Adventures in Pandemic Sourdough

A pandemic and public health emergency lockdown has turned citizens — and at least one journalist — into bread makers. And connoisseurs of ancient sourdough starters.

A sourdough starter going back decades hangs in a tree, ready for pickup. (Courthouse News photo / Matthew Renda)

(CN) — A trip to San Francisco in late April marked the first time I’d ventured out of my house in more than a month for anything besides core provisions. 

I live in Santa Cruz, so going to San Francisco under ordinary circumstances is a fairly mundane excursion. But the novel coronavirus pandemic has distorted all sorts of routine aspects of life into strange and at times unsettling adventures, and my weekday trip to the city by the bay was no different. 

What made this voyage particularly strange and unsettling was that from everything I’d read while constantly anxiety-scrolling through my social media feed, San Francisco residents seemed to be desperately trying to escape the city and repair to the house-and-yard setup I am lucky enough to enjoy in the Monterey Bay. 

The Golden Gate Bridge on an atypically fog-free day. (Courthouse News photo / Matthew Renda)

So I felt a little foolish while heading north on I-280 as the iconic San Francisco skyline jutted out in front of the bay and bent my vehicle around a blind curve. Particularly foolish as my mission on this fateful Friday entailed finding an ancient sourdough starter that a friendly woman had encased in a jelly jar and strung up in a tree in Glen Canyon Park just for me. 

Sounds strange, but San Francisco had seen a surge of sourdough starters strung up in trees, telephone poles and other places so strangers could exchange a mixture of flour and water containing a colony of microorganisms so essential to the sourdough breadmaking process. 

Stuck indoors, the denizens of San Francisco — like many around the world — were scrambling for a way to pass the time, productively or otherwise. 

For those with a culinary bent, the shutdown policies were a perfect time to try something new, like baking sourdough bread. 

“It’s a good distraction,” said Liza Pannozzo, a San Francisco resident, over the phone that Friday morning. 

Pannozzo and I were trying to hash out directions to the tree where she had left a portion of her sourdough starter tied up. 

“Tying up yeast in a tree might sound strange, but I’ve gotten a lot of good reaction to it,” Pannozzo said. 

When she first started tying up the starters in jars in late March, they would last for a couple of days. But now, as neighbors have come to expect their appearance around the weekends, they last for a couple of hours at the most. 

This trend started with Bernal Heights resident David Reber, who started asking neighbors if they would be interested in making sourdough bread given the need to reduce trips to the grocery store and the scarcity of certain provisions. 

The reaction was overwhelmingly positive, so Reber started tacking up portions of a starter he called Godrick on the telephone poles all around the neighborhood. They didn’t last long. 

Baking sourdough bread is different than traditional breadmaking because the starter’s fermentation doesn’t require cultivated baker’s yeast and has better keeping qualities and less gluten as a result. 

Many also prefer the slightly sour taste of the bread. From the standpoint of health, sourdough has an advantage over its baked brethren in that it is generally rated as richer in naturally occurring acids with a longer fermentation process that aids digestion and reduces the amount of glucose in the bread. 

Bakers can make their own sourdough starters by combining water and flour, but the process takes days and often results in a starter that is less vigorous than the one already established. 

Therefore, obtaining a “descendant” of someone else’s starter is a tried and true and oft-used shortcut. 

Also, the starters often contain their own lore, which makes sharing them, much like sharing recipes, more about stories than the thing in itself. 

The one I retrieved from a branch of a bay tree in Glen Canyon Park dates back 50 years to an original starter cultivated by the famous restaurateur Rainer “Bumps” Baldauf, who was instrumental in the development of San Francisco’s culinary scene. 

For instance, Baldauf — who also founded the Boreal Ski Corporation and was an avid sailor — built the first pizza oven for famed San Francisco chef Alice Waters at her iconic restaurant Chez Panisse

Liza actually met me in Glen Canyon Park (we wore masks and kept six feet apart) and gave me a piece of freshly baked sourdough bread she concocted from the same starter she was giving me. 

“I’m not sure how you feel about accepting food from a stranger during a global pandemic,” she said as she put a piece of bread wrapped in a paper towel down for me to retrieve.

“I feel pretty good about it, actually,” I said.

I still do. The bread was that good. 

