The Christmas weather in south Devon was stormy and very wet so when we woke on December 27th to bright sunshine and clear, pale blue skies we had to get out for a walk. We chose one combining countryside and sea, one we often walk after heavy rain as it mostly follows minor roads or paved paths.
We started at Townstal, a suburb on the edge of Dartmouth. Townstal is noted for its leisure centre and two supermarkets but it does provide easy parking and quick access to open countryside. Our route headed gradually southwards towards the sea along narrow roads edged by high grassy banks. Volleys of gulls and crows rose from adjacent fields and the low sunshine created strongly contrasting areas of light and dark on the deep valleys and rolling countryside, emphasising even the slightest undulation.
Some steep ups and downs took us to Venn Cross where we turned to descend along the Blackpool Valley with its spirited stream, growing ever fuller as it gathered water from springs or from the sodden fields. This part of the walk is tree lined and the minor road is cut into the hillside well above the stream. Several former water mills are dotted along the valley; they are now rather grand private houses but one has installed a turbine to harness the power of the water once again.
At this time of year, the trees are dark latticeworks of bare branches but pale brown immature catkins were showing well on some of the trees, readying themselves for the spring. Patches of winter heliotrope spread along verges enclosing the ground with their fleshy, green, heart-shaped leaves. Purple and white lollipop flowers struck through the leaves, broadcasting their characteristic almond odour.
Eventually, we reached Blackpool Sands, a popular shingle beach and café, surrounded by pine trees and sheltered by steeply rising hills. The low winter sun created strongly contrasting colours: the yellowish- brown shingle, the fringe of frothy white waves, the sea a rich dark blue tinged with turquoise highlights, and there were clear views across the bay to Start Point with its lighthouse. Near the café, a hardy group of swimmers were struggling on their wet suits in readiness for a dip. They passed me as they ventured in to the sea accompanied by audible yelps and shrieks.
I was keen to have a look at the shingle beach for two reasons. There had been a very successful beach clean four days previously organised by Amanda Keetley of Less Plastic. We hadn’t been able to be there owing to family commitments but there had also been storms since then and I wondered how much more plastic had washed up. I didn’t find any, the beach was still clean which should have been good news.
To be honest, however, I was feeling disheartened about efforts to reduce the load of plastic in our seas after reading two articles in the Guardian over the Christmas period. It seems that the US, along with financial support from Saudi Arabia, is planning a huge increase in plastic production, the driver being cheap shale gas. If we are to reduce the amount of plastic in our seas we need to reduce the amount in circulation and this new plan runs directly counter to this.
If you want to find a traditional baker, then the county of Dorset in the south west of the UK is a good place to start. They make all kinds of artisan breads and cakes but one of their most popular offerings is the Dorset Apple Cake, a local speciality that also graces tearoom menus throughout the county, often accompanied by a hefty dollop of clotted cream. In 2006, the cake was voted the food most associated with Dorset and, earlier this year, the Guardian newspaper carried a feature on “How to cook the perfect Dorset Apple Cake”.
So what’s all the fuss about and what exactly is a Dorset Apple Cake? And can I make a Dorset Apple Cake worthy of the professionals?
I began my Dorset Apple Cake quest by looking at recipes, hoping I might find the definitive version of this local delicacy. I had no trouble finding recipes, indeed every celebrity chef or home baker seems to have one. The problem is that each recipe is unique, calling for different quantities of flour, butter, sugar, eggs and baking powder, and of course apple; some also add sultanas and lemon, and many include cinnamon. So, there is no definitive recipe and all we can say is that the Dorset Apple Cake is a rich cake containing apple.
I also found two older recipes, one from 1925 (Miss Hetty King) and another from 1932 (Miss Annette Vipan, North Chideock). These are simpler than many modern versions but include plenty of apple, probably reflecting local ingredients. There is also a reference to apple cake in a poem, Father Come Home (1834), by the Dorset dialect poet, William Barnes, and I suspect that apple cakes have been made in Dorset for a very long time.
