It might not occur to you as you sit munching a £2.99 BBQ chicken wrap on your lunchbreak, but the history of the bread encasing that questionably marinated meat product goes back far. Really far. It's older than almost everything you can possibly imagine (continents, language, religion, that stain on your bathroom ceiling…) and has played a vital a part in the development of our modern diet.
Hyperbolic? Nope. The grains that made the earliest breads were the first foodstuff that survived storing through winter—something which significantly aided the survival of our ancestors. The first bread is thought to have been stumbled upon in the Stone Age, around 7000 years ago.
For many bakers, it's sourdough that claims the title of alpha bread.
"For me, a perfectly crafted sourdough loaf is one of the world's finest foods," says artisan baker and Baking with Passion author, Dan Lepard. "For serious bread bakers, a sourdough loaf is as important a status symbol as the tattooed forearm is to the modern chef."
But sourdough's conception is slightly less dramatic, in fact, the baking process was probably discovered by accident. It's likely an Ancient Egyptian baker left water and grain in the open air, causing wild yeasts to climb in and begin fermenting. This would have been incorporated into the dough to produce better loaves.
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Because both beer and bread are made from grain, ancient bakeries and breweries would usually be one and the same. Bakers eventually began experimenting with using beer in their dough in place of water (because when is beer ever not a good substitute for water?), which—due to the superior fermentation—produced a more reliable rise.
These breads had a tangy, "sour" flavour produced by the conversion between the wild yeasts of sugars in the grain to acids, and crumb structures full of air pockets.
Those Egyptian bakers had discovered sourdough.
"Sourdough is a rite of passage for a baker, and achieving perfection is challenging to do," says Lepard. "They strive for a super-aerated crumb, a bright sour flavour, a blistered and charred razor-slashed crust, and a vigorous outer shape. If you can master all those elements, you're considered a serious sourdough baker."
The base method for making sourdough is to maintain what has become known as a "starter", a process similar to keeping a pet.
Starters require daily feeding if they are to be used regularly, and when looked after correctly can ostensibly "stay alive" for decades, often handed down through families—although this floury heirloom concept is slightly misunderstood.
"The starter takes on the characteristics of the micro-flora and flavour of the flour used to refresh it, so it's a bit risky to talk about its age," explains Lepard. "But if you want the romance, mine is more than 70 years old, given to me by a family in Denmark in 2003. I feed it with a mixture of organic wholegrain and white flour."
While no one would doubt Australian-born Lepard's commitment to his starter, some parts of the world hold a deeper relationship with sourdough than others.
"Historically in countries like Germany, Russia, or regions like Scandinavia, 'sourdough bread' was for the most part simply good bread rather than a special thing," says Lepard.
He's not wrong. In Sweden, sourdough has become part of modern food culture, birthing the "sourdough hotel" at the Urban Deli in Stockholm. It's a place for people leave their starters in the knowledge that they'll be well looked after—like a dog in a kennel—while they're away from home.
Despite these legions of devoted sourdough owners (sorry, bakers) Lepard doesn't think sourdough has hit the mainstream yet.
"Sourdough is still perhaps more stylish than overtly popular—soft white bread still rules," he says. "Even in a hip burger joint you're more likely to find a soft brioche bun than anything challenging."
Thanks to the arrival of fast-action yeast, production of bread has become truly industrialised. The public's taste for soft, unchallenging white bread overtook that of traditional flavour and texture, making sourdough's current popularity something of a renaissance.
"Sourdough is never an industrial process," Ben MacKinnon, owner of East London's E5 Bakehouse, a bakery specialising in sourdough. "It requires a consciousness by the baker to work with this leaven to perfect the flavour of the bread."
MacKinnon tells me that some of the bakery's starters are fed every two days; some rye instead of white flour; others kept in a cold room and some out on the bakery floor: it's all about controlling the levels and types of bacteria in the starter.
"As a baker you don't even have to understand all that science, though. You just get a feel, and you become aware of how what you're doing changes things," MacKinnon explains. "You're never going to know it all and understand all the science, but that kind of interaction with the dough is much more interesting than just being in a factory and thinking one bit of this, one bit of that, leave it. There is a real connection."
For this reason, a sourdough bakery can only expand so much.
"It's almost all manual, there are very few machines, but I think a lot of people want their food to be made by people who want to be making food," MacKinnon says. "It's really depressing to buy a sandwich from an industrial unit in a factory in Colchester or somewhere, and to think that the person who made it probably hated putting the butter on that bread."
But sourdough isn't just nicer than your Boots Meal Deal sandwich, it may also be healthier. While modern milling methods remove the bran and germ from grain (in other words, the bit full of vitamins, minerals, and fibre), flour is produced with little or no nutritional value, enhanced instead with calcium carbonate, thiamin, and niacin.
"Slow-fermentation bread is full of health benefits but in a commercially-made, one-hour bread, you haven't allowed the gluten to fully form so it's very difficult to digest" says MacKinnon. "The fact that loads of yeast is thrown in means people get bloating from it. Then there's all the sugars, all the E numbers to preserve it. People like soft, easy-to-eat bread. There's no effort involved in eating a slice of really shitty white bread—it's like eating baby food."
And who wants to be eating impossible-to-digest baby food—especially when there's 5000-year-primed bread on offer?
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in April 2015.