Daily Archives: October 23, 2008

Yeast wrangling 101

Several years ago, while still living in New Zealand, I wanted to learn more about bread. I went to the library and took out virtually every book they had on bread making and bread baking. There of course were several beautifully done books, and one that stands out in my mind to this day was called The Bread Builders. As I recall, it was exquisitely illustrated providing tantalizing glimpses of far away places, evoking succulent smells of baking breads and heady aromas of wood fired ovens.

The book that taught me the basics of yeast wrangling!

The book that taught me the basics of yeast wrangling!

While that book got my mouth watering, my eyes dancing and my imagination traveling, the book that intrigued me the most was called Classic Sourdoughs: A home bakers handbook, by Ed Wood. In this book, he skillfully describes the art of developing a true sourdough culture, how to feed it, ways of preserving it, and how to use it artfully. There are also a host of wonderful recipes to work your way through on your journey of becoming a bread builder.

Once you have caught your true sourdough, Wood explains, you need never go to the store to buy yeast again. Now that kind of knowledge is a cornerstone in the foundation of true independence–I had to try it.

Of course, while reading the chapter on how to acquire the yeast spores, my imagination got away from me. Instead of the benign creatures Wood described, I pictured something different. After all, the yeast spores I was to catch were not at all like the garden variety you picked up at any grocery store. No, these spores were wild, untamed, unruly.

The microscopic, but voracious, yeast spores my mind conjured up were riding tiny Mustang horses, sporting yellow sombreros a la Speedy Gonzalez, decked out in full gaucho gear, replete with chaps, hand-guns, and cross-their-hearts-ammo belts, galloped through the air, and indiscriminately shot  their guns off. Obviously, this sort of yeast wrangling was going to be a challenge. What I had to do  was figure out how to catch and tame them: lasso, tie down, corral, file steadily into a small bowl, and finally, break and train them to a level of finesse required to enter the culinary equivalent of Grand Prix Dressage.

The process is, sadly, much more sedate. No horse needed. In fact, it is shockingly simple: mix water and flour together in bowl, cover with gauze to protect from flies, set near open window, keep warm, feed often. Voila, a couple of weeks into this mild mannered process, you will have yourself a viable sourdough culture.

I tried it. Within days, I had a bubbling concoction that smelled exactly as you would expect a yeasty brew to smell: like yeast, with light undertones curiously reminiscent of a beer burp. The next step, of course, was to see if it actually raised bread. Wood warns the reader that it may take a few weeks, sometimes several months, of keeping the culture alive before it will make a good bread. In the meantime, he advises, use the part of the product that you pour off, when feeding the culture, to make pancakes and muffins. So I did. If you like sourdough pancakes, but have never caught a true sourdough culture, then you have never truly had sourdough pancakes–and thus you are missing out. The pancakes made from this culture were fantastic, possibly the tastiest I’d ever made.

It wasn’t long before I was brave enough to try making my first loaf of bread with my own sourdough culture. I started with a focaccia so that, I reasoned, in case it didn’t really rise well no one might notice! I needn’t have worried; it worked beautifully. The focaccia was gorgeous, the air pockets well formed and uneven, just like the  better bread from bakeries. I was immediately hooked and never looked back. Today, I scoff at the ‘regular’, store-bought yeast for bread making. Instead, I make everything with my own: a wide variety of breads both sweet and savoury, muffins, pancakes, even chocolate cakes!

This process is the only way to obtain a true sourdough culture, pure and simple. Unlike the more popular version of so called sourdough of present day, the kind that begins with store-bought yeast and adding sugar and vinegar or some such other phony brew, the true sourdough culture dates back through antiquity to ancient Egypt.

The ancient Egyptians were the first peoples to discover this technology, of how to leaven bread. Having studied this, and being a passionate collector of sourdoughs from around the world, Ed Wood founded Sourdoughs International, a company that collect, maintains and sells sourdough cultures from around the world.

He also wrote the above mentioned book, in which he chronicles many of his worldly travels, all in the name of true sourdough collecting. In 1993, Wood collaborated with Egyptologist, Dr. Mark Lehner, to determine how man made his first leavened bread in Egypt, a project supported by the National Geographic Society (National Geographic Magazine, January 1995).

