When in January the New Yorker declared a comeback for bread, it was greeted as the giddy limit of fake trendspotting. “Phew,” said the world. “Thank God. I haven’t eaten bread in decades. I’ve been waiting for this moment all my life.” But there was a bead of truth; starting in Silicon Valley and radiating outwards, a little bit like – what’s that thing? Oh yes, the internet – sourdough had carved the most amazing space for itself in the culture. Proper coders’ brains were lavishing their downtime on finding ways to track the fermentation of their starter culture and then make graphs about it. Instagram is laden with tender crumb shots (it is what it sounds like), people couldn’t delight more in the miracles of this alchemy than if it were neolithic times and bread had only just been invented.
Bread has always been a staple, some magic combination of ease of production, ease of distribution, ease of storage, ease of sale and ease of use. But for these very reasons, it fell out of fashion, and into the category of guilty pleasure. Set snobbery about the mass market alongside the great anti-carb movement that has been tweaked but never abandoned since the late 80s, and bread had in recent years become fatally compromised, like elastication, like nylon, like a Happy Shopper or an arcade – terminally uncool. The most timeless and delicious bread products known to humanity – baguettes, crumpets – were not enough to rescue it. That is until sourdough brought bread back from the dead.
The principle of sourdough is that, instead of using dried, instant yeast, you use a wild yeast that you have grown yourself: the sourdough starter, or leaven. The starter acts differently on the grain to baker’s yeast. Certainly, people who are intolerant to wheat seem to tolerate sourdough better, even though, obviously, it also contains wheat.
At its simplest, you mix rye flour and water in equal amounts, leave it for one day, add more flour and water, leave for another day, then throw away half and add yet more flour and water, repeating every day until your once-inert flour soup is topped with bubbles. At this point you will have created a living thing, a starter that is aerating as the bacteria within it compete for nutrients – the fermentation process has begun. Like a Tamagotchi, it takes an insane amount of tending. I was disheartened by constant throwing away of dough – what was wrong with the last lot? – and bemused by the random suggestions I found on the web. Why should I add a teaspoon of yoghurt? What joker started his leaven with rhubarb? The questions piled up, highly technical and curiously unengaging, which is why the tech bros love sourdough so much, and Silicon Valley is lousy with $600 proofing baskets.
I have a mixed history with fermentation, which is to say, I’ve tried it and never got it to work. Me and my Mr tried to make sauerkraut, adapting a recipe that involved massaging 50 cabbages with salt. It rotted with such determination that we couldn’t use the garden for months, let alone the pot. My sourdough leaven wasn’t disruptive on that scale, but the kitchen just wasn’t warm enough; the fabled aeration and signature sour smell didn’t materialise. I think a mouse might have got to it. In the end, I borrowed a starter. It’s like borrowing a tissue. I’m never going to give it back.
A word, before we go any further, from Dan Lepard, for my money the most talented baking all-rounder in the country. He remembers, at the dead start of the 90s, working at Alastair Little (the It restaurant then) and someone coming in with a jar of leaven, in the spirit of showing some smelling stuff to a guy who loves baking. It didn’t take off at the time, and Lepard went off to work as David Hockney’s chef in LA. Sourdough was taking off in a niche way in the US, though, and he brought it back to Fergus and Margot Henderson’s new venture in 1994. Their restaurant, St John’s, is still considered the British ground zero of sourdough. “I wonder,” he says, “whether we encourage people to give up at the point of a challenge. I do it, too, sell a recipe by saying it’s quick and easy. With sourdough, we should be saying to people, it is a bit complicated, but you can do it. You will encounter challenges and you are absolutely the right person to get through them.”
That was a roundabout way of saying, a) this stuff predates the internet, and b) obviously I messed it up. Part of me thinks that, if you want to use someone else’s starter, you have to at least have history with them, like breastfeeding someone else’s baby. After you’ve mixed your starter with white flour and wholemeal or rye (2:3:1) and salt (more than you’d think) and warm water (in equal amounts to the starter, more if you need), it should double in size. You should be prepared to wait for hours, even a day, before it does, and I was, but it never did. Then you punch it down, wait more hours, for another doubling, which never happened. My result was something like a ship’s biscuit, tough as old boots, with a wet, stodgy crumb and gaping holes you could lose a rodent in. But the whole of the process, apart from eating it, was calming, obscurely grounding and quite fun. You know what they say about bread: eating it isn’t everything.