Thursday, November 22, 2007

Only in SCV: Tastes like SCV

Clarita-izing Thanksgiving
This Thanksgiving, I think it’s only appropriate to include an authentically Claritan food in the holiday feast. We may not have turkey, but a duck artfully snared from Bridgeport Lake would certainly be edible. Gathering and grinding acorns would be a fitting nod to the valley’s Tataviam roots. I, however, have taken a page out of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemna[1] and made bread risen with wild Santa Clarita yeast.

I mixed equal parts water and flour, carried it outside for a minute, then brought it in and let the floury paste grow for a week. Supposedly, the air is laden with wild yeast spores that grow and multiply when they land on a suitable habitat, like flour. After the mixture matures for several days, you have a starter (just like a sourdough starter)—an ecosystem of yeast and lactobacillus bacteria ready to flavor bread with fermentation by-products (hungry yet?) and help it rise[2].

SCV starter.

Now, there are plenty of bread snobs who will try and spoil your fun by telling you that the yeast you capture isn’t really “wild” but was probably already living on the surface of the flour. Don’t believe them. Whether the yeast were nabbed as air-born spores, were already floating around your kitchen, or were hitch-hiking with wheat in the market, they’re official, miniature Santa Claritans now.

But to the point at hand, I’ve kept a mini-ecosystem of SCV yeast alive since May. It lives in the fridge and gets fed flour and water once a week. If doing this sounds like a pain in the ass that’s because it is, but I endure for the sake of being able to say that I have an authentically Claritan microbial pet. I put these critters to work making bread rise today.

Santa Clarita: It Has a Flavor
So how does bread made out of SCV yeast taste? It’s not like conventional sourdough, though there is still a slightly sour twang. It is redolent of yeast, somewhere between beer and bread. There’s no question that it tastes like bread, just…gamier; like the difference between beef and venison.

The loaf.

When I re-tasted the bread today, I found the results a little disappointing at first. The bread didn’t taste like I thought SCV would. The wild flavor would make sense if I had gotten the yeast from Bouquet Canyon (our Ozarks), but from Valencia? Then, however, I tasted a familiar hollowness, a void left on my tongue where once there had been bread. I was tasting desperation and disillusionment, the hallmarks of Claritan life. I had captured the yeast of Santa Clarita after all.

While it’s too late for you begin your own starter in time for Thanksgiving dinner tonight, I urge you to try making a starter at some point. Remember, it’s just equal parts flour and water; SCV provides the yeast. Free yeast?! Now that’s something to be thankful for.

[1] As non-fiction goes it’s stellar.
[2] More than any decent person could ever want to know about Sourdough bread can be found here


Robert Mickalson said...

I loved reading about this project of yours. I can't imagine you actually labored over a loaf of bread, rather a Claritan loaf of bread since May. You're one dedicated man. This lesson may ensure I never starve. Thanks.

mike devlin said...

Good work I Heart! I've been in the sourdough game for a couple of years. A few months ago, my original starter was murdered by someone who thought it was something fit for the trash. I've got a new one up and running and it had its debut on Thanksgiving.

Let me plug the no-knead method made famous last year by Mark Bitman in the NY Times. The results are nearly as good as the old way, sometimes better, and the process is much more simple and flexible. The proportions I use are 500g flour, 350g water, 100g starter and a scant 1T of salt.

A Santa Claritan said...

Years of keeping a starter alive only to have it killed? That's horrible! I trust the murderer has been appropriately punished.
By the way, how does your SCV bread taste? Does it have the beer-like quality?

And thanks for the recipe--I've been meaning to try it.

mike devlin said...

It was a crushing moment. I know the person responsible, but as it was done with good intentions and I'd never be able to bring up the matter without sounding more angry that I would be able to explain to the sort of person who would actually throw away such a beautifully ugly thing, it has been a unspoken subject with an acute one-sided awkwardness. I'll get my point across one day. Next time they come to dinner, I'll bake up some from the new guy, who has the same "mother" as the last one, so it's not a total loss.

I haven't had beer since I was four years old, but that is the first word that comes to my mind when describing about 40% of the loaves, so it's funny you mention it. This is especially true if I use too little salt or when it proofs for a long time. I'm sure the duration of time between refreshing a starter and mixing a loaf has an impact too, but I usually stick close to three hours.

My starter wasn't born in SCV, but over time it takes on the characteristics of its home far more than its legacy (this one has an ancestry of over 100 years). You'll also notice it will change a lot over time. Boudin Bakery from Frisco set up a shop or two in the LA area a few years back and soon found that they need to truck their starter downstate every week because it changes its taste so quickly.

I was a little tough on you over at SCV Talk, but it's all in good fun. You never know how that stuff may come across in print. But I'm serious about the $100!