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Vive le sourdough (but oh! for the love of olives)

February 5, 2010

Last weekend at the San Francisco Food Wars’ “Yeast Affliction” bread event, I was awed more than afflicted. The twenty competing loaves were, for the most part, completely dazzling. Freshly turned out of cloth-lined wicker baking baskets, they sported neat concentric circles of dusted flour; crisp, craggy “ears” of crust, burnished deep bronze from the oven, begged to be pried off and crunched. There were long, fluted baguettes, football-shaped batards, beautiful spherical boules, and rectangular ciabatta loaves like smooth flat river stones.


(Maybe I should mention that half the contestants were students of the San Francisco Baking Institute.)

When a slice of classic baguette a l’ancienne, chewy, and with a wonderful crumb, landed on my tasting plate, the only ornamentation was the contestants’ matching purple bow-ties. But otherwise, the basic geometries of boule and batard were everywhere embellished with almost dizzying ingredient variations. The most successful balanced boldness and flavor intuition: sour-cherry-walnut, pear-buckwheat, onion-thyme-walnut, hazelnut-chestnut flour, and even seaweed-brown rice-sesame seed.

But for all this variety of flavor, most of the breads were sourdoughs. Not French levain-style sourdough; big bold San Francisco sourdough, with its sharp pugnacious tang.


It makes sense that bakers would bring out the big guns to wage a food war: for the experienced baker, sourdough can be more forgiving and versatile than yeast-leavened bread; but it is also finicky—a more lethargic riser, prone to acidic funks if not fed properly, and so on. And so the queen of bakers conquers the crown with sourdough, not soda biscuits.


There was one sour note to this sourdough reign. A clear golden pool of olive oil—theoretically for dipping—may have been central to my tasting plate’s composition, but it played a far less pleasant role on the palate. I’ve come to the conclusion that I just don’t go for sourdough and olive oil. Their respective tanginess competes—they tussle and play rough, things start to feel abrasive, and my taste buds don’t really want to be in the middle of it.

Butter, on the other hand, is a perfect partner—its mildness and sweetness complement a sourdough’s feistiness. Or—keep the tangy olive oil, but don’t pitch it into the ring with San Francisco’s sourest; pair it with a milder levain or a yeast-leavened bread, like pillowy focaccia. This tangy-mild combination is the basis for the subtle pleasures of Italy’s pizza bianca: focaccia brushed with olive oil and salt, sometimes sprinkled with rosemary.

Sadly, there was no such harmony last Sunday; the sour doughs turned the olive oil bellicose—a war of flavors.

On the other hand, in this profusion of breads, there wasn’t a single olive bread. And that, to me, means a good match missed. I love the salty intensity of cured black olives in a fougasse aux olives, that soft, foccacia-like bread from Southern France, with its little black gems.

It may seem strange to complain about olive oil and mourn the absence of olives. But fermentation in our common lye-treated olives breaks down the phenolic compounds that give fresh (nonedible) olives—and olive oil—their bitter pungency. Hence no war of bitternesses.

And we all go home happy.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 7, 2010 9:03 pm

    Mmm, bread tasting. Sounds like my kind of event!

    I think you should definitely post an olive bread recipe, now that you’ve tantalized our tastebuds with that gorgeous photo and description.

    I’d settle for a pear-buckwheat bread recipe if I must.

    • February 8, 2010 9:13 am

      It just so happens the woman who writes the blog Wild Yeast is a San Francisco Baking Institute student, was a contestant at the SF Food Wars event–and posted the pear-buckwheat recipe on her blog:
      As she says in the blog post, her colleague from SFBI won Honorable Mention from the judges with this recipe. It’s a little involved, but was truly amazing, stenciled pear and all.
      Stay tuned for an olive bread recipe.

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