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Catching wild yeast

June 15, 2011

Yesterday, my mother dropped off a linen bag she had sewn to store bread loaves in. She’d embroidered it with an apple leaf.

The bag was my brother’s suggestion – he pointed out that fresh-baked sourdough went all clammy in plastic bags. It needed to breathe to keep its crisp crust.

My mother has been making sourdough for about eight years – around the time my first child was born. I had returned from New York City, lamenting that I could no longer buy a loaf of caraway and rye from my favourite artisan bakery, and she said we could do it ourselves. All we had to do was catch the wild yeast.

I liked the idea of catching wild yeast – there was something magical about it. We might as well be luring the fairies from the bottom of the garden into jars. My mother left the flour and water mixture out on the deck, and the wild yeast dived into the bowl. The mixture began to bubble and ferment. The process had begun.

It took a few weeks for the sourdough starter to be ready. In someways it reminded me of my newborn child – always growing, always needing to be fed. My mother regularly administered scoops of white flour and cups of water. One night the starter grew over the sides of its bowl and began colonising the bench.

Finally it was ready to be made into bread. She mixed a few scoops of starter into flour, salt, oil and water, and kneaded the bread for ten minutes. She left it to rise. The remaining starter she fed and put aside – this would be treasured; some European families had nurtured starters for hundreds of years. She put the loaves in to bake at 220 degrees. When they came out, they were crusty and steaming. We left them to cool, then cut off thick slices, spreading them with butter. The bread was tangy and delicious.

A slice of sourdough, a chunk of cheddar, a crisp apple and a glass of milk. There’s something elemental about that kind of meal. I could imagine my ancestors eating it.

My mother gave me some of her starter  and I made sourdough for about six months, until I lost it in my fridge, behind all my jars of Korean chili paste and mango chutney. Here is a comic about my first attempt (click on it to make it bigger):

One Comment leave one →
  1. Tim permalink
    June 15, 2011 7:42 pm

    I love my little beasties that grow my yeast. And if I go away I fret that they will be hungry and die. Such anxieties. A really good addition to the bread is your left over porridge. It makes the bread that much tastier. No more than a cup though. Adjust the water a little.

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