It’s no secret that I get a kick out of fermenting stuff. Anything really. I’ve been known to experiment with sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and kefir, but my longtime love has been sourdough. I’m not sure exactly what it is about these foodstuffs that so fascinates me, but I think it’s a combination of their aliveness and unpredictability. With fermented products, you are harvesting natural yeasts and bacteria from your environment and encouraging them to colonise your yummy items. There are loads of reasons why fermented foods are great, but these are my favourites…
- They can create useful byproducts, such as air bubbles and yeasts in the case of sourdough
- They help to preserve natural products when you have a glut
- The bacteria created through fermentation often make the item easier to digest. Many people with gluten intolerances can actually eat sourdough bread, as the natural fermentation makes it easier to digest
- They are often rich in nutrients such as Vitamins K and B
- They boost your immune system. The ‘good’ bacteria (probiotics) created through fermentation colonise your gut and boost your immunity.
- They taste really, really good.
Which is how I ended up attending a two day Sourdough workshop at the Mühlerama in Zürich. In Ballymaloe, Tim was king of the dough and most of my knowledge was gained from pestering him and following him around. I would regularly force him to sniff my starter, poke my boule or slash my loaf. He was ever patient and an excellent teacher, and while I was down in Shanagarry, my starter thrived and my loaves were victorious. However, something in my dough died the day I left the coast of East Cork, and it hasn’t been the same since. I’m convinced it has something to do with the cold, desert climate in Switzerland. I swear I need to add 20% more water to make up for the humidity it was used to in Ireland, and even then, my overheated (and well insulated) Zurich apartment results in a ridiculously overactive, pongy starter. It makes satisfactory bread, but who ever aimed for that? I need beautiful boules, lovely loaves and delicious doughs.
So I thought the Mühlerama might be able to help me with a Swiss approach. The Mühlerama is a museum in Zürich devoted entirely to the history of flour, milling and bread. You can tour the building and learn about different grains and flour and you can see the mills at work, including the beautiful stone mill (imported from Nepal) that produces delicious stone-milled flour. You can also sign up to various workshops and learn from the breadsperts themselves, which led to my sourdough course.
Eight of us gathered on a balmy Saturday morning and were met by Sam and Maggie (our teachers). Sam is a Swedish bread fanatic who trained in the very famous ‘Tartine‘ bakery in San Francisco. He is passionate about sourdough and religiously sticks to the mantra and processes he was taught by Chad in Tartine. Maggie is a chef and sourdough expert who runs Stazione Paradiso in Zurich. She first comes across as gentle and relaxed, but you quickly realise there’s no messing for her when it comes to bread making.
For me, it was fascinating to compare the method of sourdough making we learned at Ballymaloe with what they whipped up at the Mühlerama. In Ballymaloe, we had to feed our starter every day or risk its swift demise, here were were told we could neglect the starter for up to a week, but should then ditch most of it, and give the remainder a big feed. At Ballymaloe, we kneaded the dough in a Kenwood machine, and it got a good bashing. Here we were taught to gently caress and seduce the dough. In Ballymaloe, we did a two day ferment in the fridge. Here we did a 24 hour ferment in a cool room. However, Ballymaloe and Sam also agreed on many counts. It is essential to use the best quality flour you can afford. It should be organic, local and full of flavour. You do not want to encourage the creation of bacteria and yeasts from a highly processed, inferior product. Another similarity was that both methods encouraged a long resting time for the dough. After the dough has been kneaded you should leave it so air bubbles and gluten develop. Then gently fold it, before allowing it to rest again. To a lesser mortal, these conflicting methods and contradictions could lead to brain explosion, but I decided to embrace the differences… I was also delighted to learn a method that did not involve using a mixer, because my Kenwood has bitten the dust (it’s in the doctors at the moment so fingers crossed)!
As courses go, I can only reccommend Mühlerama. It was professional, well organised, personalised, fun, hands on, and… I got to take 8 loaves home (I still have one left in the freezer). It is very difficult to get the hang of something as varied and unpredictable as sourdough. You need to use all of your senses, especially smell and touch, to truly understand it (and even then, you’ll have a long way to go). Being able to quiz people as knowledgeable and passionate as Sam and Maggie was a gift, and I will definitely be back for future classes!