Would I lie to you?

Copyright Marilyn Chalkley

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Photo Will Turner Unsplash.

The diamond wasn’t as large as Carrie had expected. Phil had been a big man, hefty muscled legs from a lifetime of running, big biceps from doing weights at the gym, a reddish veined complexion from too much good wine, and a laugh that was more like a roar. Not that the laugh would end up in his ashes, the carbon that created the diamond.

It seemed like a neat idea – if Phil who had died so unexpectedly, could be transformed into a diamond, she could keep an eye on him. He was such a slippery character she couldn’t quite believe he was dead. The Internet company was true to its word – the diamond came back in a small box, some weeks after she had sent off the ashes. Carrie didn’t trust anyone these days, but the company had come highly recommended by the Funeral Director, and by Kylie who wore her husband on her wedding finger every day. ‘If I go broke, I can sell him,’ she said. ‘Do you think that’s ethical? I still haven’t decided.’

Carrie wasn’t sure she wanted Phil in a ring. It was too personal. He was a man to whom truth had no meaning – something she found out gradually, painfully. To wear him every day would have been a constant reminder of the humiliation of being the poor little wife. ‘He told her he worked in Defence. He would drive off every day, come back in the evening. He’d say his job was top secret, couldn’t tell her a thing.’ Carrie imagined her friends gasping in delighted horror, whispering behind their hands. But that was later.

When she first met him, Phil was such an engaging companion, and he believed most of what he was telling her. That was why he was convincing. He created dreams. ‘Just got back from India. Wonderful country! Stayed with a maharaja. I’ll take you there one day. What a place that would be for a honeymoon!  His palace has ceilings made of gold mosaic, marble floors, servants in white bringing you tea, punkah-wallers keeping you cool with fans. Got a bit tired of curry though – the chef used to put a few more chilies in every night and would peep through from the kitchen watching the tears roll down my cheeks. Little bastard.’

It was such details that made it convincing. But Carrie never did get to India. Soon after Phil proposed he said the Maharaja had died in an epidemic of cholera that had devastated Jaipur. They got married the next year but had a low budget honeymoon on the Gold Coast.

With his brilliant degree and sparkling references Phil quickly got a job in the public service. Phil was proud of his degrees. He had them framed on the wall. An Honours degree in English from La Trobe and a PhD from Cambridge. It never occurred to Carrie that they were forgeries.

He turned to her one day early in their marriage, tears rolling down his cheeks. “That was Mum on the phone. I have to go to Melbourne. Dad has just had a heart attack. Better if you stay here, I’ll see to it all.”

“But I could help, how is your Mum coping?”

“Devastated. Doesn’t want to see anyone. Better if I go alone, darl.”

He disappeared for two months. He took leave from work for a family crisis. He rang every now and again to assure her his Dad was improving but he just needed to stay a little longer. It was then, she realized later, that he had established his second family. A wife, and later, two children, a boy and a girl. She met them at the funeral, but by that time, nothing surprised her. For weeks afterwards, she mulled over the agony of finding another wife, brazenly sitting in the front row, as out of place in that setting as a tom-tit on a side of beef. She wore an armload of gold bangles and several chains round her neck, a tart thought Carrie angrily, glancing down at her own sober black suit.  Maybe it was the contrast that appealed to Phil? When the time came for the eulogy, Carrie thought the tart might run up to the lectern, to tell the world Phil had another wife, and held her breath. But wife number two just sat there sobbing, clutching onto the hands of her teenage children, (Phil’s son and daughter!) while Phil’s brother spoke.

Carrie had always hoped that sometime soon Phil would tell the truth. He had faked his work, and now it seemed he had faked his life. All those years she had thought he must be having an affair, but in fact he was commuting between his two families. Not that she and the cat Dante were much of a family. Her guilt at being barren, as they said in the bible, meant she had a sense of why he had gone elsewhere to find babies, toddlers, the joy and the despair of raising a family. But why didn’t he ask for a divorce? For that matter, why didn’t she? She had been betrayed, shouted at, abused for being a spoilsport. But he was fun, and at his best made her laugh. She found him slightly addictive, and slightly frightening. What would he do if she did leave?  It scared her to think. He was a possessive man. And constantly untruthful.

Carrie thought of truth as a slender white gumtree, reaching for the bluest of skies. It could be blown around but would always stand straight and tall. People believe everyone they know is like that gumtree, basically honest and truthful, but Carrie knew otherwise.  She had discovered that con-men and women, thieves and liars are always hiding behind a respectable front, ready to trip you up.

