Recently I was in the UK looking at bread and flour. It strengthened my conviction that Australian sourdough is really characterised by the flours we use here. I saw well volumed loaves made from organic English wheat, and missed out on the bakeries using the French organic flour from the Loire…next time…but the Canadian Viagra flours, which are widely used, really do spoil the show. They are just so strong, being able to handle long retarding, and long process times, so they are really popular. But this type of flour always tastes like card board, and doesn’t eat well because of the tough doughs they form which make the texture of the bread tough. In a way they really arent appropriate because they take so long to reach ripeness…everybody uses them green, so that any flavour they have is never released by appropriate fermentation, which if done correctly could be twice the length of what I do, and I consider possible for flour from Australian prime hard and medium hard wheats. But theres always extra loaves too (strong flours hold more water) which also makes these mega flours attractive.
I didn’t see anybody correctly blending it with softer English wheat, This is what bakers in England used to do, and add, as ive said elsewhere, South Australian wheat's ( for bloom), and other wheats for their individual characteristics. I'm sure there are bakers doing it though. The English Organic stoneground wholemeals I examined smelt like sweet grain, and were nutty, with quite coarse bran and felt gritty like a good bread flour, but with some fine talc like particles which cling to your fingers, indicating some softness.
English wheat can sometimes have a “dangerous” enzyme levels because of damp and rainy harvest conditions. This means the dough will be sticky and not fit regular schedules, will develop poor volume, and bake out damp. Happened to us once in Natural Tucker…we nearly went crazy and tried every trick in the book before contemplating ritual harakiri, but then just getting different flour…which did the same, it was a wet harvest year in Victoria!…and there were no “falling numbers” available then.
My prize from the trip was some Organic stoneground Irish flour from Tipperary, Ballybrado brand. When I opened the bag, I was surprised at the colour. Its really orange-brown with largish bran particles, softish feel and smells like the sweetest essence of grain. Im fortunate to find it, but I really did hunt…Elizabeth David says in her fanous book “ English bread and yeast cookery” that this flour from Tipperary is “incomparable” and simply makes the best tasting wholemeal bread. So I set to work seeding a new leaven from my stock, with the Irish flour.It activated beautifully, in fact better than my Australian wholemeal. Using it at 50% of the flour weight, and with warm water and salt, It made a soft pliable dough which was stronger than I expected . This I bulk fermented in a warm spot for 45mins. It was then shaped and tinned. I let it rise for 21/2 hrs in the tin in a warm spot….yes, really short fermentation times for soft flour. From 1/3 of the volume of the tin, it rose to the top and was still domed…it had not degenerated at all….as often happenins with Australian wholemeals. I baked it at 200.o for 30mins, and then at 180.o for 10mins, with a bowl of water in the oven for humidity.
The loaf is an excellent tawny colour, and the crumb is almost as dark as some rye. The fermentation produced a really soft-eating cakey texture, which simply dissolved in your mouth, really something for a wholemeal. It was in no way heavy, although the texture is close, with pin-hole gas bubbles. The flavour is wheaten…similar to malted wheat, with roasted almond and walnut tones, the best wholemeal I have tasted, and an excellent flour..a bread flour, because it made such sweet bread, which was light and digestible….and 100%wholemeal.!
Most noticeable, is how soft the bread is. This is difficult to achieve with the flinty South Australian stoneground flour I regularly use, child of a harsher climate, which requires considerable hydration before gluten can form.
The bread available in the UK has really improved since I was last there in the 80`s. I didn’t see half of the sourdoughs, but the easily obtained ones like Poilanes, now made in London (and NOTHING like Poilanes original bread) are adequate…the strong flour tough texture and mild flavour, but, in context way better than any factory or faker-bakers breads. Other sourdoughs I tasted were pretty tame. There is a divide between bakers who are control freaks (they have their place) and those who walk a bit on the wild side. The later alweays have more dynamic in their bread, and I didn’t see any of that in the UK ( I'm sure it's there though).
