We’ve got a genie living in the corner of our kitchen. He’s not very prepossessing. He’s a kind of fawny-beige colour, and he just sits there, fidgeting and occasionally burping quietly in his pot. He’s just a little smelly. If we just left him, he’d quietly expire, and probably get a bit more pungent. But I do feed him, every two days or so. I spoon a couple of measures of flour and a glug of tepid water into him, and give him a soothing stir, because I’m very fond of him. We eat a little bit of him every day.
Here’s how. Whenever we need a new load of bread, I split our genie in two, and return half of him to his pot, with a little meal of flour and water. The rest I turn into a bowl, add a loaf’s worth of flour, salt, and some tepid water. And I knead this exceedingly sticky mess until it becomes an obedient ball of soft, rather floppy dough. Then it’s into a warm place with it for a few hours, till it’s grown a whole lot bigger.
Then it’s time to knock the dough back, form into a nicely loaf-like sphere, and pop it into a well-floured basket: the sort you might have acquired on holiday in France a few years ago to pop your morning croissants into. Leave it to rise again.
When it’s nearly ready, turn the oven on, good and high. Put a dish of hot water on the oven floor. Get a baking tray ready.
Here’s the scary bit: inverting the basket so the dough falls, but doesn’t tumble heavily, out of its basket and onto the tray. Slash the top of the loaf with a few deep cuts, pop it in the oven, and you’re done. Forty minutes later, there’s your very own loaf of sourdough bread.
The hardest bit is getting your sourdough genie into the kitchen in the first place: it’s a bit of a faff rather than difficult. Here’s how it’s done: though Googling ‘sourdough starter’ will deliver a dozen or more ways of getting going. What you’ve done in making your very own sourdough starter is introduce wild, local yeasts into your flour and water mixture. So your starter will be different from mine. The one you’re making now will be different from the one you make in the middle of winter. I have a friend who’s been known to take his sourdough starter on holiday with him, to get his yeasts making friends with exotic foreign strains.
I’m having a bit of a sourdough moment. It’s only a phase. One day soon, I’ll forget to feed our little genie, or worse, I’ll get fed up and let him die. Meanwhile, I enjoy the particular magic of creating the conditions for yeasts I can neither see, touch nor smell to come into my kitchen and help me create our daily bread.