A Kind of Alchemy
I’ve made sourdough bread before of course – a white loaf, a rye bread, a wholemeal- but I never really paid much attention to it. I was irritated that it took so long for the starter to be ready, that you had to make a sponge before a dough, that it took so long to rise. Patience has never been one of my virtues.
It’s been over a year since I made my last sourdough starter, and hence my last sourdough loaf, and this time it’s been different. This time I have marvelled at the process, the chemical changes that take place, the fact that wild yeasts, which I can’t even see, are slowly working their magic, and yes it is still SLOWLY. The process can’t be speeded up at all. It can’t be mechanised into some time-saving shadow of itself, and that is part of the beauty of it.
The starter has to be fed and watered, nurtured daily into a glooping primordial soup of something very messy and initially at least, not very lovely. Those of you who like the smell of fermenting beer will probably love the initial stages of a sourdough, given that that’s what it smells like; unfortunately it’s not a smell I enjoy! As you continue to care for your culture it morphs into a fruity smelling liquid. It’s quite amazing really. These microscopic organisms harnessed from the air, the same organisms that used to make wine, and is some cases still do, transform flour and water into something you can make tasty, chewy, crusty bread with. Time and love are the magic ingredients which change these ‘base’ items into something precious.
It isn’t a difficult process: you weigh, add, mix. You wait. It take no more than a few minutes a day to do. When the starter is ready you add more flour and more liquid to it to make the ‘sponge’. You wait. When the sponge is ready you add the final batch of flour, the final quantity of water and then, like a normal dough, you knead it. This will take 10 minutes or so of your time. You wait again. You knock it back like a deflated football and shape it into the final stage, your loaf of choice, and then you must wait. Again. A sourdough loaf will rise, every bit as well as a loaf made with commercially produced yeast, but it will take its time. It is the time that produces the flavour and texture of the loaf. It’s the time that makes the gluten more digestible to the human gut. In total you may have spent half an hour or so making your sourdough loaf, but you will spend the half an hour over 7 – 10 days rather than one!
This time I have enjoyed the process. I haven’t stressed or fretted. There’s something relaxing in a product you can’t hurry. I have let nature take its course, and I am sure that both my loaf and I will be the better for it! Is it worth the wait? You will only know if you try it!