The Ancient Airborne Yeasts of Crete

Back in May 2012 I received a facebook message from a recently decamped New Orleans friend, the painter Myrtle Von Damitz III:

I'm in the countryside of central western Oregon with the same family as last year--they run a big greenhouse and this is the busy season--my friend's sister married a guy from Crete and they live here half the year and back in Greece the other half. The food here is pretty much like eating in the Garden of Eden and everyone relishes it. Anna and Markos brought back some bread starter--they asked the baker at their favorite bakery in a village in Crete for some and he surprised them by obliging--it's been around since before he became a baker.
They asked me if I had any baker friends back in NOLA to send some to. You're not in NOLA, but if you give me an address I will mail you some of the starter. You're the only bread baker I know! They make some pretty good bread, mostly simple, no yeast.

Intrigued by this unsolicited offer, I replied at once that I would be honored.

I bake bread using my own starter, the wild yeasts harvested from the air right here in the wilds of Red Hook. Now almost three years old, that starter has been fed and kept alive not only by me, but by house-sitters, subletters, a neighbor and former tenant, my mother, and anyone else I could con into dropping by the fridge and adding some flour and water to the Ball jar during my frequent travels. Even my wife, for whom the kitchen is a rarely-visited and unfamiliar land, something like Uzbekistan, even Katie has helped the starter survive my absences, removing half of the bubbling mass and replenishing the bacteria with fresh whole wheat flour.*

But three years are few, compared with the romance of ancient Greece. Who could say how long that cretan sourdough had survived? Generations, certainly. Centuries, perhaps. It is a fabulously romantic notion, rather like a legendary and likely apocryphal stock-pot said to have been continuously bubbling on a Lyonnaise hearth since the medieval period, never cleaned, with fresh ingredients and water being added every day. Ancient flavors simmered eternally right on down to the present day. Would those ancient cretan yeasts persist? Would the bread baked with it be redolent of the savage, rocky and herb-choked slopes of that most rugged of greek islands? Could such bread be said to be an expression of cretan terroir?

The rationalist in me says no, absolutely not. The yeasts that rise sourdough bread are introduced with the ground wheat that feeds it, or harvested accidentally but inevitably from the air, and it seems to me that very soon after transplanting that starter from Crete to Oregon the local flora must begin to dominate. After all, the flour added is not cretan, nor is the air, and both are constantly replenished in one's baking practice.

Nonetheless, the romantic in me begs to believe otherwise. Could it not be that the strains of yeast, once established, propagate themselves at the expense of the local yeasts? Might they create a stable colony capable of overpowering any freeloading visitors? The many online purveyors of sourdough cultures subscribe to, or at least exploit, this romantic notion, offering things like original California Gold-Rush San Francisco Sourdough, and "Tasmanian Devil" Australian starter. The implication is that by purchasing some far flung fungus, the home baker will be able to marshall exotic flavors and traditions right in their own kitchen.

In this case, romance was obviously going to win out over rationalism. There was only one problem: although I checked the mail hopefully, every day, no starter was forthcoming. Weeks went by. It seemed unsporting to inquire, or pester.

Flash forward 13 months, to June 24th of this year. A post by Von Damitz, with whom I had more or less fallen out of touch, washed up in my facebook feed. It was a link to an article about bread, possible fallacies relating to gluten intolerance, and the sourdough biome.  The pull quote was this:

"Expert bakers are thus essentially bug ranchers, managing their herds to achieve their signature balance between flatulence and, well, that other stuff. The result is a fecundity of enzymes, amino acids, and more than 200 flavor compounds."

"Word," I flippantly commented. "Where's my starter?"

Using starter instead of commercial yeast has several benefits. Bread baked with it takes much longer to go stale; it imparts flavor--that famed San Francisco sourness comes largely from the lactic acid produced when the yeasts "consume" the flour in the fermentation process; the intensity of this flavor can be regulated simply by varying the amount and maturity of the starter; it is free of charge, so long as the baker finds some use for the flour and water removed during division and feeding. Another result of this processing is the off-gassing of carbon dioxide; this gassy bubbling is what introduces space and levity into a loaf of bread. The carbon dioxide pockets in the dough ultimately become the crumb structure of the loaf.

Soon afterwards, Myrt wrote back, typifying the rationalist perspective: "the greek starter was probably no longer greek (or cretan) a month after its time in Oregon, but I'm heading up to the farm tomorrow and bringing a collection jar."

A few days later, on the way to the airport, en route to spending the July 4th holiday weekend in Tennessee, I received another message: "At last, starter is in the mail to your P.O. box, marked perishable, wrapped up the wazoo. They say it's due on Friday."

This wasn't great news. We were due back Monday evening, too late to go to the post office, and although starter can survive just fine in the refrigerator, where the cool temperatures retard all of its bubbling and frothing and dividing and conquering, left at room temperature for too long it can quickly overextend itself and expire in an acidic puddle of its own juices. 