In spite of that, the whole economy is run on truth. After all when you buy something, she reflected, whether it’s a car or a loaf of bread, you trust that the exchange is a reasonably fair one, and that you will receive what you are paying for. When you buy a car you would be justifiably annoyed if you were given a bicycle instead. Or if instead of a loaf of bread you were given a bag of rusty nails. And when you get a husband you expect the same deal – an honest man and true.

But he wasn’t.  As Carrie sat in the paneled courtroom, cringing and embarrassed the first time Phil was charged with forging a job reference from the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, she almost snorted aloud when Phil put his hand on the bible and swore to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Instead of taking the reference on face value, like most people, it turned out that a diligent “People and Culture” worker had rung to check. ‘He never gives references,’ the EA to the Secretary of PM&C, told the P&C worker, who, a small squat woman in a polyester suit, reported the exchange in the witness box. Carrie let the acronyms wash over her, her face scarlet with shame. A first offence, Phil got community service and a dressing down from the magistrate.

As far as Phil was concerned, the discovery of his forged reference was just a slip up. Carrie was constantly surprised how little people checked references and credentials, or even court records. Phil soon got a job managing contracts at a university in Melbourne, built on his wonderful experience in the US, and they put a deposit down on a dear little two-bedroom weatherboard with a white picket fence in Clifton Hill, conveniently near the station and close to Merri Creek, where Carrie liked to walk. It helped her to stop thinking about why she had ended up with a conman as a husband. And how he had never been to the US.  But maybe now he was in a good job he would stop forging things? She hoped, deceiving herself, unable to leave the warmth of his arm curled round her in the evenings, his big laugh, his stare with narrowed eyes as he told her another incredible story. And unable to face his anger: sudden, explosive, with a hard hand that slapped her face, a foot prone to kicking her. But nothing too painful, she lied to herself.

Phil begged her to stay. ‘I need you darl. We have fun together don’t we? And think what we can do with the money from this job, and yours.’  Carrie was working as a chef in a popular organic café in Brunswick St, daytimes only, which was civilized in the hospitality business. Her beetroot and walnut salad with plum vinegar dressing was especially popular. She reflected that even in the food industry things are not what they seem. They would make ‘our own blueberry and oat muffins’  every day, baked in the oven from an inexpensive pre-prepared mix that was delivered in huge plastic bags once a fortnight. At least the eggs are free range, she thought. Or are they? Once you realized that society was built on half-truths you have a lot to worry about.

Phil never worried. He always did like money, and luxury, which is why he soon found the money in contracts wasn’t enough. Carrie knew he had invested in some real estate up in Queensland. ‘By the water, they’re going to build on it, we just need a few more investors.’

Carrie had never heard of a Ponzi scheme, and with her slight grasp on maths she wanted to believe Phil when he said it was the opportunity of a lifetime and they couldn’t lose. She hosted a dinner party for close acquaintances, and when they got to dessert, a luscious chestnut chocolate cake, Phil did the hard sell. (‘We’ll soften them up with that cake of yours, they will be swooning over the dinner and good wine, so hopefully they will swoon over the investment opportunity, Phil told her.)

She felt it was OK because they had invested in the scheme too, not realizing that their return was to be funded out of the next lot of investors in a dream house by the water. ‘It’s such a good opportunity with a high-yield investment, you can’t lose on this one. We’ve already bought two blocks,’  Phil told the dinner guests.

The scheme ran successfully for almost a year until an investigative reporter found out the land was too swampy ever to be built on. Raiding wallets, breaking hearts was the headline. Carrie rushed home the day the story broke, having been unable to get onto Phil all day, unlocked the front door, and almost fell over a large suitcase in the hall.

Phil was red-faced and blustering. She could tell he had been drinking. “How was I to know that fucking land was a swamp? We’re in the shit darl, I’m off for a while. Better you don’t know where I am. There’s the cab.’ He grabbed the case, slamming the door as he left. He didn’t even kiss her goodbye.

Carrie sat down heavily on the sofa, her head in her hands as she sobbed, the tears oozing through her fingers, her heart beating loud in her chest. The phone was ringing in the hall. It stopped then started again. Soon there were twenty messages, angry messages on the phone from all the friends who had bought shares. There was no way she could face anyone after this. She went to pour herself a whisky and found the bottle gone. With Phil. What a shit he was, she thought angrily. There was a half-drunk bottle of red wine in the pantry. She threw her head back to drain it.

She marched down the hall into the bedroom – there were drawers pulled out, piles of clothes on the floor, a chair turned over. The phone was still ringing. She lay on the bed, pulling a blanket over her head, then threw it back, walked into the hall, and yanked the phone out of its socket, mid ring. She returned to the bed and pulled the slightly scratchy blanket over her head again, stifled and comforted by the warm wool smell. The prickly fabric felt like a penance. She lay there, curled up, cocooned, her arms wrapped round her knees, for hours, eyes tight shut, wondering what to do next.

