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Growing something different

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Production team | 10:42 UK time, Monday, 27 July 2009

Alys FowlerArggh this rain. Boo to this rain. Be gone to this rain.

I've been saying this for days. In between bouts I go out and gather the slugs off the lettuce throwing them (rather hopefully) back onto the compost. I pick the courgettes and long for the taste of sun. I thank god for cucumbers, safe reliable cucumbers soaking up all this rain.

Still it's time to grow something else. I have for over a year now been hankering for a rhubarb starter. A starter is a mixture of fermented flour and water that contains natural wild yeast. You use it to make sourdough breads. It gives them that delicious tang and spongy texture. Once you've set up your starter you don't have to buy yeast ever again. That is if you don't kill it.

I had a good sourdough last year and then I got sad and blue, and somewhere between here and there neglected it, until it grew mould and died. This year is not going to go the same way.

I had read that rhubarb carry a kind of yeast that makes a delicious starter. I hunted high and low across the internet looking for a recipe. There were hints here and there, but nothing concrete.

I had been given some rhubarb (mine only got planted this year and thus has to put its roots down for a year before I can start picking). I'd still not got round to making anything and my rhubarb was starting to turn so I chucked it on the compost. A few days later and another trip to the compost and I noticed that one stem was looking fine, far too good for the compost. I contemplated all the things you can do with a single stick of rhubarb and then remembered the starter. I've had a bad run with commercial yeast recently in baking. I can't work with it and seem to make endless bad judgements resulting in frankly inedible loaves.

I took a gamble and all that was needed to make a rhubarb starter was to smash the rhubarb up a little and then to add it to the beginning of a starter. The results were the best, and I had the fluffiest starter I've ever made; one that smells of all the good things in bread, slightly tart, slightly beery and just right. As I write I can smell the bread baking. Heaven.

Here is how I made my starter

2 cups of unbleached flour. I think stone ground flours work best. I used a spelt and little strong white flour

2 cups of cut up and bashed about rhubarb

2 cups of warm water (tap water is fine)

Combine the water, flour and rhubarb in a large ceramic bowl. You 're looking to create wild yeast so it needs to be exposed to air. Leave it somewhere clean (you don't want debris falling in) but warm. I've found that on top of the dishwasher is perfect, as it tends to get warm, but if you don't have a dishwasher a windowsill with plenty of sunlight will give you the same results.

Somewhere between this point and roughly five days later it should start to bubble. And by bubble I mean it should have little air bubble appearing on the surface. This is gas from the yeast appearing. Mine started off well, went through a very odd period where it smelt of fish and by day three life was there.

Once the bubbles appear you need to feed the starter. It's a living thing that you're growing. First add 2/3 cups of warm water and mix it in. Next strain out the rhubarb as it's done its job by now. Then add 1/3 cup of unbleached flour. This is the new food.

On day four your starter grows, often doubling in size. It gains a lot more bubbles and begins to look a bit like a sponge (hence it's other name). You may need to put it in a bigger container at this point. I once came home to a starter that had exploded and was making its way across the kitchen.

Day five you'll need to throw half of the starter away and then feed again. You throw half away as it's going to keep doubling in size.

Day six you should see more bubbles. It may have a liquid on top (sometimes very dark brown) this is hooch or alcohol from the fermentation process. It's nothing to worry about, just stir it back in. Now the starter needs to go into the fridge. You'll need a suitable container with a loose fitting lid (it needs oxygen to stay alive). A big glass jar is perfect.

Day seven rest.

You have to feed your starter once a week, sometime you can get away with doing it less frequently, with flour and warm water. I do this as part of the bread - making process by making a proof (2 cups of starter, 1 cup of warm water, 1 cup of flour) and then saving some of this for the next time.

There's a wealth of sourdough tips, fact and recipes on the internet, as well as lots of pictures of the different stages of making a starter. All of which are very helpful to get the initial stages going. The bread is out of this world. You won't (unless very blue) be able to go back to making any other bread.

I've just finished making raspberry jam (eight jars, no less). So now all I have to do is hold out for the bread to cool down and then it won't matter how much it rains today.

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