With the Festive Season almost exactly a fortnight away, this weekend I am busy making beigli, the traditional Hungarian Christmas cake that comes in two flavours: walnut and poppy-seed. It has always been a job for my grandmother, whose beigli is superb even now that she is 84 years of age, but ever since I moved to the UK, my father seems to have got the idea of having to have his son’s Christmas cake through the post. So, there is no choice, but baking beigli at home and sending the packet to Hungary. I must add there is something nostalgic and nice about it. To Omar’s dismay I normally start the process only after I have got home from work, which inevitably means baking until 3 a.m., as the dough needs to rest, then folding and resting again and so on.
This year I have decided to be better organised and dedicate the weekend to baking. There is no better way of spending a grey and overcast Sunday in December than baking and cooking. Of course, there is the another motivation too. I am making double portion, because three packets will be put into the post. One off to Gloucester for my sister, another to Wagenborgen in the northern Dutch province of Groningen for my parents-in-law and the third one for my parents in Hungary.
However, there is the hurdle of purchasing fresh yeast, a must have ingredient. Yes, you may ask why it is a headache, so let me explain.
Go and buy a loaf of bread in any of the supermarkets. I guarantee that it will stick to your palate when you eat it and let me not go into more detail as far as the inferior quality of baked products are concerned in Britain. Unless you are fortunate enough to live in a borough or part of the countryside where there is still a bakery to be found. They are the last custodians of traditionally delicious breads in the UK and, therefore, sell their products at comparatively higher prices. Quality needs to be paid for.
We happen to live in East Dulwich, where there are at least two well-known bakers, one is Luca’s and the other is Blackbirds. Once you realise that supermarkets do not sell fresh yeast anymore, you would think that the local baker might sell you a piece you need. Naïve thought. Whilst the shops are based in East Dulwich, the bakeries themselves are located miles away, where lower rents make more business sense.
Having been better organised, but not so much in terms of yeast, I was getting very close to the point where I had to make a trip to North London. There are numerous “Hungarian” shops selling a wide range of food products, including fresh yeast, but all of them are based in the North, which translates into an almost 30-mile round trip. For 50 grammes of yeast? There must be some other solution, I thought.
There it was, the Whole Food Market in Piccadilly. I did not even have to go the extra mile, as I could route myself easily up to the West End after gym on Saturday. To the greatest surprise, the fresh yeast is imported from Germany. The packaging had German and Swedish copy on it explaining that the yeast was organically made and when it should be used by.
Now that my beigli dough is nicely resting for a few hours before I roll it , fold it and fill it; I start to wonder whether we live in an era of highly manufactured food in Britain? Or is it simply a cultural divide between the Continent and Britain that there is not much yeast used in baking in this insular country? I am inclined to believe it is a combination of both, as making a dough with yeast is highly time consuming and requires a great deal of involvement. At the same time, there is so much better to get out of it too; the joy of serving it and seeing people enjoy it.