My Blogs

6 Aug

I blog regularly at R for Biochemists – it’s about using the the statistical programming language.

Also popular is My Brick Oven Blog – all about building and cooking on an outdoor brick oven.

I work at Cardiff University and blog occasionally about that.

More home stuff below including cider tasting, cider making and growing food.


Reflections on the UCU strike

13 Apr


After many weeks of industrial action, I found out today that our industrial action has been suspended. I have to confess, I’m relieved. I was anxious about going on strike again next week and worried how further industrial action was going to affect relationships with students and other staff.

Reflecting on the experience, I’m really proud of how we conducted the industrial action at Cardiff University. The UCU strike was an extremely effective interdisciplinary project. Our protest was vigorous and inspiring. We had a regular pattern of early morning pickets, followed by an 11am rally, with teach out events in the afternoon . We saw the number of pickets grow across the weeks with new members joining the action even in the last week. Our colleagues worked hard TOGETHER.


Our great events included Question Time with our Vice-Chancellor; marching with  on Labour MPs Anna McMorrin and Carolyn Harris; the Lobby at the Welsh Assembly; rallys in the park; University Matters events on diverse topics including mental health, the language of strikes and the Innocence Project; standing and walking meditation. I witnessed a huge amount of creativity during the strike: videos, songs and words.

I remain concerned about our pension. Moving to a direct contribution pension scheme is a great prize for our employers. If UUK can dispense with the defined benefit scheme, they will be freed from a financial responsibility that will allow them to take on increased risk: borrowing to fund buildings and student expansion. The perspective of politicians, interventions from the Pensions Regulator and the complexity of valuation means we will see more attacks on our pensions. We’ll have to keep a beady on this to make sure we don’t end up with a pension for the birds.


I am even more concerned about the degeneration of our work conditions in the University sector. We are continually asked to deliver more work with fewer resources. Furthermore, the higher education sector is based on some really fundamental inequalities. Opportunities for development and advancement are not available to all staff – especially Professional Services staff. The ‘gig’ economy is increasing in HE, creating a University “precariat” with little job security and often multiple jobs.

That said, our Union is stronger today that it was two months ago. We have more members. We’ve seen the power in collective action. I’ve been inspired by colleagues support, solidarity and commitment. By continuing to work together, we can support each other and create a more positive environment for HE students and staff. #WeAreTheUniversity


Basic home made white bread

19 Dec

I was asked for some bread advice. I think basic home made white bread is a great place to start. It’s tasty bread and with fast acting yeast it’s easy to make. Try it a few times and enjoy. When happy, try building on your skills. The timings for the dough and kneeding are quite flexible and depend on the temperature of the room.

This recipe will make two small loaves (500g tins) or one larger one (1kg tin).

Recipe for the bread

  • 500g strong white bread flour
  • 325g water
  • 1 sachet (7g) of fast acting yeast
  • 1 teaspoon of fine salt

Other requirements

  • Bowl
  • Light oil such as sunflower oil (about 30ml)
  • Clean work surface – counter, table – for kneading.
  • Bread tins (2 x 500g tins or 1 x 1kg tin) – non stick is probably good at the beginning.
  • Dough scraper (optional but useful)


  1. Put everything in a bowl and mix. It’s ok for the mixture to be rough and sticky mixture at this point. (You can use a mixer if you want but don’t use for more than a couple of minutes).
  2. Leave for 10 minutes or so.
  3. Oil a clean work surface with about 10ml of sunflower oil or another light oil. Pour oil on surface and spread it around with your hand. This is to prevent the dough sticking.
  4. Tip all the mixture out of the bowl onto the oiled work surface. A dough scraper is useful here but not essential.
  5. Kneed for a couple of minutes to bring all the mixture together. Hopefully it’s a bit smoother.
  6. Put back into the bowl and leave for 10 minutes.
  7. Clean the work surface as some dough will have stuck to it – a dough scraper is useful for this.
  8. After the 10 minutes mentioned in step 6, oil work surface again, tip out the dough and kneed it again for another couple of minutes.
  9. Repeat step 7 and 8 one more time to give you a third kneed.
  10. Leave the dough for about 30 minutes to ferment. The time can vary up to an hour. The speed of the fermentation depends on temperature.
  11. Oil your tin(s). A small bit of oil on a piece of kitchen roll rubbed around the tin(s) works well.
  12. Tip out the dough. You can divide it in two for two smaller loaves (400g of dough) or leave as one larger loaf – depending on the tins you have and the size loaves you like.
  13. Press it out into a circle and then fold edges like an envelope to make a sort of loaf shape.
  14. Put dough in tin(s) and leave to prove (see picture).
  15. After about 30 minutes, put your oven onto 220oC to heat depending on how long your oven takes to heat.
  16. Check the dough at 45 minutes – dough should come to just below the top of the tin – not over! See picture. The time depends on temperature in the room. If not ready leave for 15 minutes and check again. If in doubt better to cook it sooner rather than let it collapse.
  17. When the loaves looked proved dough should come to just below the top, assuming the oven is up to temperature – put in the tins and reduce the heat to 200oC
  18. The bread should cook in 30 to 40 minutes depending on your oven. Depending on how crusty you like your bread, you might like to take it out of the tin(s) for the last 10 minutes. Hollow sounding base, looking good and smelling really good are all indications that the bread is cooked. See picture.
  19. Allow to cool and enjoy.