After about a year of continual use of my own culture, I decided to contact Ed Wood from my home in Rotorua, New Zealand, and let him know how much I appreciated his book and how wonderful my culture was. He was intrigued enough to ask me to send him a sample, which he subsequently put through his testing kitchen. He was very happy with the results and said he was surprised at how well it performed; so he offered to buy it from me in exchange for the ability to sell it. ‘You’re not going to get rich off this,’ he laughed, and offered me a some-time-in-the-future commission ‘once some sales have been made’.

Several years later, I returned to Canada and was really glad to have made that ‘deposit’ with Ed at Sourdough International, because not only could I not bring my yeast back home to Canada, but also the yeast that I caught in Bella Coola was lazy. My New Zealand yeast was caught in the volcanic centre of the North Island, which was possibly a factor in its vigour–like Old Faithful, you could count on it to rise! However, with this Northern hemisphere variety I could not raise a decent loaf of bread to save my life. After about a year of unsuccessful Bella Coola yeast wrangling and frustrated bread making, I gave in and contacted Ed Wood again. He kindly sent me a package of my own yeast starter. It was amazing to have this resource–like having my own ‘ark’ or vault from which I could access my own heritage food!

To obtain the Rotorua Sourdough culture, see the following link

Rotorua Sourdough

To learn more about sourdough culture raising

Sourdough International

Classic Sourdough: A home bakers handbook


Filed under Fermented foods, Food preservation, Food Security, Funny stories, How to..., personal food sovereignty, Preserving the harvest

Grow your own bread

Anita Loiselle's freshly baked bread from her home grown Red Fife wheat. Photo courtesy Marc Loiselle.

Anita Loiselle's freshly baked bread made from her own home grown Red Fife wheat. Photo courtesy Marc Loiselle

Because of my poor wheat harvest this year I realized I was going to have to buy in flour if we were going to enjoy bread, muffins, and pancakes this winter. I just couldn’t see ourselves going without bread products as they have become such a staple in our diet. Not only don’t I want to go without, there is a whole bunch of new experiences and learning to do in order to convert raw wheat kernels into bread products. Therefore, this year we will ‘cheat’, buy in the whole wheat kernels and spend our energies instead learning how to mill our own flour and how to make bread and other products with it.

Another part of food security and personal food sovereignty for me is having access to seed. In other words, above and beyond our bread making needs, obtaining the wheat kernels was also important in terms of securing seed, sufficient for next year’s planting. I am determined to grow my own wheat but until I am successful, I will just have to give in to those who know how to!

Because I had knowledge of the Marquis 10B from the Seager Wheeler farm, I began my search by contacting the farm via the email ‘contact us’ information on their website, asking if they might sell me some more of the heritage wheat. Several months later, with no response from anyone from Seager Wheeler Farm, I began looking further afield for a source of Canadian heritage wheat. If I could not get more Seager Wheeler wheat, then I would like to find another Canadian heirloom wheat: Red Fife, organically raised if possible.

I began my search for the above on the Web. Surprisingly, it did not take long for me to find what I was looking for. The Loiselle Organic Family Farm, in Vonda, Saskatchewan grows the Red Fife wheat. Not only that, they grow it organically on their biodynamic farm. Through a link on their website, I found a source of what I was looking for in British Columbia, the True Grain Bread of Cowichan Bay Village.

Upon discovering that they sell whole wheat kernels in 25kg bags, I phoned True Grain Bread to see if they would do a mail order for me. ‘Of course!’ said the voice on the other end of the phone, ‘Just come on down to the store’. This of course, is easier said than done: I’m a 13 hour drive from the port where you catch the ferry to get to Vancouver Island, never mind the drive to Cowichan from the ferry dock! ‘Oh’.

Upon hearing this minor obstacle, the gal on the other end of the line suggested that I send an email to Bruce, and ask him if he would do a mail order. So I did. Bruce was fantastic. He not only shipped me the wheat, but also he did all the legwork for me: contacted the post office, advised me of the cost of shipping, and put the wheat in the mail–he didn’t cash my cheque until I confirmed that I had received the wheat! When you live as remotely as I do, this sort of ‘over and above’ service is warmly appreciated. Moreover, it is a huge relief!