The “new school” as Andrew at Sonoma outs it, all make fairly uniform, controlled bread (some more than others)… I know…the constraints of big production preclude any cosmic interference, its true. I don’t say it as a criticism, but I always look for a bit of life in a bread, rather than uniformity…and treasure being able to get it in my own. One of the in vogue English sourdoughs had little standard sourdough flavour…which really surprised me as it was made from English wheat….which should have made more flavoursome bread through the fermentation releasing volatile flavour components.
There was little organic-acidity, the fermentation character was sweet and yeasty with just a hint of “twang” (and slightly acetic-sweaty)…which always makes me hear in my mind the soundtrack from the shower scene in “Psycho”.…... my experience is that making sourdoughs and yeastbreads, at the same time and continually in the same bakery results in cross-contamination, unless scrupulous practices are observed and times are scheduled so that the breads arent being made concurrently….and preferably on a different planet.
Ireland had a really well executed and delicious wholemeal Spelt soda bread made with that unique Irish buttermilk, from Graham`s in Limerick. I also had beautiful coarse grain wholemeal soda bread with my Shannon river Mussels. Soda bread is really an art itself. The big Spelt bread was about 1.5 kg and slashed with a cross . It was quite masterful. The coarse soda bread was small, about 300gm, rectangular and not hugely risen, almost a small trencher (this shape is traditional, and is even ciabatta-like), but so flavoursome from the good wheat, and appropriate amount of soda and buttermilk.
It is my opinion that Australian wheats have been so messed with by plant breeders, that good bakung qualities have almost been bred out, as strains are crossed and genes are inserted to cope with the latest requirement, be it real or imagined….from shortened stem to rust resistance. What has never been considered is the actual taste, eating and baking qualities of these wheats, which were the major criteria governing the selection of wheats in the past. Or if these criteria have been adressed, it is within parameters which include “improvers” and added gluten.
Remember, bread was never tasted at Australian bread shows…it just wasn’t on the agenda, and the technical quality of a loaf was the only “quality” considered. As raw gluten was added in increasing quantities by Australian bakers, the strength of the wheat wasn’t as much an issue either….strength being not just protein content (as gluten and gliadin), but strength within the context of baking quality, that is a good allround bread wheat which was strong enough, flavoursome enough and imparting good bloom, or aesthetic characteristics to the loaf.
My criteria is always a wholemeal, 100%, preferably stone ground flour. This is the acid test of a good flour, and it must be tested on sourdough as this reveals the actual qualities of a flour. I have been struggling with wholemeals ever since I started baking. When I opened Natural Tucker in 1984, I had a steady stream of growers contact me with organic wheats for me to try, as they saw organics as the escape route from the rural downturn. Problem was, hardly any of the flours I got made good bread, and whats more, none of these growers had considered whether the wheat they were using made good bread…was in fact a bread wheat, and always stared at me with amazement when I said this . I don’t think many of todays “artisan bakers” would be in business if they had to use the flours which I initially had to use. I would not add a chemical such as ascorbic acid to “improve” them, as this is counter to all the notions involved with the real bread movement, and “natural philosophy”.
So we had to get very skilled very quickly to produce good bread, which we did. Our learning curve was very steep. David Brown and myself spent many hours discussing strategies to get the best out of what a wheat board rep called “chook wheats”.
After all, the sourdough bakers from Europe, did not have strong wheats until the 19century when these were imported from Hungary and the Ukraine. Most sourdough bread, forever, was made with what we would consider soft wheat, and tecnically unsuited to bread making. However, these “soft”wheats produced good bread, soley because they were actual bread wheats with all of the qualities required to make good bread. The Irish wheat I have just used proves this to me. 3 days on, and the bread from the Irish wheat is extremely delicious, still moist and hightened in appeal. It displays colour much darker than we are used to, and varied, through chocolatey to orange tones. It is simply the best wholemeal I have ever tasted and eaten, and is from a proper bread wheat, but not one which would today be assessed as a “bread wheat”.