Spectator: Give us this day

Why do all supper guests bring bread, wonders Lucy Baring.

One is just as likely to be presented, I’ve found, with a loaf of bread as with a bottle of wine. Nobody ever brings soap. Our latest guest actually brought three loaves, but Zam, who had wandered in moments before this arrival, saying ‘Now, what’s interesting about this loaf is that I’ve left it for 14 hours in the fridge’ before wandering out again, wouldn’t dream of being deterred by their presence. Which is why there are also a couple of sourdough loaves in the oven.

These have been made using a starter that’s 168 years old and that’s been sent to us by a friend, who ordered it from the internet. He’d been intrigued when he first read about it, but then lost the packet of powder that arrived, only to find it two years later when the kitchen was being refitted. Having tossed a little potato water its way, he was amazed to find the starter reactivated and went on to make some of the best loaves he’s ever baked.

I had listened with scepticism to this tale, which is why he’s sent us some. It’s not as if we don’t have starters of our own. The kitchen has bowls of brown stuff fizzing, drying and smelling. They take up a lot of room. But I’m no longer sceptical, because now I’ve read up on the 1847 Oregon Trail sourdough starter and it appears that this is magical stuff. Carl T. Griffith, who died in 2000, sent out packets of it throughout his life—completely free—a tradition now being continued by his family and friends.

On the website, Carl explains how to dry and grind the starter, which has a vitality undimmed by age. It was once used to ‘chink’ the walls in log cabins and even that’s been reactivated. Clearly, a couple of years lost behind the cupboard in a Dorset kitchen is no big deal.

Zam has been feeding the 1847 and it smells marvellous unlike many of the starters that have appeared over the 10 years since he began making bread. He bakes a delicious white loaf (popular), a weighty brown loaf (politely received) and a sourdough that’s often been an unhappy combination.

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For Christmas, I gave him a one-day bread-making course. The tears with which this was received were of joy. Definitely. He came home with recipes for delicious ciabattas, brioches and baguettes, as well as 11 loaves, which are now in the freezer. We took one with us when we went to Kate’s for supper that I saw being discreetly popped into her freezer. I counted three other loaves on the counter top. There were three other guests.

Having been brought up on the sliced white invented in 1961 at Chorleywood, it’s taken me a while to adjust my taste buds. The new industrialised baking method produced a loaf, from flour to sliced and wrapped within 3½ hours (today, it takes less than two), which halved the price, doubled the shelf life and went on to conquer the world. And kill off bakeries.But sliced white is now widely considered to be the food of the Devil for reasons pretty evenly divided between health and taste and the sourdough loaf is the popular replacement. In my case, Zam likes baking, the bread needs eating and I’m almost converted.

I can’t say the same for our youngest son, who I spy sneaking into the kitchen, past the variety of loaves, heading for the bread bin in search of anything that doesn’t shout artisan. I slice into the loaves we’ve just been given and wonder if Alfie has a point. One is packed with walnuts, one with tomatoes and olives and one with feta cheese. Zam looks excited. I’m not. These exotic combinations are too much for me. Feta in sourdough it’s enough to reactivate the Chorleywood that must still be in my system.