Our “leaven from heaven” – in it’s prime of life!

A leaven is simply a combination of fermenting flour and water that causes a bread to rise by inflating it with naturally produced carbon dioxide, a by-product of a fermentation process. When baked, the trapped carbon dioxide expands further with the temperature, and as the bread firms-up, a light delicious crumb is produced.

Unleavened breads have been produced for millennia as well, and are generally thin flatbreads, as they do not exhibit the light airy crumb that makes a thicker loaf easy to eat. A thick unleavened loaf would look like a rock and would seem almost as hard!

As with many good inventions, accident plays a part. Thousands of years ago, a dough that had not been promptly baked would have started fermenting by itself. The combination of yeast and bacteria fermenting the dough are naturally occurring, and can be found on the grain itself before milling, and also in the air. When activated with water in the dough, they multiply and fermentation starts. Bakers will have discovered that bread could still be baked from these older doughs, and that the results could lead to a range of breads that were preferred for their digestibility and palatability.

Similar natural fermentations with mashed malted grains, milk and fruit juice will have led to the discovery of beer, yoghurt and wine. The point is that the yeast and bacterial cultures that produce these foods are endemic to the grains and other ingredients in these foods. Natural fermentation is exactly that, a fermentation using the species existing naturally in the foods that are being fermented.

In the last fraction of time that people have been producing leavened breads, the discovery of the microscope meant that the specific microorganisms that comprise the “leaven” could be identified, cultured and produced industrially. This led to the commercial availability of bakers yeast (saccharomyces cerevisiae), which as the main species responsible for the rise in leavened breads, enabled bakers to reduce their costs, getting a fast rise and finished, baked loaves in a matter of hours instead of days.

This development more than any other enabled the rapid development of factory produced bread in the 20th century, and in conjunction with modern distribution practices, bread production volumes moved from the local baker to the supermarket. The breads did not have the benefit of the slight acidity produced by the slower fermenting “sourdough” cultures, and as a result were more susceptible to spoilage by undesirable moulds and bacteria. To reduce this problem, these commercial breads generally contain preservatives such as various salts of propionic acid.

Things are changing again however, with some bakers returning to the ancient origins of their craft, producing breads much as they have been for thousands of years. Key to this is the careful maintenance of a natural leaven or “starter” – a complex population of natural yeasts and bacteria, nourished daily by fresh flour. A proportion of every new dough consists of this leaven, which then feeds on gluten and natural sugars in the flour, producing tiny quantities of acid and carbon dioxide in the process. This gives the dough a complexity of structure and flavour much preferred by many for its digestibility and palatability when compared with breads made with commercial yeast. It is a longer process and a more complex one, requiring much more knowledge and experience to get the best results, but bakers such as our “bread whisperer” at Snowy Mill love their traditional craft for the superior results that they can achieve using original production methods.

At the heart of every sourdough bakery is a living thing, the valuable leaven that must be carefully nurtured everyday. It is the soul of the bakery, without which all baking grinds to a halt. Many sourdough bakers pride themselves on the origins and heritage of their leaven. The reality is that the organisms that comprise the leaven are like a multicultural population, with new organisms being introduced from new grains from new origins, and some thriving in colder and some in warmer temperatures, or in differing hydration levels. It is best thought of not as a static population, but as a complex living village that is adapting to its changing environment over time.

From beer, to wine, cheese, yoghurt and bread, people are beginning to appreciate the delicious and healthy benefits of naturally produced artisan foods. In the case of Snowy Mill, it is our leaven, made from the same premium ingredients as our bread, that shines through in the character of every loaf that we produce. It is one of the key living assets of our business, along with our talented people. We are happy to share – if you live and home bake locally and would like some of our leaven, get in touch!

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