Faith is a funny thing.
There are those who unswervingly follow their chosen religion, despite the numerous ills in our world, secure in their conviction that there is an all powerful creator.
There are the gamblers who firmly believe that one day soon their number will come up despite being tens of thousands of pounds in debt.
Then there are people like me. You could say I’m one of nature’s sceptics. I not only have to see something to believe it, I have to be certain there is no jiggery pokery behind it. I don’t believe in miracles but I do think there have been some very clever illusionists over the course of history. On the rare occasion I have a flutter on the horses I do so in the knowledge that I have kissed goodbye to my stake. If I win it’s a bonus and a very rare one at that.
As a cook I do have faith in my ability. I know what combinations of flavours and which methods work because I have tried them and have tasted or seen the results for myself. But sometimes this faith is tested, none more so in the field of sourdough.
I love the naturalness and artistry of sourdough. I have had several forays into the world of making this bread. I have bought books on the subject and followed recipes to the letter. I have nurtured starters made from all manners of flour to find ‘the one’. I have a cupboard filled with bannetons, scrapers and baking stones. Yet I have never achieved anything close to those wonderful springy boules with their chewy crusts you find at farmers markets. I fear the natural yeasts required to produce these fantastic loaves are lacking in my Sussex home.
“There is nothing more frustrating than not quite getting it quite right. If you have had a go at baking sourdough and had some success yet things still aren’t quite as great as they could be then you will want to know where you are going wrong and what you can improve.”
This sounded exactly like the help I needed. I headed to Northampton with a specimen of sourdough and my latest batch of rye starter.
Vanessa approaches sourdough with an evangelical zeal. It is obvious as soon as you meet her that she (1) knows just about everything you need to know about making bread and, (2) she has no doubt that her bread will be light, fragrant and a delight to eat. Put simply she has complete faith in the transformation of flour, salt and water into a daily loaf without any artificial interference.
First she examined our home baked breads. If there were an award for ‘how not to make sourdough’ then I would have won it hands down. Over proved, not enough salt and erring more towards the leaden than light side. None of my classmates (some of whom had produced very respectable loaves indeed) were rushing to taste my loaf.
After explaining the refreshment of the starter (‘the mother’ of all loaves) and role of different flours, sugar, salt and hydration play in sourdough making she produced a quivering bowl of dough. This looked like no dough that I had ever produced. Hers was light and lively with a discernible spring when pressed. Vanessa is precise in her instruction but relaxed in her delivery. As she gave us guidance on how best to shape our dough (apparently one of the things I had not been doing properly) at no point did we feel we were about to be rapped over the knuckles for committing a major faux pas. Vanessa’s enthusiasm for the subject is quite infectious although I still had my doubts. Within a short while her kitchen was filled with the delicious aroma of freshly made bread. The loaves emerged well risen and browned. We had conquered sourdough. I left Northampton armed with a still warm loaf, some detailed instructions and a jar of Vanessa’s starter eager to recreate the magic at home.
But you know how it goes. Life (or in this case the school holidays) gets in the way. The bread was quickly devoured by my family and declared to be better than my previous efforts. The starter was placed in the fridge and duly forgotten about until last week. Tweets about #SourdoughSeptember suddenly triggered the memory of that day and prompted me to resurrect the it.
I plucked the starter from the back of the fridge. It looked sullen and was rather smelly (as no doubt would you or I be if we too had been abandoned in a dark room for several weeks). Frankly, if the starter had decided to send me to baking Coventry and refuse to work for me I couldn’t blame her. I had no hope whatsoever that I would be able to produce a loaf even vaguely resembling the one I had come home with. I followed Vanessa’s detailed instructions none the less, utterly convinced of my failure.
To my amazement the starter was easily revived. My dough took on a similar form to that I had witnessed in Vanessa’s kitchen. Not only that, it rose during the proving process despite being placed in the fridge overnight (according to Vanessa’s instructions) which I felt for sure would spell disaster. I don’t own a cloche so I improvised by placing a stainless steel bowl over the loaf when I gingerly turned it out onto the baking stone (a tip given to me by the man from the Flint Owl bakery at Lewes Farmers Market). OK I did forget to slash my loaves. Even so after some 50 minutes or so I had a rather enormous but light loaf which didn’t leave you feeling like you had eaten a load of lead afterwards. Eureka!
I still approach this baking process with a degree of trepidation but I think it’s fair to say my sourdough faith is growing. Whether you are a beginner or sourdough doubter like me I’d definitely recommend Vanessa’s courses (they’d make a great Christmas present). They’re well worth the trip to Northampton. Plus in attending them you become a member of the sourdough club and get access to some fantastic recipes to use up that grumpy ‘old’ starter.
Vanessa’s next book Food for Thought is due out next month.
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