Of all the addictions to white powder we could have picked up in these troubling times, who’d have thought it would have been flour. Scroll down any of your social feeds and a man is talking about his sourdough starter like it’s a newborn puppy. Your sister’s boyfriend is chatting about “baby’s first fermentation gurgle” and posting selfies cradling his rye/spelt bloomer (“the only flour they had left in Sainsbury’s!”). Everyone’s new obsession is baking bread.
“Oh god, just shag your sourdough starter why don’t you,” columnist Dolly Alderton tweeted last week, capturing the mood of those who haven’t yet joined the cult . Reader: I have personally been afflicted by this epidemic. Until this cursed year of 2020, I had never baked a loaf of bread in my life. Now I’ve gone full sourdough bro and average a bloomer every other day. I have bought a fancy proving basket from John Lewis and am emotionally moved by anything with a high percentage of rye. I also have my own starter, a bubbly substance that replaces yeast to create the dense chewy texture made famous by sourdough. Like a needy Tamagotchi, a starter needs to be carefully looked after and fed every day.
With supermarket shelves emptying, the British public are finding new ways to get their daily bread, effectively lifting the veil of mystery on focaccia, ciabatta, baguettes and sourdough. Who needs to spend £4.50 on an artisan dusted loaf when you can easily do it at home with a bit of graft?
“I’ve become the epitome of the 'lockdown sourdough guy' that Twitter seems to have decided is the real villain of the pandemic,” admits Jack Kenny, 27. He made a starter last year, forgot about it in the fridge and then dug it back out once the lockdown began. “I never thought I'd be the type of person who set daily reminders on their phone to feed their starter baby with flour and water. It's like looking after a child or a pet.”
Ruby Morris, 24, took it a step further and decided to name her sourdough starter “Ursula”, christened after the “badass sea witch, because that’s the energy I wanted my starter to take forward into my breads”. She documented the process from dough fermentation to a crusty sourdough boi on her Instagram Stories. From there, it spread like an Insta pyramid scheme and hooked in her friends. “Four people started making their own starter after watching mine. A few have asked for a sample of Ursula,” Ruby says. “It's all been very silly and very nice.”
If this all sounds pretty complicated, that’s because it kind of is. Part of the reason why the sourdough bro has gained cult-like status is because of the perceived steep learning curve to making bread. It takes a lot of effort and time, which until now most of us didn't have. But once you get past the mental barrier of messing around with yeast – and feeding a sourdough starter if you have one – it’s a lot easier than it looks.
Chef and bread expert Jack Sturgess (aka YouTuber "Bake With Jack") says he’s had a big jump in video views since the UK fully embraced the lockdown and all non-essential shops closed. New subscriber numbers have quadrupled on his channel compared to a regular week. He's even launched a "Bread SOS" service to help out with people’s baking woes, whether that’s a soft crumb or a soggy bottom (both of which I’ve sadly experienced).
The number one tip, he tells me, is to avoid dusting your table or dough with flour while kneading as it leads to a “tight, dry, underdeveloped dough – making heavy brick bread”. He adds: “I think it's great that more people are making their own bread. It's such a more natural product than the stuff we all buy in the supermarkets. It certainly shows in the lack of flour and yeast available. I just hope that it's because people want a homemade loaf and enjoy making it as opposed to stockpiling for emergencies."
You don’t have to look very hard on Twitter to find eerie photos of empty supermarket shelves. Just like how there’s no pasta, eggs or toilet roll, have-a-go bakers seem to have stripped the aisles clean of strong white flour. This is a sentiment echoed by almost all of the bakers I spoke to. “Every flour seller in the country has sold out,” Greg complains.
“I think it's a moment where a lot of us are questioning our relationship to sustenance as well as where our resources come from,” says home baker Anna Celda, 23, who has been making bread for five years. “I'm quite happy that people have been turning to bread, the most basic form of self-sustenance.”
On Instagram, Anna has been attempting to demystify the process of making sourdough by giving tips and answering questions, but she’s also been encouraging people to make do with what ingredients they have. “Not everything has to be precise and delicate," she explains. "If you only have regular flour, making bread with regular flour instead of bread flour is better than nothing. Everything that you read on the internet about sourdough was written in a time when access to resources wasn't compromised. Naturally, everything is different now, but I assure you people have made bread in worse conditions. Approach sourdough with an open mind. It is quite simple, really.”
The experience of the bread enthusiasts I spoke to echoed my own; that looking out of the window life is uncertain and scary. Inside, we can create something from literally almost nothing that is not only edible but tastes surprisingly good – whether that's the deep chewiness of sourdough or a simple crusty cob that fills you up for the day. “I found it soothing to be able to make something useful and beautiful while very little is in our control,” says Ruby. “If you can safely and legally get your hands on bread flour, you too could have a yeasty son to keep you company in isolation.” As for me, I’ve found a flour supplier who sells kilogram bags around the back of an industrial estate in east London. If you ask nicely, I might tell you where it is.