How to bring a neglected sourdough starter back from the dead.

Even in the best regulated households – and the Potwell Inn isn’t one by a country mile – days and weeks can pass when routine jobs like feeding the sourdough and the kefir get pushed aside by seasonal emergencies like fungus hunting and holidays from the allotment. Not that any of these derelictions go unnoticed. The kefir, so long as it’s tucked away at the back of the fridge, will survive as many as six weeks, and as long as you give the grains a wash – they’ll be the size of chickpeas – and feed it properly for a few days, it’ll come back to life. I have an entirely non-scientific approach to figuring out whether food is dead and dangerous. If it stinks, or if there are moulds actually growing on it it goes into the recycling. I remember one neglected kefir culture that smelt so evil – think dead sheep – that I had to throw away the container as well.

However the sourdough starter is a different matter. It’s an old friend that sprang into spontaneous existence maybe fifteen years ago and has done well ever since. Mine hasn’t got a name – I think naming starters leads to disappointment; but it does have a unique smell – no, perfume. Mine smells of apples – what does yours smell of? Starter sniffing is a dangerous game because if you criticize someone else’s they can take it badly, as if you’d said their child was ugly.

But a couple of weeks ago I opened the container and there was something wrong. Not dead sheep by any means, but faintly sulphurous. It was pretty obvious that my neglect had starved the starter to the point where some of the yeasts had begun to decompose. An idea of how to save it came into my head by way of the weekend spent looking at Welsh apples. Madame, in the distant past, was a small part of a research station team growing virus free apple bud-wood. They achieved this by growing the shoots faster than the virus could travel through them. Consequently the grafted buds were virus free.

So would it be possible for the remaining lively yeasts to outgrow any usurpers and dullards while eliminating the dead ones altogether. I started an intensive care programme of feeding the starter every day with its favourite organic dark rye flour, each time throwing just over half of the old starter away. Very gradually the sulphurous smell disappeared and the apple perfume came back. It started bubbling more fiercely than ever as well – good news! After a week of reliable bubbles I made a loaf yesterday and the result is in the photo. My impression is that the renewed starter is better than it was before I let it escape, and so the kitchen now feels content again. I also made 12 lbs of green tomato chutney during the day – enough to keep us going for a couple more years.

Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

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