Most apple growing counties in the UK make some kind of apple cake and I came across recipes from Somerset, Devon and Kent as well as further afield. There is some variation, for example cider is often included in the Somerset cake, but for the most part, these cakes resemble the Dorset version. So why has Dorset Apple Cake come to dominate, capturing the imagination of celebrity chefs and home bakers and featuring in the Guardian newspaper? I asked local bakers whether they knew what set the Dorset version apart but they just shrugged their shoulders. I came to the conclusion that Dorset Apple Cake has been made in the county for many years by local people but has recently acquired a certain mystique, partly through the appropriation of the cake as the county food and partly with the enhanced foodie profile of Dorset.
I visit the experts
My next stop was Leakers, a well-known, traditional bakery in the west Dorset town of Bridport. As well as making its own version of Dorset Apple Cake, Leakers has sponsored the Best Dorset Apple Cake competition at the local Melplash Show so they should know a thing or two about the county’s signature food. Although the business is now owned by Caroline Parkins, the apple cake is made by Jo Leaker, grand-daughter of George Leaker who moved from Devon in 1914 to take over the Bridport bakery. Jo has been making the cake at Leakers on a part time basis for ten years using a recipe dating from 1914 “handed down and tweaked”. I met Jo in the bakery at the end of a baking day and found her standing proudly by six large trays of apple cake, each a mosaic of rich chestnut brown cake and pale green apple chunks. She was very welcoming and keen to share her knowledge, providing this didn’t extend to the recipe! “Many people have tried to get hold of it!” she told me.
Jo described her cake as “rough and rustic with lots of apple”. She uses eaters or cookers, whatever is available, peeled and roughly chopped within the cake while the surface is decorated with chunks so the apple taste comes through; cinnamon is included but no sultanas or lemon. Her cake is very popular, it’s now a Leakers speciality, and in the peak season she makes twenty trays a week.
The Great Dorset Apple Cake Bake Off
Inspired by my visit to Leakers, I decided to try my hand at making apple cake. I made two versions: one according to the Guardian’s “perfect” recipe which, aside from the usual ingredients, used wholemeal flour and Cox’s apples; my second cake had less sugar and butter and was based on a recipe from Amanda Persey’s book of “Favourite Dorset Recipes”. I used cooking apples, added cinnamon and decorated the top with apple chunks. Details of these recipes are given below.
While the cakes were baking, I couldn’t help pondering the seemingly magical transformation taking place in the oven. What chemical changes were occurring as the cake baked and how does each ingredient contribute to the structure, lightness and flavour of the final product?
Every baker wants their cake to be light and airy but it needs some structure as well and here the flour is a major contributor. Proteins in the flour come together to make gluten when they meet moisture; the gluten forms a protein scaffold, a flexible web that helps trap carbon dioxide and water vapour as the cake expands. The lightness comes from the raising agent, baking powder; during the early phase of baking it releases carbon dioxide gas which becomes trapped within the matrix of egg, butter, sugar and flour causing the mixture to expand and giving the cake a light, porous texture. Butter brings flavour and richness as well as restraining gluten formation helping to keep the texture light. The eggs provide moisture and the egg proteins solidify during baking, sealing off the bubbles of carbon dioxide; the structure of the cake is completed by the coagulation of the flour proteins.
The winning apple cake
Armed with two of my own cakes and a chunk of the Leakers version, I asked my home tasting panel which they liked best. The Guardian “perfect” cake looked good and had a light open texture, but everyone in my household found it too sweet, so much so that it overpowered the taste of the apples. It might work better with a tart cooking apple but it definitely was not to our taste. My second cake also looked good and the apple chunks gave it an appropriately rustic feel. We liked this cake with its dense but crumbly texture; it was not too sweet, allowing the apple taste to come through strongly. Jo Leaker’s apple cake was, however, the winner and it was especially good when warmed. We liked its very moist but dense texture and its strong apple taste, combined with a not-too-sweet crumb and an interesting buttery surface. I should have realised that the professionals know best!
Now it’s your turn to get baking and discover the mysteries and the pleasures of Dorset Apple Cake.
