Sauerkraut and Sourdough: Cultivating the Everyday Wild

This is an excerpt from my book, The Politics of the Pantry.

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“Bread”: staff of life, daily ritual, civilization itself. Few foods are as polysemic as bread. For some, it represents home; the smell of fresh-baked bread can transport you into another world – even for those who did not grow up with home bakers, it is powerfully symbolic of the hearth. For generations of women, bread tied them to the kitchen, forcing them to wake up early and bake loaf after loaf to feed their families. Cheap white bread available at the super- market liberated those women from domestic drudgery. And then, for the 1960s counterculture, white bread came in turn to symbolize what was wrong with the food system, and dense, hearty brown breads, often home-baked, were as much an act of resistance as the housewife buying Wonder Bread had been challenging patriarchal modes of production and consumption.  For Richard Manning, on the other hand, bread is part of the fall of civilization from a healthier, more leisurely, and more humane and ecological hunter- and-gatherer way of life. He argues that agriculture has led to a dulling of the senses, the conquest of human desire over natural evolution, sedentary life styles, the spread of disease, and social systems based on hierarchy and patriarchy. More than most foods, bread signifies; and is it useful to think with.

From a culinary standpoint, bread is at once the simplest and most complicated product you can make. Fundamentally, it is just flour, water, and yeast. And yet, baking bread is an activity that can bring fear to cooks: it separates tinkerers from the hardcore, partly because of its polysemic aura. If you have never baked bread, the task seems monumental, hardly worth the effort since bread is so cheap and plentiful in the grocery store. My first serious foray into bread was actually inspired by a class I took in the first year of my PhD. We were discussing Slow Food and I decided to make a soft farmers’ cheese and fresh bread for the class as part of my presentation. At first, I began with the predictability of commercial yeast, which for the novice baker is very comforting. It rises when it should and you can pretty much follow a recipe. Although it was delicious, I wanted to try something even more local: sourdough is one of the few foods a cook can experiment with at home that really expresses terroir. San Francisco sourdough is famous because the yeast is unique to that area, not because it was baked there. Every area will yield its own unique flavours and textures, immediately discernible from another. Sourdough takes patience and attention: it demands a different kind of mindfulness and consideration, and a willingness to relinquish control and allow wildness into your life.

My sourdough bread is a three-day process, and in many ways embodies some of the contradictions and possibilities of the politics of the pantry as a social and political movement. Sourdough is the ultimate slow food; at its most basic, you capture wild yeast from the air and nurture a sponge of live culture in a mixture of flour and water. With some time and patience, this is all you need to make the most wonderful bread you have ever eaten. It is so incredibly simple and satisfying – but also frustrating and finicky. Like anything wild, it resists accommodating to clock time. More than many other foods, sourdough is an agentic assemblage, a hybrid being with the power to enchant. It achieves its flavour from a mixture of yeast and lactobacteria, a symbiotic relationship that yields some delicious results. Unfortunately, the bacteria and yeast are out of sync: they exist in slightly different temporalities, and that being so, balancing the rise you get from the yeast with the sourness of the bacteria is a tricky process. For this reason, modern yeast, of the variety you find in packages and jars at your local supermarket, is genetically engineered to be extremely fast and reliable. It eschews the delicate sourness and complexity of lactobacteria in favour of speed, reliability, and loft. The lactobacteria naturally present in bread have no chance to catch up. But it is convenient, and I have been tempted to add some commercial yeast to a loaf of bread that stubbornly refused to fill with the precious exhalations of the teeming billions of microbes for which I have tried to provide a good home. Without these microscopic breaths, the bread comes out like a brick – hardly palatable, dry, and frustratingly dense.

This starter is 10 years old now. My oldest child

This starter is 10 years old now. My oldest child

Making good sourdough takes a particular mindset; you must learn to coexist, to imagine the world from the most minute perspective and be generous and accommodating of the microbe’s temporality. You must comprehend what the yeast and bacteria want, and if you can provide those conditions, culinary perfection awaits. I have a batch of sourdough that is eight years old, and like a fine wine, it is better today than when I started it. It sits in my refrigerator and provides the basis for breads, pizza, baguettes, waffles, pancakes, and even an experiment with booza, an ancient fermented, beer-like beverage the Egyptians used to drink that is made from sprouted wheat groats, half-baked-sourdough and water – an acquired taste to be sure, but magical as an example of how two ingredients in different ratios can yield so many different forms. I have tended this batch with care, and it has surprised me with its resilience, coming back from near death on a number of occasions when life has made me negligent of the colony in my fridge.

