“Give us this day our daily sourdough and forgive us our bread additives.” This seems to be the creed of supermarkets as they exploit the biggest baking phenomenon of the last decade.
A few years back I wrote an article about how sourdough – which develops its tangy flavour from a slowly fermented culture of flour and water – had saved us from having to eat white bread that was as appetising as papier-mâché*. Sourdough was said to be the best thing since, well, sliced bread. But this wonderloaf wasn’t mass-produced by the truckload. A new generation of small artisan bakeries was responsible, and many of the best were in the north.
Since then supermarkets and big bakers have latched onto the marketing potential of the word sourdough, and now put it on just about everything. Last week in Bradford, Marks & Spencer, Morrisons and Tesco seemed to be awash with sourdough products. The name turned up on pancakes, crumpets and crackers, pizzas and even chocolate cakes. Sourdough toothpaste can’t be too far off.
But it is a flagrant con. The sourdough roll I bought at Morrisons smelled and tasted like wallpaper paste. Ditto the San Francisco Style Sourdough I picked up at M&S, while the sourdough bloomer from Tesco was not only a travesty of flavour but just trying to slice it was like taking a bread knife to a blancmange. Anyone who has eaten an authentic sourdough loaf knows it has a crackling, caramelised crust with a firm and chewy texture.
Note M&S’s use of the word “style”, by the way. That’s a legal device to act as a get-out should anyone complain, as I do, that this tastes more like cardboard than
San Francisco’s celebrated loaf, which, by the way, was first baked during the 19th century gold rush when prospectors found that a small amount of endlessly reproducing starter dough produced brilliant bread without the need for them to carry yeast in their packs.
These days baking sourdough at home is popular with people like me who love good-tasting bread. The key to it is that starter, which is simply a mixture of flour and water kept in a container to ferment wild yeasts that naturally occur in the air. It’s a disgusting-smelling slime, for sure, and it’s part of the alchemy of sourdough baking that such a deliciously golden loaf is the result. But maintaining the starter can become an obsession, since it requires frequent refreshment with more flour and water, a process that makes a particularly demanding Tamagotchi seem like a sleeping cat.
According to M&S’s label, their loaf is based on a “29-year-old live sourdough” but what they don’t tell you is that the dough has been overworked and the vital resting or proving period rushed, judging by the loaf I bought. They don’t produce a list of ingredients, but those on other loaves are ominous: emulsifier, fractionated palm oil, ascorbic acid.
Contrast this with artisan bakers like the Baltic Bakehouse in Liverpool – its sourdough is the best I’ve tasted – and Leeds Bread Co-op, which uses nothing but flour, water and salt and lets the dough ferment for up to 72 hours.
Supermarket bosses, for whom time is money, would choke at that prospect. So they continue to bake a dishonest loaf.
*You can read All Rise, Roger Ratcliffe’s article from 2016, in the Features section of bigissuenorth.com