Good bread will last a couple of days. It will change a bit over that time but it still tasty. It will also make good toast on the third day.

The amount of water here is called 65%. This will give a nice open texture in the bread but is not too difficult to work. If you like a more closely textured bread, you could reduce the amount of water to 312.5g. For a more open texture to your bread you can increase the water up to 350g which would be 70% hydration. If you go to 70%, you could make a flat bread with a flat tin.

If you fancy, you can prove the bread in a bowl lined with a flour covered tea towel and then turn this out onto a hot oven tray or oven stone. This will give a more ‘rustic’ feel to the loaf.

Inspired by: Delia Smith and Dan LepardThe Handmade Loaf

Tasty rye loaf…

5 Oct

photo (10)

For lunch today, I had some of my tasty rye sourdough. I do think it’s one of the most flavoursome loaves in my baking repertoire. It’s not for everybody (my children won’t eat it) but it does have some fans.

Here’s the story behind it:

I have tried baking with rye flour over quite a few years but not with much success. Last year, To try to learn more I attended a bread making course entitled ‘Sourdough with Heritage Grains‘ with Alex Gooch at Humble by Nature. Alex was a really inspiring baker and I enjoyed it a lot. Most importantly he showed us how to make a very tasty rye sourdough. It quite dense but very tasty.

The key to using rye flour seems to be to have lots of a very lively rye sourdough starter. Alex arrived with a very large container of lovely fresh starter.

This is my recipe:

Tasty Rye Sourdough (adapted from recipe by Alex Gooch)

(makes 2 loaves which each fit into a 1 lb tin).

  • Light Rye Flour         400g
  • Dark Rye Starter       300g
  • Water                        330g
  • Salt                             10g

This is the basis of the bread and the key is the large amount of rye starter to flour. The use of the light rye flour makes a lighter loaf. You can use dark here too. Depending on where you get your flour from you may not have the choice of light and dark rye. You can make your rye lighter by sieving some. I have done this but it’s a bit of a pain.

To the basic mixture, I add the following (these are all optional and other things could be used):

  • Treacle or golden syrup                 45g
  • Sultanas                                       200g
  • Roasted corriander seeds      1 tablespoon
  • Chopped rye grains                2 tablespoons

The steps:

  1. Make a dark rye starter or leaven – if you have a leaven of any kind – mix some with rye flour. Use about equal amounts rye flour and water. It takes about 24 hours to turn your leaven into a rye leaven.
  2. Generously grease up two 1lb loaf tins. These seem quite small but you are making quite a dense bread and small slices are the key. I often use butter but it’s good to use non-dairy spreads too.
  3. For a nice effect on the loaf, spread some corriander seeds around the bottom and sides of the loaf.
  4. Mix up ALL the ingredients in a good size bowl really well. Use a spoon or your hands as you prefer but make sure all the flour is incorporated. This doesn’t take very long – maybe 10 minutes.
  5. Divide the mixture into the two bread tins – about 650g of mixture in each. It should about half fill the tins.
  6. Cover to keep the environment humid but try to avoid the top of the tins as the mixture may rise up to this. I use plastic bags one for each loaf tin.
  7. Leave to rise for about 3-4 hours depending on the temperature of the room. It should approximately double in size and you will notice little ‘holes’ on the top of the loaf as some of the bubbles in the bread have popped.
  8. Preheat oven to 200 degrees centigrade. Bake for between 35 and 45 minutes depending on how dark you like the bread. Allow to cool.

photo (7)

A few comments:

  • In my opinion and experience, this bread lasts well for a week. It’s also very tasty toasted.
  • It also freezes well for quite a few months.
  • I have shared these loaves with about ten people to very positive responses. This loaf is very different to what you will buy and is very tasty.
  • Initial recipe uses treacle but I didn’t have any and used golden syrup. It gave a lighter loaf that was a little sweeter and very nice.
  • As part of my research after this successful loaf, I re-read Andrew Whitley’s book entitled “Bread Matters”. I understood his recipes much better after attending the course. One of his loaves had 440g of rye starter to 330g of flour. He had a recipe for Borodinsky Bread that is very similar to the one above. I got my copy of “Bread Matters” when I joined the Real Bread Campaign.

Tasting two very different but tasty ciders….

14 Jan

Today, I enjoyed two bottles of cider. The first was a bottle of Dan Kelly’s Cider from Drogheda, Ireland. The second was a bottle of Yarlington Mill Cider from Gwatkin’s in Herefordshire. I picked the Dan Kelly’s first because I wanted to open a bottle of Irish cider in memory of my sister. It would have been her birthday today and she was a great lover of cider. Because my wife was enjoying the cider with me, we had to open a second bottle and I chose a bottle I knew would be very different for contrast.

Dan Kelly’s Cider

Dan Kelly's front labelFor me, Dan Kelly’s Cider is quite a lightly flavoured cider with a taste of apple peel. It’s fizzy and slightly cloudy. At 4.5% it’s not too strong. The light flavour comes from a mixture of both cider, cooking and eating apples.

