He stood on the corner of a street holding a jar of white goo. It was 2pm on a Saturday afternoon as I approached him.
“Is that it?” I asked. He held the jar up and I detected the unmistakable whiff of yeast in the air. We stood in front of a bakery in the city, a fitting location for the transaction about to take place.
“Yeah,” he said. I was meeting this guy for the first time. I didn’t know his last name or even if his first name was really his first name. “It hasn’t been fed for a couple of days. It’s probably over fermented.”
He was my sourdough starter source.
Michael, if that really is his name, gave me the jar. It was covered with a napkin “to allow air in but not dust.” I held it up to my nose to inhale deeply. It was pungent.
I like bread. There was a brief period in early primary school when I hated bread. I blame my mother for that like most things going wrong in my life (that is a joke, mother). I hated breakfast as a kid, something else I now love. Initially, she tried to entice me with different breakfast offerings before giving up and trying to force feed me bread in the morning before school.
“You need energy to learn!” I can imagine her saying as I sit with my mouth resolutely shut at the table.
In her infinite wisdom, she chose to force feed me dry, wholemeal bread. No Nutella, no butter, not even a scraping of strawberry preserve. And wholemeal too. All I wanted was soft, deliciously artificial white sandwich bread as a child. Instead, I was forced to eat the meal of a Seventh Day Adventist prisoner.
I would choke it down with all the bitterness an eight year old can muster. Which is a lot. Thankfully, time heals all wounds. I got over my misplaced mistrust in bread and learned to love it. From ciabatta to rye. Roti to naan. It was all good.
I spent the seven days after acquiring the sourdough starter nurturing it with a scary intensity. I’d feed it in the afternoon and check it just before bed. It was the first thing I attended to when I woke up in the morning, prioritised far above any bodily function. I spent restless nights worried that I’d find it deflated to a flat, deadened, aseptic soup in the morning.
“It’s like there’s a fourth person living in this house,” said my housemate as I fed it one day.
“I’d never treat a human being with this much love,” I said. My started needed me and I needed it.
I woke up at 6am on the inaugural baking day. The dough had been slow-proofing in the fridge overnight. I’d shaped it into two misshapen loaves the evening before.
“It’s what’s inside that counts,” I reassured myself as I slid them into the oven.
A few hours later, they were ready for consumption. We didn’t have a serrated bread knife and still don’t. I used a Chinese meat cleaver to hack in. Shards of crust flew all over the kitchen. One particle lodged itself into my right cornea. I persevered.
Finally, I transected one loaf and held apart the two halves to behold.
It was beautiful. Airy holes unevenly dispersed through the loaf. Perfect thickness of dark crust. The Maillard reaction in all its glory. It was a science experiment gone right. It was a work of art. It was a beautiful amalgamation of fungus and bacteria. Of flour, water, salt and yeast.
I took an unadorned bite. It was a little gummy and dense. The underbelly still pale and underdone. It was flawed but still perfect in my eyes. I was hooked.
Now, there are approximately 3kg of sourdough in my freezer. I should probably put a hold on baking bread for a while but it’s hard to stop. It’s addictive. I’ve been giving out sourdough to whoever I can persuade to take some but the freezer stash is still growing faster than it can be consumed.
Does Michael know what he has started?