Sourdough rising in La Crosse
Early in the morning, really early, Bobbi Medinger and Tina Tennyson, your People’s Food Co-op bakers, are heading in to work. You may be deep in your dream-sleep, or maybe you’re still looking for your keys outside of Stein Haus and the night’s still young, but for bakers Bobbi and Tina, they’re already at work, making the dough for tomorrow’s bread, shaping yesterday’s dough for the oven, and prepping all the other bakery items you’ll be looking for in the PFC bakery case.
In the course of human history, bread has long been an indicator of civilization, an index of refinement. San Francisco without its sourdough would have been just another LA; Paris without the baguette would have been simply another London. PFC’s bakers have gone a long way toward making La Crosse a better place to live this year by introducing their own sourdough bread recipe to the city.
Bobbi and Tina worked on their bread recipe at home, perfecting their breadmaking skills, before bringing it in to the co-op. They’d taken a class in breadmaking, but found that they had better results with their own recipes. Tina was introduced to sourdough by her grandmother, who also gave her the original starter six years ago—which they are still using at PFC. The long-lived starter has a name. It is called “Mom.”
|Bobbi Medinger preparing the dough for the oven.|
Making sourdough bread with a starter is a very simple thing that, like many simple things, requires a bit of practice to get right. A starter is only flour and water left to ferment for days, or years. Some of the starter is removed to act as a yeast for bread making, and some is left to continue fermentation. Tina and Bobbi refresh Mom twice a day with fresh water and flour and this keeps her happy.
The starter’s flour and water is gradually colonized by the bacteria that are naturally present in flour and ambient air. The bakers are quick to point out the probiotic aspects of fermented food: “We’ve co-evolved with these bacteria. Our digestive systems would stop working without these communities.”
“The environment is really important,” Tina says. “It’s really a bacterial community that reflects our region’s community.” The bacteria in the sourdough culture reflect the environment of the La Crosse region. “If you started a sourdough in San Francisco, it would have its own unique flavor,” Bobbi says. “Or if we took this starter to Rochester, it would eventually become a Rochester organism,” Tina adds.
They’re making a true sourdough: no added yeasts, sugars, or flavoring. The dough is slower to rise than conventional breads that use added yeast. “It takes twice as long,” Tina says, “but the yeast is hardier and can withstand that length of time.” They also point out that the lactobacilli in the yeast continues to work on the bread after baking, producing the lactic acid that makes sourdough bread ‘sour.’ “We find it has a better shelf life than most breads, and it’s a bit more sour on the third day out of the oven than the first,” Tina says.
At this time the bakery makes only eight to ten loaves a day. They’ve also started using their sourdough for flatbreads. On a recent Tuesday the bakery case had pesto bruschetta flatbread and a caramelized onion, fig, and goat cheese flatbread to choose from. They’re fantastic—chewy, with a delicious mix of flavors. Might just be the flavor of Mom’s La Crosse I’m tasting.