08 . 03 . 17
Fresh yeast, dried yeast and sourdough starter. Photo by Lizzie Mayson. Writing by Julia Georgallis
When I was a child I went through a phase of keeping bugs, hiding them away in boxes so that I could inspect them and watch them grow. Aged 7, I decided to ensnare about 5 bijillion caterpillars and hatch them in my classroom, much to my teacher’s despair. I liked looking at their miniature worlds and at how they changed every way, convinced these worlds were similar to my own, but a bit smaller and more buggy. So bugs were cool. They were my friends.
A few years ago, without knowing too much about it, I started making bread. I knew there was very precise mixing followed by a lot of waiting around for things to do their thing, but what those things were and what they were doing I didn’t know. I found out that what I was waiting for was yeast. So first I tried making bread with packet yeast, then I tried fragrant, fresh yeast and then, finally, I was introduced to making bread using a natural yeast starter. A starter is a ferment made by mixing water and flour together. Various bacteria, yeasts, live on and in flour. The water wakes them all up so that they happily munch on the flour’s sugars. These yeasts create the bubbles in our bread, making it rise and there have been hints of them also being a bit good for your gut, but that’s to be discussed another time. All the term ‘sourdough’ means, in fact, is that it has been made with one of these naturally cultivated yeasts instead of factory made fresh or dried yeast.
Yeast, be it packet or fresh or natural, is a type of fungus – a living, breathing organism. The only way you can see proof of life, however, are the bubbles it leaves behind. The first starters I made were anonymous bits of goo that kept forming brown skins and that hung around the back of my fridge ominously until I remembered them, got a bit frightened about eating them and threw them down the sink. How would I know they were alright to eat? It was like watching all my bugs again, but I didn’t have the fearlessness of a 7 year old. But I persevered. I noticed changes. Bigger bubbles. Smells, sometimes cheesy, other times like booze. All of a sudden I was taken back to being small, watching the caterpillars turn to cocoons, keeping an eye on these little worlds. But yeast is much easier to catch than bugs. It’s everywhere – on your hands, on your skin, in the air… It comes from the environment that it has been produced in, depending on where it’s been or who has mixed it or which flours have been used to feed it. Which is what I liked about it – it was tailor made food to the extreme – if I moved it to a different country or asked someone else to mix it for me, the bacteria in the starter would be different.
I began to name my starters. There was Alan and Beryl, who were combined to create Caja, who was shipped off to Sweden and looked after by a Swede called Magnus for a year. Once she was back in the UK, she was mixed with South American corn flour and became Dolores who was, in turn, mixed with yeast starter from the bakery that I work at. All of a sudden, I had a soap opera of yeasts, personalities, flavours that lived in my kitchen – the goldfish at the back of my fridge that I would feed with more flour and more water to keep alive. And now I can’t go back. I understand now, why I have heard stories of people in days gone by leaving their homes in search of new lives with nothing other than a few clothes and a yeast starter. There are sourdough hotels that offer to feed starters whilst their owners are on holiday. I even went to a 60th birthday party a few years ago… for a starter. But I totally get it. These are the bugs in my garden; our pets that help us make bread. Cultivating your ferment really is the ultimate way to grow your own food – but rather than needing a patch of soil or an allotment, you can, literally, grow it by harnessing thin air and asking the little worlds that live all around to give you a helping hand.