Flour, water, salt and a little oil

Grumbling about the misdescription of allotmenteering and natural history as being necessarily therapeutic has become a bit of a theme for me at the Potwell Inn, and I feel it’s time to balance things up a bit. Last weekend, in the Observer, there was a fascinating piece written by Jay Rayner, who’s a proper food writer, unlike me, about the film director, actor and foodie Stanley Tucci – centred around the cooking of an Italian dish known as a timpano – which originates from Calabria where his grandparents were born. Great article by the way, but one thing led to another and so we watched the film of the dish – “Big Night” and then, because Tucci was acting and directing, we watched “Julie and Julia” – his film about Julia Child whose two volumes on French Cooking were fundamental to my own cooking journey; oh and then we watched “Pig” which was the most dark and philosophical film about truffles you’ll ever watch but nothing whatever to do with our hero. Naturally we bought Tucci’s latest book as well so you can see the way we, at the Potwell Inn, pull the shutters in late autumn and console ourselves by thinking about and cooking food.

Meanwhile, and because the allotment has been too wet to get on to, I’ve returned to some serious experiments with bread. Among the many false dawns of hope and grace in my life the consolations of bread baking have never let me down – not in fifty odd years. Sourdough was late on to the scene for me, probably because until it became fashionable again in the US it stayed firmly below the media radar. Then, of course, everything changed, except that whenever I saw the subject mentioned it was always in the context of huge difficulties and arcane practices that put the whole thing beyond reach – until, this is, I gave it a go myself.

There are other posts here on the subject of getting a starter going; and after getting bored with dancing naked under a full moon and collecting stones of divers colours whenever there was an R in the month I made the elementary discovery that when you mix flour and water in a pot and leave it exposed on a window ledge it will sometimes, but not always, ferment in a helpful way. But it was always very hit and miss and I was too busy to do the groundwork until one day I started a controlled experiment. I’d already figured out that flour and water were the only necessary ingredients although the initial starters used bottled – ie non chlorinated water to give the yeasts a leg up in the first week. So all I did was mix a starter with each of about half a dozen flours I had in the cupboard for yeast loaves, tended them all equally for six weeks, and selected the best performing – ie the most lively starter; discarding the rest.

And the winner was – dark rye (which I could have found out in almost any book, but I’m stubborn like that). The downside of dark rye is that it’s very – well, dark and coarse and so it can make an 80% white loaf look surprisingly like wholemeal. The other thing is that it’s got a remarkably strong (and beautiful) flavour that can sometimes overwhelm the foods you’re eating with the bread. In the end, this half pint container of starter has kept us in delicious bread for at least the last ten years.

I should say that the final arbiter in the matter of crust and crumb experiments is Madame who loathes having butter run down into her armpit via the large and overrated holes in what’s come to represent the gold standard sourdough loaf. She loves butter almost as much as Julia Child did) – and so like all sensible cooks, I bake bread the way my customer prefers. For a couple of years the go-to recipe has included (all organic) wholemeal wheat flour, hard white flour (for the elasticity) and dark rye in the starter and as a final addition during kneading. That gives us a loaf that keeps down to the last slice and tastes lovely – OK it tastes like the granary floor, which in my world is the highest compliment! But it is a beast of a flavour and anything less than strong home made marmalade, or a mustard, marmite and parmesan sandwich is likely to be overwhelmed.

So I wondered what would happen if I made another starter using only light rye flour because all of the original white flour starters had been slow and bad tempered. So beginning with the original master, I began feeding the experimental starter then I used the light rye starter with white flour to make a batter and discovered that it worked really well – not quite as energetic as dark rye, but less rustic, paler and more genteel in its fermentation. Then yesterday I took the first loaf out of the oven (pay no attention to size in the photo; the darker loaf is the end crust because we’d eaten the rest, and the two loaves, baked in the same banneton were broadly identical in size. My only thought was that the “white” loaf could easily have coped with a longer second rise in a bigger banneton because it was still quite energetic.

All this is not so much to show off but to demonstrate that there’s really nothing complicated about sourdough; however the variables in play stack up really fast. What flours? what starter? how much or little salt? oil, butter or no fat? how long to ferment the batter? one or two rises? what starting and what finishing temperatures? with or without steam? The interplay of all these variables can send you screaming to a recipe book to take away all the pain; but honestly, most of the variables remain unaltered and even the difference between summer and winter can change the timings. The take-home point is that baking has huge consolations so long as you don’t for one moment imagine that there’s a right or a wrong way to bake bread. Over the years you get better; you develop a sixth sense through your hands in the dough and as you watch the rise – which is always faintly miraculous.

Michael Pollan wrote a marvellous book entitled “Cooked” which uses bread as an example of cooking with air. To accompany the book, a film appeared later following the same framework of elements – earth, air, fire and water; and in the section on bread he talked about the way in which sourdough transforms the flour which – if you ate nothing else would cause you to starve – into bread which is one of the few complete foods – doubling in size and food value along the way. The best thing about the new loaf was that Madame really liked it and so – in a larger banneton, a longer second rise and a few artistic slashes it will become the new everyday bread unless I miss the old growler recipe too much.

The term everyday bread deliberately references the daily bread in the Bible because it shares the same shape shifting quality. In fact the Greek word that’s used in the Lord’s Prayer and was translated as daily bread (I think) by Miles Coverdale, back in the day – is epiousios and no-one knows what it actually means, and so I’ve always thought of it as meaning something like “give us today the around and about us things we need”. Those things that promote our emotional and spiritual lives as well as meeting our material needs. The King James bible wisely recognised that bread is just such a thing; food, consolation and joy all in one transitory moment. I reckon that’s a genius bit of translating!

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