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Have starter will travel

Sophia Elek tells her story of trans-global sourdough sharing.

Photo © Sophia Elek

Photo © Sophia Elek

Originally scraped from an artisan bakery in Tasmania, my sourdough starter has been transported around Australia, carried in a jam jar across the mountains of Papua New Guinea and has now crossed the seas to England.  At each stop, friends have encouraged both my enthusiasm and starter to spill over, leaving behind more fecund cultures brewing.

A very forgiving process

Since my teens, my only results when striving to create good, Real Bread were sticky hands and doorstop loaves. It took the words of a new friend, who said “it’s a very forgiving process,” to coax me into trying one…more…time.

Passing through my parent’s kitchen in-between jobs, I leant over a very pregnant belly to mix the starter, water, flour and salt. My dad, ever the believer in afternoon siestas, encouraged me to stick to Tartine baker Chad Robertson’s adage: “never skip the resting period.”  Much against my ‘do it yesterday’ inklings, I found that the bread indeed loves to lounge around on worktops or bowls, wicker baskets or colanders, waiting to be noticed.  And every time we break bread, we notice it again, and rest.

From our ancient camping gear I dug out a cast iron cooker, which replicates a posh bread oven by steaming the loaf before sealing it with a thick, glossy crust.  The salty Derwent River flowed out to sea and my loaves loved me.  The highest form of flattery is imitation, and my sister nicked a bit of starter and took it back to Melbourne. Which I suppose counts as sharing, sort of.

Me likum yu

Upping sticks again, I headed to the Star Mountains in Papua New Guinea. To get there from Port Moresby, the capital, your options are to be flown in, or walk for weeks.  I went for the first option.

The flour available in the mountains was mealy and white and took even longer to get there than we did, travelling in hot conditions for months before arriving at the local shops.  I wondered how this, and the steamy climate with rainfall over ten metres a year, would shape the loaves. 

Popping the lid of my jam jar, the starter swelled with excitement. Loving the climate, she grew and grew, but I wondered where I would find an oven and other equipment. What better way to make friends than knock on doors, sticky toddler in one hand, sticky dough in the other?  My kitchen kitted out, the house soon swelled with the smell of baking bread and, as the starter and method were passed along the tiny town, so did other homes. 

As a big gathering approached, talk turned to a mumu, getting together to cook in an earth pit, full of hot rocks and banana leaves steaming on top.  Adding grated sweet potato made for a moist loaf, a novelty and at last a chance for me to offer something back to such welcoming people.

Bread equals friends. As a new one told me in Tok Pisin (aka pidgin, one of the official languages of PNG), “me likum yu.” Say it out loud, you’ll get it!

Originally published in True Loaf magazine issue 23, April 2015.

Published Saturday 7 September 2019

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