To cover my options, I also had emailed Marc Loiselle of Loiselle Organic Family Farm, about  my wheat shipping options (in case True Grain couldn’t fulfill the mail order request). By the time he got back to me, thanks to the efforts of Bruce at True Grain Bread, I already had the wheat in my possession.

I was pleased by Marc’s email response however because, despite getting the wheat from an entirely different source, he revealed its contemporary pedigree, adding another welcome layer of knowledge and an additional thread of personal heritage to the wheat I now own:

That wheat [you have just bought] is part of the Red Fife we grew. It is actually a blend of 5 different lots of Red Fife from Saskatchewan…from members of our Prairie Red Fife Organic Growers Cooperative. 50% is 2006 and 2007 harvests from our farm, 24% is from the Wyatt farm at Canwood, 14% from the Schriml farm at Bruno, and 12% from St. Peter’s Abbey (Benedictine monastery) at Muenster.

Wow. I was thrilled to learn more about ‘my’ Red Fife wheat. These sorts of layers and links to other farmers, friends and families, and the ‘ghosts of farmers past’, add a cultural, if not a spiritual dimension to farming for me. Now, I am part of those farm’s living heritage: their work, their wheat, their families’ heritage passed on through generations of seed growing and saving, will live on here in Bella Coola so long as I too am able to sow their seeds, grow their wheat, save the seed, add water and repeat.

Despite the fact that I no longer needed to buy wheat from the Loiselle Organic Family Farm, I did  have a bunch of other questions which Marc was kind enough to answer. The bigger questions for me with respect to my ‘Year in Provisions’ project for which I needed answers to were: how much wheat to grow, how much land to sow, and how much wheat might I need for my family for a year; I had no idea. All I knew was that a loaf of bread takes about 4-5 cups of flour, but that was the limit of my knowledge. How many wheat kernels it takes to make 4-5 cups of flour I also had no idea–let alone how many kilos of wheat one needs to sow over how much area of land, or how much yeild to expect, or how much we’d need to supply us for a year in bread.

To answer theses key ‘Year in Provisions’ questions for me, Marc Loiselle, rose to the occasion:

Sounds like a great project you have going! I’ve never had such a question about growing a certain amount for a year’s supply. But, presuming that you want to grow enough for your food needs and have enough left over for a subsequent year’s sowing, and are able to sow and harvest adequately, I suggest you could purchase a single 25 kg bag for example. If you sow 1/2 of it in good fertile soil with adequate spacing (30 lbs would sow about 1/4 acre….and save the other 30 lbs in case of need to resow due to natural disaster such as hail…) and it grows well, you could anticipate harvesting up to ~ 6 bushels (360 lbs) and that is based on a good yield of 25 bushels/acre.

A single bushel of harvested and clean wheat kernels would make ~70-80 regular sized loaves of bread. So you could do the math and sort of figure out what that would mean for you; especially if you have a family to feed too. 6 bushels x 75 loaves = ~450 loaves potential, which would be more than 1 loaf per day.

As it happens, I had bought exactly 25 kilos from True Grain Bread, which according to Marc’s calculations, is about double what I need for sowing purposes next year (allowing for poor harvest/return). That means I can use half of it now for bread making purposes. Of course, this will likely not be enough to get us through to next year’s harvest (thinking optimistically!), so I will have to order another 25 kg, maybe two, for our winter’s supply for bread making.

Not only did Marc answer many of my questions, he also was kind enough to send the above photo of Anita’s (his wife) freshly baked bread. In addition to this, he sent along  a couple of other recipes that use the Red Fife wheat in interesting ways, such as in salads. I will post these recipes eventually and link them to my recipe page, as and when. Thank-you Marc and Anita Loiselle!

Now, I’m on the hunt for a grinder so I can turn this gorgeous Red Fife heritage wheat into bread! Suggestions on grinders most welcome.

For more information on Red Fife wheat

See the Loiselle Organic Family Farm. They have a wonderful website with ‘everything you wanted to know’ about Red Fife wheat,  including interesting photos, as well as the history of the Prairie Red Fife Organic Growers Cooperative they helped found.



Filed under Bread making, Food Security, How to..., Learning to Farm, Sustainable Farming