Sourdough: A Beginner's Journey
As I sit here thinking about what to write for this blog, the wonderful, rich aroma of a loaf baking in the oven evokes in me so many good feelings that I am certain the words will come easily. I have been baking bread now for just over two years and, in that time, I have only been creating sourdough for 18 months. I am still very much a beginner but that is what I want to write about: a beginner’s journey into the amazing world of sourdough. It has been a fascinating and richly rewarding journey so far and one that, I am sure, will continue for many years to come.
When I think back to my early beginnings, how my enthusiasm made up for my lack of experience, how any loaf was a good loaf in my eyes whatever it looked like and how the beginning of my sourdough adventure felt like jumping into deep water without being certain I could swim, then I am grateful, ever so grateful that, despite the fears, I took that first leap of faith.
I grew up in the south-west of England; bread was a staple part of our diet. Looking back I am amazed that I tolerated the quality of bread that was available to me. However, it was all I knew and I had nothing to compare it to. The bread we ate was plain, white and pre-sliced. The one consolation was that it was bought from our local baker rather than the supermarket. It, at least, had some flavour.
My grandmother was a great bread eater. In those days we would have a slice on a side plate with nearly everything we ate. Toast for breakfast and untoasted with every other meal. Occasionally, as a treat, this routine of sliced bread was interrupted by crumpets toasted on an ornate, brass crumpet fork in front of my grandparents’ huge fireplace. It was a feast for the senses. The roaring fire, the smell of wood smoke, the warm glow of the living room on a winter evening all created such a special atmosphere. I would relish every bite, Marmite spread thickly on the top, butter dripping down my chin.
It wasn’t until I was about 8 years old and my first holiday abroad that my eyes were opened to another experience of bread, the French Baguette. Wow! I can still remember my joy as I first bit through that crispy crust and encountered that unique yeasty flavour, so special that you could just rip off chunks and eat them plain. With good, French farmhouse butter and delicious, local jam I reached bread nirvana and my daily routine of sliced, white bread began to pale in comparison.
Unfortunately good French bread was unavailable to me in the UK at that time so I had to make do with what I was given. School was another disappointing bread experience. The food was so poor that holes in stomachs were filled with slice upon slice of white or brown bread, definitely from the supermarket, coated liberally with margarine and jam. Oh, I hear you groan, how could they have done that to these poor children? Compared to what else they served it was a delicacy.
I then went through what could only be described as a bread sabbatical. It was there, always a part of my diet as morning toast and lunchtime sandwiches, but the part of me which cared about its taste and quality had somehow taken a back seat to convenience. I even had two years when bread was off the menu entirely. At that time I lived in Japan and ate copious amounts of filling, sticky rice. The Japanese version of bread back then was something akin to cotton wool; apart from their delicious milk bread I avoided it entirely.
This sabbatical lasted longer than you may think. I blame my tolerance of the bland, acquired from years and years of the kind of poor English cooking you find in schools. (My mother’s cooking was delicious and taught me that English food was not the problem. We have fantastic ingredients and delicious recipes; we just lack a common passion for good cooking.) My love of bread did not reawaken until I was in my mid 30’s and even then it was only a seed that was planted, it took a further 5 years to sprout.
I remember the moment clearly, a random YouTube video that had come up on my playlist. A short 5 minute documentary about a Jersey baker who specialized in sourdough bread and homemade butter served on a piece of slate with the type of Zen simplicity that I loved. The name of this restaurant was Razza Pizza Artiginale; you may have seen the video I mean. The chef’s passion for presenting the finest sourdough bread to his customers was a revelation to me. I sat up in my seat and drooled throughout the full 5 minutes. That was it, I knew then I had to learn how to make bread, good bread, real bread, how it is meant to be made. Then I encountered Chad Robertson’s short video about his journey into bread making and I was hooked.
