimulate the liver to work better before making a jar to take home and mature. I'll demonstrate some delicious jelly sweets that are a medicinal treat for soothing inflamed tums. We'll make our own ramen bowl for lunch with bone broth, noodles, fermented pickles and other anti-inflammatory delights. After lunch we'll make a simple gluten free oat pastry and turn it into a delicious savoury tart using seasonal ingredients. Our tea break is an opportunity to taste some anti-inflammatory herb teas (not the kind that promise a fruit bowl and taste of dishwater) and our jelly sweets. For our last session of the day we look at some fermented food that is easily digested and a few probiotic drinks. Finally, we'll make a jar of fermented vegetables for you to take home and allow to gently bubble for a few days before adding to meals.

Food for a Happy Gut (Nourish) is the second day based on my book (check it out and pre-order here!). It's a day for feeding up your microbes and growing a thriving microbiome. We'll start the day by making a quick pickle to eat with our lunch and we'll find out all about what your gut loves and what it doesn't. Next we'll make a jar of spicy, nutty, anti-inflammatory dukkah to sprinkle over our lunch (and take home). We make our own fibre packed prebiotic, probiotic, anti-inflammatory lunch, with wholegrains, pulses, pickles, creamy labneh, bitter leaves, roast roots and gut soothing spices. It's a feast for the eyes as well as the tum! I'll demonstrate a wickedly luscious dessert that contains beans and then we'll finish up by making a making a fermented pickle that is full of prebiotics (food for your microbes) and probiotics (good microbes) for you to take home and allow to bubble gently until it is tangy and marvellous.

Make a Gluten Free or Rye Sourdough Starter from Scratch

Gluten free or rye sourdough starter
In addition to baking my own gluten free sourdough bread, I use a sourdough starter to ferment pancakes, breakfast muffins, crumpets, pastry and farinata. You can make a gluten free starter using any wholegrain gluten free flour, or use, rye, spelt, emmer or einkorn flour if you can tolerate gluten. For gluten free sourdough bread recipes, check out my book RiverCottage Gluten Free and for a book containing this recipe and a delicious sourdough crumpet recipe see my forthcoming book, Food for a Happy Gut (published April 2017)

Follow the method below to make your starter in 5 days and then you can use it and keep it dormant in the fridge between bakes for years (as long as you feed it regularly!). Read the pointers below before you get started.

Day 1
120g brown rice flour or rye flour
180g luke warm mineral or filtered water (240g for rye)
Small bunch of unwashed grapes (optional) or pear water, see below
*      Mix flour and water in a bowl, nestle the grapes in (if using), cover with a cloth and leave in a warm place.

Day 2
120g brown rice flour or rye flour
160g luke warm mineral or filtered water (240g for rye)
*      Lift out the grapes, add the flour and water ‘feed’, whisk, replace grapes and cover again.

Day 3
240g brown rice flour or rye flour
320g luke warm mineral or filtered water (480g for rye)
*      Lift out the grapes, add the flour and water feed, whisk, replace grapes and cover again.

Day 4 morning
300g brown rice flour or rye flour (alternatively for gluten free: a mixture of rice & teff, buckwheat, sorghum, millet or quinoa flour, or for those who can eat gluten: rye, spelt, emmer or einkorn flour)
400g mineral or filtered water (600g for rye)
*      By now the sourdough starter should have started to bubble and smell a little yeasty. Take out the grapes, squeeze a little to release a small amount of juice and discard the grapes. Whisk the starter well, weigh out 700g (900g for rye), discard the rest or make pancakes or crumpets with it, stir in the feed and cover again.

Day 4 evening
*      Before bed, whisk the starter and measure out 700g (900g for rye) again and feed it as for day 4 morning.

Day 5 morning
*      Whisk and measure out 700g of starter again (900g for rye) and discard the rest as before, feed the starter with 300g of flour and 400g of water (600g for rye) and allow the starter to bubble up. It should be ready to bake with and this is referred to as an ‘active’ starter. If it doesn’t seem powerful enough, weigh out 700g of starter (900g for rye) and feed again every 6-8 hours. Each time you feed it, you must weigh out 700g (900g for rye) and discard the rest, otherwise your kitchen will overflow with starter and you will have to increase the feed amount each time. You can store any discarded starter (discard) in the fridge until you have enough to make some pancakes or a batch of crumpets. If you plan to bake a lot of loaves each time, you might want to keep a larger amount of starter reserve, just remember to increase the amount of feed you give it accordingly.

Which flour to use?
Rice flour works well for a gluten free sourdough starter because it is mild flavoured and cheap to maintain. You need to use brown rice flour, or at the very least a rice flour with some brown rice in it such as Doves Farm rice flour (a 50/50 mix of brown and white). This is because the yeasts and bacteria that will come to life and flourish when you give them heat and water, live in the brown part (germ) of the grain. Teff, sorghum, millet and quinoa flour can be great to give a starter a kick start - all are yeasty and more sour than rice flour. If you like the flavour, you could switch to a mixture of rice and another flour for all feeds. For a gluten starter, rye makes a great start and then you can change the flavour once it is established by adding other ancient grains such as spelt or emmer.

