Experts across the world pronounce it a healthy alternative to the industrial sliced loaves that here in Kenya are so hard to escape from.
I have a friend called Heidi who hails from a cold Swiss Alpine town whose name I can’t even begin to pronounce. In the summer it is very green and cows prance around munching on lush and verdant grass; in the winter people ski and in the evening, sip schnapps next to a roaring fire. In my mind’s eye, I like to imagine Heidi doing her house chores wearing lederhosen and yodelling at the top of her lungs. I imagine her ‘askaris’ curiously peering through her window, trying to figure out if that’s a cry for help, or just some crazy mzungu singing. But I digress.
On a recent stay at one of the Kitengela glass homes, Heidi got invited to breakfast with Nani Croze, the German owner and founder of the amazing glass factory. During the meal, Heidi’s passion for baking came up, so Nani bestowed upon her a very special gift. The gift was a jar containing a 40 year old sourdough starter. In case you have never heard of a sourdough starter, allow me to explain: a sourdough starter is a mixture of flour, water and wild yeast that has been left to naturally ferment. Before the advent of industrial yeast, bakers across the world would carefully nurture their own sourdough starter that they would then reuse over again again, eventually passing it down to the next generation.
Sourdough is currently receiving a huge upsurge in popularity, as experts across the world pronounce it a healthy alternative to the industrial sliced loaves that here in Kenya are so hard to escape from. The claim is that sourdough has a lower glycemic index than other breads, contains healthy bacteria that does wonders to our digestion, controls the amount of yeast that populates our gut and has many more minerals and vitamins than industrial bread. Above all, however, the main attraction in sourdough breads is the fact they simply taste better. Their tangy and chewy consistency is vastly superior to any of the mass-produced options that are available on the market.
A couple of months ago during a visit to London, I had the chance to taste a delicious sourdough pizza in a restaurant called Franco Manca. The consistency was really different from what I was used to, but it was the flavour that really got me: never had I tasted a pizza in which the dough actually took centre stage. So when my editor asked me to write a column about pizza, I decided that the only option was to enrol Heidi into my plan and see if we could pull-off an amazing sourdough pizza feat.
Unfortunately this is one of the times in which my harebrained schemes do not turn out as planned. When we saw that our sourdough pizza dough was taking a while to raise, we decided to make a regular yeast alternative. Eventually that night we went with the second option, in the hope that the sourdough would have leavened better by morning. When I peered into the bowl the next day, the dough did seem to have raised a bit, but only a bit. The resulting pizza was slightly gummy and had none of the amazing consistency and flavour of the one I tried in London. I suspect the problem may have been with the starter that had been lying around the fridge for many a month and had effectively died. Heidi might beg to disagree but I can see no other reason for which the culture should have failed at creating the desired leavening. My only option is to make my own sourdough starter and at some point in the not-too-distant future, try again. That all depends on me finding some good rye flour. Will keep you posted.