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in the Southwest Mountains
My sourdough journey
Like many Americans, I grew up in the suburbs. I spent many an hour playing in my neighborhood creek and a remnant patch of woodland. From earliest childhood, I had an abiding interest in prehistoric ways of life. As I grew up, my Neolithic instincts and environmental sensibilities developed into an urban back-to-the-land self-sufficiency ethic.
[Neolithic era: The "New Stone Age" that began with the spread of agriculture and settled village life in the Middle East more than 10,000 years ago]
In 1985, when I was 19, an interest in Gandhian non-violence led me to become vegetarian, and soon after, vegan. Previously, I had little interest in cooking. Afterwards, I began teaching myself to cook and in the process learned that I enjoyed it. Baking my own bread was a tantalizing dream. I tried baking bread using commercial yeast, but the results were disappointing. The flavor just seemed—lacking somehow.
[Vegan: A person who eats a 100% plant-based diet containing no meat, eggs, dairy or other animal-derived products]
In the last couple of decades, numerous books and articles have been written that expose the dark side of the green revolution. The list of horrors is long: soil erosion, deforestation, groundwater depletion, factory farms, and the sickening effects of industrial food on human health. Moreover, peak oil and climate change make it imperative to find ways of growing, processing and cooking food without the use of fossil fuels.
[Green revolution: the development and spread of industrial agriculture worldwide beginning in the early 1960s.]
[Peak oil: the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline]
The bioregional food movement seeks to re-establish sustainable, local food systems. In 1993, I took a permaculture certification course. I soon decided that I wanted to get back to my Neolithic roots and learn about bioregionally-appropriate foods.
[Bioregion: A geographical area with distinctive topography, watershed, soils, plant and animal species, and human cultures]
My interest in bread re-emerged. I learned that sourdough starters are the most ecologically friendly way to make bread. Unlike commercial baker’s yeast, which must be bought anew for each batch of bread, sourdough cultures can live for centuries. In 1995, I began my sourdough experiments in a tiny apartment kitchen. I bought my first sourdough culture from Sourdoughs International. The Russia culture, which arrived as a dried powder, sat in my refrigerator for several weeks as I gathered up my courage to activate it. I was terrified that I would accidentally kill it! Finally, I did activate it, and I’ve never looked back. The Russia culture remains the source for my daily bread, although I have since experimented with other cultures.
In 1998, I traveled with my Hungarian grandmother, mother and sister to northwest Romania. My grandmother immigrated with her family from a small village outside the city of Satu Mare to Canada in 1927. My grandfather’s Romanian parents immigrated from another village only seven miles away to northern New York State. My grandparents met and married in northern New York State.
We visited the village in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains where my Romanian relatives still live as farmers, craftspeople and factory workers. One of my cousins took us to see a family home abandoned in the 1930s. The house was a classic Romanian adobe peasant house with crumbling sky-blue plaster and a broad porch on the south side. The south side windows were large, to soak up the sun’s warmth, while the shady north side of the house had just two tiny 8-inch square holes for air circulation and a little extra light. The windows had no glass panes.
Inside there were two small rooms. An adobe oven was built into a bench that ran the length of the interior wall of the main room. The oven would have served multiple purposes, including baking, heating the house, counter space, sitting space, even a warm place to sleep in the winter—a perfect demonstration of the permaculture principle of multiple functions. Connecting in such a tangible way with my ancestors further piqued my interest in traditional wild breads as well as wood-fired bread ovens.
[Principle of multiple functions: each element in a permaculture design should perform three, or more, functions]
With much practice, I gradually developed my baking skills. In 2005 I attended a free King Arthur Flour European artisan bread demonstration that provided an “aha!” moment regarding the nature of lean, wet European artisan doughs that form the core of this book. I soon began teaching sourdough artisan baking classes through my local community college.
[Artisan: A skilled worker who practices some trade or handicraft]
Since 1999, I have lived in a townhome with a galley kitchen and an ordinary electric oven. I have never owned an electric mixer, bread machine or food processor, so I make my bread by hand, the old-fashioned way.
Around the same time as I began my sourdough adventures, I obtained my first solar cooker. I’ve learned that it is possible to bake many kinds of bread in a solar cooker. I’ve also helped build two wood-fired earth ovens. A couple of years ago, I began grinding my own whole wheat flour by hand and growing a small plot of heirloom wheat at my neighborhood community garden.
How I make bread
This is a summary of the process I use to make the 100% whole wheat sourdough artisan bread described in chapter 10. As you will see, the basic process is very easy. The rest of the book provides the details.
1. Twice a week I remove a culture jar from my refrigerator the evening before baking day. I pour the culture into a bowl and feed it twice before bedtime with freshly-ground flour and water.
2. In the morning, I feed it a third time. In 1–1½ hours the starter reaches peak leavening capacity (My Russia culture is very fast. Many cultures require several hours to reach their peak).
[Leaven: An agent added to dough or batter to make it rise and become light and porous]
3. Before baking, I return eight ounces of the culture to the storage jar, feed it and let it proof another 1–1½ hours and then put it back into the refrigerator.
[Proof: Giving yeast time to leaven a batter or dough]
4. I use a fork to mix the rest of the ingredients into the remaining culture, then knead the dough by hand for five minutes.
5. I let the dough rise three times, folding and shaping it in between proofs (I also make sandwich bread that requires only one proof).
6. 30–45 minutes before baking, I preheat the oven. When the bread has risen to twice its initial volume, I slash the crust and spray it with water. Then I put it in the oven and bake until done.7. Before slicing the bread, I allow it to cool on a wire rack.