The Sweet Side of Sourdough

CFL Academy with Kathe Kaczmarzyk

sourdough

There are so many sides to sourdough. Berlin-based fermentation fiend Kathe Kaczmarzyk delved into many of them at the CFL Academy during her workshop ‘The Sweet Side of Sourdough’. This was not a quick-fix, how-to workshop. It was a discussion offering a better, holistic understanding of bread and its place in history, culture and nutrition, past, present and future.

Kathe grew up as ‘the Polish girl’ in Queens, New York City, but is now ‘the American girl’ among Berlin’s artisan bakers, fermenters and cheesemongers. As a kid, Kathe ate almost exclusively her mother’s homemade Polish food, then she rebelled against this diet for a while – including a bout as a raw vegan that led her family to believe she was insane. Now, she has come full circle back to her Polish root vegetables.

Kathe is the personification of Levain Berlin. Sharing knowledge acquired over years of her mother’s pickled vegetables, her own time spent farming, and many other experiences (including a cooperative residency at the home of influential fermentation champion Sandor Katz in Tennessee this past fall), she runs fermentation workshops touching on anything from lacto-fermented quince to cultured butter, fermented porridge to kimchi and pickled beets.

But this one was all about sourdough bread. Its taste, the science at work in that bubbling bowl, and sourdough bread’s place both in our collective food history and in helping us out of the sea of problems we’re floundering in today and in the future.

Berlin is lucky to have many sourdough enthusiasts, both makers and eaters thereof. What a lot of them skip, though, Kathe gives ultimate importance: grains and flour. As far as the artisan bread revolution has carried us over the past several decades (and as impressive as those Tartine-inspired crusty loaves of white sourdough are to bring to a dinner party), the vast majority of bakers still start with this: step one, get some flour. This is understandable, since for most of us flour is like commercials and previews before a movie at the cinema. Or the national anthems performed before a sport match. Some of us take it seriously, but most of us don’t care if we only get to our seats or turn on the TV as it’s finishing.

Kathe’s sourdough workshop, though, began with an overview of grains. From ancient strains to manipulated modern crops, how they are farmed and how they are milled. We focused, naturally, on modern wheat. Kathe was able to explain, in layman’s terms, things that may otherwise confuddle us to the point where we give up on trawling through online bread and bakers’ blogs for fear of our head spinning off onto the floor. Things like ash content, protein content and extraction rate, and the rough equivalents between different countries, particularly Germany and the U.S.

We talked about the true value of stone-ground flour. Kathe brought bowls of fresh rye, wheat and spelt flour she had milled herself on a friend’s stone mill, to show us millennial, refined flour-fuelled yuppies what fresh flour looks, feels and smells like.

The last section of the workshop was dedicated to detailing just some of the nutritional benefits of fermentation in general and sourdough bread in particular, backed up by equal parts scientific and socio-historical evidence. What a fairytale world exists in that bowl of slowly fermenting flour and water! Wherein microbes and enzymes cast spells on phytic acid, gluten proteins and other components to make them more bioavailable and more readily digestible for us. Sorry, but this stuff does border on the magical at times.

Kathe is an eloquent advocate for wheat, and its nutritional benefits (even in modern crops) in this age of wheat hate-mongering, led by a rise in rates of coeliac disease and the fashion of wheat-/gluten-free fad diets. We touched on that too – industrial yeast-risen, refined-flour bread is a big factor explaining why we have these problems in the first place.

Of course we were not to go home hungry, either. As Kathe spoke, the full audience at CFL’s Academy workshop nibbled some delicious treats Kathe had made: a tangy sip of delicious fresh buttermilk; some snacky rye sprouts; a loaf of Danish sourdough rye splashed with fresh buttermilk, a malty stout from Motel Beer, sprouted grains and seeds; a boule of chewy, crusty, flavourful white winter sourdough; and of course her outstanding fresh cultured butter to top it off perfectly.

Kathe’s Levain Berlin workshops are in hot demand around and beyond Berlin. If you like the sound of Kathe’s informative and interactive events then we highly recommend taking a look at Levain Berlin’s website for dates throughout the year. Coming up over the next month will be workshops on Kimchi & Sauerkraut (February 14th) and Cultured Butter and Dairy Ferments (March 21st) at Goldhahn und Sampson in Berlin. Kathe is also hosting a special evening making sauerkraut, using otherwise discarded vegetables, and discussing fermentation and its place in our past and future. This will take place on February 19th at Amsterdam’s acclaimed sustainable cultural venture De Ceuvel.

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