Rapadura sugar (175g) (Felicity Cloake calls for light muscovado which may work better)
Butter, melted (150g)
2 large eggs, beaten
4 medium Cox apples, cored but not peeled, then diced (The apple flavour may come through better with a tart cooking apple, but I followed Felicity’s suggestion of Cox’s)
Demerara sugar to top
Flaked almonds (2 tbsp) for top
Combine the flour, baking powder, salt, spice, and sugar in a bowl.
Stir in the butter and eggs and beat together for a minute or so until combined well.
Stir in the apples until well distributed, then spoon the mixture in to the tin (circular tin, 20 cm diameter, with paper liner).
Smooth the top and sprinkle with the Demerara sugar.
Bake for an hour at 160 oC,
Add the almonds and bake for a further 15-25 mins until coming away from the tin. (my cake needed more time overall so you may need to test with a skewer until it comes away clean)
My Second Cake
Modified from Amanda Persey “Favourite Dorset Recipes”
Plain flour (115g)
Spelt flour (wholemeal) (115g)
Baking powder 2tsp
Rapadura sugar (115g)
One egg, beaten
Natural yoghurt (1 tbsp) (this was an addition suggested by Hazel to make the cake more moist, it could have taken more)
Cooking apples, peeled and cored (225g roughly chopped (in the cake), 90g chunks (each chunk about one eighth of one apple) for the top))
Melted butter for brushing the top
Mix the flours and baking powder and rub in the butter by hand until is resembles bread crumbs.
Mix in the sugar and cinnamon.
Add 225g of roughly chopped apple
Mix in the beaten egg and the natural yoghurt and stir well until mixed evenly
Put the mixture in a cake tin (circular tin, 20 cm diameter, with paper liner) and smooth the surface
Press apple chunks (90 g in total) in to the surface
Brush surface with melted butter
Bake at 170 degrees for 30-40 min until surface is firm to touch or a skewer inserted in the cake comes away clean. The recipe calls for 30-40 min but I had to cook for longer, it will depend on your oven.
As I drove back from Paignton, the low sun cast long shadows across the sensuous folds of the South Hams hills. But the sunshine was deceptive; the temperature outside was 7oC and in the distance, there stood Dartmoor sprinkled liberally with snow like icing sugar on a cake. It was our first taste of winter and, inspired by Mark Cocker’s recent Guardian Country Diary on “The meaning of a bumblebee”, I had been to Roundham Head in Paignton to see what insects were about on this cold day.
There were pockets of warmth in sheltered corners of the Roundham Head Gardens but generally it felt cold in the wind and by the time I got back to the car my hands were numb. Despite the conditions, there were plenty of flowers about: yellow scorpion vetch in profusion, hanging curtains of rosemary with a few grey-blue flowers, exotic pink and white grevillea, purple spikes of hebe and the pink cup-shaped flowers of bergenia.
What about the insects? I saw a few large black flies and one hopeful hoverfly but my biggest surprise was two smart looking painted lady butterflies enjoying the sunshine. Seeing bumblebees required patience but eventually I was rewarded by the appearance of a few buff-tailed bumblebee workers filling their pollen baskets by probing the rosemary, grevillea and bergenia. I also saw one plump and furry buff-tailed queen meticulously working the bergenia flowers before she flew off.
Mark Cocker attributes his surprise sighting of a bumblebee in Norfolk on January 1st to anthropogenic global warming and anomalous weather linked to El Nino but there must also be suitable forage for the bumblebees if they are to be active in winter and survive. The British penchant for gardening and for planting winter-flowering shrubs seems to supply this forage.
I visited Roundham Head Gardens on January 15th 2016
A surprising picture appeared in the Guardian newspaper towards the end of June. It showed fields, near Blandford, Dorset in South West England, painted lilac with the flowers of the opium poppy. This controversial crop, associated in many people’s minds with war-torn countries like Afghanistan, is now being grown commercially in England to produce the medically-important pain killer morphine. But just how did opium poppies come to be grown across swathes of rural England?
Opium and the opium poppy
The opium poppy, or Papaver somniferum as it is more correctly called, is an imposing plant with fleshy grey-green leaves, showy pastel coloured flowers and impressive pepper pot seed heads. Standing up to a metre tall, the opium poppy brings architectural interest to the garden but it has a darker side. Within the seed head is a milky liquid containing a mixture of narcotic chemicals including morphine and codeine. If the unripe seed head is pierced, this latex seeps out and, left to dry, this is opium, prized for its extraordinary psychoactive powers.
