This post is seriously overdue - but it's just one of those things that you never write about because they're with you all the time. It's not that you grow bored of them, but you sort of take them for granted. I make this bread at least twice a week, sometimes with slight variations, but it's really become our staple bread. Does this make it any less exciting? I don't think so. For me, this is quite literally the perfect loaf.
For years and years living in London I have been frustrated with the bread on offer - a sandwich loaf, which is basically air and possibly some flour, preservatives and E-numbers miraculously shaped into a log... it's inedible raw, but even toasted it's hardly a thing of beauty (let alone taste!). You've basically got the option of eating it raw, which results in it sticking to your teeth and the roof of your mouth much in the way I imagine playdough to do (not that I've tried it), or toasted, making you feel like you've just fallen flat on your face on a sandy beach. And yes, I hear you, of course there has been an incredible rise of bakeries (mostly French) that sell decent bread here in London, but to tell you the truth, I have grown tired of that. Yes, I buy bread at Paul and Maison Blanc every once in a while, but wouldn't enjoy it every day. Their bread is lovely, but just not as versatile as this loaf (plus, there's the extra travel involved). Even the bread at the Borough Market is quite pitiful - I am not sure why people rave on about De Gustibus and others, yes, it's better than toast, but it's just not what I call proper bread! It's never the right side of crunchy, appears stale within hours of buying it and altogether lacks taste compared to what you can find in any old bakery on the continent (mostly referring to Austria, Germany and France here). Seeing how much I adore bread, I was not a happy bunny.
Until I decided to get my hands dirty and bake my own. The ultimate proof of whether it could or could not be done (by the standards I set myself) was to produce a sourdough loaf similar to what Poilane bakeries (and Waitrose here in London) sell - only it wouldn't be three days old before it hit the shelves! A dear veteran bread baker and blogger sent me two batches of sourdough and after a week or two of "reviving" it, I had a new baby at home - feeding it regularly (luckily not necessarily in the middle of the night ;-)), giving it my undivided attention, massaging it gently into a loaf... you get the idea.
Now, my above-mentioned guru had supplied me with a few recipes and her site is a source of constant inspiration (as it this one and more recently, this one here), but I was on a mission. If I couldn't manage to get my perfect loaf, I would kick out the new "tenant" that had taken over part of my (already over-full) fridge and busy life. So the recipe hunt began. I tried a few that weren't bad, but just not quite right. I was about to give up when I got an email from a lovely foodblogger that wasn't about bread at all. We were exchanging emails about Tuscany and my upcoming vacation and first trip to the Southern part of the region and after telling her how I was trying to fall in love with bread baking, she recommended this book. Now, this is not the kind of book I normally indulge in, but a perfect light read for when you're on the tube or relaxing by the pool... the prose really wasn't that important anyway. At the back of the book was a recipe for a country loaf and, having almost despaired in my search for the one and only, I ripped the pages out and decided to just give it a try.
I have been baking it ever since, adapted slightly over the years, and despite my tinkerings (using various types and ratios of flours, adding onions, seeds, nuts, etc), it has never let me down. The proving times work really well with my schedule - setting out the starter the night before, then mixing the dough in the morning, going about my business, starting to fold the bread (no kneading required!) over lunch time and baking the bread when I'm back from the afternoon school run. I had never thought it possible to achieve a perfect crust at home, but it's actually not difficult at all once you get the hang of it. The technique of introducing steam at the beginning of baking, is one commonly used in the home-baking world and it makes such a difference when you want to achieve a beautiful, crunchy crust.
Of course, I try new breads all the time (recipes on this blog are scarce because I find bread very difficult and boring to photograph in a different and interesting way every time - at least not if you want to do it full justice with crust and crumb playing equal parts) but this recipe has stuck with me and is used at least twice a week. Try it for yourself, I urge you. You will never buy any bread again... unless you are lucky enough to live in a country where decent bakeries are abundant!
PS: Should I have whet your appetite and you're not sure where to get live sourdough from, I wouldn't mind returning the favour and send you some (unless I get a hundred requests ;-)
PPS: Please note that US customs (and subsequently all courier services) won't allow sourdough to be sent by mail as it is considered to be "alive". But within Europe is perfectly OK.