According to the website: “Cider apples are blended with Bramley and dessert fruit to give the cider a dry finish.” I’m a little perturbed by the inclusion of Bramley as a specific named variety in this list. Does this mean that Bramley make up a lot of the volume of apples.

Dan Kelly's cider back and glass

Ingredients: Apple juice, water. Interestingly it says “May contain Sulphites”. This is just to cover themselves as the website says: “We don’t use sulphites or cultured yeasts. We don’t add acid, artificial colours, sweeteners or anything else. We simply press the apples and let wild yeasts do their thing. We then add some juice before pasteurising to allow the crisp, fresh and refreshing flavour develop.” Nice!

Yarlington Mill Cider from Gwatkin’s

Gwatkin's front label

Selected for contrast was a bottle of Yarlington Mill Cider from Gwatkin in Herefordshire. This is a cider with a much longer tannic structure that goes all the way across the middle of the mouth down to the throat. It has a floral, sherry perfumed scent and tastes quite sweet – probably partly due to the maturation in oak barrels. It was lightly sparkling and is a stronger cider at 7% vol. It’s a single apple variety – Yarlington Mill which is a bittersweet apple. “Ingredients: Apple juice, natural sugars and sulphites (trace)”

Gwatkin side one

Gwatkin side 2

More “natural” yeasts

Both of these bottles of cider include the word “natural” for their yeasts. To be more precise Dan Kelly’s talk about “natural wild yeasts”. For the purposes of understanding how the ciders are made, the word “wild” is a more useful. Using wild yeasts that are present on the apples and in the air is likely to include many different types of yeast that will give the cider a variable flavour profile. Dan Kelly are very clear about this on the website which is interesting and useful information.

In contrast, Gwatkin’s describe a cider that is “Matured in oak barrels with natural yeasts”. This could imply no addition of cultured yeast but it’s not very clear. ‘Cultured yeast’ are also natural and since they don’t say wild it difficult to be sure. The website shows a wide range of ciders that are made and include a shop that sells bottles and bag in boxes but doesn’t provide much extra information about how the cider was made. This was a little disappointing.

In summary, these are two ciders that reflect the local tradition of cider making in their area. They are both interesting and well made drinks. I enjoyed them. The variation in style and taste is one of the things I enjoy about cider.

Day trip to Herefordshire… and a bottle of Oldfields Orchard Cider…

18 Dec

Today, I took a day trip to England, to the county of Herefordshire. I went to pick up three apple trees from a high quality apple tree grower, John Worle. I was very lucky as John offered to show me some of his nursery fields. One field contained 200,000 trees.

On the way home, I visited the Cider Museum in Hereford City. The Cider Museum has the widest selection of ciders, I have ever seen. I was keen to pick up a few bottles of local good quality cider. I bought 14 different bottles of cider from the vast array and I am excited about tasting them over the few weeks or so.

On arrival home, I decided the best reward was to open a bottle. I chose Oldfields Orchard Medium Dry Cider. The bottle (below) has a lovely illustration on the front and a nice story of a tipsy wasp on the back. It includes good cider apple varieties: Dabinett, Harry Masters Jersey and Yarlington Mill.

Interestingly, the phrase “real cider” is missing. The cider is quite modest in alcohol at just 4.8% which I think suggests that it’s been diluted with water. Looking at the website, the makers give some great detail about how their cider is made. The website say that they “test various blends to come up with our final ‘recipe’ which would decide sweetness or dryness, desired alcoholic content and flavour. The raw cider from each tank was then blended with water, our own apple juice, sugar and SO2”.

The cider is lightly sparkling and gives a scent resulting from the inclusion of good quality cider apples. It’s light on the palate with a light taste of tannins too. It’s pleasant and I like the relatively low alcohol of 4.8%. The flavour is very clean and my wife enjoyed her share. However, I would prefer more flavour in my cider than is apparent in this bottle – either of apples or tannins. As a light, lower alcohol cider, it’s a good choice.

Front of Bottle

Front of Bottle

Back of bottle

Back of bottle


Gift Loaves for Sourdough September…

29 Sep

Today, I have distributed the last three loaves of sourdough bread to celebrate Sourdough September. In all, over the weekend, I baked twenty seven loaves of sourdough bread. Twenty one of these were distributed to friends, neighbours and colleagues. The other six were eaten or put in the freezer for my own family 🙂

I also used my brick oven for the first time to bake loaves. It wasn’t entirely successful as I didn’t get the oven hot enough. Still learning!

I made two different types of loaf:

  1. My standard sourdough – 10% brown 90% white Belchedre Flour – to this recipe.
  2. A rye fruit sourdough – I learned to make this on my first bread making course with Alex Gooch.

Here are a few pictures:


Two sourdough loaves

Two lovely loaves – nice oven spring and opened beautifully.

Rye sourdough

Small and large rye fruit sourdough

First eight loaves baked in the brick oven (but finished off with electric….)

To be honest, I’m a bit tired of baking today. Well, I have a whole weekend of real work to keep me busy 😉


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