Baking sour dough bread is my meditative ritual. It is slow and deliberate and gives shape to my week. Three years ago, on a weekend retreat at Shalom in the small town of Carcoar, I was given the gift of fermented wild yeast known as starter. On that weekend we learnt to make sour dough bread. While waiting for the leaven to infuse the dough, we reflected on bread as a gift of life.

The oldest forms of bread are thousands of years old. When ancient grains were ground into flour and made into a paste with water, they were cooked on hot stones in fire. Then it was discovered that if the paste was not immediately used, it fermented naturally as wild yeast began consuming the sugars in the grain. This wild yeast is in the air all around us, just waiting for a host. Given the right conditions, it will begin the fermentation process.

Yeast is a single cell living organism which releases carbon dioxide as it is fed. This is what gives bread its characteristic tiny holes throughout. I have made bread for many years using baker’s yeast. It is quick and easy, but the bread hardens quickly. For a very long time, I bought yeast in little sachets and never knew that a wild variety was freely available and everywhere. 

Bread has long been considered the staff of life. We break bread with family and friends and Christians pray ‘give us this day our daily bread.’ It is nourishment for body and soul.

And so, we come to my weekly ritual. Tuesday night after work, I take the jar of sour dough starter out of the fridge. Sourdough bakers like to continue a long-held tradition of naming their starter. Mine came from a wild yeast mixture called Harold and I have called his daughter Demeter, after the Greek God of harvest and fertility. When I open the jar, Demeter looks rather neglected. There is a dense grey sediment at the bottom of the jar. I put my nose to it. A strong smell of alcohol affronts my senses. I swirl the jar and see the culprit. Hooch, a light alcoholic liquid, has formed on top of the flour mixture.  Demeter is telling me she needs to be fed. I discard the hooch and I’m left with a mixture not unlike house paint.

I need to feed this beast. Equal parts of strong baker’s flour and water should do the trick. I measure out my quantities with precision and stir. This mixture will sit on my window sill until Wednesday night.

Come Wednesday, I remove the lid to find that Demeter has come back to life. She is bubbling at the surface and the mixture looks light and fluffy. She now has that pleasant fruity yeast smell I associate with bread making. Each time I observe this phenomenon, I marvel at the tenacity of life. It doesn’t take a lot to coax it into being. At times, I feel like an alchemist, mixing my ingredients to produce pure gold.

I am ready to start with my first pre-ferment. Making sourdough requires flour and water to be added in small quantities at first. This process of adding equal parts of flour and water are repeated, each time in larger measure. I cover my dough-to-be with a beeswax wrap and let it rest until the following morning when I coax it with more flour and water. This is the second preferment.  It is now Thursday night and I can finally add half a kilo of flour, water, seeds and anything that takes my fancy this week. My trusted spurtle, a rod-shaped Scottish porridge stirring stick, is put to good use as I autolyse the bread. It is a gentle method of mixing the ingredients which is followed by a well-earned 20 minute rest. A glass of red is the perfect way to while away the time until the dough is ready to be stretched and folded. Finally, I get my hands into the dough and gently pull it out and fold it back in three to five times before putting it to rest overnight in the fridge.

I think about bakers spanning millennia engaged in the ancient art of making bread. The recipe, adapted to new environments, refined by the hands it has passed through makes its way across centuries and cultures to the bakers of today. I am honoured to be part of this ancient lineage. My much-loved recipe and sour dough starter were a friendship offering by a master baker to his apprentice. In continuing this tradition, I have watched my levain grow in distant kitchens of friends and family with whom I break bread.

For three days I have stretched and folded and stretched and folded the dough. It is now ready for the last step. I heat the oven, slash the loaf and watch it rise through the tempered glass door. The smell of fresh bread wafts through the house. Within forty-five minutes, the crust is crisp and brown. I turn the bread out onto a rack and knock on its underside. A hollow sound at the centre tells me it is ready. As much as I am tempted to cut into it now, I leave the bread to cool. This completes the cooking process. Waiting another couple of hours seems like a small sacrifice to make.

Finally, the bread is ready to eat. At first, the knife resists the crust before slicing through its soft centre. I treat myself to the end piece, lightly buttered and crunchy. Demeter has worked her magic once more.

6 thoughts on “Sourdough”

  1. Such a treat to read about your weekly ritual – I had no idea of all the steps! Beautiful that you are part of such a lovely tradition in so many households!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love your description. This explains a lot Viki; why my bread has not once worked out! My sour dough is stodgy, dense and doesn’t rise! I’ll give it another try!

    Liked by 1 person

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