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The rise of sourdough

The months-long lockdown has collectively thrust us back into our home kitchens, presenting opportunities as well as challenges for intrepid home cooks. The recent run on supermarkets and the temporary interruption of certain global food-supply chains has led to some measure of food insecurity in the Czech Republic. Despite businesses reopening and lockdown measures loosening, the country is still reeling from the aftershock of more than two months of sustained economic contraction. With governments and citizens belt-tightening and our attention turned indoors for the near term, many home cooks are looking to tried-and-true culinary methods for cooking inspiration.

Among the foods that have recently recaptured our attention – such as the humble bean – is sourdough bread. The advent of sourdough dates back to before Pliny the Elder described the bread-making method in his work Natural History. In fact, one of the oldest sourdough breads ever discovered dates back to 3700 BCE. Historians believe though that sourdough fermentation likely began with the emergence of agriculture several thousand years earlier. 

 

Photo by Jonathan Pielmaye

 

While sourdough has been made for millennia, one of the reasons that the bread-making method has surged in popularity is due to the recent shortages of staples like yeast in supermarkets across the Czech Republic. Czech food blogger and gastro-journalist Dagmar Heřtová wrote in a recent iRozhlas article that since 2005, when the last Czech yeast factory closed, the country has become an importer of baker’s yeast. Since bakers can no longer rely on markets to supply them with baker’s yeast, known as droždí in Czech, they have turned to sourdough as a means of baking bread at home.

The difference between sourdough bread and other breads that you might find in the supermarket lies in the source of the yeast. Most industrially made loaves are made using baker’s yeast, packaged live yeast fungi that have been dried into a powder. Bakers re-activate the yeast by adding room-temperature water, sugar, and flour. The chemical reaction that occurs from the yeast in the dough metabolizing the starches and sugars is what ultimately gives rise to leavened bread.

 

Photo by Gaelle Marce

 

Meanwhile, sourdough is made from the fermentation of dough using naturally existing wild yeasts and bacteria. The wild yeasts create sour acids in the loaf, giving sourdough bread its distinctive tangy flavour. Sourdough yeast fungi are kept as “starter cultures,” a liquid medium of a fermented mixture of flour and water that is constantly kept alive. Often referred to as the mother yeast for its propagating qualities, a small part of the culture is used by the baker to create a new loaf. Typically, the starter is fed flour and water 4-12 hours prior to being added to dough, creating an active leaven that grows in size and is then mixed with more flour and water to make a final dough. 

A baker can create a sourdough starter on their own by capturing wild yeast that naturally exists in the air. However, many bakers receive an active starter from someone they know. Often, like heirlooms, starters are passed down in a family. Because of the starters’ essential role in baking and the unique flavour imparted by different varieties of yeast, sourdough cultures can be a prized possession that bakeries hold on to as proprietary information. In fact, a library located 140 kilometres southeast of Brussels in Belgium houses the world’s most extensive collection of sourdough starters ever to be catalogued. The archive contains 125 special starters that showcase and preserve diverse varieties of yeast for future generations to study.

In the Czech Republic, where about 40 kilograms of bread is consumed per capita annually, one of the most-liked breads is the classic Czech sourdough loaf, the Šumava chléb. The traditional Šumava rye loaf is oval in shape and has a dark golden-brown crust and soft interior. It has a distinct sour taste with hints of caraway from the seeds often present in the bake. The bread, which has many variations, was popularized in the 1850s by Czech baker František Serafín Odkolek, the owner of the eponymous baking empire that emerged from a single mill on Prague’s Kampa Island. Today the Šumava loaf can be found in virtually every bakery and supermarket in the country.

 

Photo by Mae Mu

 

More recently, varieties of sourdough breads that are common abroad have made their way to the Czech market. In Prague, Icelanders David Arnórsson and Gudbjartur Gudbjartsson teamed up in 2018 to open the popular Artic Bakehouse. With two locations, on Újezd and Myslíkova, the bakery sells a signature sourdough bread called Artic Monk, as well as other Nordic baked goods that have become bestsellers among locals and tourists alike. The French-inspired Le Caveau bakery in Vinohrady also offers an alternative to rye-based sourdoughs.

If you want to make sourdough on your own and you do not have a friend or family member who can supply you with a starter, online markets exist for buying wild cultures. Some online stores even offer starters from as far away as San Francisco, widely regarded as the mecca of sourdough bread. Perhaps, if you are lucky, your favourite local bakery will part with a piece of their mother starter, giving you the start you need to bake your own.