Otter Lodge Blog:
One of my favourite bits about everyday life at Otter Lodge is the time I get to spend making bread. This might not be surprising considering I was a professional baker for many years; the difference now is that I can make bread that is more interesting and might be considered better than some of the commercial muck that was produced during my time in the baking industry. It’s very pleasant to be baking a batch of bread in the evening and having the smell attract the attention of some of our guests. This gives me a chance to chat and enthuse about the bread I am making, which is mostly sour dough just now. I’ve developed an interest in this kind of bread in the last five years and I find the slow, gentle process very appealing. We are lucky to have many guests from Germany and the Low Countries, where this kind of bread is appreciated; it gives me a chance to indulge my passion.
At the heart of every good sourdough is the starter. In Germany it is called a ‘chef’; I call it leaven but there is no proper English word to describe this collection of natural yeasts and one or more strains of bacteria. This can vary from one bakery to another as the environment that it is started and stored in can change the composition. Due to this, some bakeries are very protective of their leaven and store it in a special locked fridge. Mine does not get such special treatment but I have had it for over five years. It lives in the fridge, gets fed now and then and brought out on the occasion of bread making. There is always some kept back for the next time. It’s like my pet. Normally in the winter bread making is a bit more infrequent and the leaven sits in our fridge out of action for some time; but this is resilient stuff, and a couple of feeds of flour and water and it’s frothing out the jar ready for action.
Early this year I took it out of temporary hibernation thinking that it was time for making some bread, fed it and … nothing happened. No bubbles. No signs of life at all. This was not good. Had another go; gave it its favourite food, organic rye flour, and left it on the boiler over night. In the morning had a look; was that possibly a very small sign of life, but just? The patient looked like it was in a coma. All very strange.
I gave it another six hours and things weren’t looking much better. I couldn’t understand what was going on. Maybe the flour had been contaminated, I thought, so I headed out and got a brand new bag and my very small jar of emergency leaven that lives right at the back of the fridge, measured out a very small amount, fed it and … nothing. I was feeling sad – it looked dead, but how? Before, I have gone for over six months without feeding and it was OK. Not time to panic; it is possible to start again but it takes about a year to get a very active leaven going. My little jar in the fridge still had a scraping left so I had one more chance before I gave up and started anew. So, out for another new bag of flour and a bottle of spring water, this was the only thing left to try, and … it worked. It was the water that had been killing it. There is work going on with our local water supply and they must of added extra chlorine during this time. A couple of feeds with bottled water and rye flour and it was back to normal; bread making was possible once again. Phew. So the next time you come calling there might just be sourdough on the breakfast table.