I’ll never forget the very first time I sunk my teeth into a slice of woodfired sourdough bread. It was in the mid 90’s in a quaint little bakery in the lovely city of Portland, Maine in the USA, the name of which now escapes me. I don’t want to seem overzealous when I say that my notion of ‘bread’ was immediately transformed – the caramelised crust, the crumb, the bold earthy flavours – this all made for quite a hallmark food experience. Like other South African children, I was raised on government-standard brown bread, often lathered in butter and apricot jam or marmite. I realised then and there that I’d been duped because once you have tasted a good sourdough, or any other artisan bread made using wholegrain, stoneground flour for that matter, the tasteless, homogeneous commercial stuff that you find in supermarkets simply doesn’t suffice.
Back in those days the artisan bread culture had yet to make it to our South African shores, but when it finally did several years later, it gained swift momentum and authentic artisan bread bakeries have popped up in towns and cities across the country. But normal life has suddenly been upended due to the Covid-19 pandemic and many of these bakeries and restaurants are now closed.
Worldwide lockdowns have resulted in many people baking up a storm in their kitchens and making sourdough bread at home is now all the rage. Being forced to remain within the confines of our own homes has afforded people the both the time and focus to try their hand at making real, time-honoured bread from scratch. Instagram feeds are punctuated with images of wild yeast starters, sourdough loaves scored with beautiful designs and people generally having a whole lot of fun playing with dough. #bread and #sourdough are trending hashtags all across social media at the moment.
It is clear that the tactile and somewhat meditative process of making that perfect sourdough loaf is bringing many people joy during these unprecedented times. It is a humble task that requires a level of mindfulness. Working with dough helps you to tap into the ‘power of now’, which can really help reduce stress and anxiety. The protracted process of leavening bread the natural way – with just stoneground flour, water, salt and a wild yeast starter – can be an extremely rewarding and culinary journey.
The thought of baking sourdough from scratch is a rather daunting notion for some. In the beginning you’re likely to have a couple of flops, because it takes time and dogged patience to learn how to successfully harness the magic of wild yeast and to understand its unique characteristics.
Baking bread could be a subtle reminder of life’s simple pleasure. There is no doubt that breaking bread and sharing it with your loved ones is a delightfully comforting act – particularly during these surreal and challenging times. I highly recommend it!