|The starter, bubbling|
I've been eating and enjoying sourdough bread since I was a toddler, I guess, visiting my grandparents in post-war Germany. I always associated it with Germany alone, till I had it in Poland in the nineties; and realised the bread I was eating was identical to the bread my grandmother used to make. Since she was Silesian, this is hardly surprising. In Germany, post-war, the bread I had was sliced rye and wheat flour mixed, and also whole-grain bread, which British people call pumpernickel, but actually that is only one variety of what is called Vollkornbrot. Later, in the resurgence of artisanal breadmaking in both Germany and France, I had real Vollkornbrot, straight from the baker's rather than in little vinegary plastic packs, and made of spelt as well as rye, and in France, wonderful rye and white wheat flour pain de campagne.
However, two years ago, I was told by a Greek friend that sourdough was commonly used in Greece, and when I had got my own sourdough operation well under way, I opened Antonio Carluccio's 'complete Italian food' looking for a pizza recipe I could adapt to sourdough from yeast and discovered that traditional pizza is always made with fermented bread dough. Revelation! I guess that Indian bread was also leavened with sourdough once?
Then, Christmas before last, we watched Victorian Bakers on the BBC, and learned that British bread was all made from sourdough till the eighteenth century. It took so long for anyone to decide to try if 'yeaste, to make beere' might also raise bread (to the detriment of British digestions, I fear).
|risen dough in a banneton|
According to Isabella Beeton: 'It is said that somewhere about the beginning of the thirtieth Olympiad, the slave of an archon, at Athens, made leavened bread by accident. He had left some wheaten dough in an earthen pan, and forgotten it; some days afterwards, he lighted upon it again, and found it turning sour. His first thought was the throw it away; but his master coming up, he miced this now acescscent dough with some fresh dough, which he was working at. The bread thus produced, by the introduction of dough in which alcoholic fermentation had begun, was found delicious by the archon and his friends; and the slave, being summoned and catechised, told the secret.'
It may not have happened in Athens, but one can imagine the discovery of leaven happening by accident, like that, perhaps on a warm day. Sourdough functions by catching wild yeasts in a flour and water mix (in my recipe, you use a teaspoon of honey, too).
I assume that the careful elimination of any starchy material that might generate leaven, at the Jewish Passover festival, originally had to do with removing the remnants of the previous year's sourdough cultures. Which makes me think about the practicability of taking your sourdough starter with you when you set out into the wilderness, escaping from the Egyptians. It would be difficult. There is something essentially settled about having a sourdough starter,
|Easy to hand-knead this much dough..|
The way I bake my sourdough bread is a modern replication of the old methods. Anyone who watched 'Victorian Bakers' will have seen the participants filling a brick or stone oven with wood, firing it, then removing the wood when the oven was really hot, and putting the bread in onto the hot stones. (It was very hard work, as it was to knead a whole baking trough full of dough. No wonder the advent of mixers was greeted with relief by commercial bakers.)
I use a baking stone in an electric oven; I preheat the stone for half an hour at 'Bottom Heat', then set the fan oven to 245C, put the bread in (it forms a crust almost instantly) and bake it for ten minutes at that temperature. Then I turn the heat down to 180C and give it another 25 minutes, and then turn it down again for the remainder of the baking process, so that my oven cools gradually, and the hot stone is an important part of the whole business. Some people build stone ovens in their back gardens and do the whole archaic thing, but I have a novel to write.
|In the oven, on a baking stone|
In fact, as we discover that our guts rely on a host of friendly bacteria to help us digest properly, it's becoming apparent that the lactic acid content of sourdough bread makes it pretty digestible, and maybe helps in the development of a healthy gut flora.
In Europe, at times of famine, bread was adulterated with potato (and with quite a few other, more sinister additives, such as alum or bone-dust). Here is another irony; I've had potato bread (made with leaven, not Irish potato bread) offered me in the basket at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, and I often add it to my own bread, as it gives a very nice texture. Isabella Beeton disapproved because it reduced the protein content; for the same reason, she advocated brown bread over white. People were already discovering that wholemeal was more digestible. 'In many parts of Germany the entire meal is used' (I presume she means the whole grain bread, with visible chunks of grain) 'and in no part of the world are the digestive organs of the people in better condition.' Whole grain bread has a very low GI factor (I think that's the right way round), ie, it's best for people with type 2 diabetes, or even if you want to avoid developing it. Isabella B didn't know that, however.
|There's potato in this bread|
In the Austrian Tyrol, in some places, bread was only baked twice a year, in a communal bread oven. People would make their own dough and bring it. I think this explains why bread dumplings are so important in Austrian cuisine (yummy). By the end of the six months you could only eat the bread if it was soaked. Isabella Beeton is definite that fresh bread is very unwholesome, and that it's best eaten after three or four days, and I know that in French peasant culture that belief was also prevalent. It does feel as if three or four months might be carrying things too far.
On the other hand, if you made whole-grain bread, that does seem to stay edible almost indefinitely (but I am degenerate enough to like it on the day of baking). I find that sourdough bread does keep longer, and stay moist longer, than beere-yeaste bread.
During the war, British bakers were forbidden to sell fresh-baked bread because people would eat too much of it, and I wonder if this is what was behind the idea that it was unwholesome. Economy.
The bread of the Austrian valley of the Lesachtal, in Carinthia, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage item. It is very delicious.
These are just a few bits of information that I have picked up over the last years, and if anyone else has more to add, that would be extremely interesting! One thing I would like to know is; what was Irish bread leavened with before bicarbonate of soda became readily available?
All photos were taken in my own kitchen, by me or by David Wilson.