If you put flour and water in a jar and leave them for anywhere between a week and ten days, the natural yeasts in the flour will begin to grow. And if, for a few days after that, you discard half of what’s in the jar and feed the rest with more flour and more water, the yeasts will develop, and become strong, and soon it will have the life and vitality to leaven all the bread you’ll ever eat. And the bread will be good.
People get very exercised about sourdough. The briefest of Google searches reveals a world complicated enough to put anyone off trying to enter it. Proofing boxes, thermometers, Dutch ovens, hydration levels, precise timings, special designs slashed into dough, the proper and correct use of a banneton. There are great fat books on the subject, starters being sold, residential courses you can go on…
But it all comes down to flour and water.
There is something strangely emotional about making bread and feeding it to people you care about. I’ve pulled many a burned baked good from the oven with no more than a mild expletive, but when my husband rang to tell me he’d forgotten to take out the bread, I sobbed all the way home. Over a lump of flour and water. I threw the black lump against the garden wall and it fell, fractured, to live out its destiny leaching carbon into the mint.
I’ve been making sourdough for a few months now. The rhythm of feeding my starter, mixing in the flour and salt, stretching and folding the dough, leaving it to prove for a day rather than an hour, and then baking it to twice its original size, soft and sustaining under a crisp, randomly cracked crust, is incredibly affirming.
This horse we’re trying to ride is a wild thing. It doesn’t just sit around, waiting for us to clamber on. It runs when we need it to walk, shies when we need it to move on, and disappears altogether when we’ve arrived at the field with carrots and cubes of sugar. There’s simply no point in sitting and railing at the horse, or comparing our riding to that of those around us. We have to find ways of calibrating our daily lives in measurements that make it possible for us to keep going back to the field.
The creation and maintenance of a sourdough starter is proving a calibration that helps me. It’s a concrete thing (quite literally, in terms of the texture of my early loaves). Each stage takes only minutes, seconds even, but the intervals between the stages are enough to capture some words and begin to tame them. Wild yeasts are slower to develop and far less predictable than commercial ones; you have to listen to them, find their rhythm, work alongside them. You pay attention, but you don’t prod and poke and reprimand. Take your flour and your water, and feed your starter, then walk away and feed your story. And if the story doesn’t come, it matters less, because the yeasts are doing their work. And if the starter’s taking longer to bubble up, that’s fine too. Both processes take longer than we might like; both processes nourish and sustain, whether it’s your work, your children or a grateful neighbour.
Of course, my aim is that one day, the words will take over. The story will find its magic and rise into a tempting thing of wonder I’ll be called upon to share, and the sourdough will become a thing I used to do. But for now, the brief moments taken to tender to the miraculous alchemy of flour/water, and the discipline of writing in between, form a balance that’s keeping me, if not sane, then at least in touch with the wild words.