She woke up angry. It was just before sunrise, she could tell from the lightening sky, and her throat was dry. She got up and pulled on an outsize cardigan of Phil’s and wrapped it round her. She glanced at her reflection in the mirror, her blonde hair spiky, her blue eyes red rimmed, her skin blotchy. How dare he abandon her? Words came to her, scoundrel, rascal, blackguard, rapscallion, old-fashioned words that didn’t adequately describe how she felt betrayed. She went to the kitchen and filled the kettle and waited while it started to boil, her fingers drumming on the cheap Formica bench top. She looked out of the kitchen window at the little paved backyard, an uncared-for parsley plant drooping in a black plastic pot. Her instinct was to run. Her upbringing told her to ring all the people, the investors, but what would she tell them? There is no money? Phil’s bolted?

She ran.

She packed up the house with haste while the phone lay unplugged on the floor and her mobile was switched off. She put their clothes and possessions in boxes and big green garbo bags and locked them in the corrugated iron shed out the back, hoping it would be weatherproof enough to protect everything from the temperamental Melbourne storms. Twice the front door bell rang, and she froze, pretending to be out. Eventually whoever it was went away. She spoke to no-one; that way she could pretend nothing much had happened. Any moment she expected the police to arrive, so she rushed. Her shared account with Phil was empty, large amounts transferred into an unknown account just yesterday. ‘Bastard,’ she muttered. He didn’t know she had always kept a running away fund. Just in case.

She put the house in the care of a real estate agent to rent out furnished and ran to the other side of the world. Sometimes dual citizenship was a bonus. She told the café she had to go, a family crisis, lying glibly, she apologized profusely for leaving them without a chef at such short notice, but her father was dying in a remote Welsh village and there was no-one else to care for him. That way she got a reference for when she landed in London. She reflected wryly that she had learned a few things from Phil.

The light was pearly when she arrived at Heathrow after a seemingly endless flight, exhausted from being cramped in a grey airline seat next to a large man who had popped some sleeping pills and snored the whole way.

The slight haze that started so many days in the Northern Hemisphere had not yet lifted. Bright yellow daffodils lined up behind the black iron railings of the parks, the grass an impossible green after the toasted version in Australia. She could almost forget why she was in London.

Carrie didn’t hear from Phil for two years. They were two years when she constantly lived in fear of a call from the police, when her normally voluptuous figure became thin, almost scraggy. She rented a tiny basement flat and worked in a South Ken café which specialized in organic food, and her beetroot and walnut salad with plum vinegar was popular with the Brits as well. She diversified into desserts, reflecting that she had to get some sweetness into her life somehow. Her hazelnut meringue with apricot filling was a hit, especially when it was served with clotted cream from contented cows in Devon.

She regularly visited her father Bill, who contrary to what she had told her former employers, was fit and well and living just outside Guildford in an Edwardian cottage with a steep roof and mullioned windows.

“You know sweetheart,” he said, giving her a hug, “I reckon you’re better off without that fellow of yours. I never really felt he was of good character. Just a gut feeling, and he had a damp handshake.” Bill, a tall angular ex-army man, set a lot of store in handshakes. “And it’s lovely to have you back in Britain. Australia is such a long way away. Coffee and cake in the garden?”

He was a self-reliant man who had learned to cook after Carrie’s Mum had died too early of cancer. He survived on tough microwaved chicken and TV dinners until his daughter stepped in with a few simple lessons. Bill was proud of his food processor chocolate cake, which in his daughter’s professional judgment wasn’t bad at all, especially served with clotted cream from contented cows in Devon which she had introduced him to.

Carrie hadn’t told her dad the whole truth. It would have made him too angry, and anyway she was ashamed of her part in the whole scheme. But the stress of bottling it all up was beginning to tell. He glanced at her “You’re getting thin, and you look very pale. You mustn’t let him get to you, he’s not worth it. I’ll take you to the pub tonight, they have a good deal on Monday nights. Cheer you up.” Bill spent several nights a week in the pub, sharing a pint of bitter with other widowers and men whose wives preferred them out of the house.

“I’m not sleeping much,” she muttered.

She slept even less when Phil contacted her on her thirtieth birthday, sending a card with a Brazilian postmark care of her father, which he dutifully forwarded.

It was typical Phil, breezy as if nothing had happened, and they had just been speaking the other day. The card was a rather tacky sketch of a South American woman dancing the tango.

Hi Darl, Happy Birthday! Am thinking of going back to Oz, face the music. I’m sick of life on the run. Would love to have your support. Ring me. He gave her the number.

