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.

While I don’t believe a bit of it, I do like the stories that religions tell us. For example, I had no idea before this morning that September 14th is the day on which the Greek Orthodox church celebrates the discovery of the true cross. And what does that have to do with bread? It’s all down to the royal herb basil.

Aglaia – of Aglaia’s table – explained all in a recent blogpost. It was basil that indicated to St Helena and her son Constantine which among many was the true cross. And it is basil, according to Aglaia and her late mother-in-law, that makes bread rise.

Greek women believe that bread rises by divine intervention. If you tell them that a batter of flour and water will ferment from the various airborne microorganisms if left for a few days, they refuse to believe it. They are certain that only the direct power of God can turn a mere flour batter into a leavening medium. This is the reason why prozymi –the natural sourdough starter used in traditional baking– is usually made on September 14, or near the end of Holy Week, preceding Easter.

Aglaia experimented with different flowers in her flour and water. Some did make a difference, but not basil. Which matters not a bit.

Something strange happened to the RSS feed of Dan Lepard’s rather wonderful blog the other day, and I’m glad it did, because I got to see again his excellent post on types of flour. A sample:

If you push me, I‘ll explain that in the UK, strong flour is typically flour for breadmaking, and plain flour is flour for cakes and biscuits. But to be really honest, the truth is much more complex as I frequently use plain flour for bread recipes, and strong white flour for cake recipes.

Dan also explains what to substitute for what, and I particularly want to try his tip to add a little wholemeal flour to mostly white breads, for more additional flavour. He also points out that one reason to add sugar or malt is to sustain the yeasts during a longer fermentation, which is well worth bearing in mind.

No, this is not about Tom Lehrer’s lyrics. But a couple of nights ago a friend explained his interest in (not-so) popular music by saying “It’s my hobby”. I don’t really have a hobby, at least not as I understand them, although I do have lots and lots of things, too many, that interest me. So maybe I have lots of hobbies, things that deliver personal fulfillment. One of those is preparing food, and I suppose I could call cooking a hobby, but really it is only a subset of cooking that I would consider close to a hobby: making bread.

Watching a Ted Talk by Peter Reinhart was partly a reminder of why I love baking bread. The sheer magic of it. The process. The stuff going on as it turns from flour, water and leaven into dough and loaves and bread and me. None of it was new to me, but it did get me bubbling again, rather like a fresh spoonful of flour to a sourdough starter. So I subscribed to Reinhart’s blog, noting that I had arrived just as some exciting things seemed to be winding down. Then I saw a passing comment about a method called stretch and fold, and I pursued that too, and read, and watched videos, and marvelled at the wonderful stuff that is out there.

I decided to be more mindful of my bread-making. Starting with hydration. And keeping notes.

So last week I made a batch of sourdough at about 80% hydration, that is 500 gm of flour to 400 ml of water. It’s tricky, of course, because the flour itself can contain varying amounts of water, and the hydration of the starter is essentially unknown. The mix was very loose, like a no-knead bread. I let it rise overnight, then did the stretch and fold thing three times. The structure did change noticeably each time, and at the end seemed pretty good, if a little sticky. I removed 100 gm for the starter and made two loaves, baked in long tins. They rose well, but in the end a single loaf might have been better. The crumb was light and even, but ever so slightly sticky. Not uncooked, just sticky.

Which is why I have just made another batch, this time a little more than 60% hydration: 500 gm of flour with 300 ml of water, plus 150 gm of thick batter starter. This was a much drier paste, which I had to knead briefly to wet all the flour. Again, I’ll let it rise overnight, and this time I will bake a single loaf.

Questions remain, which is why this is interesting. Does a wetter dough need more time to cook? At a lower final temperature? Stay tuned.