The Secret to Sourdough, or, Why I Cook, Really  

I recently went trawling at my local charity shops for second hand books, and was fortunate enough to chance upon a book bundle of five cookbooks for sale for R50 (that’s about two pounds in foreign exchange). Amongst my treasure find for the day were Open Rhodes Around Britain by Gary Rhodes, Canteen Cuisine by Marco Pierre White and French Leave by John Burton Race. Gems to be sure. That evening, some Coltrane on the stereo, I sipped on a glass of red, perusing the contents of my 5-for-1 purchase. I always experience this initial stage, of pouring over recipes and new cookbooks, as a kind of titillating flirtation in the sheer delight it awakens in me. Words so seductive and springy to the touch. Words like chanterelle and sprig and crouton and bouquet garni… Some bolder and fuelled by an exquisite passion, like the Italian for tarragon: dragoncello!

All of this got me pondering what it is in fact, that fosters the foodie in us? Why in a state of a global pandemic, did so many of us turn to banana loaf and sourdough made from scratch to share on social media with friends and family? And when I thought on this, I reconsidered the recipes all splayed out before me, and in them, found a sense of calm, of balance, of harmony… Could that be it? That even the recipes themselves, before they’ve made their way into the kitchen, in them alone, already I find some peace and reassurance amidst the uncertainty that affects our futures, one and all.

The more digging I did, the more I stumbled upon the myriad of applications for cooking, from ancient arts like the Buddhist and Ayurvedic diets to culinary therapy being used more and more now to help people across a broad spectrum from those who suffer from severe anxiety to those with an eating disorder. Ingredients aside, all seemed to infer that even the act of cooking itself can prove almost meditative. Be it half an hour, to an hour, to three, it is a time carved out of our day to entirely dedicate ourselves to a task at hand, with sharp knives and pans and pots on the stove with varying heat, leaving little chance for the mind to wander off and worry about external problems until the meal is ready at the very least. Attention is key. Unless we wish to lose a finger or present an omelette blackened at the bottom. It is comforting for me too, that deliberate sense of order, of putting all things in the world right again, when I lay out my ingredients at the ready before embarking on a culinary maiden voyage when a recipe is entirely new to me. Harumi Kurihara, a much beloved cook on my shelves, likes to say, “When I tighten an apron, I feel that I am ready to work.” And this sums it up for me, apron donned, as I feel prepared for anything the universe throws my way.

But as I mulled over all that sourdough, all those banana breads, I still had the feeling that there was more to it than that. Now don’t get me wrong, I can eat out of a yoghurt tub or tuna tin for dinner with the best of them! On days of utter indulgence, I’ll opt for fresh ripe cherries and salty pistachios just as nature intended with little fanfare. And as an aside, I believe it imperative to clear my conscience right off the bat and declare that most bread recipes have eluded me. While my Italian friend makes it look as effortless as breathing, my own few attempts, bar one, have been disastrous. But this something, this glee, that overcomes me as I whip up a smoked haddock fish pie on a chilly afternoon, as the turmeric colours the milk a golden sunset-soaked hue, and the little addition of flour begins to magically thicken the sauce, is it not alchemy? In that moment, it is as if I am truly the master of my own destiny, marvelling at what my own two hands and a trusty wooden spoon can accomplish with one simple recipe, or conjuring spell as it were. In the daily work that I do, on chapters I’m never quite content with, on editing work that can often be tedious at best, there is one pleasure in which I can always take heart. Sometimes it flops. That goes without saying. But the unbridled joy when a meal is better than you could have expected… Or a sourdough risen to utter perfection… A banana loaf moist and soul-satisfying with a cuppa tea for good measure, to keep the wolves from your door… Is there anything more rewarding in this life than that? Perhaps. But none so easily won. Not for this wee writer anyway.


A Fool-proof Bread

1 cup cake flour

1 cup oats

1 tsp salt

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 cup yoghurt

1 egg

Pumpkin seeds for decoration and added crunch

Mix together your dry ingredients and then add your cup of yoghurt and egg. Mix well again.  Decorate with your pumpkin seeds and bake in a pre-heated oven at 190 degrees Celsius for half an hour or when the bread appears risen and golden brown and a prod with a prong comes out clean.

Featured image: ‘Baking Bread’ by Edward Gonzales

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