Carrie sat on the bed in her damp basement flat with the card in her hand, turning it round and round. It occurred to her that conmen never face the music. What was he up to? She glanced up through the basement window at the street railings, and the briskly walking feet of passers-by, oblivious to the turmoil in the little room below the street.

‘He’s a rapscallion, but he’s my rapscallion,’ she whispered.

‘You have no obligation to go back to a man who is a conman, a criminal and sometimes violent,’ Kylie said firmly on their way to tap-dancing on the bus.

She had met Kylie, a barista, at the café.  Kylie, who hailed from Brisbane, was a straight-talking Queenslander who had also escaped from Australia when her husband had been killed in a nasty pileup on his way back from the Gold Coast, after a buck’s night for his closest friend.

She still wore her wedding ring, and the diamond ring made from her husband’s ashes. ‘That way he is always with me,’ she told Carrie, tears in her eyes even after five years of being a widow. Most of the time she hid her grief, but it was always there, just below the surface.

‘I may be a Kylie but I’ll never be a Minogue’ she joked to Carrie when they took up tap-dancing as a way of cheering themselves up.  As they tapped their toes and heels, their tap shoes making satisfying clicks on the wooden floor boards, their Polish teacher called out – “back straight girlss, look ahead, face forward, imagine you have headlights on your hip-bones that mustn’t be turned.”

Carrie tried hard to imagine the headlights on her hipbones. “’I usen’t to have any hipbones,’ she said, ‘but now they’ve appeared and won’t go away.’

‘It’s amazing how slender you are when you make all those cakes,’ said Kylie, looking ruefully at her own wide hips. They tapped backwards across the room, shrugging their shoulders up and down in a counter rhythm.

On the way home, sitting upstairs in red double decker bus, Kylie repeated what she had said. ‘Carrie, you can’t go back. He’s an absolute scoundrel.’

‘But he’s my scoundrel,” said Carrie. ‘He’s still my husband. For richer, for poorer.’

‘Bullshit,’ said Kylie. They were both silent.

Carrie rang the number the next day. The musical tone that indicated it was an international call, then a few clicks. Then a long ring. Then Phil’s voice. ‘Hello?’

‘It’s me,’ said Carrie.

‘Hello darl,’ Phil boomed.

‘Where are you?’ said Carrie

‘Sao Paulo. It’s hot. I don’t like the heat. And I miss you darl.’

Carrie wasn’t sure she missed Phil, so she stayed silent. The she burst out

‘Phil, you just pissed off without a word. Then silence. You bastard. Two whole years!’

‘Darl, it was better for you. Have the police chased you?’

‘No. But I’m here, in the UK’

‘And still no police? Well there you are. QED.’

Carrie sighed. She could never win against Phil.

Phil moved back to the little house in Clifton Hill, kicking out the tenants, and was arrested. He got five years for fraud. Carrie supposed he must have a conscience after all. Phil said he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in South America.

Her Dad and Kylie warned her about going back. ‘He’s in prison now, he doesn’t need you,’ Bill said. ‘He needs me more than ever,’ said Carrie. ‘Who’s going to visit him except me? He’s got no real friends, only drinking buddies.’

‘Don’t knock drinking buddies,’ said Bill, thinking of his mates in the pub. ’Your marriage vows don’t include supporting a husband who’s basically a crook.’

Carrie thought otherwise. She returned to the little house in Clifton Hill and visited Phil faithfully every week until he said to her – “Darl, it’s too painful. Can you just come once a fortnight?”  Later Carrie realized that he must have taken up with his second wife again, in the alternate weeks. Nevertheless, she and Phil occasionally had conjugal visits but nothing came of that. That was when Carrie bought Dante for company, a stroppy Burmese who would follow her down the street miaowing, and climb the curtains in complaint, digging his claws into the velvet, when she returned from visiting Phil. Sometimes Carrie didn’t know who was more demanding, the cat or the husband.

The trouble was when Phil came out of prison, grey and toughened from the experience, it was hard for him to get a job. They moved to Ashfield in Sydney on a whim of Phil’s, ‘no-one knows us there, so we might be able to get ahead.’

Carrie could work anywhere, especially now her expertise in dramatic organic cakes, made out of unusual ingredients such as red kidney beans and beetroot was well known. She soon got a job in one of Balmain’s trendier organic cafes.

Phil was triumphant. Waving a letter in the air he said ‘I have a job in Defence! Special Operations.’

‘Why would they employ an ex-crim?’ said Carrie.

‘Because they want my knowledge of scams,” he said.

Carrie was a little dubious, but Phil went off to work each day, dressed in a suit (one of the few civilians he claimed) and occasionally she would pick him up at the Victoria Barracks if they were going out for a meal in Paddington.

