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I am always interested in expanding the frontiers of my knowledge, and, given that I am now 51 years of age, there remains a shocking amount that I do not know. During the summer I spent a lot of time in an Aga shop – performing my show – and found myself working alongside professional home economists. I gleaned whole new tiers of information, much of which I’m surprised to have survived so long without. Who knew that triple chocolate brownies are best made in silicon trays? Nor have I ever before been forced to cost beetroots. The whole experience was rather like cooking with management accounting thrown in.
But there was one particular visitor, an American named Tom, who taught me a very particular and potentially impressive set of culinary skills. Tom, whose professional life includes comedy, photography and writing for US sitcoms, was enormously interested in the cooking – so much so that he offered to come back and show me how to bake bread. He had, he said, developed a passion in later life for breadmaking. Sure, I said. He then told me he would bring the starter.
Starter? Why, I thought, did we need a starter? It was hardly as though we also had a main course and dessert; members of my audiences were treated to random savoury and sweet snacks. I was very puzzled. Especially when he showed up with a plastic container that was filled with something creamy coloured and slightly runny that in no way resembled any starter I have ever seen. That’s when Tom explained that “starter” referred to the basis of making sourdough bread, an art to which some people devoted their entire lives.
I can see why one has to be dedicated. There are far too many decisions; indeed so many that running a business seems child’s play by comparison. In or out of a cast-iron container? On a baking stone or not? Put water in the oven to create steam, or not? The variety of flours available and what you can do with them could be a subject of a PhD thesis, and certainly an extensive book. (No doubt there is such a book; I confess I am not going to look it up. If any of you have a suggestion, do please share.)
Tom then came to stay with us in Oxfordshire before going back to the US, and kindly left behind all the breadmaking utensils and ingredients he had purchased while in the UK. He also bequeathed me some of his precious starter.
The day after he departed I decided that I should perhaps consult the internet to learn how to put Tom’s starter to best use so that it did not go to waste. I wasn’t even sure where I was supposed to keep it until that admittedly likely to be rare occasion when I had both time and inclination to make sourdough bread. It was then that the true nature of Tom’s gift became clear. A starter is a living and breathing thing. It has to be fed. And watered. Daily.
OMG. Tom had left me a pet. I already have two pets, and am several hundred pounds the poorer for having to send them on their own holiday while we were in Scotland for festival season. I don’t need another one. I read further on the internet. Entire discussion sites exist about how to store your starter, make sure that it doesn’t die, how best to feed it and so on. The weight of responsibility was overwhelming.
Fortunately I have learnt to store my starter in the fridge, so that it needs less attention. And I am making bread every weekend, just to make it feel loved and wanted.
But what will happen when I travel? I am off to Ukraine this week, and later in the year am travelling to Asia and Australia. Who will look after The Starter when I am gone for more than a week? I never knew that breadmaking could be so complicated and so stressful. I clearly still have a lot to learn.