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"Through all of these centuries, malt as a finished product has changed very little, probably only to the extent that better grades of barley have been developed." Stan Hieronymous - ProBrewer

David adds malt extract to his wonderful sour dough bread, and he has run out. So it was added to our shopping list for today. Inevitably we ended up asking where it is, because even though it is bought at regular intervals we can never remember where it is kept on the shelves. Indeed if you asked me now I wouldn't know. And there is only one product available - Saunders Malt Extract, made by the same family company since the 1860s. In Australia that is. It's not a product in much demand it seems.

We were given doses of this at school when I was a child - it was felt that the urban poor schoolchild, of which I was one, was lacking in essential nutrients, many of which were found in malt. Although I do vaguely remember that the malt was an option not a mandatory thing. Although I do vaguely remember liking the taste. As to the nutrients I saw a reference in one article to a Canadian ban on Ovaltine because it added some of those nutrients illegally! Go figure.

Anyway I thought I would investigate malt for today's post. Stupidly I had forgotten the main reason for malt in the world - and the reason it has been around since time began almost - alcohol - specifically beer and whiskey. Indeed if you type in malt into the Coles Online site you first of all get a page and a half of whiskey, before you come to foodie things. But I shall ignore the alcohol today - another time perhaps - in favour of the food. Suffice to say:

"For millions of drinkers, it is perhaps the most important ingredient in the world." Today I Found Out

"Beer is made from four main ingredients: water, malt, hops and yeast. Of those four ingredients, malt is perhaps the most important, as it contributes to many of the sensory attributes of beer." UC Davis

It's the malt that largely determines the taste, the colour, the foam properties, it provides the sugars for fermentation and provides nutrients such as vitamin B as well. So - vital. And I definitely won't go into the mysteries of single malt whiskeys.

So what is malt? Well it is a grain that has been dried, soaked in water until it begins to sprout, air-dried again - on the floor of a maltings where it is turned two or three times a day for two or three days, and finally dried and toasted in an oven until the desired colour is obtained and then sometimes smoked as well. I think then it can be 'mashed' and turned into a paste or syrup, or ground into a powder. These days of course, some of these stages have been industrialised, but the basic process is the same.

The grain that is used in the vast majority of cases is barley, but any grain will do. You can get malted rice syrup in Coles for example. So a complicated process. The history articles talk of the Egyptians doing things like lifting grain up and down in baskets in wells to get the right amount of moisture. I mean how did anyone work all of this out - all over the world?

The ancient Persians and Sumerians also made malt and in Iran at the time of the Persian New Year they still make samanu which is fundamentally a malt paste. It is part of a table of seven dishes all beginning with the letter 's'. It takes days to make and it has to be made by women. They follow all of the above stages in the making of malt, and do it laboriously by hand. So a labour of love, although, of course, commercial versions can be bought.

As to its use in alcohol the drive to make alcohol is fundamental it seems to the human race. I heard today, in fact, that in some 'dry' Aboriginal communities they make home-brew alcohol. Perhaps the human condition has always been so terrible that we have needed the temporary escape of alcohol to endure. Or religion.

But I wasn't going to talk about alcohol. No - food, specifically cooking, is the thing.

When it comes to food you will find it as an essential part of such well-known commercial products as Maltesers, Rich tea biscuits, Ovaltine, Milo and Horlicks, malted milk shakes and similar things. It's apparently even used in cosmetics to improve the colour. As somebody said, "if it's safe to eat it's safe to put on your skin."

If you are going to cook with it then your options as to ingredients are malted milk powder, malt extract and malt vinegar.

Malt vinegar is what the British love to splash over their fish and chips and it is undeniable that this gives them a very specific, nostalgic and British taste. Curtis Stone made this a bit more cheffy by suggesting a malted aioli in which to dip your chips. He just mixed together 1/2 cup mayonnaise, 2 tbsp malt vinegar, 2 tsp Dijon mustard, and 1 small garlic clove finely chopped. I don't think he was particularly original with this though - I saw a few other versions. Malt vinegar can also be used, of course, like other vinegars, in pickles, marinades and glazes as well as any kind of stew really. It's just a different tasting vinegar.

Keeping to nostalgic British food, here is one that I had forgotten all about - Malt loaf. Felicity Cloake makes The perfect malt loaf of which she says:

"Though it's sold as a bread, it's definitely more in the cake category – the loaf bit is just there to justify the application of great wodges of salty butter,"

Nigel Slater waxes even more lyrical about it:

"think fruitcake meets Ovaltine ... Malt loaf is something of a safe harbour, a cloud of raisin and malt-scented nostalgia, in a complicated world. It tastes of home, of ticking clocks and quality time spent with your gran. At least it does for me."

Reading those words and seeing that picture stimulated my own whiff of nostalgia - of something squidgy and yummy after a day at school - yes slathered in butter. I don't think my mother made it, but you could buy it easily enough. I don't think I have ever seen it here, and I do think that I shall give this a go some time soon.

Various baking kind of cooks raved about malted milk powder - "The umami bomb of dessert" says Stella Parks of Serious Eats and she goes on to describe why in more detail:

"The blend of concentrated grain extracts gives malted milk powder a roasted, toasty, earthy flavor, while the powdered milk adds a bit of creamy richness. In the oven, the extra lactose helps baked goods brown, while also lending a cooked-milk flavor along the lines of butterscotch or toffee. Finally, the salt and sodium bicarbonate in the mix add a savory edge to the whole shebang, tempering the sweetness of any recipe and giving it a bit more depth of flavor." Stella Parks - Serious Eats

There are heaps of recipes on the net for cookies and cakes and breads, milk shakes and ice-creams, so I shall end with just a few that looked particularly tempting or particularly over the top.

Malt custard and jam tart from Jamie Oliver; Salted caramel and Nutella brioche French toast malted vanilla freakshake - a particularly outlandish recipe from delicious' Warren Mendes; Chocolate, caramel and malt cheesecake from Phoebe Wood, which looks gorgeous but sounds slightly complicated; Banana and malt self-saucing pudding from Coles, so how hard can it be? and I might try that some time - when bananas come down in price; Vanilla malt truffles from delicious again I think, and last of all a recipe using malt vinegar and on the savoury side of things - Cheesy garlic damper pull-apart with bacon chilli jam from Coles.

It's a pretty unique - and yes - umami kind of taste, that we never quite realise is there. Vastly underrated and curiously ancient and unchanged.



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