I enjoy bread. Gluten and carb naysayers be warned, this is a bread-friendly space. Sandwiches. Toast. Even just nibbling the heel with a bit of butter or olive oil. We always have bread in our house.
One of the historical touch-points for this pandemic lock-down also turned out to be bread-friendly. As people sheltered at home, directed to avoid the outside world for a few months, fearful of an un-quantifiable viral transmission risk, hoarding toilet paper and learning the nuanced stresses of multiple hours spent video chatting, many people turned to baking. Flour and yeast came to such short supply that commercial bakeries were offering online sales of their stockpiles, and Canada’s most famous flour supplier streamlined production by packing in plain brown paper bags because they could not manufacture the branded sacks fast enough.
I was well-stocked for flour. On the day I came home from the office with my laptop and set up a work from home office in my basement, I made sure to wander upstairs shortly after and pull my sourdough starter out of the fridge with the vague notion of maybe baking some bread while I was home.
I think I started making sourdough in 2015. I’d watched a documentary on Netflix about the history of naturally leavened breads — which was more exciting than it sounds — and the perception that this traditional approach to food, including the process of long fermentation and simple ingredients, had a holistic nutritional advantage over industrial bread production. I was intrigued. Shortly afterward I bought a bread-making book, set out on the counter some flour and water to ferment into a levain, and then fumbled through a dozen failed bread experiments. That starter lived about two years before it stagnated from distraction. My success rate was low, and my summer had been busy, and one day I pulled it out of the fridge after neglecting it for about two months and it was a grey box of goo.
In the spring of 2019 we took a trip to San Fransisco and (I likely need not elaborate on my inspiration) upon our return I hatched a new bread-making plan and brand new starter. A little more research. A little more patience. A little more practice. And between May 2019 and March 2020 I baked a batch of bread every week or so, each a little different than the last, but increasingly closer to personal perfection.
Traditional sourdough is that classic domed loaf with the slice across the top blossoming like a flower in the springtime. The Kid, who shares my appreciation for bread-based food, noted one morning that it would be so much smarter if I baked actual sandwich-shaped loaves of bread. “Are you allowed to do it that way, dad?” …to which I promptly replied by ordering a second cast iron loaf pan from Amazon and running the experiment. My standard batch of dough turned out to be a perfect recipe to divide in half and create a pair of mini sandwich loafs roughly 21cm x 12cm. Perfect for the toaster. Perfect for a grilled cheese.
“Neat.” I thought — and I went back to baking a classic dome.
Then came the pandemic.
My starter had warmed up on the counter, the last loaf we’d bought from a grocery store was dwindling nearby, twenty kilograms of flour lurked in my pantry, and I pulled out my tools and started mixing a batch of dough. Five hundred grams of flour. Twelve grams of salt. Three hundred and sixty grams of water. And a portion of my starter. Proof. Bake. And voila: two mini-loaves of sourdough sandwich bread to hold us over until the grocery stores are back to normal. That should be enough, right?
Today marked two months since I got pulled into the pandemic panic that ramped up at my job, and this morning I cut into the thirty-sixth mini-loaf of pandemic sourdough I’d baked since this story began. Three dozen. Eighteen batches. In the meantime, online communities have sprung up to share advice and tips and photos. Friends have quizzed me for secrets. We stood on a street corner and one of our neighbours suggested a bread swap. Pandemic sourdough has defined this span of time almost as much as the daily news briefings or the long hours in my basement office or the endless video calls.
Will I still enjoy bread when this is all over? Some time in the future, I imagine at least, I’ll be telling a grandkid or two about the year twenty-twenty as we sit together and nibble on the heel of a loaf of fresh sourdough. “This was actually what we ate. Bread like this. Made from this same starter. These pans. This kind of bread. Every day. It fed us and kept us a little bit happy through a sad and crazy time.”
“That doesn’t seem so bad.” They’ll say.