And wait you must: the fine points usually boil down to time and timing. I start my bread in the evening, proofing a sponge of refrigerated sourdough mixture by adding fresh water and flour, and gently inciting the microbial world from its somnolence by leaving the mixture out for twelve hours. By the morning, the sponge is bubbly and smells wonderful, with a complex, mildly alcoholic smell that is redolent of over-ripe fruit. I take part of this, return it to the clay jar I keep my starter in, and mix in some more fresh flour and water. This goes into the fridge and back into microbial torpidity, awaiting a new feeding or a fresh batch of bread. If tended this way, sourdough cultures will keep for decades and even centuries, becoming tastier and rising with more vigour as they age. Lately, I have been frustrated by the dough because it took so long to rise and was hard to time. Unlike commercial yeast, which generally takes a few hours to rise and re-rise, sourdough is much more particular and susceptible to the vagaries of humidity and temperature. Since I live in a draughty old house where we keep the temperature rather low, it is always a battle to get the right conditions to balance the flavour with the rise, for sourdough is pure terroir, an extension of the local landscape and weather. Every place will yield a different culture, a different flavour, and every time you bake it, the bread is unique. I have baked hundreds of loaves, and each time always different. It is precisely for this reason that sourdough is artisanal and why even breads advertised as sourdough are in fact rarely leavened by wild bacteria and yeasts alone. Sourdough takes skill and patience and a willingness to engage with the bread on its own terms. Industrial methods always prefer domesticated over wild forms, as they are more predictable and easier to control, having been disciplined to clock time. But like my garden, the wildness gives it vigour and flavour.

After the sponge is ready, I begin the first of three rises. Flour and water are basically all you need, but I like to include flax meal, different kinds of flour, oatmeal, nuts, honey, milk, and dried fruit to enhance the bread. Next, the flour, to which I add water, milk, honey, oil, and salt and then knead until silky smooth. It is a mistake to use precise measurements at this point, as once again, the amount of flour needed will depend on the humidity of the air and the moisture content of the original sponge. It’s best to simply feel for a particular texture. It requires that you become viscerally involved with the dough, pulling and stretching, caressing until it becomes an extension of your arm. This is embodied, sticky knowledge at its most delicious. It can be heavy work, and sweat from your brow often mixes with the dough. This is not a process for people who like the comfort of a recipe; you must be flexible to accommodate the life of the bread, to account for the lifeworld you must nurture. Sourdough is an act of responsibility: you must care for the yeast, tend to it, and feed it like an animal or plant. It is an act of love, of symbiosis.

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After ten to fifteen minutes of kneading, the bread goes into a greased bowl and is covered with a damp cloth and popped into the refrigerator, where it will spend the next twenty-four hours proofing, slowing the yeast and allowing the lactobacteria, which are more tolerant of cold temperatures, to impart their tang. The next day, the dough comes out and I add some warm water or milk and some more flour and the nut mixture. This mixture must rise once again, perhaps twelve hours or more, before I punch it down and cuddle it into a loaf pan or shape it onto a baguette tray, after which it still needs another six hours to rise. As you can imagine, timing is tricky, and unless you work from home or are around on a weekend, it can be quite difficult to get it right. Although you can leave it unattended, because of the variability, you must be cautious not to allow the bread to rise too much. If you do, disaster may strike in the form of limp bread. If the carbon dioxide produced by the yeast exceeds the capacity of the gluten to hold together the bread, like a soufflé taken out of the oven too soon, the loaf will collapse into a sad, shapeless, and dense shadow of what could have been. In a cool house, this means watching carefully and, potentially, a very early morning rise or late night bake. Older-style stoves used to have a pilot light that would warm the stove just enough for proofing bread, but I have nothing of the sort.

The solution for me involved a bit of DIY hacking, and I built a grown-up version of an easy-bake oven to control the temperature and humidity for optimal conditions. After the overnight proofing, the bread has more than enough sourness, and it is best to let the yeast take over. The yeast prefers the temperature to be a constant 30 degrees. At this temperature, you can halve the rising time and achieve a levity that rivals commercial yeast. So I lined a large plastic Rubbermaid container with insulating foam, hung a small 35-watt halogen lamp with a dimmer control inside the box, and rigged up a thermometer to register the temperature inside. With this set up, I use the dimmer to adjust the temperature so it sits at exactly 30°C for around four to six hours, after which the bread bursts out of the bowl with a celebratory sigh. One more punch down, a new home in some loaf pans, and back into the box for two to three hours, and the loaf is both sour and lofty. Now I can control the conditions more carefully, providing a better environment for the bread, while also balancing the need for slowness with the real time pressures I must negotiate in the rest of my life. Negotiation with the microbial world takes some patience and flexibility, but it is well worth it. With this set-up, even if I have to work and be away from the house, I can still time the bread properly. I am lucky that I work largely from home and can allow other temporalities into my life.

