In the time of coronavirus and social distancing, one thing that is uniting us all is sourdough bread baking. People who don’t normally bake bread are now immersing themselves in the microbial world of starter cultures and making bread, basically from nothing more than flour, water and salt.
If you have followed people’s adventures in sourdough, then you might have seen the hashtag #YeastMasters, and wondered ‘who are these Masters of Yeast?’
There are a few, but one who has become the fulcrum of the burgeoning sourdough movement is Seamus Blackley. Known as the father of the Xbox, the game designer, physicist and passionate Egyptologist’s mind-bending adventures in sourdough bread baking involve recreating Ancient Egyptian bread with 4000-year-old yeast.
Blackley’s Twitter account is a wealth of knowledge and wisdom gleaned over the course of years and has now become a place for people to reference and proudly display their tentative first attempts at a practice that was once fundamental to being human. Just follow one of his threads to go down a meta rabbit hole. So what happened? Why is everyone turning to sourdough bread baking during the lockdown?
The Foundation of Civilisation
“Of course that has happened,” says Blackley, “because in times of duress people want comfort and the most comforting thing there is, is bread. It’s the foundation of human civilisation.”
Blackley believes we are drawn to making sourdough because it is literally what fuelled modern civilisation.
“There’s the benefit of chance that you can grind up grass seeds and make something that’s delicious and can last for a long time. And you can also make beer from this stuff, so you could get all the swarthy men to toil in the field by bribing them with beer. It ensures that people don’t starve. Everything we have is based on that so I think it’s kind of built-in.
“So of course, when things go bad people want to return to that and I would dare say it’s some deep machinery in our in our bones, in our heads, in our DNA, that causes us to make bread.”
But why sourdough? It seems like only yesterday that people where calling bread the enemy. That gluten was actually something to be feared. Today, we seem to have realised the folly of the yeast witch-hunt.
“We say sourdough, but really everyone up to about a hundred years ago would have just said ‘that’s bread’. There’s only really been a distinction since the commercialisation of engineered yeast. All bread was sourdough for all of human history.”
Just looking at Blackley’s Twitter will give you an idea of the real sense of magic and enthusiasm that people are getting from making sourdough these days.
“It’s a way that people can enter a kind of practical magic that exists in the world. For me it’s magical to see, but it’s also completely not. Sourdough bread making is the most democratic thing that there is. You can make a meal from the air and that’s fairly extraordinary. It’s a trip to watch that everyone sees that it works and is amazed by it.”
While it’s encouraging to see people rediscovering this once ubiquitous life skill, it’s also indicative of what we’ve lost in recent times.
“It just reminds me that we’ve lost contact with everything in the universe and in nature when we forgot how to do this. It’s kind of sad, because just a couple of hundred years ago we would have thought we are insane to think that that was magical or special in any way. In the same way that we would scoff at someone who would think that having a pocket super computer is magical or crazy.”
Most people are coming to sourdough today because of the comfort it gives them, as well as the delicious bread. Blackley, though, came to it through Egyptology. You can add ‘Time Lord of Yeast’ to his many titles.
"They weren’t figuring out their version of it, they were figuring it out for the first time."
“I came to sourdough from a different angle,” he says. “The ancient projects that I work on are very nerdy and it has to do with the foundations of humanity and all of the culture we’ve taken from early civilisation. Really the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians were the first to figure out how to be human as we imagine being human today, how we relate to society, what a government is, how we relate to one another. They weren’t figuring out their version of it, they were figuring it out for the first time.
“That’s a kind of historical bias we have, we tend to think that the Greeks did it this way and the Egyptians did it another way, but no, the Egyptians did it for the first time. It’s the difference between inventing something and riffing on something, it’s a very important difference. I see, inescapably, this deep connection between it all.”
We tend to think as Ancient Greek culture as the foundation for modern society, but they inherited much from the Egyptians.
“The Greek civilisation emerged in a world where writing was common. The Egyptian civilisation emerged in a world where nobody did any writing, and that’s a huge difference. The Greek civilisation emerged where there was government and organisation and taxes and armies. The Egyptian civilisation started when there was none of that.
“Also, you have to realise the Egyptian Empire lasted five thousand years before the Greeks even showed up. When Ramses, the Pharaoh from the Bible, was around, the Pyramids were over a thousand years old. The Egyptian Empire was an extraordinary thing, it lasted longer than it’s been since it fell. The influence on our society is so pervasive that it’s hard to even quantify it.”
The bread making came about from a passion for history, wanting to connect with the past in a way more tangible than reading about it in history books.
