If anything, the lockdown has engendered and sustained one social media phenomenon. And that is a huge volume of home baking, with the oven dragged into use both here in India and across the pandemic-ridden world with almost militant fervour. Just key in the catchphrases ‘banana bread’ or ‘chocolate chip cookies’ into any of your social media account feed searches and the ensuing results will boggle your mind.
But there is one bakery item in particular that singularly gobbles up a mighty chunk of the proverbial baking pie. Sourdough bread. Covering dozens of pages and a gazillion hashtags on everything from Instagram to Pinterest, it would appear as though every Tom, Dick and Hariharan along with their next-door neighbour has secured a place on the sourdough bread bandwagon.
So, what exactly is sourdough bread? And more importantly, why is it so darn popular these days? Characterised by a nutty aroma, this tangy-tasting, highly porous, artisanal bread has a crusty surface and is made using natural yeast. All it takes is plain flour, water and a little salt to make a loaf of the bread. This, as opposed to commercial white bread, which has as many as 20 ingredients, including hard-to-digest additives and dough conditioners. But what makes sourdough extra special is that it is most likely the first form of leavened bread ever created.
Like most great inventions, sourdough bread was probably discovered by accident over 4,000 years ago by the ancient Egyptians. There is even written evidence of sourdough from hieroglyphs found in the pyramids, showing people making beer and bread at the same time in a sort of crossover fermentation.
With no need for commercially produced yeast — an almost impossible product to procure in a lockdown — you just require a starter in lieu. A ‘living organism’ if you will, that is simply made from a mixture of water and flour.
Microbes from the environment colonise the flour-water slurry, producing gut-friendly, lactic acid-generating bacteria and wild yeast that aids in leavening.
Interestingly, even here in India, there has been a tradition of sourdough bread making. In Crumbs!, her well-researched book on bread baking, food author and consultant Saee Koranne-Khandekar talks of a Himachali iteration of sourdough and even one made by Maharashtra’s Pathare Prabhu community, who use a starter called gonda made from chana dal, water and milk. “We (Indians) have an almost instinctive understanding of gluten strengths and dough consistencies. (Stiff dough for poori, loose for chapati, etc.) We also understand wild cultures that exist in our environment, thanks to all the curd setting and the idli/ dosa batter and kanji-making,” says Koranne-Khandekar.
“Sourdough bread has gained popularity because of its delightful taste. Moreover, it is a great substitute for other breads made with commercial yeast. The lockdown has encouraged people to opt for healthier options and sourdough, therefore, has become a huge social media trend,” says Amar Dwivedi, Executive Chef at Grand Mercure Gandhinagar.
There is, however, more method to the apparent sourdough bread madness. In Cooked, his seminal book on all things food, American author Michael Pollan says that “…freshly baked bread is the ultimate olfactory synecdoche for hominess.” Making a strong case for the curative powers of aromatherapy on mood by way of freshly baked goodies, a 2016 study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology found that when young adults took part in an olfactory sense-heightening activity such as baking, they felt happier and more creative over the following days. Truly aromatherapy for the depressed soul!
That is exactly why 24-year-old Gurugram resident and chef Akanksha Dean decided to swap her stove top for the oven and give baking bread a whirl. “Out of work as a chef-manager at a café, I suddenly found so much free time on hand that I decided to get into baking bread, which I find so therapeutic and depression-ridding,” says Dean, who even launched a new lockdown-themed baking page on Instagram for her creations. “I particularly love the idea of sourdough bread, which is perfect these days as the starter is the sum of just two ingredients that everyone has in their pantry.”
Speaking of the sourdough starter, it has become so ‘legit’ that in Silicon Valley, hipster coders are now blogging about the fermentation graphs of their sourdough starters. In fact, in August last year, Seamus Blackley, one of the co-creators of the Xbox and self-professed ‘bread nerd’, resurrected a sourdough starter dating back to ancient Egypt that was made from residual yeast scraped from the insides of broken bits of pharaonic pottery.
Closer home, one such aficionado is Shivam Bhatia from Bengaluru, who has been nurturing his sourdough starter for the last three weeks. “The last time I took care of anything similar was when I was a teenager in the late 1990s, when the craze of owning a virtual pet like the Japanese egg-shaped Tamagotchi was all the rage,” says the 38-year-old VFX company owner. “Lockdown has given me the impetus and time to concentrate on the regular feedings that my starter needs.”
But if Bhatia were to ever shift base to New York or Belgium, he would find that tending to his starter need not be a solo pursuit. Enter the sourdough starter ‘hotel’, where one can leave their starters at a hotel where it will be tended to with regular feedings if you’re travelling or indisposed. For a small fee, of course.
Sourdough Inn in Brooklyn, New York, is one such “hotel for your sourdough, helping busy Brooklyn hipsters stay connected with the authentic bread experience”. The inn, which was started by Danish-born Internet entrepreneur Mathias Jakobsen, also offers a three-week, $60, intensive ‘training and rehabilitation’ course, where your neglected starter can be brought back to life.
Jakobsen himself was inspired by something radical that was taking place on the other side of the Atlantic. The Puratos Sourdough Library in St. Vith, Belgium not only tends to around 125 heirloom sourdough starter samples, but also develops, researches and preserves the biodiversity of different starters for the future.
But, just as sourdough dethroned banana bread in the baking trend wars, there seems to be another usurper slowly nipping at sourdough’s crusty surface. And no, we are not speaking of the commercially produced, nutritionally challenged sourdough imposter that social media has comically dubbed ‘sourfaux bread’.
Proving true the rather ephemeral nature of social media trends, the newest lockdown baking blitzkrieg comes to us in the form of ‘focaccia art’, where bakers are channelling their inner Van Doughs and going all out to deck slabs of the classic Italian flat bread with rustic pastoral scenes created using fresh herbs and vegetables. Any takers?
The Mumbai-based writer and restaurant reviewer is passionate about food, travel and luxury, not necessarily in that order.