Proofing box made with some insulation, thermometer and small halogen light on a dimmer

Proofing box made with some insulation, thermometer and small halogen light on a dimmer

 

Guanciale: The Lost Art of Face Bacon

It’s that time of year again when the garden is quiet and memories of summer whisper through the food and preserves we have put away in an attempt to extend the harvest as long as we can. It is also the time of the year that I call up Fred DeMartines and put in my annual order for half a pig. After a long summer of foraging wild foods, grazing pasture and putting on a nice thick layer of fat, the free-range, heritage pigs at Perth Pork Products are ready to make a permanent home in my freezer.

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Perhaps more than most things we eat, meat has become an absence in our food system. Wether you eat it in nugget form, pink slime, or even packaged in its styrofoam tomb, the meat you get at the grocery store comes plucked, shucked, boneless and processed to the point where the animal and the idea of the animal no longer align. And this is for good reason. The supermarket doesn’t want you to think too hard about where your meat came from. They rely on what Michael Pollan calls the “supermarket pastoral” to conceal the fact that meat production shares more in common with the assembly line that put your phone together than the pastoral image we have of the typical farm. Our insatiable desire for “cheap meat” has created an environmental nightmare. The livestock sector is now the top two or three of the most significant contributors to a whole host of environmental problems that include climate change, deforestation, and land and water pollution.

But this does not have to be this way. If you are worried about how we are going to feed the billions of people on this planet, than everyone has to eat less meat. The average American eats 125 kilograms of meat a year, and Canada doesn’t lag too far behind at just under 100 kg. From an environmental standpoint, eating less meat is one of the most effective things you can do to reduce your ecological footprint. It’s better than switching from a gas guzzler to a Prius, and has a lot of positive effects on your health and the wellbeing of the animals within an industrial system that treats living creatures as if they were machines. Before I became a locavore, I was a vegetarian for about a decade, and now I practice a weekday vegetarian diet, and the meat I do eat, comes from a handful of farms.

And this is what I want to talk about. I’m not going to try to convert you to veganism or shame you into abandoning the pleasures of meat. I actually want to encourage you to face your meat directly, to get to know it a little better, and hopefully in the process, to take responsibility for your impact on the world. There are many benefits to buying directly from a farmer. When I talk to Fred, we sometimes spend an hour on the phone discussing specific cuts, flavouring for the sausage, and what I want and don’t want to receive.

When you buy a half or whole animal, you have the option of getting everything. And I mean everything! At first, the thought of receiving pigs ears, trotters, and kidneys was a bit strange. As I said, I was a vegetarian for years, so the skinless, boneless package of pink flesh in the grocery store offers a sanitized, almost deathless experience to the consumer that is easier to deal with. If you like sausage, you are in actuality eating many of the offcuts anyway. They get mixed with preservatives, stabilizers, are often washed with ammonia, but as the cliche goes, snouts, tails, and sphincter all make it to the soup pot eventually.

Something amazing happens, however, when you have to deal with these things directly. You realize how much of the food we eat is culturally determined and how much possibility is wasted on the squeamish. Who decided that pork chop is superior to cheek meat? And what do you do with the face? Easy, you make face bacon, an absolute delicacy that most of you will never have the opportunity to try unless you delve into the lost art of guanciale. This is not a product carried by your typical, or even your high end butcher. This is something you will have to do yourself.

Face bacon ready to go

Face bacon ready to go

Guanciale is made from the jowl of the pig and is one of the simplest cures for an amateur to make at home. The jowl is relatively thin and thus you are more likely to cure it all the way through to the centre. Once you get over the initial shock, for you can indeed tell this is part of the face, it’s relatively easy. I have had pieces that still had bits of hair on the skin. Didn’t someone tell piggy its rude not to shave before you are the guest of honour at dinner?

Unlike bacon made from the belly, face bacon contains a high ratio of collagen to fat, and this is what makes it so unique. The flavour is incredible. You don’t smoke the bacon, so there is a very earthy porkiness to it. No, this isn’t the kind of bacon you fry up with your eggs. This is the dream bacon you need to make the most incredible Pasta Carbonera you have ever had, and I am not exaggerating. People have told me that I changed their lives after tasting it. My daughter begs me for bacon pasta almost every week, but I try to save it for special occasions, as you will see in the recipe below, this is a rich meal.

