Wednesday, 10 April 2019

ProQ Cold Smoker




Having  just finished a  Kevan Palmer fermentation day at Coldsmoking's Milton Keynes converted stable premises I got chatting to the owner Turan T. Turan who arrived just before the end.  

I wanted to have a crack at making bacon  and purchased some curing salt and then talk turned to smoking and Turan explained that on the food smoking day course he uses a cardboard box for cold smokes. I was taken aback by this because I thought you needed a smoke source, a smoking cabinet and a connecting pipe and decided to attend the day and purchase the kit if I thought I would use it. 




This was the booty that I came home with from my smoking day; a smoker, a smoke generator and three bags of Oak, Apple and Beech wood dust.


So to break the purchase down into the nitty gritty. The cardboard smoker is contained within it's own cardboard box and comes with three shelves, a drip tray and a metal base plate.


The layout of this smoker is simple but the outer box has instructions on, as does the outer part of the smoker box.


The inner sleeve of the smoker has three sets of four angled cuts which push through to form the ledges that the metal shelves sit on. The drip tray has two shelf supports which easily fit into two sets of slots which lift the lowest shelf clear of the tray to allow smoke to circulate.


And this is a shot of all the metal parts in situ. Note the small holes around the edge of the drip tray which help to spread the smoke. £25 might sound a lot for a cardboard product but the two cardboard parts fit perfectly as do the trays and shelves so there's no trying to balance cake racks on wooden skewers inside an old Amazon box and even if the and when the cardboard succumbs you'll still have the metal parts to use.


I've included this shot of Turan from the food smoking day to show that the shelves are slotted in and filled one at a time and then onto the next one until completed. Then the inner is slotted into the outer. Note the tape on the box, this is a very well used box that is several years old and the edges have been taped to preserve it. I have done so too from the get go. 


And so onto the ingenious smoke generator. It only burns a little dust at any one time, very much like a gunpowder trail fuse in a cartoon, but a lot slower.


The smoke generator has a small tapered compartment at the start of the 'snail shell shape' to insert a tea light to get the smoke dust started. To be honest it's a little ineffectual and a bruleĆ© torch is much more prompt...and satisfying!


I have found that the wood dust consumption is roughly 6 centimetres per hour on average, or a centimetre every ten minutes. Once lit the the smoke is not too dissimilar to an incense stick which I guess is why you don't need two chambers connected by a pipe. 


The first day that I went to use it I put it up against the house because of the  threat of rain. I had two small lengths of wood to jack it up off the ground if needs be and being close up meant that the prevailing rain will miss it. 

And that is the beauty of this piece of kit, it's versatility.

 

Here it is propped up on two pieces of wood on a garden table with a logo'd bespoke lid. The lid is made from the box it came in and is to hold a plastic bin bag in place if  precipitation arrives. I started putting the smoker on this table because it saves you bending down to it all the time but that said it is fairly easy to lift up even whilst smoking is in progress.

The smoke generator is elevated up, burns with a cool heat and has a metal plate underneath so I'm not sure it would damage the table but equally, it's not worth jeopardising the wife points total, hence the two pieces of wood underneath.

I've used this unit many times and the inside of the box is now developing a pleasing dark hue. As with my dehydrator page I will use the rest of this blog to detail timings and wood dust types that I've found work for me and also any tweaks that I may do next time.

I can't recommend this unit enough and you can get them from Coldsmoking.co.uk's shop along with everything from courses to sausage skins. I'm no connection, just a happy chappy with the courses and kit.


This is the first cold smoke load I did in the smoker. It comprised of rindless Edam, Gouda, Cheddar, Red Leicester, Parmesan and Garlic. I removed the rind to give the cheese more surface area and chucked the rind in to be smoked (why not?) with the view to trying to melt it and melt an piece of cheese in it.

All the above was smoked for four hours using Apple and Beech in a 2:1 ratio.   


I think the cheese timings are pretty much spot on although the Parmesan did dry a little but it was to be grated into a dish to add a little smokiness anyway so there wasn't a problem.

 

Whilst the garlic was good  it could do with at least an hour or two longer and certainly  the cloves didn't look as coloured as I expected. I made two Tzatzikis with smoked and non-smoked garlic and the latter wasn't strong enough to stand out as much as I'd like.


