Why we couldn't get enough of sourdough during lockdown

Once upon a time lockdown would have been a time for home brewing. Instead, the new Ireland obsessed over sourdough, kimchi and fermentation
Why we couldn't get enough of sourdough during lockdown
Slices of sourdough baguette

During lockdown, the Irish nation seemingly rediscovered the lost art of home cooking. For some, it was a fleeting enthusiasm that soon grew as stale as the ubiquitous banana bread piling up in the bread bin but for many, many more, it marked a serious re-engagement with, or even brand new discovery of, what constitutes ‘real food’.

Academic research conducted during lockdown has shown this home cooking was far more driven by a desire to eat nutritious healthy food and support the local community of producers, farmers and growers, in stark contrast to a formerly prevalent and often fleeting, shallow appreciation of food, that chiefly involved the pursuit of the ‘next big flavour/ingredient/restaurant’ and clocking up the likes on Instagram.

To those for whom home cooking was already a regular part of their routine, lockdown afforded time to further up their game and if in the market for nutritious, healthy food, challenging fare of real depth and complexity, fermented food has all that in spades.

In kitchens throughout the land, sourdough starters began their glacial burping, doughs proving for endless hours before eventual baking, long after the short sprint of the brown soda ‘bread’ merchants’ race was done.

Mallow News, the parody Twitter Account, posted a gloriously pointed tweet: ‘Gardai Lay Trail Of Sourdough Starters To Trap Holiday Home Owners’. It may have perfectly nailed the middle class embrace of the sourdough baking phenomenon, but the primal passion engendered by baking your own daily bread more often went well beyond the realms of temporary fad.

In addition, all manner of vegetables were chopped and grated, brined and salted and loaded in to crocks and Kilner jars to become powerful, potent sauerkrauts and kimchis, flavour bombs to transform entirely the national palate.

SCOBYs (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) were acquired online or from other sources and soon bottles and jars of kombucha were a-bubbling and a-brewing, spiked with all manner of fruits, flowers and herbs for extra flavour, while kefir grains turned ordinary milk into deliciously tart gut healers.

Joe has become a self-confessed ferment food practitioner. Pictured here is a pizza with a sourdough base. 
Joe has become a self-confessed ferment food practitioner. Pictured here is a pizza with a sourdough base. 

Now, it’s all fine and dandy playing the ‘prairie homesteader’ with time on your hands but I instinctively new I was cementing new habits that were going to outlive whatever happened after lockdown ended and ‘normal’ life returned.

Neither was I alone. An appeal on Twitter for other new converts drew multiple enthusiastic responses and research from the University of Antwerp, posited the notion that, as lockdown had lasted longer than the six weeks it takes to form a habit, many would continue in this way after lockdown ended.

“The Common Loaf was specifically designed for something like the lockdown,” says Joe, ‘people couldn’t get yeast or soda — neither is made in Ireland, it is all imported — which is where their baking knowledge was all tied up in. With the CL, all you needed was flour, water, salt and a Pyrex dish. You didn’t need any knowledge of how to knead and that’s why it was called the CL, to bring it back into common knowledge, to make bread available to everyone.

Joe has had a few sourdough starters over the years, but recently has only recently incorporated them into his daily life.
Joe has had a few sourdough starters over the years, but recently has only recently incorporated them into his daily life.

“Flour was like the new gold during the coronavirus,” says Lisa, “the flour side of the business was very busy, we had to temporarily close our website to cope with orders. It literally happened overnight, everyone was baking at home and our business pivoted, from wholesale food service customers to online sales for domestic bakers and retailers selling flour from their shop shelves.

“I’ve already have had quite a lot of repeat customers who were first time buyers during the crisis and I’m in the middle of building a new website to make more of the online sales.” 

I have four or five serious books on fermentation on my shelves, many more again containing recipes for same but it took a revisitation to one particular tome, Dearbhla Reynolds’ The Cultured Club (Gill) to turn my occasional experimentation over the years into a now routine part of my weekly cooking, the very particular and pronounced flavours and myriad proven health benefits adding an entirely new dimension to the food I serve up and which I now know will remain for the rest of my life.

“These days, I’m doing ferments that are very much accessible to where we live. I love the weird and the wacky stuff but I have to go and find those particular imported ingredients. Our climate allows us to grow in the winter but we still have the hungry gap and we are great at growing cabbages, greens, root veg, turnips, beetroots, herbs, even seaweed, we have such a rich variety and there is no reason why we can’t incorporate fermentation into our culture to cover that period when nothing fresh is coming out of the ground. We are witnessing a revival of new growers and if fermenting food could provide added value to what they grow, using damaged veg, avoiding food waste, why not have that as part of the business plan?” 

The Newly Converted 

Aidan Long, Dublin-based Corkman, working in food marketing: 

I have always had a keen interest in cooking and baking but this is a new habit created during lockdown. I found a tutorial online, had a few failed attempts with a starter, but soon got going. If you add up the time, it takes to actually make a loaf, it’s 30 mins in your week [Aidan bakes once a week and freezes the excess] and you have beautiful bread every day and there’s no comparison in terms of taste and quality.

Margaret E Ward is Chief executive of Clear Ink, a Dublin-based leadership & communications consultancy: 

I began spending up to three hours a day cooking, that’s not sustainable but I learned a lot, including how to make a nice kimchi. I thought, I’m crazy cos I’m the only one who’ll eat it but I left it on the table and it was gone. Everyone looks for it every night. I have had a dodgy tummy since I was a teenager but now find it’s better when I eat it. The extra effort of making a big batch pays dividends in terms of adding real depth of flavour to other quick, simple dishes later.

Dublin-based Killian Byrne is the most successful team leader in the history of Operation Transformation: 

I do most of the cooking for the family but, like most, tend to rotate around five or six meals, then lockdown came and I started to do more. My first loaves weren’t great and it felt like I had to wait forever, up to 24 hours or more from start to finish whereas you could produce a yeast or soda bread in a couple of hours or less.

But as time went on, I began to understand that it is only about 30 minutes work, then it becomes just routine.

Four months on, I happily knock out bread on a daily basis and there is no comparison between a sliced pan and home-baked sourdough, the sourdough has so much more flavour and nutrition and fills you like sliced pan doesn’t.

Dublin-based Jennifer Oppermann is a food photographer and stylist: 

I always thought sourdough bread was so involved, but during lockdown I started. I was doing two or three loaves a week and the only reason I’ve cut back is I was eating too much, it is so delicious and you know it is so good for you. I started making kombucha, infused with whatever I’ve got in the garden, raspberries, strawberries, mint whatever. My husband absolutely loves it and he loves my kimchi as well.

Keith Bohanna works in Business Process Management:

Recently relocated to Kinsale, Keith Bohanna works in Business Process Management but is also a food activist, and co-founder and driving force behind Real Bread Ireland. Ironically, he never bothered baking before lockdown as he had ‘too much access to great bread from RBI baker members’: 

As with many people we used the opportunity of the lockdown to explore our use of time and gave some of that to exploring sourdough and Kombucha. The former had been tried before with sporadic success so this time I switched to a lazy way to bake sourdough recipe from Patrick Ryan [Firehouse Bakery] and it suited me perfectly. More time at home allowed us to work through early failures and now it’s a part of our weekend routine.

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