This article was written by us for The Transition Towns Network Blog early 2012
A Sourdough Baking Journey. Updated 07/06/2020
How does a Sourdough Baker end up writing on a Transition blog?
Maggie, (my wife) and I sold our bread for 9 years at Machynlleth Market in Wales. Machynlleth we discovered is a great place to meet up with an amazing cross section of purposeful people from such varied backgrounds. One of those people was Ann Owen. Although most of our conversations together were ‘snippets’ exchanged quickly whilst we were exchanging currency for Bread I soon realised the many ‘connections’ that existed between my own journey, influenced by my Sourdough Baking, and Ann’s journey influenced by Permaculture, Transition movement, and Local activism .
Sometime in 2011 Ann asked me if I was interested in being a guest blogger, so here I am.
My baking journey began in the mid 70’s when I took a job as a night baker in a small family bakery. There I learned the difference between a long fermentation yeasted dough and what was becoming increasing popular at that time a ‘no time yeasted dough’. At the college where I began part-time training as a master baker, apart from one other student who like me worked in a craft bakery, the rest of the group of 25 all worked in ‘Hot Bread shops’. These shops offered bread which was made very quickly and it meant small bakeries had the opportunity to end night shift working. Although this obviously led to better working conditions by having day shift rather than night and attracted a lot of young people into baking it produced bread with no substance made using chemical additives and being quite indigestible for many people. But at a time when the main baking industry was producing the ‘sliced white’ using the ‘Chorleywood’ process it was a way for small bakeries to seemingly maintain their independence and appear to offer the better bread.
Economical conditions at that time, ended my first journey into baking. It was just over 20 years before I got to work in a bakery again. In that time Maggie had faithfully made bread for our family.
In the early 90’s we moved to Wales. I was still working in London and the East Counties where I distributed Wholefoods. This meant each week I would pass through Llandovery in the early hours of the morning on my way home. Feeling tired one morning I knocked on the window of Ken’s Bakery. Ken was there working a night shift on his own. He invited me in, pointed me towards the kettle, and I made us a morning tea.
I ‘m not sure if it was the lovely smells in the bakery or the familiar ‘ding’ of the swing balance weighing scales, or Ken’s welcoming nature. Whatever, it got my senses going and my heart beating and yearning to be back ‘with the dough’. So during the next couple of years I started helping Ken out a few nights a week. Although I got on very well with Ken and respected him in his methods of bread making he and I acknowledged that I needed to go forward and learn new methods and ways of making bread . So a new journey begun .
Our home is a smallholding in the middle of nowhere with no mains electric. At the time Maggie and I were full-time carers for our youngest daughter, Mair, who needed special care. It was not possible to consider working away from home every day and have a shop. We decided we needed to be able to bake from home.
The first step towards it came in the form of a wind turbine. As Mair got older we needed power 24 hours a day. Living then with the turbine for a few years and seeing how effective it was encouraged us to look further into setting up a bakery.
Next came a wood fired oven. I came across a guy named Alan Scott who for many years had been building ovens in America and Australia which were forming the core of small bakery businesses. We bought oven plans from Alan and set about organising the build of a bakery and oven on the side of our house. This was in 2007. By late 2008 we got baking and trading.
Initially, although I was making some Sourdough bread, I mainly offered yeasted breads for sale. I began to meet up with and chat online with other Bakers who focused on Sourdough bread baking. I began to experiment with some local flour which from a conventional Baker’s point of view was not ‘Bread’ flour. I found that by using my sourdough starter and following sourdough methods I could turn this local flour into a good loaf.
I was hooked! It was like a light went on in my head. Here was a simple bread making method which could use UK wheat and rye to make wonderful tasting bread without the assistance of Bakers Yeast, flour from elsewhere in the globe or chemical additives. So what is the method I use?
You start by making a ‘starter’ ideally from a mixture of stoneground wholemeal flour and water. This needs to ferment over a number of days.
Once you have an active starter, treasure it, you can keep it for life and even pass it on through your family. When making bread your starter is mixed with flour and water and salt to make your bread. A portion is held back for the next bread you want to make. The process is then about routine, being aware of room temperatures, and using good flour and clean water. Although the process to make a loaf is slower than when using baker’s yeast you can comfortably make some bread in a day.
But surely Sourdough is just another type of bread, what’s it got to do with Transition etc. you are probably asking?
Well, yes, it is another type of bread but it’s one which when ‘traditionally crafted’ has the possibility of local influence from local flour, climate, individual baking environment and methods. It doesn’t need industrial baking aids (like yeast, improvers, added gluten, enzymes, vitamin C etc) nor is it reliant on high energy consuming systems like powerful mixers or large refrigerators. Sourdough is the bread making method which can truly tick all the ‘green’ environmental boxes, is naturally healthier to eat, and is a great tasting bread. I believe it is the bread for the future.
As a Baker I believe it is time Bakers in this country woke up and realised the damage being done to people’s health by most of the present bread on offer. By embracing the Sourdough bread making method they would not only offer people a healthier bread but also go some way to reinstate Bakers as craftspeople and not machine button pushers.
If you bake at home give the sourdough method a try. Once you get into it, you’ll be surprised how it’s simple lifecycle can, if you allow it, make you more aware of how ‘small, really is beautiful.’
Rick at Mair’s Bakehouse.