Bread-making, hügel beds and The Drought continues …

I started making bread in the area set up for the purpose in the kitchen (Blog, July 1st, 2022) about mid-September and have had a testing time! There have been several failures and near misses, but by the end of October I had produced my first satisfactory loaf, a mix of white, wholemeal and rye flours. I started my own levain (or sourdough) culture, because it is the character and nuances of flavour that this gives that interests me in bread-making. It represents working with the diversity of natural yeasts (so organic flour is essential) as opposed to the ‘monocultural’ store-bought yeasts, and learning from the infinite number of variables that this presents; it is thus in keeping with the ethos of the Sombrun Forest Garden Project. I hadn’t actually made that connection until a friend pointed it out to me the other day, and really it means that the process is the goal, and that the bread produced at the end is a bonus, particularly if it looks and tastes as good as in the photos below!

It has taken time for me to realise that, because of the complex of yeasts mentioned above, the dough mix takes a lot longer to develop, more so in the case of a pure levain dough (the alternative is a hybrid one which also uses a little dried or fresh yeast as a ‘boost’). However, both types need to mature slowly in the fridge overnight, more than doubling the time for first or second fermentations over a dough using bought yeast, but at the same time allowing more flavour to develop. Temperature, both of the water used in the initial dough mix and of the dough itself, are also critical in helping it rise properly, and need to be higher than I at first thought.

The aim is to ‘play’ with the many variables associated with levain breads – type and origin of flour, water and dough temperature, ‘ripeness’ and consistency of the levain, hydration levels of the levain and the dough, and so on – to create an individual style, and the possibilities are endless. A challenge, but also a great opportunity for experimentation and personal satisfaction, and I feel now that my apprenticeship has really begun.

I am using three books as a basic guide – Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast by Ken Forkish, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, California, 2012; Faire son Levain by Mouni Abdelli, Eyrolles, Paris, 2018 (a gift from a friend); and The Handmade Loaf by Dan Lepard, Mitchell Beazley, London, 2004 – but these are just my personal choice. There is a huge number of books on this subject available. My books go into a good amount of detail without being dull and have a wide variety of recipes. Ken Forkish is a bit of a celebrity in the US artisan baking world, and Dan Lepard is also a photographer and his book is a kind of travelogue of a journey throughout the whole of Europe, with all the interesting characters and recipes that he meets.

And whilst we are in the kitchen, soup-making has begun in earnest, and there is already a fair amount in the freezer. The one in the photo below is Butternut, Carrot and Orange, and goes well with a little crème fraîche and a slice of homemade bread!

The hügekultur beds (see last month’s Blog) have taken a step forward, with three contour lines marked out (one is shown below; the other two are higher up the slope of the Upper Garden) and a discussion with the digger man. He is very busy, so I don’t have a date yet for when work can begin, but hopefully I won’t have to wait too long. These beds, along with the swales already in place (on the left in this photo), will form part of the water retention strategy in the Upper Garden. By being along a contour line, any water, either from direct rainfall or running down the slope, will be captured and retained to soak in, without draining away.

My comments in previous Blogs about the need for putting further major planting on hold are borne out by the development of the hügel bed project – as you can imagine, three beds 1m20 wide across virtually the whole width of the Upper Garden will change the layout here considerably. I am hoping to complete them over the winter, and from next spring will have a fresh outlook on the form the Upper Garden will take. The main pathways will remain, as in the photo above, and the higher one will actually bisect the other two beds (not in the photo).

In the meantime, I have started to gather biomass from a local garden to add to what is already here (below left), and there will also be a further source from one of the goat willow trees on the eastern boundary, which has suffered from this year’s drought (below right). At the moment, it has lost about 60% of its mass, mostly at the front in this photo, and we’ll see next season whether the rest has survived.

This leads me on to the weather, and the fact that we are still under drought conditions! I have in fact watered my young trees twice in the past month, and despite the fact that we had about 25mm of rain in each of the months of July and August, and 76mm in September, this has only just moistened the top few centimetres of soil, nowhere near enough for developing root systems. And in October we have had just 10mm of rain!