The truth was tacky, and it took a while to discover it. There he was working out of a converted shed he rented in the backyard of an old lady. On arrival he would change into shorts and a T-shirt. ‘I’m a writer – I need my privacy,’ he told poor Norah as he paid the tiny rent in cash. Always cash. In the peace of her back garden he would scam other old ladies, sell them tickets to cruises that didn’t exist, create websites that sold tickets to the opera, except the tickets weren’t real.  He would go online and court lonely men, pretending to be a beautiful babe with glossy black hair and a desperate need for money for an airfare, or cash to visit her old mum in Europe. He had a range of photos of attractive but realistic women he used. With names like CherryBlossom, DaisyBell, Lilibet. He would promise to love the lonely man forever, and then disappear.

He got more ambitious. He had a range of pre-paid phones, and a list of phone numbers. He would say he was from the tax office, threaten them with a court case if they didn’t pay their tax bills straight away, now. Tens of thousands of dollars sometimes. People were so terrified of the tax office going public on their bills they would pay, dumbly, miserably, without asking the right questions. When she found out Carrie was reminded that when the average IQ is 100 there are a lot of people who are pretty dim. It was what Phil traded on. That, and the fact that society runs on an assumption of truth.

Phil refused to have a joint bank account, saying Defence needed to pay his salary into an account that just had his name on. But Carrie thought it odd that sometimes he seemed to have enough money to pay the bills and other times he would say ‘Darl, you’ll have to pick up the mortgage this month. I’m broke.’ And even though she encouraged him to invite some of his colleagues around for dinner he never did. ‘Darl it’s all top secret.’ And he got red and enraged if she persisted, shouting at her and occasionally hitting her, so she learnt not to ask. But then he would dance her round the room in a whirlwind of love and affection and she would give up her ideas of leaving.

After a couple of years, she became increasingly suspicious. She took the day off work, and got into her car quietly and discretely, and followed him through Sydney’s nightmarish traffic. Instead of heading into the city on Parramatta Rd he turned off in Annandale, a suburb of stone Victorian houses and renovated worker’s cottages. He pulled up outside a small house with garden full of roses, and walked up the front path, then veered off round the back. Carrie couldn’t see what he was doing from her position further down the road, but after fifteen minutes or so she knocked on the front door, heart beating fast, thinking she might confront a girlfriend.

A tiny woman with wispy white hair answered the door, leaving the chain on and peering through the gap. “Can I help you?” she said in a cracked voice.

‘Hello’ said Carrie with a cheerfulness she didn’t feel. ‘I just wanted to talk to Phil.’

‘Phil? Oh you mean Bill? He’s around the back in the shed.’ The old woman lowered her voice. ‘He doesn’t like being disturbed. I’m not sure he would want to see you.’

‘I’m his wife,’ said Carrie.

‘Oh no, he hasn’t got a wife, poor man. He’s a widower. Says he gets very lonely, out there writing his novel. I’m not allowed to go in, says if he gets interrupted he loses the flow. So, I’m not sure who you are. You don’t look like a ghost.’ She cackled and shut the door.

Phil was no writer. Carrie was furious. ‘How dare he take Dad’s name?’ she muttered as she unlocked the car. ‘How dare he lie to me about his job? What a mug I am.’ She realized that he hadn’t changed a bit. The fact he had come back to face the police and the charges had fooled her. Her never-ending hopefulness was naivety.

Idiot, idiot she told herself. She still found it hard to believe that anyone would treat the truth so casually. Lying was a way of life, a way to feel better and more important. He refused to let her meet his parents, but she knew his upbringing had been tough, with lots of beatings. Maybe he learnt to lie then, to save himself from harm.

She got out of the car and quietly opened the gate again, hoping the old lady was a bit deaf. She trod softly round the side of the house and found the shed. She could hear talking, Phil’s voice on the phone. Threatening, saying “The Tax Office will subpoena you unless you pay up, NOW.” She felt nauseous.  She turned and left.

Once home, she packed up hastily, grabbed Dante and put him in his cat cage, put him on the back seat of the car and drove off. She sent a text to Kylie saying–last straw moment. I’ve left him.

You go girl!  xxx , came whistling back from the UK.

Two months later, when she heard Phil had died, his body found at the bottom of a cliff, the face unrecognizable, some weeks after he disappeared, she cracked open some champagne. Then she had the body cremated and turned into a diamond.

Some months after the funeral, she realized she would never be rid of him while she owned the diamond ring. She drove down to Melbourne, having tracked down his other wife who was making a fuss about an inheritance for her children. They met in a café. “I have something for you,” she said. ‘Phil wanted you to have this ring, as a memento. It cost a motza. But he died broke.’

