Naturally when you move to another country there will be things you miss from your homeland. Sometimes you can find close substitutes or importers that carry what you want (often with a hefty markup). In Brazil, for me, these things include cheddar cheese, peanut butter, and sourdough.
Sourdough can be found, though I am only aware of one bakery that sells it, and it is not particularly nearby. This is a shame, as it is a hearty, full-flavored bread with a light sourness that no other bread has. In texture and taste it has no match.
For the curious, peanut butter can be found. There are importers in São Paulo that carry it, and here in Porto Alegre a store at the Mercado Público started carrying it about a year ago. Proper cheddar cheese, however, is completely unavailable. There are cheeses that are called cheddar, but they are basically the ‘American Cheese’, i.e. like Kraft Singles or Velveeta. No American considers these cheddar, let alone a good, aged, sharp cheddar. Hell, some people barely consider them cheese at all. As someone who loves good cheddar, this is indeed a tragedy.
Personally, I consider the lack of good cheddar a greater crime than that of sourdough, however, it is a lot easier to make bread than cheese. (As well as a lot less smelly, something I am sure my wife will appreciate.)
As any baker will tell you, baking bread is as much as art as science. This is even truer of sourdough, which has a different starting point than other breads. For those who do not know, it requires what is known as sourdough starter, or simply “starter”. The starter is basically a mix of water and flour that has been fermenting for at least a couple weeks courtesy of yeast and a bacterium known as lactobacillus (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lactobacillus). Note that no yeast or lactobacillus is added as both occur naturally in flour (and in water, and, well, pretty much everywhere not sterilized). Of course lactobacillus is not the only bacterium in the flour and water, nor are all the yeasts present the right ones.
On top of random, unwanted microbes, you also need the right water. If it is too dirty or too clean – i.e. contains a lot of chlorine or chlorine substitutes like chloramine – that can cause problems. In the first case, you can get unwanted microbes or chemicals that will interfere with the fermentation, spoil the mix, or give off flavors. In the latter case, particularly with chloramine, the chemicals will kill the microbes before they get a chance to do anything. What you want is a self-sustaining colony of yeast and lactobacillus living in symbiotic harmony. Starting a sourdough starter can be a tricky affair.
Because of this most people get a starter from someone else to start theirs. Virtually every site and blog about sourdough recommends this route for first-timers. In the US (and I am guessing in most of Europe as well) you can order sourdough starter from various suppliers. With a little luck you might find a friend who has a starter too.
As mentioned above, the starter will be at least a week or two old before use. Any sooner and the yeast and lactobacillus will not have had time to wipe out the other microbes and establish themselves – the starter will not be ‘stable’. The critical thing to understand is that the starter is an ecosystem. It is colony of microbes, the yeasts and the lactobacillus, that has the same basic needs as any other ecosystem: food, water and shelter. Its diet is simple, just flour and water. As for shelter, a glass jar kept at 18 to 20 Celsius (~ 65 to 96 Fahrenheit). A well-tended starter can last years. The other thing to keep in mind is that since every place has differences in its microbe population both locally and where the flour being used was produced as well as variations in trace chemicals in its water each starter has its own character. Sometimes this comes through in the breads made from it.
Living as I am in a virtual sourdough desert but struck by a random urge for sourdough, I decided to read up on the making of starters and give it a try. At worst I would waste a little time and some flour, so why not? I settled on this recipe.
My main concern was the water. I was not sure how treated it was, though I was reasonably sure it was not too dirty. So, instead of using the tap water, I searched through the local supermarkets for a water with the least chlorine and no chloramine and bought a 1.5 liter bottle of it. Then I picked up a bag of PanFácil Farinha de Trigo Integral (whole wheat flour).
About a week ago I mixed half a cup of the flour and a quarter cup of water in a glass jar and covered it with plastic wrap. The starter was basically inert for almost two days. Generally if nothing happens for 36 hours, something has gone wrong. However it is winter here and chilly in our apartment, so I gave it two days and was rewarded with some fermentation. It did not double as it was supposed to, but it was alive.
I fed it half a cup of flour and a quarter cup of water. It was active, but sluggish. A few days after I started two things happened. First, the weather warmed and second I accidentally used tap water instead of the bottled stuff. It was at this point it started doubling within several hours instead of growing around 50% ever 12 hours. Whether it was the more flora-rich water or the warm weather or both is impossible to tell, but certainly the tap water was not hurting things. I started drinking the bottled stuff and using tap for the twice-daily feedings, tossing about half the infant starter before each feeding as the instructions instructed.
Over the last couple days the starter has been thriving and it was clear it was time for the next step, which was the switch from whole wheat flour to white flour. I chose a high quality, unbleached flour from Fleischmann and have decided to ease the transition by using a mix of white and whole wheat over 3 feedings before going all white.
I am now halfway through the process, which seems to be going well. Look for an updating tomorrow or the next day about how transition has worked out.
I have to say that I am tickled pink at the success so far, especially after the start was only a dead mass at 36 hours and my instructions suggested that this meant it was time to start over.
I hope to make a loaf this weekend from the starter. I’ll photo blog the mess I make doing that for you all as well.