Bread Pilgrim

Five years ago I began making sourdough bread. Little did I realise at the time that this would become an obsession. My days are now organised around the living dough: while bread making doesn’t take much time overall, you need to be monitoring its activity. I now dress for bread: an apron keeps my clothes in order while a little timer keeps me on track, the tick ticking in my pocket reminding me to stay vigilant. I wake eagerly, often rising before first light, not out of any obligation to tend to the bread but simply my own anticipation and excitement: at 5 am I can’t wait. I am attracted to the discipline of the craft as well as the science and yet I often stuff up. I am a novice: there is still much to learn. When I look back at photos of my bread from 5 years ago, I smile. They’re like my bread children- simple, perhaps a little clumsy, but also unpretentious and homey. They tasted fine despite their awkward appearance. My sourdough loaves these days look more streetwise, although there are many occasions when my shaping is sloppy, or my scoring goes haywire, or my new experiments don’t pay off. All failure is knowledge. It’s hard to explain that to a perfectionist (or a Maths teacher) but you can only learn from your mistakes. The ugly bread still gets eaten, even if in the form of garlic croutons or crumbed onto a vegetable gratin. The funny ones get named- Glenn Close ( badly slashed), Ugly Baby ( an off center boule ), Bob Menzies ( a loaf with one big ridged eyebrow), Happy Baby ( big open-mouthed grin) and Frisbee- a flatter boule, usually made from a large percentage of rye flour with less than desirable oven spring. Some breads snarl, others emerge with crispy ears, batards become bastards. And many emerge looking fabulously bespoke, dressed up artisan style and ready for a photo. Mistress of Slashing, ( technically scoring, but slashing sounds better here), Maree Tink, impresses me daily with her beautifully scored breads and patches of artistic char. If you’re keen to learn more about sourdough, join her Sourdough Baking Australia group on Facebook or ask about her monthly workshops.

If I could pin point the most hazardous aspect of sourdough baking, it would be timing. Many fine guides will outline an excellent programme that will take you from cold starter to loaf in a 24- 36 hour time frame. These suggested regimes don’t work for everyone: controlling once’s enthusiasm or chaotic lifestyle is part of the learning curve. The weather plays havoc with timing and so does exhaustion. Once dinner is over, I no longer want to have anything to do with my kitchen. I am tired and the couch calls: it has been a long day and bread making no longer interests me. My dough babies need to be shaped and tucked into bannetons, ready for their rest in the fridge before 6 pm. They can happily stay there for 12 hours or longer. And yet it is a lesson I often forget and one that annoys me intensely when I wake at 3 am, like a wandering half mad Lady Macbeth, cursing the over fermented dough.

The Weekender. Apricot, walnut, anise. Flours- stoneground T85, bakers white, wholemeal, malt.

There’s a wealth of knowledge out there to tap into. One favourite free resource can be found at The Perfect Loaf.  Maurizio’s recipes and techniques always work well for me: his suggested timing is spot on for those who can stay awake till 9 pm. Paul Merry, of Panary, is an Australian/ English baker located in Dorset. A professional baker for 40 years, Paul has always baked with a wood fired oven and has always used organic flour. His baking notes are a good resource. His recent post, Milling with Stones, provides an interesting appraisal of stoneground flour. Paul’s research is impeccable: his bakery and teaching studio is based in a working flour mill, Cann Mill, in Shaftesbury, UK, which gives him daily contact with the milling process and the commercial side of flour production. See my previous blog about Paul’s bread here. There are sourdough internet groups on Facebook and good books to borrow or buy. Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson is a must read.

The other learning curve involves the choice of flour. One of my recent concerns about bread flour supplies in Australia, and I am sure this also applies to flour supplies in most wheat growing countries, is the industry’s dependence on the herbicide, glyphosate. There’s nothing on your flour packet that mentions this and there probably won’t be for some time. At present, there’s no other viable weed inhibitor on the market. Some farmers are worried, while many do not believe there’s a problem. The science is muddied by big business. Perhaps Monsanto/Bayer need a few more nasty court cases before there’s a demonstrable shift in opinion and a less toxic alternative is developed. This article, by Erin Brochovitch, is a good read on the topic. The weedkiller in our food is killing us.  The ABC’s investigation on Four Corners, Monsanto Papers, is also worth viewing. In the meantime, some organic and biodynamic flour alternatives can be found at the Preston market, for those bakers who live near the centre or north of Melbourne. For example, Powlett Hill biodynamic stoneground flour comes in a 20 kilo bag for AU$60. This is a huge bag and it might be worth sharing this with a bread making mate. At AU$3 a kilo, this bumps up my loaf costs to around AU$1.50 each plus the cost of oven heating whereas my previous budget buy, Manildra baker’s white flour at 12.5 kilo for AU$15 produced loaves for around 60c per unit. Finding out more about the flour I use is next on my agenda.

The other obsessional aspect of sourdough bread baking is its very tangible link to the past, to the bread makers throughout history, the Medieval and Renaissance bakers, the Scottish, Irish, French and Italian bakers who have passed on their methods, and to the the modern day artisan bakers who happily share the gift of knowledge and their starters. To all those before me who lovingly tended an ancient ferment and crafted loaves from nothing other than flour, water and salt, I share your passion and your pain.

