Earlier this year I met John Letts of the Oxford Bread Group, a campaigner for real bread and a grower of old, endangered varieties of wheat. He drew my attention to the evils of the Chorley Wood Process, the industrial method by which 80% of our bread is constructed. I use that word advisedly - the CWP is so alien to traditional bread making I wonder if its products ought to be called bread at all. Cheap flour, fat, yeast and a cocktail of enzymes are whipped into a blamanche in an industrial vat with little or no time to prove, before being bunged in an oven. No wonder it's so indigestable.
Instead, he persuaded me of the wonders of sourdough. Why not make your own, he said? Well, I did. I am a complete convert.
I followed the River Cottage Method - there's a helpful video too.
Sourdough uses naturally occurring yeast. You create a starter culture by mixing flour and water and waiting for the yeast to do its thing. I helped mine along by adding two scrumped plums to the mix - apparently a stick of rhubarb works just as well. Don't be tempted to use brewers yeast - it's a different species I'm told. You keep the starter in a jar and as long as you keep feeding it more flour it will last forever.
It smells yeasty, tart, a little scary.
The beauty of natural yeast is that it works slowly. I leave my bread to prove all day, and that's when the yeast does its magic, killing off microbes and digesting the gluten. It's wonderful watching this
It tastes delicious.
People often wonder how it is that Amazonian Indians discovered ayahuasca, the strange hallucinogenic brew and mainstay of Amazonian shamanism that requires two very different plants to be mixed together for it to work. How, given all the plants that grow in the rainforest, did they hit on the magic combination?
I find bread just as baffling. Who was it who discovered that adding a fizzy mix of yeast to flour, kneeding it until it works, letting it rise and baking it, produced the wondrous loaf? Was it trial and error? A moment of inspiration? It is a breathtaking piece of human ingenuity, up there with the bicycle and the laptop.
Making my own has connected me to the process, made me more aware of where my food comes from and awakened me to the magic of this humble, taken for granted, staple of Western diet. My digestion has improved too. I shan't be going back to shop-bought.
Why not give it a go?