It has to be said that lockdown is beginning to lose any appeal that it may have had in the beginning (the fact that it has rained non-stop for the last ten days may have had some bearing on that, I admit). I can’t remember whether we are 11 or 12 weeks in, I can no longer be bothered to count, and anyway I can’t see out from under my fringe. We remind ourselves daily that we and our families are incredibly fortunate – none of us has had Covid-19, nobody has lost their job, everyone has a secure home and we are all financially keeping heads above water – for now at least.
One not-so-pleasant result of the long lockdown has been that our housesitter, who stayed on when it became clear that we could not return to Turkey as planned at the end of March, ‘went rogue’ when she realised her long spell in our house was coming to an end a few weeks ago. In short, she trashed the place, left it in an absolutely filthy state and stole a great number of our household belongings. By some miracle, at least as far as we can tell at the moment, nothing of any great value has been stolen, but lots of the pretty bits and pieces we have acquired on our travels throughout the years, or been given as gifts by friends and family, found their way down to the housesitter’s new home.
Our friends who normally live in our house when we are not there have now moved back in and are gradually restoring things to normal, and we have managed to retrieve most of our stuff (which took two car loads to return, plus numerous other deliveries as more things have been discovered).
Rugs have gone to be professionally cleaned, floors have been scrubbed, and our friends and a team of cleaners are gradually working their way through the house. Sack loads of dirty sheets, blankets and duvets have gone to the laundry. Cupboards and drawers are being emptied, cleaned and their contents washed and returned. It will literally take weeks or months to make the house straight again. (I am not sure whether anyone has yet been able to face the task of removing the balls of chewed up chewing gum she has systematically been sticking to my desk, or whether the desk has been consigned to the basement for fumigation when we get back – anyone got ideas about chewing gum removal from wood)?
The cats were completely traumatised (apart from Toast, who definitely wouldn’t notice if the sky fell in). Our elderly mother cat has been at the vet, being treated for a serious infection, as well as a horrid infestation of worms and high levels of stress, none of which the housesitter apparently noticed. The vet visited last night to treat the others as a precaution. It has been a horrible time for all of us, including our pets, who, judging by the evidence on and under the rugs, have been locked into the house for long periods at a time – the very thought of which is probably the thing that upsets me the most. And this woman came with an excellent reference – anyone out there looking for a pet/housesitter, I urge you to only ever use trustedhousesitters.com – an excellent organisation, where both hosts and sitters are thoroughly vetted. (For the avoidance of doubt, this one did NOT come from there, she was introduced via a mutual acquaintance).
I considered for a long time whether I should write about the experience on this page, but decided that if it saved one other person out there from having their home and pets violated by a stranger, then it will have served a useful purpose. Makes me feel slightly better too, as apparently I am not allowed to put up ‘most wanted’ posters on every streetlight and telegraph pole in the village.
Anyway, enough of that, or I shall grind my teeth and our dentist has not yet reopened for business. I should add too that, over the last few weeks, our friends and neighbours have been absolutely wonderful, which has gone some way towards restoring our faith in human nature.
Unsurprisingly, food has become a surprisingly hit and miss affair of late. I even stooped to buying a ready-cooked beef brisket joint when we went into M&S (first time since March) to buy a Chinese ‘takeaway’ for my birthday dinner. I must say the brisket was rather more successful than the Chinese, and was actually delicious – barely discernible from the homemade version. For some reason, we seem to have had even more black bananas than usual, so the freezer is groaning with banana bread and banana muffins, even though we do share with our neighbours. And, really, I don’t need any more cake or I shall have to order one of those special winches to winch me out of one of the large upstairs windows when I can no longer fit through the front door.
Yesterday, I refreshed my sourdough starter and, as ever, couldn’t bring myself to throw away the discard, so I made pizza dough. I’ve been reading Rachel Roddy’s incredibly evocative ‘Five Quarters’ and have been meaning to try my hand at a pizza bianca for a while, ever since I read her description of the one they make at the bakery below her apartment in Rome.
Of course you can use ready-made dough if you prefer (or Jamie Oliver’s pizza dough from ‘Jamie’s Italy‘, made with normal fast-action yeast, is wonderful too).
