Last year, you may remember, I spent two days at the Artisan Bakery School in Devon. They taught, we baked, we ate. And I left armed with the more confidence in the yeast and leaven department. Soon after this, I volunteered to look after a friend’s sourdough starter (which goes by ‘Alfonzo’, naturally) while they were holidaying for three weeks. I took this responsibility seriously; listened earnestly while my friend told me about Alfonzo’s needs (starter-organic flour-water in ratios of 1:1:1) and habits (awake in the evening if fed in the morning). And, if I’m honest, I felt the pressure. This was something that he had nurtured from nothing, and I could, with neglect, kill it.
But I didn’t. Alfonzo and I got on fine. And when my friend returned from holiday, I returned his beloved starter, and kept a clone of it for myself to continue my sourdough baking. Thus, ‘Mabel’ was born. And we’ve worked well together. We’ve made some tasty bread over the past few months. She spends a fair amount of time in the fridge, but she lives, and we eat. So we’re both happy.
Then for Christmas, my husband gave me a copy of Gill Meller’s cookbook, ‘Gather’. It is the kind of cookbook I like to read of an evening, just resting in the love and respect that the author has for the ingredients and the landscape in which they flourish. In the ‘field’ section of the book (because place is important, so provides the structure) Meller has a recipe for a rye bread packed full of seeds and flavour, and instructions for how to get your own rye starter, well, started.
It piqued my interest. I had fallen a little out of love with bread baking just before Christmas, but have been re-envisioned for it of late. Perhaps a new starter was the next step. So I began.
There are just two basic ingredients needed: rye flour and water. For Meller’s recipe, a ratio of 1 part flour to 2 parts warm water is needed. Having stirred these together in an old (clean) peanut butter jar, I then needed to find a warm place to put them. A temperature of around 30ºC was suggested. Lacking an airing cupboard (and not heating our flat to this temperature!) I popped the jar on the bathroom shelf, as this seems to be the most consistently warm room (being the smallest). At the same time as this, I’ve also been experimenting with natural alternatives for my daily ablutions, so it’s beginning to feel a bit less ‘bathroom’ and a bit more ‘pantry’ in there (more of that for future blog posts).
Anyway, as per the recipe, I fed the starter every day for four days, and on day three, it began to bubble. A sign of life! A confirmation that the wild yeast was there, feeding on the ingredients and producing the carbon dioxide that would make my loaf rise. It was a joyous moment. There was something unexpectedly fulfilling in bringing into being something that is itself a source of life and nourishment. I look at my starter with fascination. A few days ago the basic ingredients – flour and water – were inert. Put them together, in the right conditions, and they become more than the sum of their parts. Look after them right, and they will give and give and give again.
I haven’t found my new starter’s name yet. We’re still getting to know each other after all. And with that, I’m off to bake my first loaf from it. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Today’s soundtrack: James Morrison // Higher than Here