Wild Yeasts and Wild Bread

The sourdough starter I made many months ago has continued – admirably – to survive through the collapse of my fridge, the rebuilding of my kitchen following a flood, several extended trips away from home and the addition of many different flours. I have read of sourdough cultures living for many years – sometimes decades – and this auspicious start for mine is very promising. I am surprised by the resilience and consistency of my sourdough starter, by the well-risen and flavoursome bread it produces and by its wholesome, beery smell.

Several adventures have permeated its life; firstly, it has received flour from two of the country’s still-working wheat mills; Mapledurham Watermill and Lurgashall Watermill at the Weald and Downland open air museum. It has also been passed on to several people I know and shared with friends on auspicious occasions. But perhaps its finest adventure to date, was being cooked in a biscuit tin on the picturesque beach at Cuckmere Haven – a perilous bay along the South East Coast – famed for the smuggling of wool in former times from our shores.

To cook our bread I first made dough from a sponge, (as per this recipe) and kept it in a plastic container for two days in my car in summer. This provided the perfect amount of heat for the bread dough to prove. Once we got to the carpark near Cuckmere Haven, Mark and I struck out for the beach with a large bag of firewood from his apple tree, a biscuit tin, and the uncooked dough.

The weather turned immediately inclement.

All other walkers in the area immediately dispersed and we stood there glumly surveying the encroaching waves, the drizzly air and the distinctly ominous, bruise-coloured skyline. But our enthusiasm for the biscuit-tin-bread outweighed our misgivings about the weather and we set about creating a fire hot enough to both counter the spittling rain and bake the magnificent sourdough.

First of all we dug a hole in the sand to about half the depth of the biscuit tin, into which we placed the bread-dough on a thin layer of olive oil. We then heaped sand up all around the tin to a depth of around 1 or 2 inches, and then built our fire on top of this.

It was a fine blaze and once we piled it high with logs there was nothing to do but maintain it for forty minutes and quaff some fortifying cider from nearby Middle Farm. We babbled inebriatedly about the excitement of cooking bread in this way, in this landscape full of the spectres of washed-up ships and the region’s history as a site for the illicit smuggling of wool. The rain seemed set in, but we were determined and we were inspired.

As the cider ran dry and the wood supplies began to dwindle, we were delighted to see the rain beginning to slacken off and our excitement about the state of the bread under our fire provoked enthusiastic speculations. Was forty minutes long enough? Should we leave it an hour? Did we even think it would be cooked? Do you think the fire was hot enough? Our curiosity spurred on by the lighter skies and the intoxicating qualities of the cider, we began to dismantle the – by now small – pile of charred wood and ashes.

We uncovered a very hot biscuit tin and as the infrequent, diminished raindrops bounced off its surface they made a hissing sound and we were met by the smell of singed metal.

We could scarcely wait for the moment of truth but we had to, since the tin was so hot when we first kicked the sand off it that we would have scorched our hands on it had we been in the least impatient.

Finally, there it was. Burned on the top, a little underdone on the underside, and perfectly cooked in the middle; our wild bread.

If I make bread like this again, I will bury it a couple of inches more deeply into the sand/mud, and keep the fire going for longer. I think a more shallow tin would help as the quick conduction of the metal container probably meant a lot of heat got lost before it reached the bottom of the bread. I am also interested in the possibility of perhaps suspending the bread in the biscuit tin, or even placing it in a loaf tin.

Tomorrow I want to visit the site of Dalston’s amazing Mill. It is one regret I have that – since the mill is now closed – I will be unable to put any of the historic wheat from this endeavour into the sourdough starter. Nonetheless, my sourdough starter remains a culture with plenty of stories and history, and one that I hope will continue to grow.

Lurgashall Watermill

8 Responses to Wild Yeasts and Wild Bread

  1. Pingback: The Domestic Soundscape » Blog Archive » Saturday Post Part 2

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