Pain Poilane rye sourdough
Sourdough is an ancient loaf: breads have been made using wild yeasts for at least 6000 years, though how and why they made the bread rise was not properly understood until Louis Pasteur discovered that they generated carbon dioxide as part of the fermentation process in the mid 19th century. The first leavened breads (i.e. raised through the use of yeast, wild or otherwise) were almost certainly raised accidentally. Later, 'active' yeast, such as brewer's yeast, was used to leaven bread, and now most breads are made using this process with commercially produced yeast.

Sourdough has a distinctive tangy flavour and chewy texture, which makes wonderful toast. The long fermentation process allows the flavours to develop fully, whereas bread made with active yeast is made quickly and has a less intense flavour and texture. There are some famous sourdoughs, perhaps most notably Pain Poilane, which has been made in Paris since the 1930s, using a traditional sourdough method (the large round loaves have a special "P" carved into the top). Baker and Spice in London also makes a variety of sourdoughs and 'artisan' breads: there seems to be a greater than ever demand for "proper" bread these days, and even the most bog-standard supermarket now offers a range, including ciabatta (an Italian sourdough), foccaccia and sourdough, though I find most commercial breads to be rather disappointing. Since I started making my own bread 12 years ago, I've become very discriminating and fussy about commercial bread and will only purchase one or two varieties. Waitrose keep Poilane, but it is very expensive; they also offer their own take on Poilane, a 'wheaten quarter' which is pretty good, though also rather pricey.

I have resisted making sourdough because the process is quite fiddly and time-consuming: you need to make a "starter" or "poolish" (a English-American word derived from Polish - the Poles were considered the finest makers of rye bread and they exported much of their bread-making knowledge as they moved across Europe and then to America). The starter has to be "fed", in effect, nurtured to keep it alive, and when you take some out to make a loaf, you must replenish it. When I was a kid, my mum and a group of friends got into making "Herman Cake" or "Friendship Cake" (obviously an American import), and would share a piece of starter. I remember the starter in its box in the fridge, lovingly fed every day by my mother, though I do not recall the cake. A quick trawl of the internet reveals that Herman Cake is still very much alive - great-great-great grandcakes perhaps of my mother's! I'm afraid I've decided life is too short to make a sourdough starter - at least at the moment, when my teaching term is about to recommence, and I need to spend less time in the kitchen and more at the piano! So, when I stumbled across the following recipe the other day, I was delighted to find a "cheat's sourdough": no starter required, but leaving the dough to rise and mature for longer then usual (I usually leave my basic bread dough to rise for about an hour) results in a good imitation of the real thing. The addition of caraway seeds gives this white-rye loaf a nod to the Eastern European Jewish baking tradition. The rye flour does give a slightly grey hue to the bread, but that's just aesthetics.

I don't know why more people don't make their own bread: it's dead easy, cheap and nutritious. You don't need specialist equipment (I don't have a bread machine), just good quality ingredients, and a bit of patience. My homemade bread is always greeted with "oohs" and "aahs" of delight when it is brought to the table, and my friend and regular dinner companion, Nick, quite often sulks if there is no "Fran Bread" with the meal. It also freezes well (make sure it is completely cooled before wrapping and freezing), though without the addition of preservatives, it does need to be eaten quickly. Any left over, stale bread I make into breadcrumbs. A note of advice: never never attempt to slice a fresh loaf straight out of the oven. Always let is cool before slicing it.

I found this recipe in The Guardian

500g rye flour
500g strong white bread flour
20g fresh yeast (or half a sachet of instant or 1 tsp of Dove's Farm Quick Yeast)
20g salt
700g warm water
25g caraway seed, lightly cracked with a rolling pin (optional)

Combine the lot in a bowl and stir initially with a fork or scraper then dump into the bowl of a mixer and give it a good seven minutes at top speed with the dough hook.

Shape into a large ball, coat with a little more flour and place in a bowl covered with a clean tea towel.
Leave the dough to rise. In a warm place, it will achieve 1½ times its original size in an hour or two. Slow the rising process down - in a cold porch, or even in the fridge - and it will take all night, developing better, sourdough flavours as it does.

Half an hour before you're ready to cook, put a baking sheet in the oven and turn it up full. 5 minutes before baking, fill a small ovenproof dish with hot water from the kettle and stick it in the bottom of the hot oven.

Finally turn your dough out of the bowl straight onto the hot baking sheet and stuff it back into the hot, steamy oven as fast as you can. Try to leave the door open for the shortest possible time so the temperature doesn't drop.

After 10 minutes, drop the oven temperature to 180C and open the door. This lets you check on your loaf and allows the oven temp to drop a little faster. After about 20 seconds, close the door and leave for another 20 or so minutes.

At the end of this time the loaf will sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. It should cool thoroughly before slicing.

Cook's note: sourdough takes longer to cook than normal bread, so err on the side of caution when making it. When it is done, it should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom and should feel lighter than when it first went into the oven.


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