Humans have used opium for many thousands of years and the earliest written reference to the drug comes from the Middle East around 4000BC. The ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilisations were also well acquainted with the properties of the drug using it enthusiastically. Although growth of Papaver somniferum is typically associated with warmer climates, the opium poppy has a history of cultivation in the UK. In the 18th and 19th centuries, many houses in the East Anglian Fens grew a stand of white opium poppies so that the dried seed capsules could be used to brew a tea containing small amounts of morphine. This infusion helped counter the aches and pains suffered by people living harsh lives in what was then, a remote, unhealthy part of the country. Use was not confined to the Fens as the Dorset-writerThomas Hardy, in The Trumpet Major, refers to poppy heads and pain relief.
By the 19th century, imported opium was freely available in the UK and was used extensively at all levels of society. Opium was supplied in many forms including laudanum, a tincture of opium in wine, popularised by the Dorset-born physician Thomas Sydenham. The drug was taken to relieve pain, to induce sleep and to treat cough and diarrhoea. Its euphoriant properties were also prized and recreational use occurred with some problems of dependence. Encouraged by the drug’s popularity, attempts were made in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to grow opium poppies commercially in the UK but these were abandoned in favour of imported Turkish opium.
From opium to morphine
Morphine was isolated from opium in the 19th century and the powerful pain killing and euphoriant properties of the pure drug were quickly recognised. These come at a price as, compared to opium, morphine has potentially dangerous side effects and is highly addictive. By the 20th century, all non-medical use was banned but, to the present day, morphine is widely prescribed to relieve moderate and severe pain especially after major surgery. Diamorphine (heroin) is also used for pain relief in the UK but we hear more about its illicit use, the problems of addiction and the associated criminal activity. All morphine used clinically is still obtained from the opium poppy, extracted either from crude opium or from the dried seed heads.
The 21st century opium fields of England
By the end of the 20th century, the morphine used for medical purposes in the UK was extracted from opium poppies grown in Tasmania and Spain. It was tacitly assumed that the climate in the UK was unsuitable for their commercial cultivation. In 1999, however, John Manners, a seed merchant from Oxfordshire questioned this doctrine. He had seen striking pictures of purple opium poppies growing commercially in Poland, and decided to have a go at growing the plants in the UK. He set up some small trial plots and grew the poppies successfully in the southern part of the country. But did they produce morphine when grown in the UK? With the help of the Scottish pharmaceutical company, Macfarlan Smith (now a division of Johnson-Matthey), he showed that indeed they did. A full field trial the following year in Oxfordshire was also a success and, by 2002, 100 hectares of opium poppies were being grown commercially in the UK, each hectare yielding about 15 kg of morphine. More farmers were persuaded to grow the crop and nowadays, early summer sees about 2500 hectares of farmland blooming with the unselfconscious lilac flowers, mostly in the counties of Dorset, Hampshire, Lincolnshire and Oxfordshire.
Although they were initially uneasy about growing opium poppies, farmers now find it to be a lucrative break crop to prepare the land for growing cereals or oil seed rape the following season. Farmers contracted to Macfarlan Smith must prepare the seed bed and sow poppy seed supplied by the company which also advises on agronomy and pest control while the opium poppies are growing. The UK climate seems to suit the poppies well and after flowering they are left to dry before the seed capsule and about 5 cm of stem are harvested. The harvest is taken to a central processing facility where the poppy seeds in the capsule are separated leaving “poppy straw”. Poppy seeds contain little or no morphine and are sold for various culinary uses such as bread making. Poppy straw is processed in Macfarlan Smith’s Edinburgh factory where the morphine is isolated by solvent extraction and purification. About half of the UK requirement of medical morphine (~60 tons/year) is now made from poppies grown in the UK, including those grown in Dorset. So when you come across these beautiful lilac-painted fields next summer, think morphine, think pain relief, and think poppy extracts ending up in medicine cabinets in hospitals and pharmacies.
