I’M besotted with baking at the moment, so over the coming weeks, I’ll write a couple of posts about my sourdough and me.
For those of you who haven’t come across the makings of sourdough before, the starter – otherwise known as the culture, plant or mother dough – is a kind of wild, bubbling, gurgling yeast. It’s the thing that makes the dough rise and contains the bacteria that make it sour. To my understanding of yeast, what happens is this: as the mix ferments, the yeast eats the sugars in the flour and releases carbon dioxide, which leavens the dough.
But if you’ve got a liking for narrative – or convenience – I suggest you prevail on a friend for a portion of their culture. To keep it alive, you must feed it regularly with fresh flour and water (or you can store it for a while in the fridge or freezer and revive it later). This bakery in San Franscisco has been using the same “mother dough” since 1849.
While I was away hitch-hiking last year, my old starter died. I discovered the jar recently, toppled over under our kitchen bench. When I peered at the jar’s congealed innards, it I realised that both of us – the culture and I – were petrified.
Its death was apt. Over the last few years, I had made a number of half-hearted attempts at baking bread, but gave up, not really knowing what I was doing.
But then I fell in love with Les Bartlett’s small bakery near Maleny on the Sunshine Coast. There I met Penny, a fellow Melbournian, who was staying there to learn Les’s craft. Earlier this year I saw Penny again and she brought me a sample of his sourdough plant. For most of this year, I’ve been baking twice a week. I am only beginning to learn.
This is what my jar looked like the other day:
Last week, I was talking with a good friend whose grandmother died recently. He was driving to visit her one morning, when he received a call saying she’d passed away. While we talked, I began to think about my family.
Two years ago my grandparents on my mother’s side died within a week of each other. At that time I gained solace from the wisdom of another friend, Daniela from Argentina.
Daniela is the person who first showed me how to bake bread, while I stayed for weeks at her remote camping ground – Ecocamping Ñorquinco – on the edge of a lake, in a national park, in northern Patagonia. Here she is by the lake, with bread for morning tea:
She told me that while she did not believe in an afterlife, she knew that her relatives, generation upon generation, lived on through her and through her children: not only in their minds – for memories rarely surpass a few generations – but also in their bodies. Her ancestors lived on, physically, through her.
I find this profound; it seems both soulful and scientifically valid. I think of generations stretching back in time, each of us given our substance by those before us, even as we must make our days, minds and bodies our own.
Sourdough is like that. Whenever I open my jar of culture to begin a new batch, I call upon a living portion of the past. The mother loaf goes back to Les, and maybe beyond. Its family tree extends through all those with whom he’s shared it, and on and on, in turn.