This dough makes enough for three large pizzas or two large pizzas and two lots of dough balls* (I confess we had garlic dough balls, but we did share one pizza – and there were leftovers). The dough freezes beautifully, and this is one of the few times I would use cling film for wrapping – it needs to be wrapped very tightly, or it will escape while it is thawing (trust me, I’ve had bread dough which has managed to practically take over the entire fridge when it has climbed out of its bowl, and I am able to report with some authority that the clearing up is not a nice job).
I made the dough in the mixer with the dough hook – if you make it by hand, you may need to add a little more flour, as the dough can be quite sticky. I advise you to lightly oil the bowl in which you prove the dough, then oil one hand for the turning and stretching (hot tip – don’t oil the hand which you are using to hang on to the bowl!) It needs a few hours to sit about, with the occasional stretch and fold in between – which takes about one minute each time. Ergo best to start the dough in the morning or soon after lunch. On the upside, the pizza only takes ten minutes to bake. We had ours with a very peppery rocket and watercress salad, which went beautifully with the pizza.
Pizza Bianca with potatoes, bacon & rosemary
Makes three large pizzas or two large pizzas and two batches of doughballs
For the dough:
100g sourdough starter
350ml lukewarm or cold water
500g plain or strong flour (replace 100g of the flour with semolina for extra crunch)
For the topping:
3 – 4 new potatoes, cooked, cooled and sliced
4 rashers smoked streaky bacon, diced
Approx half of a large red onion, very thinly sliced into half moons
1 ball fresh mozarella (the type that comes in a bag with brine)
A couple of sprigs of rosemary, leaves removed and chopped
A sprinkling of chilli flakes
You will need a large baking sheet for baking the pizza, and a sheet of parchment paper roughly the same size as the baking sheet
Put the water and sourdough starter into a bowl and mix together. Tip in the flour and finally sprinkle over the salt (don’t add the salt in with the starter/water or it may kill the yeast) stir with a fork to lightly combine. Using a stand mixer with a dough hook (or your hands if you don’t have one of those!), mix the dough together thoroughly, then mix (or knead by hand) for a few minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic.
Lightly oil a bowl which is at least twice the size of the dough. Scrape the dough into the bowl and cover with a saucepan lid or silicone stretch lid (cling film if you absolutely must). Leave for around an hour. The dough should have relaxed and will probably have discernibly risen. Lightly oil your right hand (left, obvs, if you are the other way around), hold the bowl with your other hand, then start to lift and stretch sections of the dough – turning the bowl as you go. Be as brutal as you like – the more you stretch it, the better it will be. Repeat this whenever you think about it, leaving it for at least half an hour between stretches. I think I did mine four or five times in all.
When you are ready to bake, pre-heat your oven to 250ºC and insert a large baking sheet into the oven to get hot.
Take a third of the dough and roll it out on a floured surface, sprinkling with flour as necessary to stop the dough sticking to either the worktop or the pin. Roll the dough around the pin and transfer it to your sheet of baking parchment and roll the edges of the pizza inwards to form a small rim.
Scatter over the sliced potatoes, diced bacon and onions. Cut the mozarella in half, then cut each half into slices approximately the thickness of a one pound coin. Scatter these over the pizza as evenly as you can. Sprinkle with the rosemary and chilli flakes (if using), then drizzle over just a tiny bit of olive oil – making sure a little of it goes over the rim of the pizza (or brush the rim with oil, which is probably easier).
Ensuring the oven is fully up to temperature, pick up the pizza, still on its sheet of baking parchment, and transfer it to the hot baking sheet. Bake for eight to ten minutes until the edges of the pizza are blistered and almost burned. Slice, and serve immediately.
*If you would like to make dough balls, take small pieces of the dough (about the size of a walnut in its shell) and roll them into balls in your hands. Space them out on a lined or greased baking tin (I used a Victoria sandwich tin – it accommodated eight perfectly). Prove for 15 minutes or so while you are assembling the pizza. Bake for six minutes, then dot with garlic butter and return to the oven for another minute.