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Sourdough bread has quickly found itself at home on the high street. No longer the reserve of high end bakeries and hip cafe’s. A breakfast menu without a mention of the wild yeasty goodness is seldom seen. With the humble sliced loaf continuing its decline (sales fell by almost twelve per cent last year), what’s behind our passion for sourdough? What’s so special about sourdough bread?
Our sourdough starter ( or mother ) began it’s life a small number of months ago, and now feels like a member of the family.A treasured gift from a local baker I was extremely concerned about keeping alive.
It’s home had been decided on well before it’s arrival – so the slimy substance was tipped into a large pottery jar, and left to get used to it’s surroundings. A few days in both my partner and I were in love. Tending to our sourdough starter on a daily basis fell into our routine, in the same way, walking the dogs did. Suddenly we could imagine a morning without the methodic weighing and storing of this slightly smelly character. And that was before we had even begun to bake bread!
Its allure is in its fascinating ability to turn water and flour into a bubbling ecosystem of wild yeasts and friendly lactic acid bacteria. There’s no need to add dry yeast from those sad looking sachets you have somewhere in the back of your kitchen cupboards… The sourdough starter draws in wild yeast from the surrounding environment, and the flour you add. Given the time to let nature work its magic, this simple combination ferments into a hive of activity. This give’s the bread its distinctive “sour” flavour and tantalising air pocketed crumb.
But who discovered that something as accessible as flour and water could create such a tasty bread? Now that’s something that truly is up for debate!
Bread has been about in one form or another for thousands of years. The oldest bread yet found is a loaf discovered in Switzerland, dating from 3500 BC. Though a similarly aged loaf has since turned up in Oxfordshire, England. Mixing flour and water to create some kind of flatbread has been a permanent feature since long before sourdough was discovered. You have to fast forward about 2000years before traces of leavened dough appear in the story.
The loaves appear rounded, instead of flattened as we had seen before. How the Egyptians may have first come about leavened bread is a matter of much debate. Something that can not be settled without the use of a time machine. However, my favourite theory is connected to the Egyptians also brewing beer. If some of the ‘mash’ from the beer somehow made its way into the bread. And they found it created a very different style of bread to what they were used to. Voila! Leavened bread! And so their experimentation may have begun.
While sourdough starters and bread made from starters have been around for thousands of years, the term “sourdough” is much younger.
It is an American term that came into use during the California Gold Rush days of the late 1800s. Many of the gold miners shopped for the essentials in the thriving seaside town of San Francisco before climbing up into the mountains. A good bread starter would have been seen as a vital necessity. They knew there was something special about sourdough bread! Starter’s would taste different depending on the water, flour, and wild yeasts they gathered. And the starters from San Fransisco had an unusually sour tang. Thus the starters and bread from that area became known as “sourdough.” The term has since been generalized to mean any natural bread starter. But it explains why some of the more commercial sourdough loaves still carry names such as the ‘San Fransisco Sourdough’. Even though it is unlikely they contain any part of a sourdough starter from San Fransisco!
Commercial dried yeasts were introduced in the 19th century, and sourdough bread saw a quick decline in popularity. Without the need for a long slow prove, they allowed for much faster bread production with a more consistent finish; even by inexperienced bakers. This went hand in hand with government bills that restricted hours worked. This made the more labour intensive production of sourdough bread less sustainable. In response, the bakers moved again towards faster raising loaves of bread. It’s only since the nineteen-eighties that there has been demand again for sourdoughs in the UK & Ireland. And how that demand has rapidly grown!
Baking real sourdough bread is an art bakers all over the world are trying to perfect.
I know that we have had equal amounts of disaster and success with our home bakes since our sourdough starter came to stay. With daily feeds, long proves and nail-biting bakes it’s easy to see why sourdough bread calls for a premium price.
I think everyone should bake authentic sourdough at least once in their life to appreciate the value it. Just as I think everyone should try to grow broccoli from seedling to head over 24 weeks, so they don’t leave it to rot at the bottom of their fridge..…
I’d love to hear your opinions on sourdough bread. Are you a successful baker? Or a frequent buyer? Let me know!
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