Biting into a crusty piece of perfect, still-hot sourdough, topped with dollops of proper butter, is something of a religious experience for me. The crust is chewy with that slightly burnt flavour, and the insides are pillow-soft, with a hint of sourness.
Happily for me, many restaurants consider their bread a feature of the house. No.1 Bent Street in the Sydney CBD has a table in the corner of the dining room piled with house-baked loaves, an ever-present temptation before you even order.
Here and elsewhere, I usually end up eating more bread than I’d planned, and that’s generally an outcome I’m okay with. Butter or oil, with or without salt or balsamic, bread is the ultimate staple for me. Some prefer rice, pasta or noodles – but if I could only choose one, my carb of choice would definitely be bread.
But it’s got to be good, and it so often is these days. It’s incredible how much the quality of bread has improved over the past few decades, to the point where not only do most supermarkets bake their own on-site, even some of the mass-produced packet stuff is pretty gourmet these days.
The bland squares of our childhood lunchboxes are still available if one must go down that path, and for election sausage sizzles I want nothing more – but there are so many other options in the bread aisle now, from rye to pumpkin to all kinds of seeds to therecent proliferation of ‘ancient grains’.
Sourdough does seem to be the king of breads now. I remember the period in the 1990s when it was all about bagels, and then focaccia, with that cake-like consistency that toasts so well, and then bubbly Turkish bread. Brioche, ciabatta and panini have all had their time in the glass sandwich cabinets at our local cafés, too.
Now it’s sourdough, and I’m totally on board with that, especially since I’ve started having a few annoying dietary issues that make other breads more difficult to digest. Proper sourdough, though, tends to be fine.
Sourdough is a much older method of baking than the now more common use of baker’s yeast – the Roman writer Pliny the Elder described the process in the first century, but it’s thought that it originated thousands of years earlier, in the Fertile Crescent stretching between the Middle East and North Africa, along with agriculture itself.
Making your own sourdough at home with our Bakeproof step-by-step guide (with a picture for each step).
Personally, I was indoctrinated into the cult of sourdough on a visit to San Francisco five years ago, when we went to a place in the ultra touristy Fisherman’s Wharf that serves traditional clam chowder in a hollowed-out round sourdough loaf.
Boudin claims to be the oldest surviving business of any kind in San Francisco, and boasts that it still uses the same sourdough starter (“mother dough”) that Isidore Boudin developed in 1849. They also claim that San Francisco’s damp, foggy microclimate is the best place on earth for sourdough – although they would, wouldn’t they?
Apparently when the entire city was on fire after the 1906 earthquake, they managed to preserve it by dumping a chunk in a wooden bucket just before the building burned down.
I was unable to assess their sourdough in isolation, as the flavour was overwhelmed by the clam chowder, but the combination was one of those rare tourist experiences that lives up to its billing.
Another tourist hotspot with particularly excellent bread is Byron Bay, which is not only a chilled out backpacker paradise, but also a genuine foodie destination nowadays. On a recent trip there, I kept seeing “The Bread Social” being cited on menus, as though they were all getting their loaves from some kind of community bake sale. We just loved the bread, especially combined with the equally local butter from Cultur’d, an outfit with the kind of name that startups adopt in order to get a good website. So we went to the bakery to have a look.
It turns out that the Bread Social’s Byron location is part of a foodie mecca known simply as The Farm – and yes, it’s a proper farm, right down to the wooden barn.
There’s the brilliant Three Blue Ducks restaurant, a vegetable garden and animal pens which mean that most of what’s served is produced onsite. And then there’s the Bread Social’s bakery, which is adjacent to the restaurant kitchen, and pumps out all kinds of loaves, pastries, tarts and above all, that delicious sourdough.
There are plenty of famous sourdough bakeries in our cities, too, and their growth is a testimony to the rise of slow-fermented bread. Melbourne’s Rustica, for example, has spread across the city from Fitzroy, and as has Banneton in Brisbane. Sydney’s Bourke Street Bakery also has multiple locations nowadays, and also founded the admirable Bread and Butter Project, which teaches refugees and asylum seekers how to bake, and sells their wares.
It’s possible sourdough could be another bakery fad that’s ultimately replaced as the slice of the day by something else. Personally, I doubt it.
But whatever form it takes, bread’s going to be something I eat every day for the rest of my life. Not only does it make toast, and sandwiches – it makes toasted sandwiches. Sorry, rice, pasta and noodles, I love you, but my heart, and my stomach belong to Mother Dough.
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Lead image: Instagram / The Bread Social