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9 Dec 2009 - 1:33 PM  UPDATED 6 Sep 2013 - 9:31 AM

Sourdough. It strikes fear and wonder into the hearts of the most hardened taste junkie. If you’ve tried to make it, you’ve probably failed. If you buy it from a reputable baker, you’re probably in awe. If you haven’t had the true, proper sourdough that artisan bakers are making around Australia these days, you’re poorer for it.

My sourdough, I humbly admit, is terrific. I can’t take much credit for it, however. Yes, I did culture the starter, the mother if you like to call it that, on the kitchen bench at Puggle Farm. The starter is the mixture of wild yeasts and bacteria that give sourdough its characteristic flavour, texture and mouthfeel. But the expertise, the reason my sourdough is as good as any I’ve had in this state, and most I’ve had in my life, is because of the incomparable Graham Prichard.

Prichard, who runs a site for sourdough nerds called sourdough.com, knows pretty much as anybody can know about the humble sourdough loaf. He knows flour, he knows woodfired ovens, he knows how the natural leaven, the wild yeasts, act on rising bread. And luckily for me, he’s moved to Tasmania, to the sleepy town of Oatlands, where he’s setting up a woodfired sourdough bakery.

I challenged him, though, when we caught up for a baking lesson. The flour I had gathered from the Central Highlands was a wholemeal flour, with the scent of a granary and the texture of talcum. The oven we baked in was a domestic woodfired oven at a mate’s place, where the thermometer wasn’t up to the task at hand. And the day was windy, smoky, cold, rainy, warm, sunny and everything a Tasmanian day can be.

Given this, and the fact that the Bothwell flour I’d had stone ground at Thorpe Farm was low in gluten, traditionally considered a dodgy flour to make a well-risen bread with, Graham worked miracles. Out of the oven came three loaves. One, 100% Thorpe Farm flour, had a fine, almost cake like texture, but a long, nutty, unbelievably good flavour.

The others, a 50/50 mix, and an 80/20 mix using a high gluten flour from Queensland, were joyously light. They had large, textured holes. They had a cracking crust, a delightfully resilient mouthfeel, and a warm flavour from the local flour. Considering the limitations, this was about as good could get.

One thing I learnt is about hydration. This is the amount of water compared to flour. So if you have 1kg of flour, and add 650 mls of water, this is called 65% hydration. We hydrated our doughs to about 90% hydration. This makes for really, really wet dough; so sticky that it is a nightmare to work with. It’s like trying to knead putty. Or glue. Graham has a technique where you swing the dough over your shoulder and flick it back to stretch it as it comes crashing down on the bench. It’s hard work, and some say you need to flick each loaf several hundred times. I managed about fifty before my arms ached and my hair was full of dough.

The results, I have to say, were amazing. To his credit, Graham baked loaves you’d be proud to buy in any shop, which was no mean feat considering the obstacles I put in his way.

And the result is that my bread is now wetter, less kneaded, and far better to eat than I thought it possible to bake at home. It’s a soggy dough that I let rise slowly on the bench overnight. Into an oven at about 230°C and the crust is dark, the innards holey, the texture close to perfect. Put it with Maggie’s butter and I turn to putty myself.