Sunday 23 April 2017

sourdough; slices from history, by Leslie Wilson

The starter, bubbling
It was only about two years ago that I realised how widespread the use of sourdough was, and also how recent is the practise of using brewer's yeast to raise bread. And if that sounds naive, let it be said in my defence that beer was brewed by the ancient Egyptians, and I have known that since my teens.

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..
So, in the eighteenth century, people discovered that yeast from beer could also raise bread, and raise it more quickly (I imagine, from my own experience). Very soon, sourdough was considered only fit for the lower classes, and yeasted bread was for the aristocracy, who regarded it as more refined, because more bland in flavour. It's ironic that nowadays sourdough bread is viewed as a luxury product (consumed by elitist Remainers with cosmopolitan tastes?) I have no such ideas about it, since I ate it as perfectly normal bread during my childhood.

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
People thought, when brewer's yeast bread came in, that it would be more digestible (which was another reason for relegating sourdough bread to the Lower Classes. Fluffy white bread was the New Thing., In the nineteenth century this idea was carried to its logical conclusion with the invention of aerated bread, where no raising agent was used (the Victorians began to think using any kind of yeast might by unhygienic), and air was blown through the dough. 'Different opinions are expressed about the bread', says Isabella Beeton cautiously. The Victorian Bakers production crew tried baking aerated bread too, and pronounced it pretty tasteless.

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
Tips on sourdough baking, for those who want to try it, or for historical novelists who want to describe baking in the 17th century and earlier, and have their descriptions accurate: sourdough doesn't rise as fast as yeast bread. I usually set mine to prove (the final stage, when it's in the tin or banneton or whatever) overnight. Incidentally, the classic loaf tin came in quite late in the 19th century. It rises well at whatever temperature, in the fridge, even, so your baker doesn't have to put it in a warm place. I don't find it makes much difference whether it's summer or winter, if you're proving it overnight. In Greece, according to my friend Eleni, the starter is left out, and is made quite stiff and doesn't go mouldy. I tried this, but it didn't work for me, maybe because our climate is damper. However, a commercial baker would be feeding their starter every day, and therefore it wouldn't go mouldy, because there wouldn't be time. Overnight proving would also mean the loaves could be baked first thing in the morning.

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.


Ms. said...

Fascinating and informative. Thank you

Sue Bursztynski said...

So, do you have a recipe to share with us? :) I bake a basic brown bread made with sachets of yeast you can buy in the supermarket. I got the recipe,many years ago, from some TV cooking show. It works fine and I can always play around with the recipe. I also use my pizza base recipe for small dinner/breakfast rolls which I don't have to wait to rise. Not as elaborate as yours, but it works for me. I'd love to try yours, though, if I thought I could bake it in my small bench top fan-forced oven. My big one died on me and a friend gave me this one. It's only limitation is the size of trays I can put in it.

And where can I buy brewer's yeast? Health food shop?

Leslie Wilson said...

I don't bake with yeast at all nowadays . You can get fresh yeast in bulk from Internet suppliers, but you have to freeze it and it doesn't perform so well after a few weeks. We have a local food coop that sells it. Ask around.To make a sourdough starter: 3 tablespoons of rye flour, a teaspoon of honey and 3 tbsps of water. Leave in a jar in the kitchen, covered with a damp thin tea-towel or muslin for 2 days or till bubbles form. Then add another 3tbsps each of flour and water, leave 24 hours and add another 3. It should be bubbling by then. Use hand-hot water, 38C or a little cooler. Using some potato water is often a good idea. Then you have your starter. Don't use anti-bacterial agents in the kitchen! You'll find a lot of recipes at Also on the site is a lively correspondence about making a sourdough starter. I'll put up a recipe for my Vollkornbrot later, when I have my computer open.

Leslie Wilson said...

Incidentally, fast-acting yeasts don't digest the gluten the way longer processes do, and have been fingered as a cause of gluten intolerance. Back to history; our stomachs are not designed to digest whole grains so we have found various ways of making them digestible. Bread is one of them. But if you use high-protein ultra-strong flour and it's not properly digested because it rises so fast, your stomach might well pay for it.. The modern Chorleywood fast-rising process flies in the face of what our ancestors found out.

Penny Dolan said...

Fresh bread can't be sliced thinly, and so the family would not get as many slices per loaf: a wasteful thing during times of rationing. Quantity would be more important than quality and sandwiches are easier to make when bread is a day old.

Penny Dolan said...

Sorry - that comment was a bit abrupt and I'm blaming the screen on my tablet, Leslie. Back on my bigger-screen desktop now so wanted to add on my thanks for your interesting post and that sour dough starter recipe.

Leslie Wilson said...

It's a very good point, about the thin-slicing. Apparently the National Loaf was quite horrible; though I wonder whether we would find it so?
On the topic of the baking twice a year in the Tyrol, it has occurred to me on reflection, that bread wasn't the staple for poor families, though doubtless wealthier farmers in the wide valleys, like the Oetz valley or Zillertal, had it all the time. The poorer people who lived up in the high mountain places, tended to live on 'Mus' which was a porridge made with ground maize, or thin polenta. So bread would be a luxury. Barley was the only grain that would grow high up, along with potatoes. But maybe this is another History Girls post! I do remember reading that the older generation were disgusted, when tourism brought prosperity to the high valleys, post-war, that the new generation of children weren't pleased to be offered a piece of bread as a treat. The Lesachtal in Carinthia, with the Unesco World Heritage bread, was much broader than the northern Tyrolean valleys, and also further south. Spring and summer come there earlier.

The bread I will bake tomorrow is made with: A cupful of whole pearled spelt grains, pre-soaked (I put hot water from the kettle onto them), 100 grammes of sunflower seeds, three hundred grammes of rye flour, eight hundred grammes of wholemeal spelt flour, hand-hot water, a tablespoonful of honey, a tablespoonful of caraway seeds and a dessertspoonful of ground coriander. Plus a flat dessertspoon of salt. This is wholegrain bread, and not for those who like their bread spongey! I mix it all up and knead it (it's quite claggy because of all the rye flour), by rolling it sideways into a sausage shape, flattening that with my hand, and then folding it in on itself to trap air. I do that a lot of times till it's a bit more elastic, then rise it for about five hours. Then I put the dough into bannetons (but you can use tins) and rise overnight. Polish and German friends love this bread. It's very central European,but has gone down well with some Brits. It's nutty, spicy, and very satisfying. The quantities detailed above make one large and one small loaf. It does rise, but not as much as bread made with more lightweight flour and no heavy stuff like spelt grains and sunflower seeds.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Thanks for the recipes, Leslie, and good baking! I was brought up by Eastern European parents and so prefer my bread solid and only buy white bread when I've run out and I can't get anything else on the way home. Bread baking is a real craft, isn't it? And your post is fascinating! One of my former students, who wanted to be a baker, told me proudly she was learning how to make artisan bread at her cooking college.

Today, which I have had to take off from work for family reasons, I'm hoping to make some Anzac biscuits, for tomorrow's Anzac Day. Not bread, but nice!

Leslie Wilson said...

Good baking to you too, Sue! Where does your family come from?

Anonymous said...

Lovely post! As a good half-Polish girl, I grew up eating rye bread, not always sourdough, but usually, and consider anything else a travesty. Even my non-Polish parent is a convert, and eats good sourdough rye bread for preference. There's lots of good rye bread available commercially here in Toronto, but nothing like homemade, so I'll have to try your recipe. Many thanks!