I’m sure that sounds very dramatic. Sure, maybe it didn’t change my life in the same way as hearing Buddy Holly for the first time which kick-started the ongoing soundtrack which has been developing in my head for 25 years. It has, however, changed the way I view food, and with important implications.
I’m not from much of a foodie family, and as much as I appreciated flavour, I was never too concerned with what I ate as long as it tasted ok and was filling – and convenience was always a key factor. At one stage I basically didn’t eat anything that didn’t go in the microwave or the snackwich grill. With age and wisdom, and putting my student days behind me, I started spending more time and effort cooking, but convenience was still at the heart of all my cooking choices. Preparing food always seemed like a task for which the difficulty and time involved didn’t match the reward. I have no doubt this was in large part due to my lack of cooking skills. But the point is I didn’t feel like acquiring the skills was a worthwhile pursuit, given that I could make reasonably good tasting food very easily with the range of semi-prepared foods available to me, and a little bit of experimentation to find out what worked well and what didn’t. Naturally, when it came to bread I mostly ate the rectangular stuff, sliced and bagged. Occasionally I might have come across a nice ciabatta, baguette or sourdough loaf, but that was rare.
I think humans have a genetic affinity towards bread. It’s not hard to see, when the smell of fresh-baked bread elicits the same response (sometimes even better) than the smell of meat on an open flame. It plays on that primal desire for high value nutrition and is impossible to ignore. I think we all understand the value of freshness when it comes to bread. The potential to enjoy bread in its prime, still warm from the oven, surrounded by that wonderful aroma. I always wanted to try bread baking for myself. I even baked a few beer breads when I was feeling very industrious. Those kinds of breads have their place, and are delicious, but do not come close to classic bread, with proper structure and texture and a perfect crust and a subtle complexity and depth of flavour that doesn’t need any fancy ingredients. It is a truly beautiful thing. Of course this was beyond the realm of possibility for me. I’d heard that bread baking involved a lot of work. I knew there was some kneading involved (I probably wasn’t able to get that right), and involved a lot of steps (which I would undoubtedly mess up) and took a whole lot of time (which I was sure I would never have).
Through my love of mixed fermentation beers – beers fermented with a host of weird yeasts and bacteria common across other food fermentations – I was introduced to a whole new world of complex flavours. In my exploration of these beer styles, the parallels with sourdough bread were clearly apparent, and this got me really intrigued with the prospect of baking these breads myself. Of course, when I looked into it, the process seemed well beyond my means. It was even more complicated than I had thought! Fortunately my girlfriend – a far more capable human than I – decided to give sourdough baking a shot. I watched on for the days it took to get the starter going, and then the day and a bit it took to produce the bread. All the while I thought that there is no way that this can be done on a regular basis. Then we tasted those first loaves, and they were beautiful. They had flavour beyond equivalent to all the best breads I had eaten up to that point. But there was something more. There was a sense of joy and pride and wonder that this was something that was done at home by us (yes I claimed a little ownership).
That was the spark. We signed up to do the artisan and sourdough baking courses at The Crust and Crumb who were excellent teachers and showed us the basics to start producing good bread at home. From there I was hooked. I started reading more about sourdough: how the yeast and bacteria produced the flavour and rise, how gluten development worked and how the amount of water (hydration) affected the way the bread turned out. Throughout this I would try bake as often as possible. Some loaves turned out better than others, but all were edible and enjoyable even. I began to realize that the process was quite simple, that there are a series of steps that have an effect on how the bread turned out, and that those steps could be manipulated not only to achieve different results, but to better fit in with a regular work schedule. Although it takes anything from 24 to 48 hours to bake a loaf of sourdough, the active time is really only about 15-20 minutes on average and can easily be split up between actions performed for a couple minutes in the morning before work and in the evening after work. This changes everything. Baking is then no longer an activity which demands a day with nothing else planned and so can only happen once in a while. Baking can fit in with a normal weekday schedule. It was all about planning, rather than excessive effort.
In the process of discovering how easy baking great bread at home is, I began to think about how convenience has changed our relationship with food, and how many of us buy completely inferior products from a store when, with a little effort, we could be producing it at home ourselves. With bread this is particularly pronounced – The benefit of convenience does not even begin to make up for the loss of quality. I’m now on a journey to learn how to have greater control over production of the food I eat. Much of this has to do with my passion for fermentation, but spills over into all my food choices whether it be making my own sauces or baking my own biscuits and pastries. If possible, and reasonably practicable, I’d like to try do it myself.
That is how a sourdough starter changed my whole perspective on food and led me further into this wonderful world of fermented products. It changed my life. So when it came to naming my sourdough starter, a rite of passage for every baker, it only made sense to name it after my other life altering influence: Buddy.
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Fermented is hosting Sourdough Workshops in June. Learn create and maintain a starter and how to bake at home.