It is clear: to restrict global warming to 2 degrees Centigrade we need to leave most of the remaining fossil fuel reserves in the ground. We must stop using oil, coal and gas and, instead, we must use renewable, zero-carbon energy sources.
And yet, politicians sit on their hands and do very little to encourage both reduced use of fossil fuels and increased use of renewables.
The Guardian Newspaper has decided to increase their coverage of these issues, giving them a much higher priority and starting with a series of articles on its front page. With the Guardian’s global on-line reach this is a step change in both thinking and action on this topic.
I must confess that I hadn’t heard of the Bowder Stone until I read the Guardian’s country diary on Monday. It’s the largest free-standing stone in England and it stands rather precariously among other rocks in Borrowdale in the Lake District. The Country Diary article tells a lovely story about a man losing his iPhone under the rock and I would urge you to read the article. To whet your appetite I wrote this:
A stout man had lost his iPhone
In the hole under old Bowder Stone
A passing climber, so deft
Plucked the phone from this cleft
Now the stout man and phone can go home
Thanks to Hazel for drawing my attention to this article.
I have always wondered why I was such a poor runner. Now Jonjoe McFadden, writing in the Guardian, has supplied the answer; it’s all down to my faulty gene switches. It’s too late for me now but according to McFadden, in the future anyone wishing to rival Usain Bolt and run a sub-10 second 100 metres will just take a gene switch drug. McFadden also tells us that diseases like diabetes, heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease are all caused by faulty gene switches. In diabetes, he says, a liver cell may be “genetically tripped to stop absorbing blood sugar”. Silly me, I had always thought insulin had something to do with diabetes.
McFadden’s musings were occasioned by the recent publication of the results of the ENCODE consortium. About 10 years ago the DNA sequence of the human genome was reported. Surprisingly, the part of the genome containing the information for building new proteins, the genes, constituted less than 2% of the sequence. The other 98% was, at the time, of unknown function and some rather unwisely dubbed it “junk” DNA. ENCODE set out to study this large part of the human genome that does not code for proteins. ENCODE’s data rewrite our knowledge and show that much of this misunderstood DNA is functional. Functional here is a rather broad term and includes several possible mechanisms that can be loosely described as regulating how the genomic DNA is expressed. This regulation is important for determining why certain proteins are expressed only in certain cell types thus establishing the unique identity of liver cells, heart cells etc. The regulation may go wrong, and this dysregulation may be at the core of some common diseases.
No one can doubt the importance of ENCODE’s work in rewriting our view of the human genome but it is very important to be clear about the implications. McFadden uses the term “gene switch” to describe all the regulatory activities outlined above. This idea in fact derives from the Press Release that accompanied the data. I find the term gene switch to be misleading as it suggests a mechanistic understanding we do not have. ENCODE showed, in a variety of ways and in different cell types, that there were potential regulatory functions associated with the non genomic DNA but they did not show how all of these worked. It will require huge amounts of research to understand the regulatory mechanisms and using a term like gene switch trivialises the present findings and the task ahead.
McFadden then goes on to build a huge edifice around the idea of gene switches. Gene switch drugs will in time be developed to counter defects in the regulatory mechanisms that lead to diseases but these drugs will be also be used , he suggests, to manipulate “physiology, mood, intelligence, libido, anxiety, and appetite”, also to create new Usain Bolts and to stave off the symptoms of old age. He also states that “many scientists believe …. that the differences between us and our closest relatives …. are mostly due to differences in gene switching”. The corollary of this, he says, is that a chimp might be enabled to talk by treatment with a gene-switch drug. This wealth of speculation is entertaining but is pure science fiction as it can be neither proven nor disproven at present.
When the Human Genome was reported, it was accompanied by claims that the information would revolutionise clinical medicine. The Human Genome has sparked a biological revolution but it has so far had little effect on clinical medicine leading to some disappointment. The results of the ENCODE project are important and require serious discussion. Making exaggerated claims about the outcomes means that the real impact of the results may not be appreciated. Those who read these predictions may end up disillusioned and disappointed when, inevitably, the predictions are not realised. This is bad for science.