Sunday, 24 April 2016

The Sweet and the Sour

Basic Country Bread
made from the Tartine Bread
by Chad Robertson

It's June in San Francisco and the thermometer, in what I was assured was a temperate city, has hit 93°F.  We take the BART from the city to Berkeley, home of the University of California, and emerge from the subway, scuttling like lizards from one small circle of tree shade to another.  We're early and, if we'd had any sense would have sat in the shade of the wisteria covered entrance of the restaurant until the clock struck one.  But we're young and impatient and anxious not to miss a thing so, of course, we explore Berkeley in the searing heat.  By the time we climb the stairs and claim our table we have turned into a couple of freshly boiled lobsters, vermillion limbed and steaming in the cool café calmness of Chez Panisse.  Glasses of iced water and Californian Zinfandel soon restore our equilibrium.  The food is everything we had hoped it would be: perky, zesty salads, crusty sourdough breads, an abundance of herbs, and aromas of baking, all combining to reassure we were in the right place.  

I should say I am going back a bit and only hope Chez Panisse (the Café) is as good now as it was then, and on the few visits we've managed to make since.  But this is not all about Chez Panisse, even though Alice Waters' has most most definitely influenced my life.  It's about how that early visit to the USA opened my eyes to the sweet and the sour and made me think more deeply about the food I eat.

There was plenty of bad food in San Francisco back then, and still is I'm sure.  In Europe, good food was the norm.  Three weeks travelling around the USA was mostly a culinary disappointment.  America generally was in thrall to ghastly trans-fats and GM foods.  Attitudes, thankfully, are changing.  I'm sure I ate my share of muffins, pound cakes and pastries that owed nothing to the delights of butter.  This may explain why San Francisco made such an impression on me.  Here, if you looked carefully, things were different.  The Farmers' Markets were proof that San Franciscans appreciated their food.  In came the smallholders, farming their land without the 'help' of chemicals and technology, bearing, according to the season, bright green fresh fava beans and peas; white, lavender, dark purple and striped eggplants; red and golden beets; juicy tomatoes in all sizes and colours; and, numerous summer and winter squashes.  In too came raspberries, cherries and apricots in late spring; luscious, perfectly ripe peaches and nectarines in summer; persimmons in autumn; and, sweetly acidic Meyer lemons most abundantly through autumn and into spring.  These markets thrive still, I'm assured.

"All sorrows are less with bread"
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Another indicator was bread.  It was in San Franciso that I first took notice of the term 'sourdough'.  Although I've since learned that  back then 'San Fransisco sourdough' cultures were often used in conjunction with commercial yeast for a better rise.  After two weeks of eating, mostly, tasteless breads, I couldn't get enough of this stuff.  

First attempt Sourdough

Sourdoughs aren't an American invention, of course.  Until commercial yeast was developed all leavened breads were made using naturally occurring yeasts.  French bakers brought their techniques to Northern California during the mid-19th century Gold Rush.  Breads made with ferments derived from yeasts naturally present in the atmosphere have their origins thousands of years ago in ancient Egypt and with nomads throughout northern, central and eastern Europe.  The French have their Tourte de Seigle rye bread, the Germans make Pumpernickel, in Ethiopia teff flour is fermented to make Injera bread, the Greeks have Psomi, and in Denmark, Rugbrød is almost always made using a sourdough ferment because commercial yeasts are unsuitable.  

Years ago I tried to make a starter dough.  The recipe was long and the starter short-lived.  Never progressing beyond the 'cheesy' stage, I dumped the pot and turned to hunting out the best bread around, not an easy job in a country that invented the Chorleywood Process.  About a year ago I was given a present of a copy of Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson.  And there it sat, a reminder of my previous failure as a bread maker.  I knew he was a revered bread maker and founder of San Francisco's Tartine Bakery.   I knew too that he'd honed his craft working with Richard Bourdon, one of the first bakers in the US to revive using the very wet dough and wild yeast leaven practices of French bread makers in the pre-industrial age of bread-making. Afterwards he travelled to Provence and Savoie to work with Daniel Colin and Patrick LePort in search of "the loaf with an old soul" before striking out on his own.

Finally I took the book down from the bookshelf, dusted off my fear of breadmaking and embarked upon the labour of love that is "Making a Starter".  Sweet and sour aromas alternated in the kitchen over the next week telling me when the starter was hungry and when it was sated.  On first reading, the detailed guidance did seem a bit over the top but it did make me pay attention to what I was creating and ten days later I had my first loaf.  It was so beautiful I nearly cried.  OK, I've recovered and realise one loaf does not a bread expert make.  There is still so much to learn.

Living in London, I've got easy access to some of the best bread around.  But I did want to develop my own bread 'starter' because, damn it, everyone seems to have their own now.  I wanted my own so that I never again had to use commercial yeast on those occasions when I did feel the urge to bake a loaf, knock-up some Chelsea Buns or feed that lingering nostalgia for Lardy Cake.  Quantities of flour recommended in the book can be off-putting - well to me anyway - so if you do want to give this starter a go you might, like me, want to refer to the Tartine Bakery Blog which is more up to date.

Homemade sourdough and marmalade

So, as I write, a little pot of starter sits on the kitchen worktop and every morning I take a couple of minutes to feed and water it sparingly, like it is a living being - which, of course, it is.  Its sweet and sour aromas guide me as to its modest needs.  Another pot sits in the fridge, an insurance policy against disaster striking (Chad assures me it won't happen).  Robertson says, "A baker's true skill lies in the way he or she manages fermentation.  This is the soul of bread making."  And now that I have a 'sourdough starter' I have confidence in, it's time to take a fresh look at those European recipes and, maybe, find that elusive Lardy Cake recipe to recreate memories of childhood treats. But will I ever find Robertson's "loaf with an old soul"?