Where does yeast come from, asks Elizabeth David in her quietly impressive work on bread and yeasted baking, out of the everything? Yes, is the simple answer. Wild yeasts float and permeate and surround us, settling and breeding where they find food, moisture and the conditions of their tiny lives; the act of collecting, taming and cultivating them to serve the specific purposes of man has been the work of millennia. In Middle English yeast was known as goddisgoode, God-Is-Good, because of the mysterious ways in which it works its benefits to mankind; until quite recently, we hadn’t got much further in understanding it. Now, of course, every kitchen and artisan bakery has their own culture of wild yeasts, among other entities, in the form of a sourdough starter or mother; more precisely, this is known as a SCOBY, a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, to include the lactobacillus whose fermentation provides the sour part of the equation. The balance between these two factors, maintained and controlled by careful feeding, regulation of temperature, and culling of the livelier elements, is what gives each sourdough starter, also called a ferment or leaven, its particular character. It is undeniable that sourdough yeast provides a crust and flavour quite unlike, and in many ways far superior to, that created by commercial yeast, and the rhetoric (there is always a lot of rhetoric) around sourdough bakeries is that of proper, traditional, real, old-fashioned and true baking – the implication being that immediately prior to the invention of sliced bread in 1928, every village and street-corner bakery, every farmhouse and country home, had their own carefully nurtured sourdough culture; naturally, the facts are more complicated.
Time and again the emphasis in David’s narrative is on the avoidance of sourness and excessive fermentation; rather than keeping their bacteria alive, the protagonists, from ancient Egypt to modern Britain, discard excess starter, keeping perhaps a little dough aside for the next batch. Sometimes, though, they start afresh each time. The story of bread-making, in tandem with the rest of human progress, is thus not that of preserving wildness but of the steady elimination of the wildest aspects of it to leave only what is useful. Strange, half-live leaven was Biblically associated with corruption, both bodily and moral (see, for example, I Corinthians 5), and therefore looked on with, at best, suspicion, particularly in Protestant countries; that weird yeasty funk was filled with sourness, rot, taint, the creeping horror of the natural – was filled with the devil. I AM LEGION – WE ARE MANY could be the haunting scream of a teeming sourdough culture, invisible yeast and bacillus working as one. The good bakers of old England took no chances, and got their yeast from the breweries, while those households which continued to use home-made yeast did so despite rather than because of its sourness, which was kept in check but accepted as a fair price for the superior depth of flavour and texture achieved. Even this limited and somewhat hidden tradition had died out by the time David came to write her history; she describes home-made barms (only very occasionally does she use the now-ubiquitous term sourdough, and then to describe an inferior, rustic bread) as one of those lost tastes, alongside perhaps sylphium and dodo, flavours lost to the march of progress. In her businesslike fashion, she wastes no time mourning this apparent total break in the thread of tradition – admirable, perhaps, but she does consequently miss the fact that the tradition was alive and well elsewhere. Our artisan bread bakers of today take their cues not from the narrow field of the English farmhouse kitchen, but from the cuisines of Poland, Germany, of France and Italy and particularly America, which has refracted all of these into its own traditions. Things survive in immigrant cultures long after progress or turmoil have destroyed them at home, kept alive if only by force of nostalgia, and sourdough (I assume the word came to us from America) soon found its own niche, with an amenable ecosystem (the most common lactobacillus is named after its home city of San Francisco) and suitable attendant mythology. The Alaskan gold prospectors kept pouches of wild yeast round their necks through the long grey marches, a portable miracle-worker to help them eke more sustenance out of their long-stashed dry stores; old hands of more than a season were known as sourdoughs.
Although it’s been a long time, for most of us, since we had to rest so heavily on the staff of life, we still make bread do much of the symbolic work of food. Our daily bread, our bread and butter, the bread of heaven – its ubiquity was such that it could readily be used as a synecdoche for all sustenance, which is still how it is largely understood in much of the Islamic world. Wasting bread is a sin to many Muslims, and if a loaf is dropped you might see it retrieved, kissed and blessed, before being stashed in a nearby nook in case it should be needed; as is likely, given that quantities of bread are consumed at every meal, as they are also across the Mediterranean and most of Europe with the odd exception of Britain, which, as already noted, lacks what we might call a real baking tradition. It’s strange that the current generation of bakers, who really are doing something quite new in trying to raise the average quality of sustenance by such a degree, should so insistently define their work as old-fashioned or traditional. Like the Taoist acolytes who muddied the waters of history by ascribing all their insights to Lao Tzu, they hide real ability under the bushel of tradition; which is odd, when on the other side of the scale, you see countless food bloggers, writers and broadcasters continually talking about my this and their twist on that, constantly boasting originality – or perhaps it isn’t odd, but it is nevertheless a fact. If you consider what you do a craft, and if you look back into its long history as a craftsperson should, then everything you make will always be new and different, because it will always be imperfect; and it will always be the same, because it is all a part of the same process which started thousands of years ago. Each object, each meal or figure or painting or sentence, is only the local expression of that process, and as such is under constant threat of alteration, always a work in progress; that, anyway, is my view. I couldn’t tell you what bakers think.