Feb 2008

Mother Yeast

american flour

“Ok, we have good news and bad news. Which do you want first?” I was at the bottom of the stairs. Luciano was upstairs packing for our weekend trip to Tuscany.

“I’ll take the bad news first.”

“We cannot leave until 12:30, maybe even 1:00.

“This is not news. I had expected this. And the good news?”

“The bread is actually working.”

Two day before I had pulled the sourdough starter out of the fridge and fired it up by giving it a double feeding of flour and water, putting into motion the process, once again, to make San Francisco style sourdough bread...in Italy. This blob of flour, water and airborne yeast had taken me weeks of feeding, waiting, (and dumping of failed attempts) to get it to its present form: a living mass theoretically ready to be transformed into sourdough.

This was a second attempt. Several weeks ago I had already taken my first stab at actually bread-making. Ignoring the strange smell and clammy, unfamiliar consistency, I pushed and pulled it into loaves and baked it. The resulting bread was so disturbingly alien that I immediately took it across the lane and lobbed it into the
campo; not an easy feat considering its absolute brick-like weight. This was done quickly under the dark of night, so Luciano was none the wiser.

Disappointed, but determined to try again I pushed the starter to the back of the fridge where it sat in disgrace and suspended animation. In fact, I had forgotten all about the blob until a reader wrote inquiring after it, which of course, reminded me to go downstairs and feed it.

Now, the dough, though still cold to the touch with a strange texture, was actually responding energetically after rising overnight, and after shaping them into baguettes, I was encouraged by their bounciness during the proofing, or second rising.

“Remember Serena, the power is being shut off at noon for that check of the system,” Luciano called down the stairs.

“Crap! That’s right.” Proofing time was over. These guys had 35 minutes to do what they could. Knowing the Italians propensity for punctuality when the least convenient, I was sure the power would go off, right on time. And indeed it did, at spot up noon.

Yet, using every degree of heat available and despite it being a little pale, what came out of the oven was crunchy, chewy bread, but it was not sour. Nevertheless, I would deem that a success and Luciano could no longer make fun of my experiment. Well, yes he can as he, in reference to the amount of time I have spent on it, describes it as the most expensive loaf of bread ever made …as he scarfs down an entire baguette.


A few months have passed I can now safely say that I am successfully making sour dough bread in Italy. The starter has mellowed, matured and is now producing the same crunchy, chewy, slightly sour tasting bread that one can purchase at Fisherman’s Wharf, minus the blob of viscous clam chowder.

Frightfully proud of myself, I described the process to Anna Maria. Thinking I had imported a revolutionary bread making method to Italy, I explained how after taking a bit from the starter to make bread, I then “feed” it with its precious diet of American flour and put it back in the fridge to use later.

“Oh, you mean
lievito madre?”

That stopped me short. Mother yeast? She already knows about this?

“Well, yes. You know about it?”

“I have never used it, but when you buy the artisan breads they are made with it. You know, you take a little bit to make the bread and keep the rest. The bread, they say is better than the industrial yeast which is sometimes unpredictable.”

Of course. In a land where wine making, pasta production and pizza date back to before Christ, they must have figured out the oldest form of bread making. Silly me, the bread makers in San Francisco probably brought their starter from Rome in 1847. I must investigate the age of the starter being used to make the local focaccia.

I bet the bakers tending the original dough watched out the shop windows as the wall around Treviso was being built in 1511. As they tossed the stone ground flour into the mass they were complaining to one another:

“Its about time they put up that wall.”

“Well, it’s a little bit late, doncha think, seeing as the Huns have already sacked the city.”

“Sort of closing the barn door after the---“

“Hey, take it easy on the flour! You don’t want to mess up that starter. My grandfather got that going years ago.”


No matter, I am now enjoying myself and no one seems to be complaining as I crank out six loaves every weekend, all in the name of research. There is always something bubbling in the kitchen or in the cooler laundry room. Luciano finds bowls of rising dough with notes scrawled on the plastic coverings: “Am flour or It 00 flour” as I try to nail down the best combination of water, flour, salt and…Mareno air.

good bread