“I was interested to try and make medieval bread from just grain and water and salt. It took a few years to figure out how to collect yeast and to make good bread out of it. And a contention that I have is that medieval people were much more skilled than we are at making bread and meals like that because it’s all they had.
“A lot of people make really bad ‘ancient’ wholemeal breads and I don’t buy that ancient people ate garbage food at all. So I went and collected yeast and started to buy wholemeal flours and started to mill flour from grain to see if I could attain the skill level of the average 12-year-old in the 13th century.
“I felt like it was a worthy endeavour to see if we could share that food with our ancestors in that way, and it turns out that if you work at it you can make bread that’s really, really good that way. I got it in my head that we had lost something special, which was a whole category of food that was good, and rich and sustaining and very healthy accidentally, as we progressed.
"I don’t buy that ancient people ate garbage food at all."
“As we age we see these patterns and it causes me to have this kind of sadness about all the great things that humans lose because of the nature of our lifespan and our society. We lose touch and we lose context for the people who came before, and all the things they did and who they were.”
So in a way, people’s need to return to sourdough bread making is a need to connect with the past of our ancestors, to understand our lives better, with context. It’s also a way to live a life more connected with nature.
While the coronavirus may yet be the shake of the shoulders we’ve needed as a society, for Blackley, the pursuit of sourdough is a way to listen to the voices of the past. It’s something he's been pursuing through his enduring passion for Egyptology, which grew as he learned to read hieroglyphics and Ancient Egyptian.
“I think it’s extraordinary to be able to listen to the voices of people who lived so long ago and to feel you’re bridging that gap. To feel the alienness of it, to some extent, but moreover, the familiarity of it all. You can read the words of people who worked on the pyramids.”
“People say aliens built the pyramids. Aliens didn’t build the pyramids, bureaucracy built the pyramids.”
“People say aliens built the pyramids. Aliens didn’t build the pyramids, bureaucracy built the pyramids,” says Blackley. “You can read the exhaustive bureaucracy – ‘Senusret is paid 15% more than my crew because we know that his sister is sleeping with the over-seer and we demand that he is paid less and we are paid the balance for the last three months’, this type of thing. You can literally read that. It’s insulting and shitty to those people to say that aliens built the pyramids.”
If you’ve visited Egypt and toured the temples, they are so impressive that the easy conclusion to reach might be that they were in contact with some higher power.
“You might think that they were in touch with something else, but imagine what they would think if they saw smartphones and 747s, they would think that we are in touch with something magical, but we’re not, we’re in touch with working hard and progress.
“They did it all for the first time, which is why it’s so compelling to listen to specifically their voice from that time, in the Old Kingdom and the first dynasties, when they were figuring it out. The bread that I bake and the project that I work on is specifically from around that Old Kingdom period, when the Pharaoh Sneferu and his predecessors were figuring out how to build pyramids.
“When Sneferu built the great pyramid it had only been about 150 years since the first stone structure in history had been built. People say the progress of technology is so rapid and it is, for sure, but it was then too. The cultivation of grain, the milling of flour and the baking of bread ultimately freed up humans to pursue other things, like art, culture and governance. Yet there are many things we take for granted that just didn’t exist in the Ancient Egyptian world, like the concept of an economy, or currency. Ovens didn’t exist, they baked in fire.
“There are things missing that we take for granted, because they hadn’t been invented yet. So that’s why it’s so compelling to hear their voices, and if we can share food with them, then that’s incredibly cool. That’s really what’s behind it.”
So if sourdough bread baking is indeed a wormhole to the past, it’s one that’s easy to create in your own kitchen. Lots of people are doing it and they’re turning to Blackley for help.
“When this quarantine situation occurred and all of a sudden sourdough baking became in vogue, I’m this guy who has all this sourdough information on social media because I’ve been training myself to have the skills of a twelve-year-old in the Old Kingdom, I’ve had to figure out a lot of hard stuff about sourdough and I’ve been vocal about it, so suddenly I’m this accidental authority figure.
“Which is preposterous because I’m not in it to make sourdough bread with figs in it, or whatever. I’m in it to recreate this ancient thing. But at the same time, all these people need help and this is a sustaining thing that’s comforting for them so I’m up for it. I’ll help them all out, I’ll tell them what I know.
“I’m inadvertently an expert in this stuff and now I have these big-deal chefs and bakers endorsing what I say and cheering it and legitimising it [José Andrés recently tweeted about him], which is hilarious because it has nothing to do with why I’m in this. If I can help people out and have fun, then I’m all for it.”