A smoked water experiment. It could be used to add to a dish to give a subtle hint I guess, plus commercial products are often washed in liquid smoke as opposed to the real thing. This was five minutes of smoke into  an upturned jar which was then quickly filled with water and the lid put on. It had taken a good amount of flavour when tasted. I don't see me using smoked water but it was worth experimenting with. 

 

This was a little bit of experimentation with some leftover roast chicken. I cleaned and seasoned the cut up skin and diced the meat into small bite size pieces, pan fried separately  until crispy and the same with the chicken and then smoked for four hours with Oak and a little Chinese tea mixed in. About spot on time wise.


The one thing that I couldn't wait to try was smoked Salmon. I did 'standard' brined Salmon with a small strip that also had added sugar (the separate part in the above picture). Sad to say that it's not something that I will do on a regular basis as I am the only one in my household who eats it.


I was really pleased with the finished results and the taste of both cures was good. As per the exclusive online information link that the Coldsmoking owner Turan sends attendees this is Oak smoked for 12 hours. 

 

Two 'I wonder?' experiments to mention. The first is some dehydrator venison jerky that I made, I'd experimented with retro smoking before which was successful so I thought I'd reprise this in the smoker with similar success using Beech for 4 hours. 


I smoked some cheese at the same time and then placed a piece of jerky and cheddar in and smoke for an extra hour with a layer of ground up chilli flakes on top of the dust...The smoke is acrid to say the least! It did indeed impart a mild chilli note to both products but I think another hour on top wouldn't hurt.
  

On the food smoking day we were shown how to smoke prepared mixed nuts, well I had a few peanuts left from a Chinese dish so I gave it a go.

I placed them in this small sieve and placed it on top of the smoker near the vent in the top and then placed the lid on top to delay, but not stop the smoke's exit for about 15 minutes. This gave a very subtle smoke to the nuts.


Whilst smoking the some cheese I decided to put a jam jar lid of regular Paprika in with it. I was using Apple wood in this instance. I added the smoked spice to some pre made tomato and bacon pasta and it did have a pleasant smokey taste but equally I think it could stay in maybe double that time.


A minimalist waxing experiment. I used a rectangular piece of Gouda to try and cover it in the Edam wax. The large sheet of foil and parchment paper was to both pour the melted wax into and to prevent it damaging the work surface as I wasn't sure how hot wax got.


I stuck a long needle in one end to act as a handle and the pin in the side is holding on a strip of parchment paper to see if I could replicate the easy open strip that some cheeses, like Baby-Bel have on them.


The wax starts melting a split second that the gas went on and it soon became clear that it needed a very low heat. I carefully poured it onto the angled cheese as I turned it but it only ended up with a minimal wax coating doing this. I also pulled out the pin at this stage.


I then just rubbed each side through the cooling wax until it was coated. When the wax had the same feel as a fresh blob of icing that has just developed a dry skin it was OK to handle and I rubbed wax onto any gaps and the end and finally pulled the needle out and covered the hole. 

I ended up with a full, if rather less than smooth finish and I left it a few hours before trying it. The pull tape did actually work albeit in a rather rudimentary way but I noticed that the cheese felt a little greasy on the outside, I think the hot wax probably 'cooked' the outside and having investigated further on the internet the wax is slowly warmed and the cheese dipped but I still got a win for a first crack.

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Grimes Graves Visit With Will Lord



Grimes Graves visit is something I've wanted to tick off for a long time and when Will Lord posted some dates on his website I knew I had to act. Will's family have been custodians of the site (which contains over 400 neolithic flint mines) for many decades and whilst there are three pits to descend the Canon Greenwell pit isn't accessed much at all.

I've had 1-2-1 tuition from Will before  during a 2016 work sabbatical I was lucky enough to get, and whilst half the afternoon was dedicated to knapping which it would be great to practice again the real draw was getting into the afore mentioned pit which is one of around sixty that have had an exploratory dig.


Whilst other attendees had arrived before me I was the first to get to the large tent that was erected, perhaps they were staying warm in their cars on a cool and windy day. I said hello to Will and Jason, his help for the day. Jason was just finishing butchering a small Muntjac for the dinner to come. It was also  noticeable just how audible the Skylark song was from all sides.


