Sourdough bread, say the purists, is made simply from flour, water and salt. The rising agent, or “leaven” is natural yeasts and lactobacillus bacteria that come from within the flour itself, or from the natural environment. Scientists around the world have expended considerable energy on tracing the origins of these organisms, declaring that, at least in part, they may come from bug frass (in other words, poo). Artisan bakers take great care of their sourdough starter, which is a fermented mass that needs to be fed every day with flour and water. A little of this starter is added to each new bread mix, to start the chemical reaction that causes the bread to rise. This style of bread is said to be healthier and easier to digest, because of the bacterial action on the carbohydrates.
Sourdough-style bread has a long history and has been traced back as far as ancient Egypt where, it’s speculated, natural contamination of flatbread doughs produced a leavened loaf. Until the late 19th century, when commercial yeasts were developed, bread bakers through the ages were dependent on some kind of starter culture to make their loaves. Some kept portions of the previous dough; others used yeasts from beer brewing.
Commercial yeasts made baking easier, although until the 1940s most bread made in Australia was, essentially, made by traditional methods. But, since the 1950s, the average Australian’s daily bread has been a factory-produced, sliced loaf with lots of dough improvers, mould inhibitors and other additives. In the 1970s, when the counter culture encouraged a new move towards whole foods, some began to reject this highly-processed bread and turned to traditional alternatives.
Enter John Downes, generally acknowledged as the founder of the sourdough movement in Australia. In the spirit of the times, Downes began to make sourdough bread in 1975 when he was living in Byron Bay.
Meanwhile, in Melbourne, a group of music industry people had opened the Feedwell Foundry in Greville Street, Prahran, in a building that had formerly been Dobies bakery. With what amounted to a hippy commune upstairs, the Feedwell Foundry was Australia’s first organic, vegetarian, wholefood bakery and wholefoods store. It offered “far out funky foods”, including organic bread baked in a wood-fired oven as well as imported foods such as tamari and miso. Among the backers was Ross Wilson (later of the band Daddy Cool) who, at that time, fronted a band called the Sons of the Vegetal Mother. They had many songs about macrobiotic food, including such inspiring lyrics as “Brown rice is better than white rice” and “Chew your food, chew your food”.
Downes moved to Melbourne and took over the Feedwell Foundry in 1979, when the enterprise was struggling, and began to bake his organic sourdough using the old ovens. He subsequently started the Natural Tucker bakery in Carlton North and, later, Firebrand Bakery at Ripponlea and Newrybar bakery and restaurant near Byron Bay. The rise of sourdough in Australia didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen. Other bakers followed Downes, some travelling to San Francisco, where there was a long tradition of sourdough baking, to learn the craft.
Today, even bakery chains are offering sourdough bread. However, these often also contain commercial yeasts along with some genuine sourdough starter or “sponge”. Much to the dissatisfaction of the purists, there are no regulations to govern the use of the term. During the coronavirus lockdown of 2020, there was a craze for baking sourdough at home. Although commercial sliced bread still occupies most of the shelf space at supermarkets, the lovers of sourdough will never look back.