I’ve always been fascinated with sourdough. With regular bread, you’ve got your flour, your water and your yeast. The yeast comes in a powder from Fleischmann’s or whomever, and it’s yeast: you mix in with the flour and water, you wait for the little yeasties to eat the sugars in the flour, toot out some carbon dioxide bubbles to make your bread fluffy, and you’re good to go, wherever you are. Same flour, same yeast, same bread, give or take.
All around us, though, are literally millions of different microorganisms floating in the air, a tiny micro-ecyosystem, and everywhere it’s different. The yeasts in the air in Seattle are different then the yeasts in Alaska and California and New York and Rome.
And that’s the basis of a sourdough starter: cultivated wild yeast, originally collected from the air. Sourdough from Seattle is different than sourdough from Alaska is different than sourdough from Rome. Sourdough will always have a truly local flavor.
So when I suggested to Rob Savino, owner of the new Damsel and Hopper Bakery (4405 Wallingford Ave N) in Wallingford (and a new Wallyhood sponsor), that I was interested in coming in and sampling some of his baked goods, I was thrilled when he suggested a sourdough tasting.
Ushered around back, I was introduced first to ET, the lead baker responsible for creating the loaves I was about to taste. On this particular sunny afternoon, I was treated to three sourdough loaves each born from the same starter, cultivated at Damsel and Hopper, but risen from three different flour combinations.
Damsel and Hopper specializes in using a variety of “heritage wheat grains”, the flour equivalent of heirloom tomatoes (except, at Rob points out, wheat has a longer history with humans than tomatoes.) While each loaf also has a mixture of traditional white flour, they each are dominated by the interesting flavors that ancient wheats bring to the table.
My first taste was a slice from the the Einkorn loaf. Einkorn wheat, at 10,000+ years old, is the oldest known variety, perhaps the first domesticated by humans somewhere in Lavante.
I watched carefully the way the loaf flexed slightly underneath Rob’s hands, then sprung back into position after the bread knife had passed through, leaving a thick slice ready for tasting. I smelled it first, and took in a sharp, faintly bitter smell.
Biting into it, the crust had a nice snappy crunch to it, firm but yielding. ET explained that the “structure” of the bread referred ot the interior, which was moist, but not wet. It was not, they apologized, quite as “open” as they would lik eit to be, but the firm, resilient sponge of it was perfect for my palate. It chewed well, and the flavor had a sour nuttiness to it, the bitterness I had smelled resolving into a hint of minerality softened by undertones of honey.
I cleared my palate and prepared for my second taste, this time of a sourdough of Sonoran wheat and polenta. This was ET’s favorite and, spoiler alert, my own as well.
Sonoran wheat was first to make it to the Americas, coming over with the Spanish to Mexico, then traveling up the up the Camino Real with the missionaries. Every mission had Sonoran wheat in it. By virtue of that connection, it became the most popular variety of wheat west of Mississippi and was a popular commercial variety in the 1800’s.
The polenta decorated the loaf with flecks of gold, and biting into a slice from this loaf, I was immediately struck by the creamy, buttery flavor. The flavor was more straightforward and accessible than the Einkorn, and, as our conversation wound on, this was the loaf I kept returning to for second and third slices. On the other hand, as I double-backed now to the Einkorn, ready to resample it with something to contrast it to, I found a new appreciation for the nuttiness depth of that first loaf.
The third loaf they had for me that day was built around Turkey Red flour. According to Kansan lore, it was brought to the Americas by Mennonite farmers from the Black Sea area of Russia (who in turn, had been recruited by the US railroad companies hoping to build grain growing communities along their new tracks), it was became popular in the Great Plains area in the late 1800’s, before it was eventually replaced by hybrids. It never quite left the Plains, though, as most modern hard red wheats have a Turkey Red in their parentage.
The Turkey Red sourdough was chewier than the previous two, with a return of the slight bitterness of the Einkorn that was absent from the Sonoran and polenta loaf. The crust was softer than the Einkorn, and the interior was rougher, with a slight, not unpleasant hearty grittiness to it. The structure held more holes, which ET told me was partly simply the idiosyncracies one sees in any handmade loaf, and partly due to differences in the wheat. The distribution of the voids was also more uneven, with areas of dense chewiness and others or airy room.
I asked ET about this, and was treated to a short lesson on sourdough breadmaking: sourdoughs in general are quite a bit wetter than other doughs. Many traditional sourdoughs are lower in hydration, because they contain proportionally more white flour than Damsel and Hoppers’. Because of the emphasis they place on heritage wheats, their sourdoughs tend to be a bit weaker in stucture and require a softer touch and must be worked and folded by hand.
Though their sourdoughs require a long rise, and end up with a looser strucutre than many traditional sourdoughs, they feel very similar when finished proofing.
ET told me that shaping these loaves involved some experimentation and learning. “You can treat traditional sourdoughs rougher when you shape them,” they told me, “and sometimes have to be rough with these as well. But you have to be attentive when you put your hands on them. It’s not like you can’t shape them, and make that classic ‘betard’ shape, but you want to handle them more gently because they’re so wet, that it’s hard to preserve the internal structure.”
“One thing that is unusual here, I guess,” they continued, “is that we only shape them once. Most bakeries will do pre-shape and final shape. But because it the dough is so wet and fragile, which organizes the internal structure of the bread, we don’t have that luxury. The pre-shaping and shaping can give you a tighter, more regular shape, so that when I slashed my bread later, the steam will emerge from the bread in a pattern that’s regular and attractive.”
“We proof all our breads in banneton baskets, made out of cane / wicker,” they said, showing me the floury doughy bowls. “That helps our breads maintain shape. Most places that make their bread in bowls hold them in baskets of some form. It allows them to breathe, yielding a nice and tight skin that’s not dried up. And it also gives you those attractive circular patterns you see etched in the skin of the loaf.”
I was pleased, too, to get a glimpse of mind of a baker, as ET explained that their sourdoughs (all of which I would happily eat a full loaf of at a sitting), was still a work in progress from their perspective.
“I’d prefer to have less uniformity in holes, really. I’m working towards more openness to the structure, and a greater differentiation between the taste of the crumb [the interior] and the crust. They’re really two different products, the inside and the out.”
And that concluded my tasting Damsel and Hopper tasting. Had I more time, I would have had a chance to taste some of their pastry offerings, created by Pamela, their lead pastry chef (and, with a PhD in astronomy, a one-time ex0-planet hunter.)
She was responsible for the “sweet stuff”: the cakes, cookies and the danishes. We had just started to talk about the croissant process (which, she told me, appealed to her scientist side, with it’s rigorous, multi-step process often producing puzzles to solve) and Damsel and Hopper’s playful approach to “theme” menus (their Cinco de Mayo offerings, for example, featured a “horchata” croissant, with twice baked almonds, Mexican cinnamon, vanilla and topped with coconut, a nod to the Mexican victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla on May the 5th, 1862.
But on a schedule, I departed with a few slices of sourdough for home tasting. I enjoyed all three loaves “straight up” at the bakery, but at home, I soaked them in an olive oil flecked with large chunk Irish sea salt and was in buttery smooth heaven. Rob agreed that while the loaves serve well wrapping a sandwich or with a slab of butter, olive oil was his favorite accompaniment as well. What’s yours?