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.
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.