Always use filtered or bottled water for starting and maintaining your starter because chlorine is the enemy of yeast and bacteria. If you don't have access to either, leave some water out for 24 hours uncovered to allow the chlorine to evaporate and then use this to feed your starter.

Ratio for a gluten free sourdough starter
The ratio for a gluten free sourdough starter is 3 parts flour to 4 parts water. For example 150g of flour will need 200g of water and this will make 350g of feed. The consistency of the starter if fed like this should look like lightly whipped double cream. If it is very thick and pasty to start with, give it a little more water and return to the correct proportions when things are bubbling and have loosened up. For a rye starter the ratio is 1 part flour to 2 parts water.

How much to feed my starter?
You need to double the starter each time you feed it. I keep a reservoir of 700g of gluten free starter in my fridge at home and each time I feed it I give it 300g of flour and 400g of water (keep 900g for a rye starter and feed it 300g of flour and 600g of water). When I am finished baking, I pour off 700g of starter and keep this in the fridge until next time - anything left over can be used to make pancakes and crumpets or give the compost a kick start.

When you add your flour and water, give the mixture a good whisk. Aerating the mixture helps things to stay fresh and vigorous.

Pear water
If you make your starter in the winter, a pear might be more appropriate than grapes. Grate a whole pear, put into a soup bowl and pour over just enough chlorine free water to cover. Cover the bowl and leave for 12-24 hours. Strain and use the water for days 1 and 2 of making your starter, or to boost a less than bubbly starter.  If you can't get hold of pears or organic grapes, just soak a handful of organic raisins in cold water overnight and use this to start your starter. This method was the result of some genius improvisation by the Nolan family (rabbit rescuers and small holders in California), you can follow them on Instagram at: @tuesdaylapchicken

Water kefir
When my starter has been resting in the fridge I sometimes use water kefir (page XX) as the liquid part of the feed and find that this gives it a real lift and makes it very vigorous and yeasty. This will not work with milk kefir, so make sure you buy the correct grains and use the liquid kefir that you brew from them to feed your starter, not the grains themselves.

Where to keep your starter when it is growing?
Your starter likes it a bit warmer than you do, so between 24-28ºC is ideal. If your house is colder than this, you may find that you struggle to get your starter going and end up with a very sour, but not bubbly mixture. This is because yeasts like warmth, whereas the lactic bacteria thrive at slightly lower temperatures.

Too warm?
The back of the Aga or next to a radiator is too warm for a starter. If your starter is in the Goldilocks zone and bubbles up nicely on days 1 and 2, but seems lifeless on day 3 or 4, the chances are it burnt itself out because it was nice and warm, but didn't have enough food to keep chomping. If this is the case, feed your starter twice daily from day 3 until it is well established on day 5 or 6. Each time you feed it, for gluten free, weigh out 700g of the starter mixture and feed this with 300g of flour and 400g of water, discarding the extra starter, or using it to make pancakes or crumpets. (for rye starter weigh out 900g and feed it with 300g of flour and 600g of water)

How do you know when it’s ready?
Your starter is ready when it starts to bubble up within an hour or two of feeding (this may take a little longer if it has been dormant in the fridge). It should rise up in the bowl, take on a bubbly mousse like texture and even bubble and pop as though it is alive! You may find that your new starter is not as vigorous as a well established one and in this case, to avoid disappointment you can add a little fresh or dried yeast to your loaf to give it a bit of extra lift. Between 6-9g of fresh yeast or 2-3g of dried yeast will give you a lift, without taking over. Then you can add some of the kick starters listed above to try and strengthen the yeast population in your starter.

Can I use it straight away on day 5?
Yes! After you have fed it and it has risen up and looks bubbly and alive, you can go straight on to bake your first loaf or make a batch of crumpets, but bear in mind it may still be a little weak. If you don't want to bake with it that day, put it into a Tupperware container and keep it in the fridge. If you want to use a kilner jar, take the rubber seal out first.

After it has been in the fridge?

Remember to warm up your starter after it has been in the fridge. A bowl of luke warm water is ideal for this. Feed the starter, whisk well, put the bowl into luke warm water and cover with a cloth for a couple of hours, it should then be bubbly and ‘active’. If your starter isn't coming to life, you may need to give it 24 hours to wake up. Feed it again in 8-12 hours and then again another 8-12 hours later before using.

Malty gluten free sourdough (my new favourite)

Coeliac Awareness Week runs from 9th-15th May this year. Although awareness of my own coeliac disease is pretty much a year round thing for me, it is wonderful that information will be extra visible this week and ideas for delicious gluten free food celebrated around the web.

It is tempting to post something sweet and chocolatey here - cakes get the most hits on any website, especially if they claim to be refined sugar free or good for you. There is definitely a place in everyone's life for a little cake, gluten free or not! However, this week is about living with coeliac disease and eating the sort of everyday food that sustains, nourishes and heals, as well as delighting our tastebuds. The holy grail of which is bread, no? How to make a loaf that rises, holds together when you slice it, has flavour and depth, a satisfying crumb and thin crust? How to make this mythical loaf without recourse to gums and stabilisers, starch, strange fats and added sugar? Since the gluten free bread available to buy in supermarkets is both full of rubbish and unpleasant to eat, the only solution is to make your own.