 

29 thoughts on “Bread Pilgrim”

  1. It’s about 8 months since you and Mr T were here, most of your time gobbled up with teaching me sourdough techniques from scratch. Your manta sings loundly in my ear-worm: learn from your mistakes and keep practising. It is the one true obligation I donate far too much time to, but just loving it. Any weird-looking loaves are eaten by us whilst all the stars of the show are gleefully served to my BNB guests with a plethora of topping choices., fresh tropical fruit, juices and Lavazza. A filling colourful indulgent way to send my guests off for a day of exploring the wet tropics. Thanks again for your inspirational blog.
    Peter
    FNQ

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was this time last year, and what a joy that was, catching up, eating fish, eating all your tropicana fruits and laughing flat out. Oh. Did I mention the wine?

      Like

  2. I relate on all levels. I’m cursing the cooler weather for lengthening today’s proofing times, it will be bedtime before I can shape and get Sunday’s bread in the fridge. However like you I never tire of sourdough bread, both baking and eating

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Last night I slept with my timer, fully intending to get up again at 10.30 and do the shaping. I woke to a big bubbling thing at 4 am. Shoved it in the fridge and shaped at 6 am. Somehow it survived. It was you Sandra, who started my journey down the organic path with your glyphosate comment last year.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Nothing is ugly if you shut your eyes! Love the names of some of your less than perfect loaves, my favourite stuff up was was labelled the Trump Loaf, it stuck to the banneton when turning out and I flipped the long bit over the top and it reminded me of his hair. Thanks for the shout out and I love some of those pictures from the past, might digit a few and print them!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. “..one that annoys me intensely when I wake at 3 am, like a wandering half mad Lady Macbeth, cursing the over fermented dough….” Haha this is soooo me. Thank you for handing me the sourdough baton. Just reading this post has shaped my Sunday plans 😁

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good luck Lu, stay focused on the timing, and remember, we all have those exhausted moments so find your best window. why I use a little timer ( and not a phone reminder) is that it just lives in my floury apron and its little quiet ticking reminds me that I can do six things at once but the bread still needs tending. Good luck today. xx

      Like

  5. How fortunate the day that I happened upon your blog, Francesca! I share your obsession: the highs and the lows, all so incomprehensible to those not similarly affected. Moreover, your writing is a joy in itself. My English teacher’s heart warms to words penned by one who has effortless command of the language. Happy baking and may the Lady Macbeth wanderings be few.

    Like

    1. Oh thanks Valerie Very kind. It seems we share many things; the highs and lows of baking obsession, and a background in English teaching, to which I married, later in my teaching career, ten years teaching Italian. I really appreciate your praise of my writing, perhaps more than anything, as it is the writing, in the end, which drives my blog. Thank you so much.

      Like

  6. Your loaves are always beautiful. I really liked your description of “bread children” from 5 years ago. Sourcing flour is very important and I, too, am concerned with pesticides in our food supply. I have noticed that in Greece, organic flour (or “biological” as they call it) has become more prominent and used by more and more bakeries here in Athens. Thanks for those links to books and blogs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Debi. Good to hear that organic flour is available in Greece and that bakeries are using it. Only specialist bakeries sell organic products here in Melbourne. These loaves can cost between $8 and $14, which is ok for a couple but perhaps out of reach for families needing to churn out school lunches each day.

      Like

  7. Such an outstanding post on a subject near and dear to my heart. I admit it, I’m a sourdough bread baking addict. So, I can relate to your post. I too have this living thing that moves around the kitchen and sometimes into the fridge that’s been with me for some time. I feed it as required and it inturn gives me a lovely sourdough starter to play with.
    I baked my first loaf of bread in 2004, my then toddler niece used those loaves to teeth with. But now my skill has grown, but I’m still a novice. Thanks so much for sharing your bread journey.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This is such a great post Francesca. I found myself nodding from start to finish. I absolutely feel the same when I am baking, anticipation and excitement rather than obligation. Yes also to timing, weather and little or no bread activity after dinner. Happy baking!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jane, you are one of a handful of people who inspired me with your early morning bread routines five years ago. I remember your bread posts vividly. A little thank you for your inspiration.

      Like

  9. Oh wow, I love love love this post. Three-ish years ago I began baking sourdough bread urged by Celia who had to give me another starter to replace the previous, unused from a couple of years earlier. I had a million excuses bit really was daunted by the mystique and was scared of failure… but I’m so grateful it’s now, albeit in very basic form, part of my kitchen repertoire. I have learned much, have much to learn but discovering overnight proofing in the fridge was a godsend. I keep it simple, focaccia and simple Romertopf panes. My baking isn’t prolific so have transitioned to organic flour… glysophate worries me terribly… try to buy as much orgamic, pesticide free or from reputable sources as possible.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that’s the trick Dale, to just make what you need, with organic flour if you can afford it, and not get too fussed about perfecting the loaves. Good bread should be unique and speak to about crafting and joy in the process. I agree, overnight proofing has saved the day, ( literally).
      Thanks, as always, for your supportive comment Dale.

      Like

  10. Wow, I am impressed! I kept a starter for a year, but ended up having to let it go (which in my case means using it up for panettone) so I know what this entails. Your loaves are next level! Buon appetito, Cristina

    Liked by 1 person

Now over to you.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.