So, the holiday’s booked, bags are packed, the cat’s being fed by the neighbours, and then it hits you – who’s going to look after your artisanal sourdough culture? Help may be at hand…
Sourdough breadmaking has had a real renaissance in recent years, with specialist artisan bakeries rolling out across Europe and the US, and more and more people cultivating their own batches at home. In Sweden the craze has been particularly intense and Stockholm is now home to the, let’s face it, somewhat gimmicky “sourdough hotel”. Located in the Urban Deli in the painfully hip Sofo district, the “hotel” charges 300 Swedish Crowns (£27) a week (a week!) to keep sourdoughs thriving while their owners go on holiday.
Sourdough bread baking started in ancient Egypt, went out of fashion in the Middle Ages, had a revival during the Gold Rush and became all but obsolete with the dawn of commercial bread production. To make your own sourdough bread you first need to whip up a blend of water and flour and leave it to ferment in room temperature for a couple of days. This is your so-called “starter batch” and it requires daily care. By “feeding” it regularly with flour and water, the dough keeps growing bacteria that act like yeast and give the bread its tangy flavour. A portion of the batch can be used to make a new loaf of bread with the same flavour.
According to Jesper Konstantinov, part-owner of the Urban Deli, sourdough baking is popular among what he calls the socially conscious. And, he adds, “it’s huge among stay-at-home-dads. They have really been a driving force in the Swedish sourdough craze. They are the same dads who come to us for tips on how to make their own sausages because they don’t want to give their kids the commercially produced stuff. They don’t trust it.”
But, Konstantinov admits, the hotel hasn’t been a commercial success. It really started as a bit of fun when the deli teamed up with a local artist Josefin Vargö, who had collected sourdoughs from around Sweden as part of an art project. Vargö asked Urban Deli to use her samples to bake bread. Konstantinov and his co-workers agreed and also decided to house some of Vargö’s samples, all packed in neat jars and labelled with their owners’ names. The sourdough hotel was born.
As trends go, the sourdough fad seems rather quaint. Having batter prepared at all times was pretty important for people like the ancient Egyptians who couldn’t just pop down to the supermarket for a tin loaf. For the same reason it was also the preferred breadmaking method of gold prospectors in the wild west who would simply carry a starter with them and bake loaves without having to track down ingredients like yeast or baking powder.
During the California and Klondike gold rushes “sourdough” became a nickname for prospectors, who, according to legend, were so protective of their batches that they slept with them under their blankets to keep them from freezing. “Sourdough Sam“, the mascot of American football team San Francisco 49ers, is testament to just how entwined sourdough is with California’s history – and it’s all the rage there once again.
It might seem that sourdough is becoming a bit of a status symbol for make-do-and-mend-minded consumers, eco-worriers and locavores. But for aficionados it would be a shame if it was a passing fad – it’s as far away from mass produced as you can get. And the bread tastes better – and lasts longer – than other breads.
Photograph by Urban Orzolek