After a brew Will sat us down and started doing an introductory talk both about the day and about various tools and artefacts that he has. He actually mentioned the Skylark song saying that the site was talking to us.

  

As he finished laying them out in a display, with a small Mammoth tooth amongst them, the English Heritage staff signalled that the pit was open and that the portable winch was in place. We went in to the warm visitor centre to get our harnesses and helmets on.


As we walked over, again with the Skylark song filling the air, we passed the two other pit entrances (with this being one of them). Once you are past the visitor centre the crater like landscape becomes evident and the size of them is impressive.



Will asked us to be quiet as we both waited to descend, and once we got down to the pit's floor stone too, just to be able to take in the atmosphere of this special place. Will went first and I was the third attendee down. This video at the 4 minute mark shows the ladder down into the darkness.



The winch cable makes any looking up quite hard to do as it is right behind the back of your head. but I slowed every few rungs to look around as I descended ever further into the blackness with the rungs getting ever colder to the touch. Will unclipped me and I turned to sit down and chose a raised ledge about one o'clock from the ladder to sit cross legged on.

Initially you see the light from the hatch, even on a dull day,  seemingly extra bright compared to the dark recesses, you look around and everything seems gloomy but as  your eyes, ears and senses start to adjust to your new environment and you feel the cold  floor, the paste like chalk dust and see the entrances to the various chambers become clearer.

We occasionally caught the odd quiet instruction from the staff at the winch but other than that there was little noise. Just before the last attendee came down there was a delay and for a precious moment there literally was silence. Once we were all gathered with two staff members Will left a moment before speaking and did a little talk.

There are  six galleries in total and we were free to sensibly and respectfully explore with Will taking up position in gallery number three. I'd strongly recommend that you bring a head torch for this experience.



The reason for Will taking up residence in number three is because this has several treasures  in the tunnel-like passage which we all needed to navigate to get to him at the end. Along the way we saw the feminine looking tabular flint mother stone which the miners possibly left because of this 'Mother Earth' connection. Will touched it with some reverence as he passed it.


This is also one of two discarded antler picks in the narrow passage. There were actually nearly sixty antler tools in this passage originally and mostly left-handed antlers which made the perfect tool for a right-handed miner.


Talking of the narrow passage I have included this anonymous picture of a female attendee's posterior to demonstrate just how confined some of the access is. In all seriousness this experience isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea due to the dark, confined space and the depth of descent.


We went in to the end of the gallery one by one and he asked me to put my head torch out, inch towards a small opening in the wall to my left, and then switch on my head torch again...I let out an audible gasp. This was literally a look back in time to a small tunnel that hasn't been entered for 4,000 years with lumps of chalk and antler picks festooning the floor. A visit to a museum or castle takes you back but this is the real deal.



Will also handed us a pick to handle, I'm pretty sure that it is one that revealed itself during a small cave collapse that is mentioned in this video at the 19 minute mark. It felt so comfortable to hold and there were still hand marks that the last user had left on it. Once we were done we had to reverse crawl out of the  narrow tunnel avoiding the  queue, supports and artefacts in the process.


This gallery nearer the ladder also had several antler tools in, plus discarded flint, chalk and the remains of a fox which had fallen in some time ago.


This was one of the smallest and most accessible of the galleries to the right of the ladder (four o'clock if your back was to it) and it's most noticeable feature was a small bat roosting to the right of the torch light. 


Every nook and cranny that you shone light down seemed to offer the promise of something to see or ponder over.


 I spent a fair bit of time in this gallery. This a shot down the long corridor near to the ledge I initially sat on. A battery had become dislodged in my head torch so I followed an attendee in because the light on the way back (from the tunnel) made it navigable but I had to use his torch light to miss the supports which we'd been told to not bump into.

  

At the entrance there were two antler tools, one resting and the other one wedged. Polished axes were the tool of choice through the chalk and the antler tools were used to prise out the flint nodules. 


