Course of the month:
2020 has certainly been a year to remember and not just because we hosted our annual competition to find the King or Queen of the Sourdough with a new category this year. If we cast our minds back to early March, in some ways it feels like years and not months have passed. Literally overnight the country were told to stay at home, to only go out if it was considered absolutely necessary; to shop for essential supplies or to exercise once a day. What on earth were we to do with all this spare time? The nation began home renovating, gardening and yes, of course, baking! The result of this was you couldn’t buy compost, seeds or indeed flour. We can probably all hold our hands up to behaviour we may not have been guilty of before. The Saturday before we went into lockdown I made a mad dash to the local garden centre and grabbed what I could so that I would at least have something to grow on my allotment. Potatoes and onions it is then; I’m still enjoying my home grown King Edwards and picking onions when I need them, so not all bad.
As supermarkets ran out of flour people turned to find alternative sources. Not everyone knows this, there was never a shortage of flour but the demand for retail sized bags meant that small bags of flour were in short supply. Overnight the online side of our business was overwhelmed with orders for bread and cake as well as proving baskets, bread tins, flour, and not forgetting a jar of our 65 year old sourdough. The nation began to bake.
Our community page, Sourdough Nation, had a healthy following of bakers world wide. A place to share all things sourdough, ask for or offer advice, post recipes and share photos. We saw a huge increase in members after lockdown and it is now at over 11,000. What became clear pretty quickly was that there were an awful lot of people who had never baked before, let alone attempted sourdough before lockdown, looking for like minded people to assist them on their journey. It really is a journey, it’s not something you can master over night and also requires a huge amount of patience, which, as we discovered, came as a shock to some!
The month of May approached and it was clear that although we were keen to run King of the Sourdough it wouldn’t take it’s usual form. In the past we would ask bakers every week to post a photo of their loaf and a winner would be declared, once a week, for 8 weeks. The winner from each week was invited to The Cookery School above our shop in Chipping Sodbury in September (not forgetting to bring a loaf to be judged). A lovely day of baking in our Rofco Oven and sharing all things sourdough ensued and finally a winner declared.
With all the enthusiastic bakers out there there was no question about whether to run the competition, the question was ‘how would we do it?’ It didn’t seem fair to put newbie bakers up against more experienced ones and so the ‘lockdown loafer’ and ‘master baker’ categories were born.
Fast forward to 3rd September 2020, the eve of judging day, as the entries began to arrive. Loaves of bread lovingly wrapped, protected by bubble wrap, brown paper and tied with string. Some more local, hand delivered; or perhaps they didn’t trust the courier service would treat it with the respect it deserved. For the judges it was as if Christmas had come early, a real feeling of excitement and anticipation.
The following day, surrounded by a sea of sourdough, the judges listened to the bakers whilst they described their loaves and the process they used, via Zoom, of course. Each loaf was cut, tasted (and sniffed – see the photo evidence of this) then discussed at length. It was apparent, that although the bakers had never met, there was a connection via their loaves. The stretch and fold method was used by all the entries, without exception, as well as baking in a Dutch Oven. As with all things there are trends and fashions, this year the search for the ‘perfect ear’ featured heavily. Is it that important to have it? Is the loaf going to taste better with it? What never ceases to amaze me is that there is always something to learn, the day we feel we know everything is perhaps the day we lay down our dough scrapers; do bakers ever truly retire? This year we learnt about tangzhong. A Japanese technique which involves cooking a portion of the flour and liquid in the recipe prior to adding the remaining ingredients, resulting in a softer crumb. Traditionally using a yeasted dough, we saw this method transferred to a sourdough with toasted sesame seeds; boy, was it delicious with real umami. When judging a competition such as this everyone’s opinion is valid but are they ever going to be the same? I think we all know the answer to that as after much deliberation, and a difference of opinion (causing an over extended lunch break) the winners were declared.
Lockdown loafer – Steve Jenkins . The judges declared his loaf had a mild sourdough flavour with a great crust, along with the addition of malted wheat made it a real winner.
Master baker – Katherine Sulzmann. This loaf really did stand out as a very accomplished entry. The crust dipped in poppy seeds, whilst the crumb, marbled with red rice yeast, added an extra dimension and made it, quite frankly, delicious.
This time last year we would never have imagined the world to be as it is now. I, for one think it would be a sadder place if it weren’t for the simple pleasures such as baking with sourdough. Where will we be next year? Some things we can’t be sure of, but will we be baking? You can bet your burger baps we will!
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