A Tale of Two Sourdoughs
This is a story of two different grains, rye and wheat, and how the natural yeasts that are found on them can feed on the grain's natural starches and thrive -- so much so, that they can leaven flours into bread. This miracle is repeated daily, world-wide, but it remains an event of mystery and awe and almost magic, especially to those who have never seen it done. Furthermore, although the process is simple and natural to the living yeasts, we humans have built up methods and recipes and feeding schedules to make it fit our own social and cultural needs. But have we tamed the wild yeasts, or have they tamed us?
I personally have been keeping both a 70% rye sourdough and a 70% wheat sourdough going now for about a year, but I was beginning to wonder if it was truly viable, or working at its peak. To test my wild yeast's ability to raise bread, I recently tested it on a loaf, made with wheat and what I think was teff, and it did seem to want to leaven the dough, even if my bread was ultimately rather unimpressive.
What I mean is, the crumb of the bread had nice even holes in it, showing that the yeast was doing its thing, eating some starches and making carbon dioxide and alcohol as its own waste product, which is what I require to make my bread rise. That it didn't rise all that well despite the crumb is due to many other factors. I blame the baker, and not the yeast. They, at least, know what they are doing.
With a few days off, I decided to undertake the daily chore of starting some new starters. I settled upon two recipes:
(1) a simple rye sourdough, using the directions provided by the German home baker extraordinairre, Nils Schöner, who recently wrote a book called "Brot", and
(2) a more complex wheat sourdough called "Desem", directions provided by the excellent book "Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book: A guide to Whole-Grain Breadmaking", by Laurel Robertson, Carol Flinders and Bronwen Godfrey.
While Nils' technique comes to us from Germany, 'Desem' apparently was a technique of sourdough that the Flemish developed.
Whatever the source of the sourdough recipes I was using, however, I had to use local grains, which meant that I would be using local yeasts as well. There are local differences between yeasts, I have learned. That is why San Francisco Sourdoughs have a specific taste that connoisseurs can differentiate from Vermont Sourdoughs. In fact, every locale probably would produce its own distinct flavour, if only we were savvy enough to discern it. For there are differences in sunlight, soil, grain, yeast, and water in every place, and only by aligning ourselves to the genius of the place we are in, can we hope to work with nature and live symbiotically with the wild living things that exist all around us.
So let's talk about the grains I used. For these sourdough builds, I decided that I would not use previously milled flour, but would freshly grind the grains daily to make the flour that would make the sourdough. There is a reason for this: I have read that there are up to 200% the amount of yeast on the surface of a grain than in the equivalent weight of flour from that grain; I am not sure why this might be, but perhaps the yeast is affected by the oxidation of the oils and starches; or perhaps because the yeast is on the exterior of the grains, on the outermost part of bran, and oftentimes this is the part of wheat that gets sifted off most flours.
I already had a hand-crank mill, the Country Living Grain Mill. I knew that it worked well enough to provide me with some flour, even though I admit it is somewhat of a chore to daily grind up what ultimately is only small amounts. Since I haven't used my mill all that much, even though I've had it for about a year, I am still experimenting with how to get a consistent fineness of flour. Thus, my flour is variously fine and coarse, depending on the day that I mill.
The big question for me, then, became "where are you going to get enough whole grains to accomplish this?" I have been looking into growing my own grains, but frankly, I don't have quite enough space to grow as much grain as I have been using. I would have to buy some.
But where does one go to buy whole grains? This is ridiculously difficult anymore. Walk through any grocery store, and see how many whole grains you will find. Rice, perhaps; although most of the rice you buy will be whitened, i.e., its bran is removed. You can in some stores purchase barley; but often it is pearled barley: once again, the bran of the grain is removed.
Sometimes you can find some exotic grains like amaranth or quinoa in a specialty aisle. You can find oats, but this is not whole oats, but rather oat meal. It is almost impossible in an ordinary grocery store to even find any processed rye grains, let lone the whole rye. Just the opposite can be said for wheat: although you can't find any whole wheat, you certainly can find many and multiple processed foods containing wheat. In fact, it becomes a challenge when you discover a gluten intolerance, and are told you can't use wheat. So very many things contain wheat flour, you will have a difficult time finding something that has never been in contact with it, in processed foods. It used to be said of the Bible that it was the most popular book in the world, but very few people have ever read it. Something similar can be said of wheat: it remains the most popular grain in the world, but very few people ever work directly with the whole grain. Many people cannot even pick wheat out of a line up of grains, and even fewer know the growing plant.