It has been another calm month, with average temperature a good 4° higher, at 17.5°, than at the same period last year, and with a high of 32° on the 16th. This has been general throughout France, and has led to much comment in the media about the effects of climate change. A side effect of the dry conditions is that the soil surface dries out more quickly, and this emphasises the need for mulching around the trees to retain more of the upper level soil moisture. Despite the generally high temperatures, the evenings have started to feel a little chilly, and I have lit the woodburner on a couple of occasions. See below for the full Monthly Weather Record.

The moringa trees, planted from seed at the beginning of June, have made good progress (see the Blog, June 1st, July 1st and August 1st, 2022 for the background on the usefulness of this tree), photo below. I knew it was a fast-growing tree in its tropical heartland, but didn’t expect it to happen quite so quickly here! The first one has reached 1m20 from soil level in just under 5 months. They will, however, be fragile for a couple of years, so we’ll just have to see what happens; if they survive, they’ll survive. They may well not be suited to conditions here, especially if it continues to be dry. You can see that the front two are quite happy without support and their ligneous structure is already quite developed. The third one less so, and it has grown with a bit of a stoop, hence the cane. They are now in the polytunnel because of the cooler nights, and as soon as the frosts begin, they will be moved indoors.

There has been some maintenance work this month – strimming and the roadside laurel hedge getting its second trimming. I have also re-coppiced the remaining goat willow (Salix caprea), which was coppiced hard a couple of years ago (Blog, January 1st, 2021) and then produced a mass of shoots from the base. Four new stems have been left to grow on (photo below). The three more mature ones will be cut when they reach a useful size for strong poles, maybe in a year or two. There is a considerable pile of cut stems in the foreground of this photo, which will be useful biomass on the hügel beds.

Le Festival en ligne du Jardin-Forêt (Online Forest Garden Festival) began with an introductory session on October 31st, and gets under way properly today, November 1st, continuing until next Sunday, November 6th. It is in French, mostly non-academic (i.e. approachable!) and is completely open access (i.e. free!) with a wide range of topics in presentations, video/slides and discussion forums. Presentations can be accessed live, or at any time after that for a small subscription fee, which supports the work of the organising association, le Campus des Alvéoles, and which extends to any further events they might have. Subjects range from forest garden principles and concepts, design and situation, tree/plant communities and guilds, ecosystems and symbiosis, below-ground communities, food harvest and cooking, seeds and cuttings, and agroforestry, among others. I’m looking forward to it.

3 thoughts on “Bread-making, hügel beds and The Drought continues …

  1. lisinmayenne November 1, 2022 / 10:57

    Bravo for your perseverance in the kitchen, Jonathan, your bread looks wonderful and such a delicious celebration of the season teamed with that soup. We have made sourdough breads for many years and find it an endlessly fascinating process, no two loaves are ever the same (or like anything bought) which is the whole point, really. We were given the original levain by our son six years ago and we have kept it alive ever since, even moving it from Spain to France! ‘The Larousse Book of Bread’ by Eric Kayser is another good read and source of recipes. I’m looking forward to seeing the development of those Hügel beds and hope they bring tremendous benefits to your project. Thankfully, we have had a decent amount of rain here, the soil is still dry at any real depth but at least there is hope for some of our young trees and hedging plants now and at last, the new pond is filling.


  2. Jonathan November 1, 2022 / 16:12

    Thanks for the encouragement, Lis. It’s nice to feel that there is an exchange of idea and experience! I think the Book of Bread must be out of print. On Amazon, even a second-hand copy was over 60€!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. lisinmayenne November 2, 2022 / 09:43

    Oh my goodness, that’s ridiculous! Ours is a 2015 Phaidon Press copy which was pricey enough at £24.95 (it was a gift so I don’t know where it was sourced), but what a shame if it’s no longer in print ~ his sourdough pain au chocolat are to die for!


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