I love a deeply flavoured loaf and brown teff is the perfect flour for something with hints of malt loaf - without the sweetness - and a touch of Weetabix on the finish. It would probably be my desert island flour if I had to choose one. When fermented, teff has a particularly sour quality that is perfectly balanced by the sweet nutty flavour of chestnut flour. Because I use both sweet rice flour and chia seed, the loaf has a very slightly chewy crumb with a great structure that is wonderful toasted straight from the freezer, or as bakers perk spread thickly with butter as soon as the loaf has cooled and settled. All of the flours are available from Shipton Mill

In my book River Cottage Gluten Free, I give instructions on how to make a gluten free sourdough starter and in this post you will find troubleshooting tips for making and managing your new pet. If you want to make the loaf without a sourdough starter, just follow instructions for making it with yogurt instead of starter. I find that adding a little extra yeast does help get a little more rise in the loaf, but if you would like to make it as a pure sourdough, just leave it out and allow the loaf to rise for longer - up to 5 hours depending on how vigorous your starter is.

Before you start baking, you will need to activate your starter. It will need several hours to properly wake up if it has been in the fridge so to make sure it is nice and vigorous, you can feed it the night before you plan to bake and then feed it again as soon as you wake up. I generally keep about 700ml of starter, so I feed it with 300g flour and 400g water each feed and discard any excess that isn't used, leaving 700ml to go back in the fridge when I have finished baking. You can use the excess, or 'discard' for making pancakes, crumpets etc or throw it away.

Malty sourdough with pumpkin & chia seeds

150g chestnut flour

100g brown teff flour

50g sweet rice flour

50g buckwheat flour

200g active gluten free sourdough starter (or 90g live yogurt + 110g brown teff flour)

1 tsp (4g) quick dried yeast (or 12g fresh yeast)

100g potato starch

7g fine sea salt

10g chia seeds (or golden linseed)

1 tsp blackstrap molasses (optional)

2 - 2 1/2 tsp ground psyllium husk

40g pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds

butter/lard/coconut oil to grease tins & sesame or sunflower seeds to coat

a 2 lb loaf tin - approx dimensions 25cm x 11cm x 8 cm (I use Vogue brand)

  • First make the sponge. In a mixing bowl beat together the chestnut flour, brown teff flour, sweet rice flour, buckwheat flour, sourdough starter (or yogurt + flour) and 400g tepid unchlorinated water until smooth. Cover and leave at room temperature for 4-6 hours or overnight for a more sour loaf. 
  • When the sponge has fermented, make the dough. Sprinkle dried yeast into the sponge mix and beat well, or mash fresh yeast in a little of the wet mix until completely smooth and add back to the bowl. Leave for 5 minutes to start to work and then add the rest of the ingredients except psyllium husk and pumpkin seeds. Beat well with a spoon or your hands, squidging any lumps of potato starch through your fingers, until completely smooth.
  • Add pumpkin seeds and 2 tsp of ground psyllium husk to the dough and beat well with the spoon, leave for a couple of minutes to thicken a little, while you prepare the tin.
  • Line a 1 lb (454g) loaf tin with baking parchment or butter the inside and coat with sesame or sunflower seeds. Check if the dough is a dropping consistency - it should just leave the spoon, not pour off and shouldn't be stiff like a traditional bread dough. If it needs to be stiffer, add another 1/2 -1 tsp ground psyllium husk. Scrape the bread dough in, smooth to level it, sprinkle with sesame, sunflower or pumpkin seeds and put in a warm place for about an hour, until it has risen by about a third and the top has little cracks appearing. Don't let it come over the top of your tin as it will flow down the sides!
  • 15-20 minutes before the rise time is up, heat the oven to 240ºC top and bottom heat - not the fan setting. Put a baking tray in the bottom of the oven and boil the kettle.
  • Very gently ease the loaf tin into the oven – if you tap or bang it at this stage it will collapse, as there is no gluten in the mixture to hold the bubbles in. Straight away, pour a mug of boiling water into the tray in the bottom of the oven - watch you don't burn your face with the steam! Bake for 20 minutes and then turn the oven down to 180ºC and switch to fan setting for another 40 minutes. Take the baking tray out of the bottom of the oven if it still has any water in it.
  • After the loaf has been in the oven for 40 minutes, put some tin foil over the top to stop it burning – the crust will be fairly dark on this loaf anyway, so don’t be alarmed.
  • After  an hour in total, take the loaf out of the oven – it should have shrunk away from the sides of the tin a little and sound hollow-ish when tapped on top. Leave in the tin for a few minutes, then lift out the loaf and bounce your fingers on the side to see if it seems firmish. If not, just put it back in the oven without the tin at 160ºC for another 10-15 minutes to continue cooking.
  • Cool on a rack and do not cut until completely cold. Slice and freeze anything that won’t be eaten within 24 hours.