In the old days, people would grow their own grains for themselves and their animals, and as they needed it, they would bring some to the local mill to have it ground into flour. The mill would generally keep a portion of this flour as payment. Mills popped up along river banks in many tiny locales that would draw farmers from a wide agricultural region. Sometimes those locales would thrive and become larger towns, and when such towns were located well on major transportation routes, the town might grow into a city. But over time, the very smallest mills stopped operation, or were burned (a frequent danger, especially for early mills that were driven by water and made out of wood, where the friction of the millstone would generate enough heat to set the place ablaze), and never rebuilt. The economics of the local-to-agriculture changed, transportation became cheaper, and the entire delivery system of grain foods changed. And, one might argue, from a health standpoint, the change has not been better. Now, our grains are shipped long distances; they are stored for long periods of time; they are purchased in huge amounts by corporations that process them; and the end result of the flour and flour-based-products are sent back to grocery stores.
We forget our history, we forget the mills: they are so out-of-use, we put it out of our minds. Evidence of the mills is scarcely to be found unless you know what you are looking for. In Hungry Hollow, where I sometimes go to walk my dog along the picturesque canyons of Sable River, you can see evidence that the 'Hollow' once had a thriving mill or two. Stone foundations can be found in two or three spots along the river trails. In Strathroy, where I currently live, you can no longer see much evidence of the mills. The mill stone of the Pincombe Mill is still displayed by the Mill Pond, but the stone foundations are gone. You won't find that many smaller, local mills in operation any more. The ones you do find tend to be quaint places, reminiscent of a simpler, happier time.
That is what you find when you visit Arva Flour Mill, just north of London Ontario Canada. The Mill was built in 1819, only a year or two before my ancestors came to nearby Lobo area. The sign marking the historical significance of the site will tell you that "Arva Flour Mills on Medway Creek is the township's longest surviving industry. A visit to the mill will reveal grinders, belt-driven from beneath the floor, with wooden chutes extending up between the rafters."
The mill pond at Arva
The Retail Outlet at Arva Flour Mills
The Arva Flour Mills is a local Heritage Site
I know my ancestors, back 6 or 7 generations, grew grain on the 200 acre farm that they bought from the crown with little more capital than a promise to pay. Settlers were given two years to complete the settlement duties, which meant that he had to build a "good and sufficient dwelling house of at least 15 feet by 20 feet in the clear" and occupy it. In the same period of time, he had to clear and fence five acres for every 100 acres he possessed, a total of 10 acres. In addition, he had to clear and open half the road width (33 feet), in front of his lot and to leave no trees standing within 100 feet of the road.
The log house that he constructed was sturdy enough to stand and serve his family for over forty years. Still, it would be 15 years before he formally petitioned the crown for the land he had been living on since 1818. It probably took him that long to obtain the small amount required by the province for land fees.
The first crops would have been sewn between the stumps as they removed trees to build their first house, a log cabin; and some trees would have been burned for the potash (which by the 1860s would be sold for a few pennies and shipped off to make gunpowder for the northern armies in the American Civil War). In the very early years of the farm, everything would have been done by hand. Later, the fields would yield enough for a few implements and work animals to be purchased. Farmers would help each other out, as they still do, when they are able. Our communities grew out of farms and the needs of farmers to share what they had.
The censuses of 1851, 61, 71 and 81 were the earliest ones to tell us the yields, some 30-60 years after my ancestors cleared the land and improved the roads in front of their lot. By 1871 the original lot was divided among sons; one son that had half of the land had 3 acres in grain, and that only yielded a total of 28 bushels of fall wheat. Without a doubt, my ancestors would have driven their grain down the road by horse-drawn wagon to Arva, a few concessions away, to get it milled into flour. It was a familiar journey, as they traveled the road every week to go to the Wesleyan Methodist church.
I have been purchasing both my whole wheat and my rye flours from the Arva Flour Mill from some time now. And I also purchase some of the other products: cracked grains, grain meals, steel-cut grains, brans, wheat germ, yeast and other wonderful baking items like raisins, currents, honey, molasses, etc. It truly is a bread baker's paradise.
And, I discovered, they will also sell you whole wheat berries and whole rye grains in quantity. That is where I got my supply of these two grains that I was going to mill into my own whole grain flour, to make my sourdough.
The large 25 kg bag of wheat grains was $25.50, and the smaller 10kg bag of rye was $10.88. I have no way to gauge whether that price is good or bad. But it seemed to me at the time that it was not much more than a dollar a kilogram, so I went for it.
And now what follows is my experience making two sourdoughs directly from the grains.
Nils' Schöner's Sourdough Method for rye
Laurel's Kitchen's Desem Method for Whole Wheat