When Ione Christensen invited me into her home to talk sourdough, I could tell she’s done this before.
I hadn’t gotten passed “Nice to meet you,” before she handed me a printout of recipes and a sample of her famous starter. She looks out from the photo on the cover page clad in lacy whites – which I wouldn’t wear anywhere near a kitchen, let alone in the bush – brandishing a tray of massive sourdough hotcakes. The photo was taken at Bennet Lake in 1998, where she spent two months feeding hikers coming over the Chilkoot Trail in celebration of the Gold Rush centennial.
I had done my homework and knew of some of Christensen’s other claims to fame: former senator, member of the Order of Canada, and the first woman in the Yukon to be a Justice of the Peace, Mayor of Whitehorse, and Commissioner of the Yukon. She assured me, however, that she was quite happy to talk about more domestic things, including the sourdough starter that has been in her family since her grandfather brought it over the Chilkoot Trail in 1898.
Allow me to digress on a little sourdough primer, beginning with a confession: I love fermentation. It fascinates me. And it seems that almost every culture in the world has developed food traditions based on, well, cultured foods.
Fermentation is what happens naturally to food as soon as it stops growing and the bacteria, yeasts, and molds that live everywhere in our environment take over. By controlling the conditions of that fermentation, you can favour some organisms over others, and influence the direction that flavours evolve. Sourdough starter takes this up a notch by actively culturing (growing) a pot of yeasts until you need it. Then they can be added to grains and let them go to town. As they grow and multiply, they produce alcohol and carbon dioxide, which makes your bread rise.
If you aren’t lucky enough to have an heirloom starter in your family, you could be the first to grow one. I started my own sourdough culture in 2008 by leaving a bowl of flour and water on the counter until it went bubbly. I made half of it into pancakes and added more flour (of all kinds) and water to the rest. Repeat, and eventually I had a culture that gave plenty of rise to all sorts of things bready.
This tendency of the yeast to pick up whatever is floating about can have unintended consequences. Christensen told me about taking her starter to Ottawa when she was appointed to the Senate: “I lived in an old building that must have had mold in it. The starter picked up the spores, and it was just terrible. I had to throw it out.”
These days, we can put our starter in the fridge and largely forget about it – it will separate, but the yeast just lies dormant under a layer of alcohol once it has metabolized all the sugars – until we wake it up with a prod and some food. Sounds like some people I know.
During Christensen’s childhood, growing up in the remote outpost of Fort Selkirk, however, there was no refrigeration.
“In those days you had to use the starter two to three times a week to keep it going,” she says. “It lived in a blue enamel pot hung in the rafters above the wood stove, and we would feed it leftover porridge each morning. Now, it happened once that there was a terrible smell in the house. We looked everywhere, thought maybe something had died… my mother even made dad move the furniture. Then one day he followed his nose and noticed that pot hanging up there and brought it down – oh it was blue!”
So it certainly pays to keep backups, and to be generous with your starter – both of which Christensen can vouch for.
“I always keep some dried, and I refresh it every year,” she says. “I pass it around to most anyone who asks. I even gave it to a restaurant once, down in B.C., but when their chef saw it he threw it out.”
Christensen uses her starter to make all her bread, and for a weekly waffle day. She does add commercial yeast to her bread to ensure a good rise, as the starter is more variable and less predictable. So now that we can buy predictable, dependable commercial yeast at the store, why bother with the old starter?
“It keeps you in touch with the past, we’re so dependent on manufactured things these days,” Christensen says. “I like to eat local, to grow a garden, put up preserves. It makes me feel a bit independent, but when the lights go out…” she pauses and glances at a book on the coffee table. It’s The End of Growth by Jeff Rubin. She continues, “When we lived in the bush we were more self-sufficient. We brought in flour and sugar, tea and coffee, but we hunted and picked berries. I still like to keep two years worth of cranberries just in case of a low year…” she pauses with her eyes closed, and I can see her floating on an invisible aroma. She comes back to the present, “Have you tasted a strawberry from the store this time of year?”
I admit, I have not.
“Well they are just insipid! No flavour at all.”
Which is another reason to go sourdough – you just can’t get that taste any other way.
So sourdough starter is a culture, and part of our culture too.
“When they were coming over the trail, everyone had their own starter – it was the only way to make bread and biscuits rise,” she says. “It was in no way unique to the Gold Rush, or the Klondike, but somehow the name stuck, and if you made it through a winter, you became a Sourdough.”
As I was leaving, Christensen’s husband wanted to make sure I was taking a sample of the famous starter. She knew I already had my own starter, but, what the hey, hybridization seems to works for dogs. Maybe I’ll see what happens when old meets new. First I’ll stash away a backup.