Last night at le Cafe des Arts in Grenoble, where I am presently stationed, we hosted a 'Scientists and Citizens' discussion group. Subject: Is global biodiversity threatened, and should we be worried? I tend to think we humans are having a terrible effect on the planet and yes we should worry. More than that, I believe we should be doing all we can, not just Nationally but Personally to lessen our impact on the suffering Earth. For me, and I'm sure that everyone has a different way of lightening their own conscience, I think that trying to avoid homogenisation is a pretty good way to avoid destructive things. I can tell you all the other ways this manifests itself if you want to email me, but here I shall stick to that which relates to bread. (And yes, I know that I may sound like an over-conscientious loony, but it helps me to sleep at night and I get to eat really delicious bread.)
Sourdough is anti-homogeneity, anti-boredom and anti-robotisation. It is pro-diversity, pro-variety and discovery, exploration, curiosity and individuality, pro-local and pro-intelligence. It is anti-packaging, anti food-waste and anti-multinational. With sourdough you engage, you learn and you enthuse! Some people start making their own bread – or seeking better bread to buy – because they prefer certain tastes. As my sister found, however, it quickly becomes part of a greater life-style choice or even, as it has become for me, a Political choice. I refuse to be de-skilled!
I started baking sourdough breads because my normal loaf was too normal, and white bread seemed to be making me feel rather ill. In Borough Market, I'd see loaves with dark chestnut-brown crusts that smelled wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. They had gorgeous flavour and, between the crisp crusts, a chewy crumb that toasted perfectly. I wanted to know if I could make a better loaf in my home oven, or if good bread had to be left to the professionals. Then Lo! Two home-baking books with seductive pictures and impassioned prose all about sourdough: Andrew Whitley's Bread Matters and Dan Lepard's The Handmade Loaf.
Just to clarify, I'm not against using commercially available yeast, by which I mean the Saccharomyces cerevisiae strain which is packaged as fresh, dried or quick-action yeast. The Real Bread Campaign (RBC) does not stipulate that 'real bread' must be sourdough, they're more against unnatural additives and over-rapid or discontinuous processing (RBC's 'real bread' definition here), but sourdough bread often fits their criteria. 'Ordinary' yeast, S. cerevisiae, is just one yeast that has a recognised working temperature, speed and outcome. It's only been bred on an industrial scale for bakery and brewing use for about 200 years. Before that, because it is naturally-occurring like other strains of yeast, and grows particularly fast and well in dough, it is likely that it was still commonly used as a leaven but one amongst many, many home-grown varieties. It didn't have the hegemony that it gained from being singled out and industrially produced. Instead of buying yeast to put in their dough, bakers used to cultivate a sourdough or 'wild' yeast starter of their own. If it was active and effective they'd keep it living in order to keep using its leavening action. Using a sourdough leaven rather than yeast is, however, not about recreating the past. For me, it concerns re-expanding the variety of life. It is no coincidence that boring sliced white is produced in boring factories whilst satisfying sourdoughs are made by happy individuals who love what they do.
The slower action of sourdough, or 'wild' yeasts and lactobacilli, can produce a loaf with complex flavour and good texture. It also, importantly, takes longer. However, the time I spend actively working the dough is very short. It has, if anything, gone down since I've made sourdoughs. And planning? Pshaw! The process is slow so windows of opportunity are vast and the infinite variety of possible outcomes is to be revelled in. I admit I've occasionally taken a dough with me to work or college in a sort of attempt to be more vigilant over it, but that's because I might have found it more interesting than the thing I was attending. Bread-making's a good exercise in delayed gratification and knowing that rushing will get you nowhere. Deciding to make something and giving it time to develop is a generous act but the rewards are ten-fold and the ripples spread through everything you do.
This is a quote I first read in Kiko Denzer and Hannah Field's book Build Your Own Earth Oven. Their book is confusing but extremely spirited and inspiring. It contains lovely snippets like this, which floated into my head when I left my last job. "Off she goes again to live a life of leisure" said my ex-boss and I left in silence rather than telling her where she could stuff her nasty tasteless par-baked paninis...
from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
Work is love made visible.
And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.
For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man's hunger.