Also, my fears of arriving in a pandemic-afflicted San Francisco were pretty much allayed immediately. The park was full but not irresponsibly so, with families and people enjoying the mild springtime weather. If anything, the semblance of normalcy on display that Friday in the park helped me feel, perhaps for the first time, that we were all going to get through this thing together — a feeling that is tough to muster when you sit isolated at home overconsuming the news. 

So, after successfully retrieving the starter, I had to surmount one remaining problem — a persistent lack of flour at every store I visited. After hitting up a couple of local grocery stores to no avail, I called the bakeries in my neighborhood but met with nothing but stonewalling. Both remained closed. 

It wasn’t until my editor, Chris — apparently infinitely more resourceful than I — called the bakery section at Safeway just down the road and had them confirm they had bread flour for sale, that I was able to procure the material to get started. 

So it begins, I thought, hurrying home to get underway. 

Jessica and Luke pour sourdough starter into a mixing bowl. (Courthouse News photo / Matthew Renda)

But I struggled off the get, mostly because I am not a baker. I’m fair to cloudy weather in the kitchen and can follow a recipe like nobody’s business, but baking bread is a different thing altogether. Recipes are often described in terms of weight rather than traditional measurements like tablespoons and cups, which I found strangely confounding. 

No one warns you you’ll get dumber as you age but they should.

As I scuffled through the initial phases of the Tartine Bakery recipe for country bread, my wife Jessica looked on silently before saying “Are you going to do it that way?”

I’ve been married long enough to recognize the coded sentence that actually means “You should probably let me take over, you utter dolt.”

Feeling relieved, I gave Jessica the instructions and to my utter elation, she struggled thoroughly enough to have to resort to calling her father, who is rather experienced in the arena of baking sourdough bread. 

He recommended a more beginner-friendly recipe right off, which helped. He also explained bread recipes are written out according to weight because water is heavier than flour and it is important to have the weight distribution correct, rather than a proportional taste profile like in traditional cooking.  

I may be a dolt, but I like to learn. It’s why I’m a journalist. I learn something new every day and then turn around and teach about it in simple declarative sentences.  

For instance, I learned that sourdough recipes are so ancient, no one even knows when they began. Archaeologists excavated a piece of sourdough bread in Switzerland that dates back to 3700 B.C. Almost 6,000 years ago — and it likely all began before that. 

Pliny the Elder, the great Roman philosopher and namesake of an excellent beer brewed by Russian River Brewing Company, mentioned the sourdough method in his seminal work “Natural History.” 

“Generally however they do not heat it up at all, but only use the dough kept over from the day before; manifestly it is natural for sourness to make the dough ferment,” the philosopher wrote in the first century A.D.  

So as Jessica and I fed the starter its mixture of flour and water every day to keep it active, it was difficult not to feel an atavistic connection just through the simple act of cultivating our effervescent little sourdough starter. 

Surely, this is part of the attraction. This bridge through the past is at least part of the reason so many people are stringing up starters in the telephone poles and tall trees of San Francisco and why other people are collecting them. 

When Jessica and I were ready to knead the dough and form them into two equally sized loaves, our oldest son Luke was eager to “help out.”

Sourdough formed into loaves and ready to bake. (Courthouse News photo / Matthew Renda)

I use quotations because Luke tends to be counterproductive in his approach to kitchen help, but to each their own. After all, he’s only three. 

After forming the loaves, it’s 90 minutes of waiting on them to rise. At which point, we preheat the oven to 425 degrees and it’s time to bake. 

The thing about making bread is that by the time you put it in the oven all the hard work is completed and you just wait for heat, leavened dough and all the rest to work the magic. 

And magic it is, dear reader. Not so much in the chemistry, but in the feeling of eating freshly baked bread still warm from the oven with a healthy dollop of butter. 

Yes, please. 

I’m happy to report since our first iteration of the beginner bread we have begun to branch out to some of the more sophisticated recipes. We’re set to make bagels this coming weekend. 

If these culinary adventures are the only adventures we are allowed in the immediate future, then shoot, they’re not so insufficient. The family all together around a warm hearth, the delicious fruits of durable and ancient labor, and all of it with a side of butter.

I’ll take it. 

The finished product: sourdough fresh out of the oven. (Courthouse News photo / Matthew Renda)
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