Upon reaching the end it revealed several back filled tunnels which were really filled up, they didn't halfheartedly put the spoil back. Perhaps as well as the waste logistics it was another 'Mother Earth' moment for them. As the attendee with the torch turned to go his torchlight appeared to flicker as he scrambled back and it almost looked like the tallow fuelled lights I assumed the workers may have used to mine by.


I knew that the folk with Will were slowly coming to an end so having finished my exploring I decided to just sit in a quieter part of the pit and wait for the tour's natural end. This is to the left of gallery three but I elected to go in the area directly in front of number three's entrance so I could see when things ended.


 This is the sitting area I plumped for, noone else in there and just a little light from the main area to the left. As Will made his way out of the 'time capsule' bit I realised that I must have been sat there a while because I had become accustomed to it and I had to shield my eyes from the torch light.


As the winch cable came down to get us we were chatting to Will and I asked him if they used tallow lamps when mining. He said that checks had been done for soot and no was found, but that said the original entrance hole that they dug  was massive and would have let a large amount of light in. I was last so I grabbed a selfie in the bowels of the Earth and as I put my phone away I noted, predictably, that there was no service.


As I ascended the ladder it was again hard to look up due to the winch cable so I just focused on the ladder rungs which seemed never ending but got brighter and brighter as I neared the hatch. We were told that the oxygen level  is actually slightly higher underground and I indeed started panting once unclipped, due to the oxygen change, climbing the ladder briskly, both or neither? I'll never know.

Having been in our own little world it was impossible to know how long we'd been down there as you are in the moment with just the noise our group made and no outside references. As I walked back I noticed just how grubby I looked and that the  song of the Skylarks was still surrounding us.


After handing our gear back in to the centre we got another brew and Will started a hand axe making demonstration whilst Jason finished the venison soup/ stew dinner.


I've always had a rather 'lame game' palette so I wondered what I'd make of the stronger venison taste, actually I really enjoyed it so credit to Jason there.


After dinner Will resumed his demonstration and then produced enough suitable pieces for everyone to have a go at their own hand axe too.


I'd previously contacted Will to ask if I could attempt an arrowhead instead and was given a suitable piece to crack on with. This is in the early stages after an initial knap of the edges, a little bit by Will but a decent amount by me too.



You realise just how strong Will's hands must be because whilst I elected to knap with the correct technique I was shown on my 1-2-1 I found that it it was making the hand holding the pressure flaker a tad uncomfortable. I did get the main man to deal with a small area of flint that was thicker than the rest that I struggled with.


We all had eye protection of course and we occasionally showered each other with shards during the afternoon but I'm so glad I checked my cup before having a Growers Cup coffee as there was a lump of flint in there! It was small and blunt but a small sharp fragment could have caused internal mischief.


I finished off my arrow head by both removing the diagonal bit at the back of it and making the edges rounded, I haven't taken many large surface flakes off it but I'm happy with it. I did an arrow head with a view to mounting it on an atlatl dart but I may use it to practice making an arrow...A project for another day.


A sudden project that I have in the here and now is some polishing, lots of it. When Will finished his hand axe demonstration he said whoever promises to polish it can have it and my mouth opened. I've got a bit of work to do.


Having finished my knapping ahead of those doing hand axes I started to do a little bit of initial grinding. Here you can see the barely started one I'll be working on at top left, with a finished one from Will's collection below right. I'll work on one side at a time so I can see progress.


I asked for some guidance on doing the edges and you can see Will has generated a dull spark near his right hand thumb. This might be an interesting fire lighting project with a bit of amadou held on the side of the axe.


4 o'clock arrived and we had reached the end. I went into the centre to have a look at the display in there which can also be seen online here. There is also a Will Lord leaflet in there too. 


The site is so large that a photo at ground level doesn't do it justice so I took a picture of a picture in the exhibition. I can't ever see myself going down Grimes Graves again because it's one of those things where the first visit is the best visit. 

As I came out I thanked Will and Jason and said goodbye. I drove to the toilets for a pit stop before the journey as they are some way from the centre. As I got in the car I noticed that as we had finished so had the Skylarks.

I watched Will's Grimes Grave tour video the next day to work out the  timings I'd included as hot links in this blog and do you know what I got butterflies watching it. that Tells me what a great experience I had, as does the ache of muscles from crawling.