When I first looked through the recipe books, with starting a blog in mind, I thought that I would be making a lot of cakes and puddings. Certainly, the recipes from Harriet’s books have so far backed up this notion. However, Althea’s book in particular is proving to throw up some rather more fascinating and challenging recipes; first we had North Country Curds and then, turning to the next page, I found ‘Store Barm or Yeast.’ My first thought was ‘What on earth is this?’ and, on reading through the recipe, I was none the wiser. What was she making?
“Recipe for Store Barm or Yeast ( I have added metric equivalents for anyone that wants to give it a try)
1oz (28g) Worcester Hops
1 lb (454g) bruised malt
Put into a pan with three quarts (2.8 litres) of cold water – let it boil for half an hour. Then leave it to cool, and strain it when nearly cold into a basin, adding 1 tablespoon of brown sugar, 1 of flour and a bottle of the store barm, and leave it to work till the next morning then put it into pint bottles not quite filling them and tie down the corks well; it is ready for use two days after.
One bottle of it is sufficient for ten or twelve pounds of flour, and it would be put into the dough the night before, with about four potatoes boiled and mashed it, the last not to be put in till the dough is kneaded or, at least not until it is ready to be kneaded.”
It was only when I looked up barm that I stumbled across a whole new area of food history I previously knew nothing about: bread-making in the days before manufactured yeast.
I had sometimes wondered about how bread was made in Britain before yeast became commercially available. We don’t seem to have a history of sourdough bread so how were our ancestors getting all those loaves to rise? The answer lies in one of our other traditional practices: brewing. It turns out that the original method of making bread with yeast in Britain was to use a by-product of ale-making. Bakers would pop along to their friendly brewing neighbour and take some of the yeasty froth that appeared on the top of the fermenting ale (called the ‘wort’). It was this wort that was added to the dough to make it rise. (The unpredictability of the method led to the word ‘barmy’ being used to describe someone not quite stable!)
I was excited to try and replicate this ancient practice but Althea’s recipe presented me with a number of problems. The first – where to get malt and hops from – was solved by a home-brew website. But my main issue was that the recipe asked me to add ‘a bottle of the store barm’ halfway through. It seemed that, much like sourdough, I needed some store barm to make some store barm. I already have a healthy sourdough starter and a kombucha SCOBY, so it was tempting to chuck a bit of those in to see if it would kickstart things. This though felt both cheaty and inauthentic. It was time to consult the internet…
The advice from most modern websites was to use manufactured yeast on the basis that: a) it’s easy; and b) wild yeasts are unpredictable. But, again, I wasn’t happy about this idea. Finally, after much searching, I came across this recipe from Joseph Worrall’s The Domestic Receipt Book from 1832:
And so it began! Strap yourselves in…
After boiling, I put the mixture into a Kilner jar and sealed it. The hops apparently have antiseptic qualities that prevent the mixture from spoiling. It smelled heavily of breweries at this point! In spite of Mr Worrall’s instructions, after 24-30 hours nothing had changed, except a layer of sludge had settled on the bottom. For better or worse, I decided to give it some air in order to attract natural yeasts, so opened the jar and put some pieces of kitchen roll over the top to keep insects away. I checked it every few hours, giving the jar a little wiggle to see if there were any bubbles. Two days later and…
We had lift off! I fed it with the sugar, as per Mr Worrall’s instructions and it bubbled happily. So now, using this ‘maiden barm’ it was time to turn back to Althea’s recipe. I again boiled up hops and malt (according to her recipe quantities) and this time I added to the brew my maiden barm, plus the flour and sugar. I left it overnight (covered) to work its magic.
It was certainly feisty by now! I poured it into bottles, releasing the pressure every few hours to avoid any nasty ceiling redecoration incidents. There was no mistaking that fermentation was occurring:
I hadn’t been convinced that I could get to this stage, so this was exciting. But the big question was – could I make bread with this barm, and would that bread be edible? I am one of the many people who took up sourdough baking during the Covid-19 lockdowns and every week produce a loaf or two. They won’t win any ‘prettiest bread’ competitions but they taste good. So I was confident I could handle dough. However, Althea’s recipe is for ‘ten or twelve pounds of flour’ and, whilst I try to be authentic, I didn’t want to be up all night making enough experimental bread for the entire neighbourhood.
After reading various recipes, I decided to wing it and try using the quantities I usually use for a sourdough loaf, adjusting where necessary. So, I started with 500g of wholemeal flour, 300ml of the barm liquid (more than Althea suggested but it was all a bit of an experiment by now) and 2 tsp salt. I also added one medium mashed potato. The mixture was on the dry side so I added a little more water.
I started the process in the morning and, over the next few hours, employed the stretch and fold method that I use with sourdough. By the late afternoon, I could feel that the dough was light and airy and so I shaped it and put it into a proving basket for a couple of hours.
It was finally time to bake. Again, I followed my usual sourdough routine: into a warmed baking pot and put in a very hot oven for 20 minutes. Another ten minutes at a reduced temperature before removing the lid for the final browning. The kitchen was filled with a sweet smell, very different from the usual sourdough smell and much more like the yeasty Tea Cakes. But what would I get at the end of it all?
Bread! I made a loaf of bread! It had flattened slightly, probably because the dough was quite wet. But, nevertheless, I had managed to ferment hops and malt and use the wort to produce store barm and, finally, a loaf of bread. It had a close texture, similar to rye bread. The smell was sweet and reminded me of the granary on the farm I grew up on; of warm, dried cereals. Taste-wise, again the sweetness came through, as did a very slight beery aftertaste. It was certainly edible. With another two bottles of store barm remaining, I plan to experiment with white flour, so may well provide an update at a later date. Altogether, it has been a fascinating experience and worked out far better than I anticipated.
The recipe for store barm is attributed to ‘Mrs Kay, The Terrace, Windermere, April 1867.’ Mrs Kay was the aunt, by marriage, to Althea’s husband, James. James’s mother was Harriette Kay, daughter of Richard Kay. One of our family legends, told to me by my father, was that we were related to John Kay, who invented the Flying Shuttle. Given that Richard Kay was from the same area of Bury as John, but a century apart, there could well be some truth to this. But I think that barm may well have exhausted this post and so the Kays will have to wait for another day!