The tart smiled, then grimaced as the words sank in, the big golden hoops in her ears swinging. She grabbed the ring. ‘Oh well it’s something – I will keep it always.’ She didn’t thank Carrie. And Carrie didn’t tell her it was Phil. The push and the ring. That was her revenge.

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Sourdough disasters

Sourdough  disasters

I promised when I started this blog I would write about the disasters as well as the successes. So here goes.

I have always been a risk taker. Well at least in some parts of my life So the risk, very small in this case  was to try out a new strong organic flour. However I think my attention slipped when I was putting in the water. I don’t think its because the flour is less water absorbent because I made a ‘control’ loaf using my usual flour.

So my dough was super hydrated. I thought – well that’s not a bad thing. Some people use a very hydrated dough, in fact the Red Beard Bakery in Trentham, Victoria where I first learnt to make sourdough some seven years ago, had a dough so liquid that they kept it in a tub. Sadly I have lost my notes from that course or I could have checked.

Anyway I made the bread in my usual way. I poured it into the bannetons thinking – this doesn’t look good. It didn’t seem to rise much overnight – although there were a few bubbles, BIG bubbles, on top of the dough.

The bread was so liquid I had to scrape it out of the banneton, and pour it onto the bread peel in preparation for baking.

What a mess. I had soggy bread dough on my arms, on my peel, on my hands, all over the kitchen. The dough was so wet I couldn’t slash the top with my brand new baking blade. However I managed to slash my thumb when I took the safety cover off the blade – something I have NEVER done with my ordinary razor blade. So add blood to the vision of a kitchen with sticky dough all over the bench tops. I will spare you the pictures but let it be said I went through a year’ s supply of cottonwool and band aids in about ten minutes.

So with one arm above my head to stop the blood flow, I tried to scrape the dough off the peel onto the pizza stone in the very hot oven. The bread sagged over the edge. A few swear words were said. I will spare you those as well. I sprayed the oven with water to create steam, and waited for the bread to cook.

Half way through I couldn’t resist peeking. Tom my astonishment the bread had lifted from a flat pancake to a domed rather blobby loaf.

When it was cooked I took it out of the oven and put in on a rack to cool.

I cut it and was amazed at the crumb – the holes in the loaf were large, bigger than any previous loaf I had baked, the crust was crunchy.

The loaf looked awful. It tasted delicious. So here it is in all its holey glory with the pancake dough below. Oh and did I mention the ones that got stuck in the tin? Or the one that exploded out of the tin and got burnt?

overhydrated bread

disasteroverhydrated dough

Baking bread: basic equipment

Equipment

Your life will be much easier if you are baking sourdough and have these tools on hand -plus a pizza stone ( not pictured).From top, clockwise, green plastic baneton, baker’s peel,cane baneton, traditional bread tin, cane baneton, slashing blade, dough scraper.

Other things you might like to know, if you are not an experienced baker:

Bakers Flour – bakers flour, sometimes called strong flour, has a higher protein content, and more gluten than other flour which makes better bread. In sourdough bread the slow fermentation reduces the gluten significantly and a lot of people who get side effects from gluten can eat sourdough bread with no issues. ( I am not talking about people with coeliac disease, but those who might get a tummy ache after eating white shop bought bread. Don’t get me started on the chemicals, improvers and bleaches in such bread. Always try and get the best flour you can – it does make a difference. So organic recently milled flour is best.

Leaven – make sure you feed it at least once a week and change the container, and clean it  once a week. You will have to discard some each week.

Salt – I use Murray River pink salt, because  it has a lovely flavour. ( Don’t think salt has a flavour? Try a pinch of this salt compared to iodised table salt – you will find the latter has a bitter flavour.)  If you don’t live in Australia, Maldon Sea salt is good if you are in the UK, and they say it is available worldwide. Wherever you are, just go and look for good salt.

 

Wholemeal sourdough with orange juice

Wholemeal

Wholemeal loaf – totally delicious!

This loaf was based on one by Dan Lepard, then adapted by Hereford chef and cafe owner Bill Sewell in his terrific book Bill’s Kitchen, and then I adapted it slightly.

I uses orange juice in this loaf – Vitamin C has often been used by bakers to help rise a loaf, especially when you have dense flour like wholemeal. The additional yeast also helps boost the loaf. The advantage of using it is that you don’t have to let it rise over night – I plan to make another version solely with sourdough starter, which will take much longer!

Ingredients

425 ml tepid water

50 ml fresh orange juice

100 gm of sourdough starter

475 gm wholemeal flour

100gm strong white flour 10gm salt

7g sachet of instant yeast

Timeline: ( you can start anytime, but I find a timeline helps so that you know if you have enough time to make bread. I sometimes make this loaf at night, so if you start at 7pm you would have a loaf by 10.15, just in time for a bedtime snack!)

