Give or take a few days, our much loved mother is 122 years old. We have only had her for 22 years but we always celebrate her birthday.
I'm talking 'lievito madre' (literally 'raising mother' in Italian), sourdough starter in English.
This aside has little to do with bread but I so love the use of the word 'mamma', mother, which peppers the Italian culinary language. Held in such reverence here, when applied to other things, mother, madre, mamma, can only mean an infusion of affection. From my way of seeing it, knowing that your 'madre' is lending a hand in making your bread, or that those beautiful chubby tummied archichokes for stuffing, are actually called 'mamma's', adds another dimension to the preparation. Infact, our house motto which my husband found in a 1700's domestic text, has always been "Cucinare è Voler Bene" - To Cook is To Love, which quite simply is at the heart of preparation of food for family and friends.
Making bread is something my Florentine husband and I do together. I choose and mix the flours, pamper my inherited sourdough starter and am in charge of baking. Marco kneads.
For years my bread making efforts produced very indifferent and irregular results. I was never able to identify the reason. Such was our passion for making bread that for a few years while we were both working in Florence, my husband and I would get up at 4 in the morning and drive into Florence to 'help' (I'm not sure he would have called it 'help) our local baker who has been making bread for more than 50 years, to make the day's quota, before then going to work. Then, one day, chatting with a 92 year old lady up in our 'other place' Tuscan mountain village about the weekly bread-making rota of her youth for the entire village, she told me that she was excluded from the rota as her dough would never rise. Her sister, in the same village, was one of the best bread-makers. The difference, she told me, was that she had permanently cold hands, her sister warm. "It's all in the hands" she assured me. A lamp went on in my bread-making head. My hands are always cold. From that day I persuaded my husband to have a go at kneading. He always has warm hands. We had turned the bread-making corner and have never bought bread since.
Tracking down and mixing organic ancient grain flours has become part of our food philosophy and regular nutritional practice. We are currently thrilled to have discovered a group of young people local to Reggello, who have dedicated themselves to the cultivation of organic ancient wheat - Sieve, Andrioli, Inaletabile, Farro Dicocco - which they take to the local watermill for stone grinding. Mixing them to try out the results is fun and rewarding.
Having located our fantastic flours and got to know the growers and millers, we were given our sourdough starter by a venerable old Tuscan who assured us that it had been handed down in her family for 102 years. This left us aghast and a little sceptical. I had no idea at the time that sourdough starters could be family heirlooms! I have since met one that professed to be 250 years old. I now see how this can happen. We have already added 20 years onto our madre's life. She comes everywhere with us. Recently we were in London for 6 weeks; of course our dogs came with us too, but so did our 122 year old sourdough starter.
In our draughty old 15th watermill, we have had to experiment with the alternating temperatures of the rooms to find one our madre is happy with. For winter we bought her an electric blanket especially for the last 2 - 3 hours of raising time as constant draught-free rooms are impossible to guarantee. We tuck her up in her raising baskets and set the blanket on the lowest setting. She loves it.
In summer we have to be equally careful as the ambient temperatures in Tuscany are far too high and we put the dough in the cool wine cellar all night.
I was tickled pink the other day as a lady had enjoyed our bread so much that she asked if she could buy a loaf. I had one to spare and would have been happy to have given it but she insisted on paying. This gave us both such a kick that we have the note attached to the kitchen chimney place.
We are constantly quizzed on how we make our bread. It seems that a lot of people have had a go and most of these have given up after the first failed attempt. First mistake; don't give up. If using a sour dough it really does take time to build up a relationship with her. It takes a while to understand her. There's no hurrying her either. We leave the kneaded dough overnight before reworking it in the morning and leaving it again for a further few hours before baking. The impossibility of instant results puts many people off. My own feelings are that if taken by the bread making urge, it's only worth while if you're going to use good organic flours and a sourdough starter. That in turn means being committed to allowing her all the time she needs to work her magic so that you will have fantastically flavoured and digestible bread.
Recipe for Il Mulino di Ferraia Heritage bread:
I suspect that no two home-made bread enthusiasts use the same technique, timings, temperatures, quantities of flours. This recipe is what works for us and what we like.
For 1kg ancient grain organic flour, half a teaspoon salt, 50g sourdough starter. Hand hot water. Quantity is difficult to give precisely. I always pour in half a litre immediately adding the rest a little more cautiously to arrive at a lovely velvety sofeness to the dough.
Method: Remove the sourdough starter from the fridge a few hours before using it. Mix 50g of the sourdough with water that is more than luke warm but not too hot to dip a finger in comfortably. Pour the flour and salt in a mound on the table. Make a well in the centre and begin mixing in the water, adding more as necessary. Knead vigorously for 20 minutes. Line a bowl with a clean cloth, sprinkle the bottom with flour, pop the kneaded dough in and fold the cloth loosely over the top. Leave to raise in a cool ambience all night.
The following morning, tip the dough onto a floured surface and work for a second time for 10 minutes. Place the dough in a container whose form it will remember when in the oven, once again lining it with the same cloth as before and dusting the bottom with flour. Place the dough in and at this point leave it in a draught free warm place for about 3 hours.
When ready to bake, pre-heat the oven to 220°, tip the risen dough carefully out of the container onto a baking tray. Slash the top with a couple of decisive cuts and pop in the oven. Bake at this temperature for 5 minutes and then turn the oven down to 200° for a further 30 minutes.
At this point the only danger is eating too much!