I didn't write anything of my concerns to Myrtle. Once back in New York, somewhat worried, I made my way to the Clinton Street post office at the earliest. On July 5th, in England, a gifted jar of home-made rhubarb chutney had exploded, destroying the kitchen of a small apartment, and that had been in the fridge!

I handed over my claim slip and received my wild yeasts, which had been fermenting all along their merry way to Brooklyn. In two small Ball jars, wrapped tightly in paper and plastic bags, I found, intact, and innocuous in appearance, a few tablespoonsful of soupy white liquid. They had clearly blossomed and then died back, for the one marked Crete, despite being half-empty, had at some point oozed out from under its Ball jar lid. The outside of the jar was caked with a now-dried, bready substance. I was lucky indeed that it hadn't exploded, and lucky that Myrtle hadn't screwed the lid on any tighter.

The yeasts were not dead! It took only a couple of feedings (50% white flour and 50% dechlorinated water) before the Cretan starter began to bubble merrily. Holes, like pores, were visible on its surface, and it had doubled in volume. Here I was, in possession of my own little vat of ancient Greece. It was time to bake.**

"Cretan ciabatta," on fire bricks at the bottom of the oven.

Splendid crumb structure despite the slight overproofing suggested by the largest cavity just below the crust.

The dough was very wet, for two reasons. I usually incorporate significant whole wheat flour into my loaves, and whole wheat flour is more absorptive than the white flour I decided to use to respect the whiteness of the starter. Also, at 100% hydration, the cretan starter was wetter than my typical mixture. While not soupy, the dough was almost unmanageably flowy. I fermented it overnight in the refrigerator to imbue the loaf with the maximum in Aegean island flavor. In the morning, the dough was worryingly moist. Nonetheless, it was veined internally with a powerful honeycomb of carbon dioxide voids stretched through with springy strands of gluten. It reminded me of the wet dough for Ciabatta, and I treated is as such.

Soon the house was filled with the spectacular aroma of baking bread, albeit more venetian in style than cretan. Was it just my imagination, or was there an herbal edge to it, as of a bouldery Rosemary and Thyme-choked hillside? After giving it an hour on the cooling rack I carved into it. I have never been to Crete, much less to Armeni, in Rethemno,*** so while it may be anticlimactic to report it, I cannot say if my loaf shared the rustic flavors of the village bakery there. But it was delicious, especially dipped into some fine greek olive oil.

Many thanks to Myrtle Von Damitz III both for mailing me the starter and for kind permission to reproduce images of her paintings here.

*Commercial bakeries that bake daily easily keep their starters going for years and even decades, given that constant feedings are simply a natural part of the baking process. Home bakers, and especially travelers, have a more difficult time of it. I have successfully frozen starter and brought it back to life after months away, but I generally find that two weeks without a feeding brings refrigerated whole-wheat starter to the brink of exhaustion and death; if I am home but not baking I try to "feed" it about once a week, discarding half of the contents of the jar and topping it up with an equivalent quantity of fresh flour and (dechlorinated) water. Bread starter has a pet-like tyranny to it.
**Technical notes in the comments.
***These two words, "Armeni, Rethemno," were just legible on a bit of masking tape on the lid of the jar, half effaced by oozing starter.


A Jarring Experience

Due to various travels, it has been several Saturdays since I was last able to visit the stellar Fort Greene Farmer's market, which spreads out along the south-eastern flank of Fort Greene Park on Saturdays only. I'm not sure if it was the long absence that made everything look good to me, or whether the abundant late rains have helped farmers grow a bumper crop, but it all seemed extraordinarily fresh, green, firm and splendid. The result, of course, was massive overshopping. At the end of wandering up and down the vegetable stands Ruby's folding perambulator could scarcely fit in the trunk of the car, for it was crowded to bursting with bunches of beets, carrots, onions, eggplants, okra, amaranth, lemon cucumbers, more beets, cilantro, squash blossoms and zucchini.

Once home, with the bounty spread out on the dining room table, the excess was obvious. All this perfect legumery would rot and shrivel in the crisper drawer long before we would ever get around to eating it. There was only one possible solution: a long afternoon of pickling.


Mulberries for Ruby (with apologies to Robert McCloskey)

On a recent trip to Greece, to visit what might best be described as a sustainable techno-hippie commune, I was astonished, again, by the number of olives growing everywhere. Every curve, every rise of the land, every back yard and neglected plot held stands of the trees, their distinctive gray-green leaves swaying in the Aegean breeze. I asked one of the cofounders of the Telaithrion Project if each and every one of the thousands of oliviers that I had seen from the car window had a putative owner. "Absolutely," he said. "But it is cheaper for the people to go to the store and buy olive oil than to bother harvesting and pressing their own, so many people in this village just let us help ourselves to their olives."