8am: Put all the ingredients in a big bowl and mix with your hands or a large spoon. Leave for five minutes

8.05 am: Knead very briefly, just stretching the dough a bit. Leave for 5 mins

8.10 am: Repeat

8.15 am: Repeat and leave for 10 minutes

8.25 am: Tip the dough onto you work surface, and fold your bread in the middle to make a ball. Cut into two balls with a dough scraper, one large ball and one small ball. Roll balls into  a sausage with the seam underneath and tuck into two well oiled tins. Leave to rise for between 45- 90 minutes

10.00 am approx ( when the bread is risen). Put pizza stone into oven. Put metal baking tray on the shelf underneath. Preheat fan oven to 220 C . Boil kettle.  When you put the bread in oven pour  boiling water into the metal tray to create steam. Cook bread for 30 minutes for the smaller loaf, 40 minutes for the larger one. Tap on the bottom, if they sound hollow they are done.

10.40 am: Take bread out of oven, ( check if ready) and put on rack to cool.

11.15 am: ( approx)  Slice a piece of the loaf and enjoy.

Making a ‘mother’ or leaven for sourdough

Don’t be scared of making a leaven for your sourdough. It’s not hard, and will take about five days: which is tedious if you want to start making bread today. However you could ask a friend – lots of people make sourdough nowadays and they might have a bit of ‘mother’ they can let you have.

Day 1:  If you can find an organic potato, wash it and clean it and peel it.If not do iwithout the peel.

Put a piece of the peel into a clean glass jar and add a tablespoon of wholemeal bakers flour and a tablespoon of tepid water, and mix together. Cover with a muslin cloth or open weave tea towel.

Day  2: Uncover  jar and add another tablespoon of water and of flour and mix well with the rest. Cover and leave in a warm place.

 Day 3: You  should notice some bubbles beginning to form and a pleasant yeasty smell, and possibly a slightly acidic smell. Add another tablespoon of flour and of water and stir.

Day 4: Fermentation should be happening by now. Add another tablespoon of flour and tepid water and mix, and remove the potato peel.

Day 5: Your leaven should almost be ready. It should be nice and bubbly and smell sweet and tangy. Add another tablespoon of water and flour and stir.

Day 6:You should have a proper leaven  by now. Leave it in a warm place and then weight it. Add equal amounts of water and flour to match the weight of the leaven. ( If you have 150 gms of leaven , add 75 gms each of water and flour. This is called 100% hydration.)

This leaven came straight out of the fridge. It will develop more bubbles as it warms up.

Use whatever you need for baking, keep some and discard the rest. If you keep it in the fridge you will need to feed it once a week, as above.

Baking Alaskan Sourdough, revised recipe

Baking Alaskan Sourdough, revised recipe

I have amended this recipe( November 2018) to make it slightly quicker, easier ( line the banettons with rice flour) and better. Importantly I have  added a tip on making a tight ball of dough before leaving the bread to rise finally, to make it  rise better in the oven. I also suggest you can make three loaves and leave two in the fridge to rise for up to five days before baking.

Why did I start making bread? It’s a way to drive to buy my favourite sourdough bread – all the way to Honor’s Bread in Bermagui NSW – some three and a half hours, so the next best solution, I kept on thinking,  was to make my own.

But I kept on dragging my heels, until a friend said – ‘have some of my starter. I brought it back from Alaska.’ Don’t ask how she got it through Australian Quarantine at Border Security.! We have the toughest quarantine in the world. I should know, I once worked there.

Actually the answer is she didn’t even think bringing live yeasts into the country in a tightly screwed down jam jar would be a problem, so she sailed through the nothing to declare section of Customs. Anyway all the yeasts have now been baked in bread.

This is a recipe for white sourdough – it’s has the most satisfying golden crunchy crust and big aerated holes – and the secret is – you don’t have to knead, just fold.

Because the process takes 24 hours, in which time you need to be around, I only make  three loaves of bread once a week and freeze two. Alternatively I leave two unbaked loaves in the fridge for up to four days, and bake them as needed. I am amazed at how good they are. Five days in the maximum I reckon.

Ingredients ( Half these ingredients if you think this will make too much)

For the leaven

200 gms sourdough starter fed with equal amounts of flour and water to make 400 gms(100% hydration) That is:

100 mls water ( tepid. It should be blood temperature, so when you put you finger in the water it doesn’t feel hot or cold.)

50 gms strong white flour (make sure the flour is bakers flour, not pizza or pasta flour)

50 gms wholemeal baker’s flour

For the dough

400 gms leaven

1200 mls water (tepid)

1.2kg strong white baker’s flour

400 gms wholemeal  baker’s flour

40 gms sea salt.

