Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Wild Starts

Two posts ago, I said I like yeast and I meant it. Three months ago, I visited my good friends Eric Fischl and April Gornik at their Long Island home. Eric, ordinarily a renowned painter and founding curator of the American Now & Here show (which opened in Kansas City last month and will now travel around the US), had gotten into baking bread using wild homemade sourdough starter. The kind that has been used forever, by Romans, Frenchmen, and western pioneers, but has been replace in the last century by industrial yeast powder (the way real soup stock got replaced by boullion cubes). It’s also the gooey basis for bread therapy.

I must say the olive loaf Eric shared was divine. It was based on the recipe from the Tartine Bread Book, written by Chad Robertson of the famous bay area bakery/cafe, where Eric and April had eaten a meal and become inspired. As a belated Christmas gift, they gave me a copy.

A few weeks later, Sally and I were visiting our friends Michael Pollan and Judith Belzer at their Berkley, California home. Michael was baking bread to research a chapter on fermented foods for his next book-n-progress. It happened to be sourdough. It happened to be reminiscent of the Tartine inspired loaves Eric pulled from his oven. When I mentioned the book I’d just been given, he pulled a flour-coated copy from the counter and said that’s what he’d been using (with a little mentoring from the author himself.) That night we tasted a loaf of actual Tartine bread beside a fresh loaf of Michael’s. Sorry Tartine, I liked Michael’s a tad better (more sour, like what I grew up with).

I made my first sourdough bread, from starter, when I was 14 and growing up in Folsom, California. But I gave up fermenting wheat when I began fermenting grapes into wine and concocting savory main courses to go with the result. There’s only so much time in the world. And I could get all the fresh San Francisco sourdough I wanted at the time.

But this is a blog about Tuscany, where there is nothing bland except one thing: its bread. It is, the blandest bread in the world, leavened or un-. No salt. Certainly no wild sourdough starter. Even the air holes have more flavor than the dough. It’s virtue, and its claim to fame, is that it is the perfect neutral base (think wallpaper paste) for respectfully and unintrusively soaking up sauces. One thing it decidedly is not is sandwich bread.

I like sandwiches. A lot.

So, pulling my Christmas gift Tartine book from my bag when I got back to Tana Lepre a month ago, I started a batch of starter [pictured above]. It is something like I made in my California youth, but with good wild Tuscan yeasts and bacteria doing their job on the fine, but bland, Italian flour. For 3 weeks I “trained” my starter, teaching it to rise and deflate on schedule with its daily feeding of new flour. Then I went to work.

There is nothing like a travertine dining table as a workbench for shaping loaves.

Here is the result. Thumpin’ good crust, yeasty perfume, chewy texture. Now I’m going to go make that sandwich!

[all loafs by Jack]