Sour views of sourdough

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by Christopher Hirst

The sourdough bread now making a tentative appearance in UK supermarkets was rubbished in a recent Guardian taste test. Top place (6.5/10) went to Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference San Francisco¬style sourdough, which was praised for its “bristly, lactic tang” despite “unappealing looks”. It led by a head from Asda’s As Chosen By You sourdough batard (6/10) faintly praised as “not bad”. A San Francisco-style sourdough from M&S scored 5/10 though it provoked the comment, “There is now a big gap between the dazzling impact of the best artisan sourdoughs and this meek approximation of the style.” Last place (0/10) went to Tesco Finest’s white cob, described as having a “slightly silky, slightly salty taste” and “the dampness typical of plastic-wrapped factory breads”. Tesco’s stonebaked sourdough did only slightly better at 3/10. “The texture is too dense (it also has a doughy Plasticine quality).”

They are all a far cry, according to the Guardian, from “benchmark bakeries such as St John in London, Hart’s in Bristol or Price’s in Ludlow”, where “you will encounter revelatory sourdoughs”. But if you happen to reside in an area deprived of artisan bakeries, the supermarket is your sole possibility for shop-bought sourdoughs. Living for much of the year in one of these terminally unhip spots (North Yorkshire), my recommendation for sub-standard sourdough is to use the toaster. When toasted, even the Tesco stonebaked holds the butter in a delicious reservoir below the crunchy surface of the slice. Sure, I’d sooner have Poilane but Tesco’s 3/10 effort does a reasonable job when on toast soldier duty.

A lukewarm view of sourdough was expressed almost 40 years ago by Elizabeth David. Of the 592 pages of her magisterial English Bread and Yeast Cookery (published 1977), she devotes a scant two to sourdoughs. After outlining a procedure that takes five days (including making the starter culture), she concludes, “I find the whole process rather unrewarding.” However, when an American fan airmailed sample loaves to her from San Francisco, she conceded that the wholemeal version “was very genuine. I certainly wouldn’t complain if we could buy bread as good in this country. The white version was not as good, and was rather like a very stale French baguette.” So if you want that distinctive sourdough tang go for a wholemeal loaf from an artisan bakery. Maybe the real thing will be commonplace in North Yorkshire in another four decades.