It was not until I moved to Belgium to live with my girlfriend that a space opened up for me to begin to experiment with making bread. I had had a busy life, never the time or the energy to commit to the first steps of learning the baking process. Kneading dough by hand seemed like such hard work. Now I had time to explore this new world. I began with ordinary yeast and basic flour. I knew of sourdough but, as an inexperienced baker with no one to teach me, the steps seemed so overwhelming, the vocabulary too obscure. I had no idea about autolyse, bulk ferment, feeding a starter, the difference between a levain and a poolish. The ideas appealed to me but it was all quite intimidating for a beginner. I was given a copy of Tartine, Chad baker’s excellent book. I relished the gorgeous photos but the detailed text seemed as though it was written in a foreign language. I needed to find my way with the basics first.
I had some success but the lure of sourdough kept calling. I watched copious amounts of YouTube videos and became even more confused as everyone seemed to have different advice on how to make a starter and how to make the bread. Should I use pineapple juice to help the starter or keep it plain flour and water? Which flour was the best to use? Should I knead the dough, use stretch and fold or let time do the work? Should I bake in a DO or use a baking stone? It was all so confusing.
It was then I decided to jump straight in and learn along the way. I made a wholemeal rye starter and after 5 days I had the exciting beginnings of new life. I nourished this fragile creation and soon had a pot full of the good stuff. I was ready to try my first loaf. I decided on a no-knead approach and 14 hrs later I poured my first dough out of its pot, shaped it, let it rise and baked it. It worked, I had lift off!
Now this first sourdough loaf was nothing special. I certainly took no photos, it was not worthy of them. But the taste, oh boy the taste. My girlfriend and I ate it with pure delight. I had begun and the way ahead appeared far less intimidating. I loved the idea that sourdough was a living food, that fermentation was the key to releasing the best nutritional qualities of the flour. Before, sourdough had had a hipster hashtag, now it just made good sense.
I entered a world of magic and wonder. Baking sourdough melded beautifully with the philosophy of life I had already established; simplicity, purity, balance all played a part. I glimpsed within the process the magic of transformation, how the combination of the parts reached new heights in the whole. I found better quality ingredients and tools and experimented constantly. I had been bitten by the sourdough bug.
I rejoiced in how the process engaged all the senses, delighted them and stimulated them. I was discovering not just the making of sourdough, but the Way of Sourdough, the journey that teaches and enriches you as you walk it. I learned humility and found in every mistake the potential for new learning. I developed patience, learning to work with the dough, reading its moods, responding to its needs. I found a new avenue to practice shoshin, the beginner’s mind, an approach that seeks to maintain the perspective you have as a beginner where you are ready to absorb new ideas, new understanding, never letting yourself become stagnant. I learned that all the elements of earth, air, fire and water had vital roles; they all had their own part to play in the creation of the final product. I also loved the act of service. Baking bread for other people enriches the lives of others and the joy is shared. All of the elements of my own journey were now being brought to life in this new source of creativity.
Now I have walked this path a short while my previous clouds of confusion have cleared. The process has become de-mystified. I understand the vocabulary; I have learned the language of bread. Those earlier texts with their esoteric codes have now become new sources of information and inspiration. I am aware that I have a lifetime of learning ahead of me but that’s ok, it makes it all the more worthwhile. For now I love each new branch of sourdough baking I explore: pizzas, scones, baguettes and, yes, even dog biscuits are on my planner. The list seems endless, the potential without horizon. My enthusiasm has even managed to convert a few non-believers, those who wondered what all the fuss was about. Now they too have homes filled with that amazing smell of freshly baked sourdough bread. They too love and cherish that little pot of magic in their fridge.
The future? Well, for the moment I am content with just getting the basics right but I do fantasise about a large wooden trough to mix my dough, sacks of local grown flour stacked in the pantry and the aroma of burning logs as the fire warms my outdoor brick oven. And who knows? Maybe even a market stall to share the love.
Ah, I hear a bell, time to attend to the oven. Oh, it will be so hard to wait until it cools.
I am an amateur bread baker with a passion for sourdough. I live in Belgium where I am beginning a new career writing novels. As well as writing and baking I teach meditation alongside my partner Sandra.
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