When I got back to Red Hook I described this vision of thousands of unharvested olive groves to my dear friend Erika. Both of us were somewhat horrified by the thought of all those splendid olives falling down to the ground and going to waste. We're accustomed to paying twenty dollars for a liter of fine oil at Caputo's or carefully tasting the $6.99 per pound selection of olives at the bar at Fairway. What paradise to have your own olive tree in your own backyard, we mused, without even taking into account the climate that comes with one! I told Erika that the folks at Telaithrion aren't certain exactly how much of their diet comes from foraging, but that they think it might be as much as 20%. When I had arrived, in their front yard, there were bedsheets spread on the ground beneath two mulberry trees, to collect the fruit.

"Now when you start talking about mulberries," said Erika, "I guess I kind of get it. We have a giant tree up in Rockland County, and I admit we don't do a very good job of harvesting the fruit." It's easy to fantasize about other people's fruit trees, but when it's in your own backyard it's harder to make it happen. In New York City? Who has the time?

Actually, Ruby and I do. My peripatetic freelance existence makes for some intense work when I'm on, but when the calendar is empty I bake bread, make preserves and lounge about the house with my seven-month-old daughter to my heart's content. Inspired by the greeks, and without so much as asking Ruby if she wanted to participate in my jammy schemes, I plonked her in her stroller and we headed out into the wilds of Red Hook in search of mulberry trees. (There are no olives.)

Like wild animals, mulberry trees leave tell-tale sign. Looking down the block from the corner the rich dark berries may be invisible on the tree amongst the green leaves, but the swollen, dark fruits scattering the sidewalk are a dead giveaway. 

Low-hanging fruit: An early June mulberry branch, brimming with berries. I can't tell you where, or I would have to kill you.

Above, a typical presentation; an unruly tree has long ago breached the confines of its owner's yard, shading the entire sidewalk with its fruit-laden boughs. Perhaps because they are smudged and smeared by passing pedestrians, who tend to collect a seedy, gooey purple paste on the soles of their shoes, mulberries are not on the New York City Parks Department list of officially sanctioned trees. Although there may be exceptions, the eager forager must therefore typically go in search of the overhanging branches of trees planted on private property. Although nobody has ever come out of their house and accosted me for stealing their berries, this possibility does give urban mulberry gathering an added frisson, the thrill of the trespass. My sense that Ruby's irrepressible grin would help take the edge off any such potentially unpleasant encounters was just another reason to bring her along.

Ruby enjoys the shade of a mulberry tree. Note the dense scattering of fallen fruit on the sidewalk behind her.
Ruby slumbers, while daddy harvests.

Ruby dozily guards the slowly filling mulberry pot with her stroller.

Here an aggressive mulberry has forced its branches through a chain-link fence, soiling the sidewalk with its sugary offerings.

A few days shy of ripe. (I picked the ripe ones before taking this photograph.)

Mulberries come in two varieties, purple, and white. In Red Hook, at least, trees with purple fruit far outnumber those with white fruit, but I did find a few of the latter variety, which are mixed in, above. I believe them to be sweeter, and more highly prized, but perhaps I just think that because they are more scarce.

A healthy bowlful, on the kitchen counter.

The same berries, after macerating overnight in two cups of sugar. Some people skim off the foam before they begin cooking down the jam, but I don't bother.

A case of half pints. I would estimate it took approximately 20 cups of berries to make these, and approximately two-and-a-half mulberry-picking man-hours.

An extra half jar, for immediate use.


Most recipes for mulberry jam call for an obscene amount of sugar, as much as one cup per cup of berries. That's not mulberry jam, that's mulberry-flavored simple syrup. The problem is that even with low-sugar pectin, mulberry jam won't set very well unless the pectin reacts with a lot of very hot sugar. For me this isn't a problem; I don't care if the jam is runny. You are most likely going to be spooning this over vanilla ice-cream anyway. I used about three cups of sugar for every 8 cups of berries.

You need:

8 cups of berries
3 cups of sugar
1/2 cup of fresh or bottled lemon juice (you want this for the acid, not the flavor, so bottled is fine, and perhaps more consistent).

Ball Jars (about six half pints)

Wash your berries really well; they are, after all, urban berries, subject to soot and exhaust and I know some of them fell on the sidewalk when you were collecting them. Some nerdlins try to remove the tiny green stems. Really? They are very, very small, and I can't see them having a deleterious effect on the final flavor.

Mix the berries and the sugar in a bowl, then gently crush some of the berries with a potato masher or the back of a large spoon, to release some of the juice. Cover and refrigerate overnight. While the berries are macerating, get a good night's sleep.

Clean and then sterilize your ball jars in a boiling water bath. Put your jar lids to soak in the hot water once the jars are ready.

Put the contents of your berry bowl into a saucepan and bring it to a gentle boil over medium flame. Stir while simmering for a minute or five. (If you want to go the pectin route in hopes of firm and spreadable jam, follow the direction that came with your pectin and add the appropriate quantity now--probably a lot more sugar will be required....) Stir your lemon juice in well and turn off the heat.

Pour your jam into the jars, preferably with a canning funnel, and set the lids. Tighten your jar bands finger tight and process the jars in a boiling water bath (fully submerged) for ten minutes.

Spoon over vanilla ice-cream and enjoy.