Sourdough: the real bread and butter politics

by | Sep 7, 2023 | Opinion

On a Wednesday night, as everyone else is shutting up shop and heading home, a small group of us pile into central Auckland bakery Bread & Butter. The operation effectively runs 24 hours a day with staff shifts  covering both commercial baking contracts and the salivating taste buds of a devoted local crowd who gather in for assorted pastries, fresh bread and coffee throughout the day. There is a romanticism to being in a bakery after hours, and watching rack upon rack of dough move through the various stages of proofing, scoring and baking. There is a calm, industrious nature to it and we are here to participate – as owner Isabel Pasch is bringing back her sourdough workshops.
Part of celebrating Bread and Butter’s 10-year anniversary, theseries of organic sourdough masterclasses are running at the Bread and Butter Café every Wednesday evening til September 27.

We spoke to Isabel a couple of years ago – talking about the impact of those rapid Covid lockdowns on her bakery and the importance of bread, good quality bread that assists healthy digestion and is more than a virtuous nod towards good nutrition. Pasch’s blog, Bread Politics is a fascinating read, so I am interested in the workshops reopening and curious to see how it aligns with her philosophies. We were there to experience the workshop first hand, and let me tell you – this is a great investment of time and money for anybody wanting to learn great essential sourdough skills.

I have been baking sourdough now for many years and all my best learning has been done in hands-on workshop sessions (even via Zoom from time to time when I need to solve a particular problem) or at school. And it’s that need for upskilling, alongside Isabel‘s passion for helping people eat more good bread, that is really driving the heart of these workshops. Pasch has been a member of the Eat New Zealand Kaitaki – a group of food storytellers committed to telling New Zealand’s food stories. Isabel’s career started in science and then moved into nutrition via bread, which is a delicious carrier for all manner of things, including butter, jam, and politics. Isabel is not some virtuous idealist issuing on the merits of $13 sourdough – in fact, she has a beautifully conflicted understanding of how each part of the food system brings us to where we are today.

Sourdough is the world’s most ancient and traditional way of making bread, But in recent times, it has in fact, become the poster child of the privileged versus accessible peasant food, of sorts. So the merit in the sourdough workshops for Pasch, is resetting and allowing people the opportunity to see how achievable making their own sourdough is. Yes, it’s cost-effective but it can also be achieved within a busy structured lifestyle. The working two jobs and managing kids kind.

As the rain is pouring down outside, the bakery is warm and full of harmonious chatter. The process is deconstructed into a few parts, so over the space of three short hours we can shape, fold and learn the techniques of proving the dough before breaking down how to make it, fermentation. Then finally baking and a long chat understanding how those processes work. The workshop kit comes with your own batch of sourdough starter and a comprehensive workbook that outlines the various recipes and techniques so you leave with all the resources you need to make this work at home.

My first revelation of the night was finally understanding how to perfect a bun roll, something that has previously eluded me. Isabel demonstrates, and then explains that the firm, downward pressure almost adhering the dough to the board will provide the requisite tension and spring up as it forms into a ball. I thwack my dough against the table, and yes, just as she said, as I circle my hand, the dough springs up and forms a natural ball. I am delighted. Next I am perfecting my baguette shaping which has been so neglected over the last few years. Again, I realise I’ve been too tender in my technique before, which is not to say that bread should be aggressive, but there is space to be firm. Once our loaves, rolls and baguettes are shaped, we move on to forming the dough and here the pragmatism really kicks in. After all, we have broken down the process and turned inside out in order to achieve the sum of the parts – in the space of a short three hours. Isabel is it pains to explain that, despite sourdough needing a long  fermentation, the actual work time is relatively short and can be made even shorter – she casts no aspersions on people using stand mixers instead of working by hand.

Just like a food system, bread, especially sourdough, relies on a structured formula of parts. Get the balance of water to flour wrong and you’ll end up with a wet sticky mess. That’s possibly a great metaphor for exactly what’s happened to the state of bread in our country and much of the industrialised world, according to Pasch. And in our time-poor, resource-poor world where communities are often food deserts with access to a single supermarket – our reliance on commercially produced quick breads has become a matter of necessity, rather than choice. But those quick produced breads come with compromise – in order to meet their efficiencies and production costs. The introduction of commercial yeasts instead of fermentation time means means changes to the way the glutens are developed and broken down throughout the fermentation process. All of this is often what leads to poor gut health and digestion. The more we learn about the science of how our bodies work as little bioengineering factories of good and bad bacteria, the easier it is to comprehend exactly how much of a difference, a preservative and additive free life of bread can make. Carbs be damned, there are in fact, more nutritional benefits in a loaf of sourdough that one might expect. Accessibility to the skills, time and knowledge as part of the challenge. Pasch is trying to overcome it with these workshops. All this as we are stretching, folding and then resting dough. With that, it’s into bannettons and time for a quick pizza break where the conversation continues to unfold.

Why does it matter that people make a return to making their own bread? Primarily for the health reasons and second, for the cost. I was part of a conversation at a conference a couple of years ago where a baker was asked about the $13 sourdough loaves. I pose the same question to Isabel – how do you feel about what a $13 loaf of sourdough means to people who can’t afford or access such a product? And her answer is truly the stuff of bread-and-butter politics – there are multiple things we need to fix within the food system in order to make the healthiest staples available at affordable cost and one of the things we can do is give people the skills and tools to make more of their own bread.

Isabel is pragmatic about those things in her own business, and is now actively looking for investors to help relocate to larger premises to become more commercially efficient. Covid took a toll on this business as with so many, but she sees a way ahead and her team are proactively and consistently consistently looking at small tweaks and solutions to help make more effective use of space, energy and efficiencies. There are still supply chain issues impacting her commercial operations – challenges which are known throughout the arable sector, but for which solutions are slow to emerge.

There’s lots of talk of and passion for New Zealand, especially a so-called local grain economy, but it requires large-scale commitment from buyers to complete the supply chain to support the establishment of a significant enough flour mill to warrant the investment and secure viability. Bakeries like Bread and Butter are a significant step down the chain based on size alone.

Finally, we’re scoring and baking. Deft hands slicing through gorgeous, gently puffy loaves. The smell of warm, fresh bread is intoxicating to me. It always has been. But it’s the politics that get me more, and perhaps should also be what draws your interest. What is sourdough isn’t actually just about Covid lockdowns and social media trends, but a political statement. It’s an act of small defiance when I demand 30 minutes in my schedule to make bread. But I never buy it if I can help it, not because I don’t want to support a bakery like Isabel’s, but almost because I support her philosophy more. 

I’m not as good a teacher, but I’ve tried to teach more than a few friends and colleagues how to do it. Save yourself the bother – book a workshop. Get political. Choose better bread and not because you’re privileged, but because you have the chance to take that knowledge of fermentation and change a tiny little piece of the food system for your body, your family and your community. Baking bread is just the start, but it’s a damn good way to get involved.


About the Author

Tash McGill

Tash McGill works as a strategy consultant in tourism, hospitality and digital transformation. She is co-founder of The Feed, President of Food Writers NZ, Chair of the New Zealand Whisky Association.

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