Timeline. This is as a guide, obviously you can start earlier if you like!

7am: Take the leaven out of the fridge and leave at room temperature, covered with a damp tea towel for an hour or so to warm up and go bubbly.(If you haven’t  got a leaven make one first. See post on creating a leaven.)

9.am: Feed the leaven. When the leaven has a decent amount of bubbles on the top add equal amounts of flour and water to leaven (as in recipe) and leave to rise for about two hours, covered with a damp tea towel.

9.00 am: Autolyse. Mix together the flour and the water for the bread, but don’t  add salt. Mix by hand until elastic and smooth.This autolysing give the gluten time to develop. Cover with a damp tea towel and leave in a warm place. The leaven and the autolysed mix can both develop at the same time.

11.00 am:Mix the bread dough.The leaven should have a number of bubbles on top and if you tip it it will look active with lots of holes. Mix the leaven and the autolyse mixture together and add the salt.Combine all by hand. This is the beginning of your bread and is when the folding begins. Set the timer for half hour intervals for the next two hours.

In between read one of my short stories, or a book,  watch a video, do the cleaning or play with the kids. I even have a friend who takes it in the back of the car when she goes shopping, then whips out to fold it when the half hour is up!

11.15 pm:Beginning fold. Remove tea towel. Leave dough in the bowl, and wet your hands. Grab part of the dough furthest from you  and stretch and fold over the rest of the dough. Turn the bowl 90 degrees and repeat. Turn again, and then once more so you make four turns  in total.Cover with a damp tea towel and leave in a warm place.

11.45 pm: repeat

12.15 pm: repeat

12.45 pm: repeat

1.15pm: repeat and then leave the dough for an hour

2.15pm: repeat and leave for an hour

3.15pm: Divide Tip the dough onto a lightly floured board and divide into three  balls. The best thing to cut them with is a dough scraper – an invaluable and cheap baking tool. Leave the balls to rest for 20 minutes to rest the gluten.

3.35pm: Shape dough Flip balls over on bench. Shape by pulling and stretching each corner into the middle of the ball. It’s very important to create a very tight ball of dough – this means it will rise better, so keep on pulling and stretching and folding until its no longer possible.

Shape and put into a well floured banneton( the best non stick flour there is,is fine rice flour,I  suggest you use this so your bread doesn’t stick in the banneton)or a well oiled tin with the seam the seam at the bottom if in a tin and at the top if in a banneton ( as you reverse the loaf out to bake it.)

Put in fridge to next morning Cover the bread with a damp tea towel and leave overnight in the fridge or alternatively I leave mine in the garage in winter because its almost as cold as the fridge. I have left mine as long as five days in the fridge and it still bakes well, albeit with a harder crust.

OR  If you are running out of time you can bake the bread after letting it rise for an hour but it won’t be as good!

Baking:

Early morning: Take the bread out of the fridge or garage and bring to room temperature for about an hour.

Put a large pizza stone in the oven, or failing that a number of bricks in a square,with the flat sides uppermost. On the rack below the stone put a metal baking tray.

Heat the oven to 250C.

Sprinkle some fine semolina onto a steel baking peel. (You can buy these for making pizzas, if you don’t have one use a stiff piece of cardboard or a metal tray upside down without any edges.)

Spray the inside of the oven using a plastic spray bottle and boil the kettle.

If you bread is in a banneton upend the bread gently onto the baking peel. With a razor blade slash the top of the bread into three or four even cuts.

Slide the bread onto the pizza stone with the peel. Pour the boiling water into the metal tray underneath the stone. The steam will create a nice crunchy crust.

Cook the bread for 20 minutes at 250 C then turn down to 220 C to ensure the inside is cooked. Test if it is cooked at the end of 40 minutes by tapping the bottom. If it sounds hollow it is cooked

Wait an agonising hour for the bread to cool down, then cut, spread with butter and jam, and eat. If you cut it when it is hot it will go a bit rubbery and not quite so delicious.

 

 

 

Winner: Noted Writers Festival Writer in Residence 2017

Winner: Noted Writers Festival        Writer in Residence 2017

I was excited to be announced as one of three winners of a writer in residency for the Noted Writers Festival in Canberra in April 2017. The short story I wrote, Sour Cherries, Sweet Life was chosen for its:

  • unique voice
  • overall quality of writing
  • ability to sustain an engaging narrative

I spent four days in residence at at Dickson Library from Wednesday 3 May  to Saturday 6 May. I got heaps of space and time to write, and found it fascinating how a library spent its day, the sort of people who came as regulars, and the activities that happened both for adults and children. And what’s even better it gave me an idea for a short story!