I caught the tail end of the Food Programme’s podcast on sourdough as I was working on a ripe biga, built from a genuine Tuscan pasta madre that I am assured has been going strong for more than a century. So I’m clearly part of the “major revival” of sourdough, which is “experiencing a renaissance”. Except that I’ve been baking sourdoughs for at least 20 years, when I first made my own starter. So there’s the problem that everyone has, when they listen to or watch a programme about something they actually know about. Most of it is bizarrely banal, but buried in there are plump raisins of new information.
One such was that San Francisco sourdough probably has nothing to do with those pesky goldrush miners. Erica J. Peters, independent food historian, explained that the ‘49ers were far too busy digging for gold, and far too close to civilisation, to bother with sourdough bread. It was the Yukon goldrush, 50 years later, that required miners to keep their precious starter warm and cosy tucked inside their clothes. Peters also attacked the story that Louise Boudin, of the Boudin Bakery, canonical home of San Francisco sourdough, saved a bucket of starter culture from the fire that followed the 1906 earthquake, which destroyed the bakery.
As a historian, I tend to think when the story is so adorable you can’t rely on it.
Does that mean it is or is not reliable? No idea.
As for banal, presenter Sheila Dillon seemed amazed that even though the bacterium is found in sourdoughs around the world, it is called Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis. She is briefed, I imagine. And the instructions on the programme website for how to make your own starter are not, in my view, very useful.
Not to quibble too much, it was a good programme (and there’s a longer write-up here). I found the explanations of how the yeast and the bacteria work together really good. And Andrew Whitley’s musings on the sourdough revival — simplicity is not as fashionable as complicated — struck a chord too, even though I think sourdough is in many ways simpler than yeast.