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.
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!