It started yesterday.
No, that’s not exactly true. It started ten days ago.
Right from the start I made a mess of things.
Ten messy days and no doubt more to come. Each day starts with me extracting myself from the sticky situation I’ve created only to find myself doing it again the very next day. I got myself into this repetitious cycle. It’s no one else’s fault.
Just me standing at the kitchen sink again with a small jar, 100g of flour, and 100g water. These are the simple elements so essential in the creation of a sourdough starter.
Every morning for ten days I throw away 80% of the starter and feed what remains with fresh water, flour and the wild yeasts that natural occur on my hands. Turning my hand in the jar, I mix these elements into a thick batter that sticks to my fingers.
This small starter, which I am quite literally part of, rises and falls like a rhythmic breath. With regular “feedings,” bacteria along with the wild yeasts from hands and grain become the fermenting agents in a symbiotic relationship.
It’s a hands-on process that connects me to food that nourishes my body and heart. A rhythmic 10-day ritual in the first step of developing a sourdough starter for the loaves of bread I will make in the coming weeks.
Through this repetition of throwing away what is not needed and feeding what is essential, this small, pulsing starter, the “heart of the batter” we might say, grows robust and resilient.
On day eleven I test the bubbly starter by dropping a tablespoon of it in a bowl of water. If it floats, this hard-working starter is ready to move on to a bigger challenge: becoming the leaven. Given additional water and scoops of flour, the starter will become a larger more powerful version of itself within 24 hours. A day later when this leaven is fed large amounts flour, water and salt, it will have the ability to aerate the dough for two loaves of olive, hazelnut and herb bread.
Every 30 minutes for the next four hours I scoop my hands under the dough and fold it upon itself in four directions to aerate and develop the desired texture. Each turn and fold is a note in a sensory song composed of smell, touch, sight and sound. I return to the dough again and again, much as I do to the breath while meditating.
Not so sticky now, it’s time to shape the loaves. The dough becomes smooth as I cup my hands each ball of dough as though around a child’s sweet face and pull the rounding loaf towards me.
Then I let them be. Covered with a cloth each loaf rises gently in the passing hours.
Then the strong bake in a searingly hot oven. When pulled from the heat, the cooling loaf’s crackling song is music to my ears. The hard crust knocks hollowly to the tap of my knuckle while shades of gold, brown and rust feed my eyes. A pungent fragrance tickles my nose.
This ancient and universal ritual of developing a sourdough starter connects me to my daily bread, bakers around the world, and the earth. It orders my day, insisting I pay repetitive and timely attention to the naturally occurring fermentation process in a small jar of water and flour, much the way I pay attention to my breath in meditation.
Messy. Sticky. Life and bread. Habit or ritual?
A chunky slice with fresh figs and goat cheese on a favorite plate, feels like I’ve discovered what is important in life. For me, as sticky and messy as bread-making is, it is a sacred ritual reminding me what is important now. It is a meditation of gratitude and a reminder to begin again each morning.
Anything can be a habit or ritual, a chore or a meditation or prayer. Is there a daily task in your life that could be one or the other? Tending plants? Washing dishes? Preparing a meal? What makes it a habit or a sacred act?
Char Wilkins, USA
Photos credits: Char’s kitchen