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The sourdough boom

Had you heard of sourdough bread before the lockdown?

I am sure many people had not. But as post-pandemic hobbies have taken over, lots of home bakers are making their own sourdough. And the Internet is full of small-scale bakers offering sourdough for sale.


If you are still a little confused by what sourdough is – and though I had to look up many books to research this piece I am also a little confused – then here's what it should be.


   Sourdough is a kind of bread found in many parts of the world but the most famous versions come from France and Germany.


   In France, it belongs to a loose category called pain de campagne or country bread. It was the traditional bread of the people before being tossed aside in favour of newer, more fashionable breads.


   The baguette, the long thin bread that is so commonly associated with France to the extent that it is even called French bread outside of France, is not a traditional bread at all. It was invented in the bakeries of Paris after the First World War and took decades to reach the countryside. In some parts of France, it was unknown in the villages till the 1960s.


   But as the baguette and other fancy breads caught on, sourdough (‘pain au levain’ in French) fell from favour. It only became popular (and fashionable) again in the 1970s and the 1980s, around the time that the nouvelle cuisine movement transformed French food.


   The revival was closely associated with a single baker, Lionel Poilâne, whose bakery on the upmarket Rue du Cherche-Midi in Paris may now be the most revered bread operation in the world for serious foodies. (The Poilâne empire, now run by his daughter, has expanded to include a bakery in London’s Belgravia.)


   When Poilâne found fame, most Parisians still ate baguettes or normal white bread. Poilâne’s pain du levain used no commercial yeasts. It had just a few ingredients: flour, salt, water and what they called a ‘starter’. A starter is a mixture of flour and water that has been fermented – ideally for a very long time. The Poilâne starter, for instance, has been in existence for over eight decades.


   The baker takes a part of the starter and adds it to his dough. Then he lets the dough ferment for a length of time (anywhere from overnight to a few days). The starter contains live bacteria and natural yeasts and gives the bread its flavour. Each day, you refresh the starter by adding more flour and water.


   Lionel Poilâne refused to make baguettes and his bread became so famous that Pain Poilâne has become almost a generic name for high quality sourdough. The bread was made as it had been since 1932 when his father bought the shop: in stone ovens, fired by wood, in the shape of round loaves weighing two kilos each with a decorative ‘P’ cut into the top. You bought it by weight and it was distinguished by its thick hard crust and by the note of acid (from the starter culture) that ran through it.


"Perhaps we should stop insisting that everyone makes sourdough the traditional way." 

   Poilâne influenced the Western world’s attitude to bread (at least at the top of the market) and since then, foodies have regarded starter cultures with awe and judged bread against the standards set by Poilâne.


   That’s the classic sourdough, but now everybody (including people who have never tasted Poilâne-style bread) seems to be making sourdough. In India, at least, much of the market is dominated by home bakers who find that customers don’t like the hard crust that is typical of the bread. Nor is there much emphasis on the acid note or the flavour. The bread is often made in a manner that mimics the soft-crusted white blandness of industrial bread.


   I asked Sahil Mehta, one of India’s best bakers what he thought the problem with local sourdough was. He said that some of it was down to consumer preference. For instance, when Mehta trained with Alain Ducasse, they even added a squirt of lemon juice to the dough to emphasis the sourness. But that is not a popular flavour profile here.


   Nor do home bakers always have access to the best ovens. Poilâne’s bakeries only use wood-fired stone ovens. A small, home-baking operation can hardly go far beyond a domestic convection oven.


   Then, there is the problem with the starter. Germans make their own version of sourdough and chefs are so proud of their starter cultures that they take them into the dining room for guests to smell the aroma. It is not a gentle fragrance and in Germany they say that “it should wake the diner up.” At Bangkok’s two Michelin-starred Sühring, run by identical German twins, where the bread is fabulous, guests regard sniffing the culture as a special treat.


   That does not happen in India and some Indian chefs (even professionals) often take the easy way out and either create quick cultures or buy commercial ‘starter’ powders that contain microbes.


   The other problem is that modern chefs do not have the patience to keep resting the dough after every step so that the starter has time to infuse the dough with its flavours. Rohit Sangwan, Executive Chef at the Taj Lands End and my guru on all matters relating to baking, says that these days we don’t even bother to ferment jalebi batter long enough to let the fermentation process have the right effect. (There are parallels, he says, between sourdough fermentation and jalebi making!)


   Rohit thinks we don’t try hard enough. The dough needs to ferment in a cool place, but in India temperatures often go too high and bakers act like this doesn’t matter. If you use a stone slab rather than a tray in your convection oven, Sangwan adds, you can get something of the stone oven flavour in your bread. But chefs don’t care enough to try this.


   In India and in much of the web recipe-driven world, sourdough has just come to mean “bread that does not use commercial yeasts”. Much of what it is that makes the bread special has been forgotten along with its country origins.


   I don’t know if that is necessarily such a bad thing. Perhaps we should stop insisting that everyone makes sourdough the traditional way. May be there is a new breed of sourdough breads that deserves respect without our worrying too much about the provenance of starter cultures and the distinctive sour/acid note to the flavour. Why should Poilâne be the reference bread for Indian bakers?


   Or perhaps we can combine traditions. I spoke to Mitali Sahani, the accomplished Delhi baker, who uses a starter culture she brought back after working with an artisanal baker in Adelaide.


   Mitali makes very popular sourdough products, one or two of which would have Lionel Poilâne spinning in his grave including sourdough doughnuts, which fly off her shelves.


   I guess it’s time to stop being so rigid. Who is to decide what is right or wrong? I’ll still take my sourdough the traditional way. But there is a lot that is new and popular happening in the sourdough boom!




  • Rao 18 Jan 2021

    Sourdough is definitely very popular in the US as well. I've tasted Sourdough Pizza as well in NY which is great. I wish there was similar interest in gluten-free sourdough bread. I've had the opportunity to smell sourdough starter.. its smells like sweaty feet.

Posted On: 16 Jan 2021 01:00 PM
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