Friday, April 10, 2015

No Longer Julia

I make bread.

That's an essential part of who I am. Ten years ago, it wasn't, but with each year since then, it has become more and more part of me. I make bread.

I weigh out the flour and warm water, then add the starter that lives in a quart mason jar, feeding it again before it returns to its home in my refrigerator. I measure out salt and sprinkle it in. I stir and stir. I wait. I fold. I wait. I shape. I wait. I bake. I listen to the crust crackle as it cools. I eat.

A few years ago, a friendly acquaintance gifted me the starter which she had named Julia. In a kitchen where she also makes cheese, brews various beverages, and experiments in all sorts of ways, the woman had raised Julia. When Julia came to me, it smelled of dairy and champagne. It baked into sweet, crusty loaves. In its jar, it stuck mightily to itself and had an almost stringy quality. I loved Julia because it allowed me to improve my bread cred. At my old home, Julia kept its dairy-ish scent and produced fine loaves.

Once, a friend asked me for an outer leaf of cabbage from my vegetable garden because he had read that organically grown cabbage harbored yeasts that made for a good sourdough bread starter. I told my friend I'd be happy to give him the leaf, but I didn't see how helpful that'd be. Even if the leaf did harbor certain yeasts, his kitchen wouldn't necessarily harbor the same yeasts, and whatever lived in his general atmosphere would eventually become the microbes that lived in his starter. In other words, if he took the buggers from their home, they wouldn't necessarily survive, but something else just as good would pick up the game. I gave him some of Julia and told him that Julia might change at his house, depending on what was already there.

When we moved up to the Bay Area this winter, Julia was one of the last things I packed. The night before our very-early morning move, I packed a cooler full of the perishables that were coming up with me, Julia included. A week after we moved, I made the first two loaves in our new home. As usual, I fed Julia before tucking it away in the refrigerator. The next time I made bread, I noticed that Julia smelled a litte more sour than before and it didn't quite have the same glutinous quality as it used to. But the loaves it made were fantastic; the internal chew and complexity of flavor below the crust were better than ever. Eventually, Julia transformed into a very, very sour—almost putrid smelling—starter that is as runny as crepe batter, though I feed it the same weights of flour and water as I always have. From this starter, I'm baking the best loaves I've ever baked, with better flavor, crust, and chew than what Julia ever gave me.

So, Julia is no longer Julia and needs a rechristening. It needs a name worthy of its ability to change and improve, relinquishing the old and making room for the new. Suggestions?