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Celebrating Sourdough September!

Just as children return to schools and people are being encouraged to return to "normal" it is national sourdough month! If your first thought is "I wont have the time or energy for sourdough" then we would like you to take a more measured approach and allow yourself the time to do some fermenting. It might not take up as much time as you think!

Of all the people I know who caught the sourdough bug during lockdown Mary Brown's persistence and dedication to the cause has been the most impressive and I thought it was timely to share it with you. Mary lives in London and is Madi's Godmother Rebecca's mum (does that make her a grand-god mother?). She loves cooking, trying new recipes and embracing a challenge. She's now consistently turning out wonderful sourdough for the enjoyment of her family and friends.

Mary Sourdough Cook Food Noodles
Mary enjoying some dinner and wine

Mary's background (a potted history)

Mary was born in Brunei in 1934, of Chinese parents, and trained as a nurse in Singapore, prior to training & working as a midwife in London & Leeds. She recollects cycling around these cities to deliver babies at home! She also worked abroad while raising her two children and supporting her husband. Even after his death she continued to work and only retired when she was 65. Mary is the seventh child of eight children and consequently Rebecca has countless cousins scattered across the world.

As a child Mary remembers her mother fermenting Chinese rice wine, made using glutinous rice and natural yeast. It was believed to help women who were breastfeeding to eat chicken, ginger & rice wine soup - perhaps this was the inspiration for her to train as a midwife! Mary says her mum would go to the local coffee shop and buy a string of dried yeast, which looked like mini donuts, as her starter. She would work out how many of these she needed for each gantang of rice (a unit of measure in Brunei, Sabah, Sarawak & Malaysia – about 2.7kg) which she would crush and layer over the cooked the rice, using sterile pots and utensils to encourage the yeast and avoid unwanted microbes. The top layer was always cooked red rice to colour the wine. Then it was covered with a muslin cloth and a bamboo tray. After a few days she would scoop the ensuing liquid out, boil and store in sterile bottles.

Mary is now 87, retired and living in London with Rebecca. She hasn't found the global pandemic and UK lockdowns too stressful as she has simply kept to her home and avoided going out. To occupy her time along with the usual house and gardening tasks she began to explore subjects of interest on YouTube. That was where she came across sourdough as a project. Initially, it was hard to follow all the technical terms being used but she persisted until she had a better understanding. There was also a lot of coverage in the foodie media at this time and Mary loves a challenge. When Rebecca mentioned that a friend of hers was using a heavy iron pot she had given him as an "oven" for his sourdough, Mary's sourdough journey began in the late summer of 2020. Mary is determined (and can be stubborn) and she certainly doesn’t let many things, if anything, beat her! There were lots of 'trials and errors', especially cultivating the starter in the first place. She admits that initially she could get too impatient and Rebecca was responsible for throwing away some of the 'good stuff' before she understood the painstaking work to achieve the promised land of a happy, bubbling sourdough starter.

After a couple of flat sourdough loaves Mary found another a good YouTuber who explained the process really simply and at long last she produced her first successful loaf! However, her careful research and all those attempts gave her the understanding of what it is to over and under ferment the dough! Rebecca didn't count how many loaves and YouTube videos were watched but it was numerous.

What kept Mary going was that she quickly realised is that every loaf is different. And that’s what intrigues her. There were so many variables: different flour combinations, different techniques to build up the structure of the dough - slapping, coiling etc. She also discovered that finding out the % protein of your flour is important. It is a real science but there is an art involved as well, which is true for all fermentations. In the end Mary has drawn from different bakers and developed her own way of doing it so now she can consistently produce gorgeous, soft and tasty sourdough loaves.

Mary is now diversifying a little - she recently mastered char siu bao (barbecue-pork-filled buns)! She was delighted that using her sourdough starter the buns came out white , 'smiling' and looking delicious. She has also experimented with different flavours successfully making olive and sun-dried tomato, rosemary and honey-sweetened loaves.

Char Siu Bao made with sourdough starter barbeque pork
Char Siu Bao made with sourdough starter

All of this skill and consistency doesn't come to anyone easily. Mary had to keep trying in order to succeed. She used 3 big bags of flour before she produced a good starter and finally a delicious loaf. Even now Mary says that she has never made a perfect loaf as she feels that there's always improvements to be made. This is what drives her forward and keeps her baking.

So, since Mary's done a lot of the hardwork for us we asked...

What would be your golden rules or advice to others making sourdough? Mary says that the most important factor of all is to be patient and look at the reaction of your dough. Think about the variables which change every time you bake, it could be the flour, water or temperature. If you can learn how to adjust each one to get to the right consistency you will eventually succeed. Mary has settled on the Rubaud method for mixing the sourdough, followed by stretching and folding in a bowl. She also uses the lamination method – a good way to add nuts, seeds and other extras into your sourdough. Another tip, is to turn your dough out onto a silicone pastry mat, as you can use this to help fold your dough by lifting up the edge of the mat and folding the dough over etc. This is particularly useful if the dough is a bit wet and using your hands isn’t working!

Sourdough loaf loaves bread bake ferment fermentation
Mary's amazing sourdough loaf

Fermentation, of any sort, is never going to be an exact science as we know so well at The Crafty Pickle. There are so many variables but with time, patience and love it is possible to master your craft and enjoy the experience and challenge. Admittedly, a retired midwife might have more time than you to practice their art but the most important factor here is persistence not time. It's unlikely that anyone at home could be making sourdough from scratch everyday but a weekly or monthly attempt will allow you to develop the skills you need to succeed. In between bakes you could be watching YouTube to inspire and educate you! It's a better distraction than checking work emails and builds in a little time to work on your hobbies.

And if you're interested in learning more about fermenting vegetables at home then why not take a look at our upcoming Crafty Pickle Workshops here.

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