The translucent cubes are the result of the collagen melting

The translucent cubes are the result of the collagen melting

Because of the high collagen content of the jowl, guanciale looks very strange when you fry it. Low and slow is the name of the game and you cut it into cubes which slowly render down, releasing the precious collagen that will thicken the sauce, creating the most velvety, rich, and smooth Carbonera you have ever tried. Carbonera made with the traditional eggs, cream, bacon and parmesan is great, but the texture and flavour you get from guanciale is simply unparalleled.

There is a brutal and twisted efficiency to industrial meat. Every part is used in some way, even if that means MRM (Mechanically Reclaimed Meat). Now that I have tasted face bacon, however, I am saddened that the jowl is wasted as filler for some horrible, processed sausage, for this delicacy should be experienced by everyone. Ultimately, this is one of the best reasons to buy straight from a farmer. When you face your meat directly, you have to account for the entirety of the animal. Transforming those nasty bits into a delicacy is one of the most profound acts of translation that cooking allows us to engage in. From nature to culture, from decay to delicacy, when you cook from whole, you learn to think differently.

Like countless generations before us, respect and responsibility is made possible by treating every part of the animal as sacred. If you are a carnivore, then you owe it to yourself and to the animal that has given its life for your sustenance, to utilize every bit. I know that Fred treats his animals with respect. He raises them outdoors, slowly, and uses heritage breeds that are on the verge of extinction because they do not fit the industrial model well. These are animals that grow “too slowly” or react poorly to confinement. These are animals that have not been bred to conform to the horrors of the Intensive Livestock Operation. Ironically, the survival of these breeds depends on people eating them.

Much of the flavour of Fred’s pork comes form the respect he has for what it means to be a pig. Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food International, awarded Fred the status of Master of Pork, an honour reserved only for those who truly understand that raising an animal is an extension of your worldview. That respect manifests in the pork, and I try to do the same when that pig becomes a part of me.

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 Home Cured Guanciale

guanciale ready to hang

Adapted from  Michael Ruhlman’s excellent Charcuterie book

2lb/ 1kg pork jowl

70grams kosher salt (7% of meat weight)

70 grams sugar (7% of meat weight)

15 black peppercorns

1 large bunch of thyme

2 bay laurel leaves

4 juniper berries

Grind up the juniper, peppercorns and bay in a spice grinder until reasonably fine. Combine with the salt and sugar. Remove the leaves from the thyme, discard the stalks, and finely chop. Add to the salt mixture, and stir to combine.

Using a sharp boning knife or pairing knife remove any glads from the meat. These will look like small off-white bumps that are reasonably hard. Some might be hiding under some fat.

In a large tupperware, or zip lock bag combine the cure ingredients and the jowl. Rub the cure into the meat on all sides thoroughly. Seal the bag, or the tupperware and pop in the fridge for 7 days. On day 3 redistribute the cure over the meat just by rubbing the meat again.

guanciale bags

After 7 days the meat should feel firmer. Take it out of the fridge, and rinse it in cold water to remove the cure. Some of the herbs might well stick to the meat and fat, that is fine - just give a good rub over to get the cure off. Dry with a towel.

Make a hole in one end, not too close to the edge of the meat (since it will shrink). Tie some butchers string through the hole, and hang at 55F 75% humidity for at least a month, possibly two.

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guanciale skin side hanging

You will know when the jowl is cured because it should feel firm to the touch. The fat will feel softer than the meat, that is fine.

Once cured it should keep in the fridge easily for a few weeks, or frozen longer. You can keep it hanging at 55F and 75% humidity too if you wish - the meat might well harden more, but it will develop an even stronger flavor.

Pasta Carbonera

carbonara sauce

Boil your favourite penne pasta, or better yet, make some fresh pasta.

Saute 50 grams bacon per person slowly until the collagen has rendered out and small crispy bits start to appear

Toss in zuchinni or asparagus or mushrooms and add a good grinding of fresh pepper, enough for heat.

Season with a small bunch of thyme or Italian herb mix.

Take off heat and let cool slightly.

Meanwhile, mix 1 egg yolk, 25 ml of cream, and small handful of parmesan per person. If you are using guanciale, you do not have to use as many egg yolks. For 4 people, I would use 2 egg yolks. If you use belly bacon, use 4 eggs.

Drain penne pasta and toss with the meat and vegetable mixture. Once the heat has subsided add the cream mixture and toss until silky. The key here is to mix the sauce while the pasta is off the heat. If everything is too hot, the eggs will scramble.

For more stories like this, consider buying my book.