News From the Farm | July 24, 2017

When I was younger I left my pet beta fish on a windowsill and came home to find it a blackened crisp in steaming water. That very day my older sister made me sign a contract, finger print and signature included, in which I agreed, “I will never own a pet or a living thing ever again.”   

Then fast forward 11 years, forget about the fish pet story for just a moment. I became 21 and I read a book that captivated me. The book delved into the enchanting nature of baking bread. It seemed truly magical. From a gooey mixture of flour, water, salt, and air you would encounter something completely transformational. The fair skinned dough rises in the oven, gradually growing into a beautifully browned nourishing loaf of bread. It was a sort of magic I couldn’t resist being involved in, and so began my process of baking the ultimate sourdough bread. However, the catch about Sourdough is that the baking doesn’t happen until two weeks in. First you begin by starting a starter, and I had no idea what a starter was. I was blind but willing as I followed Chad Robertson (author of Tartine Bread) and Martha Stewart in their recipes for a heavenly loaf of Country Bread. 

I began to culture this Starter of my own. It was a bowl of flour and water, covered with a cloth. It eventually began to bubble after sitting in a cool (but certainly not damp) spot. Every morning I would wake up and take out most of the flour and water. Then I would feed the Starter by giving it fresh flour and water. Whenever I would mix it all together, I’d smell a slightly sour earthiness. I did the same thing before I went to bed. I’d mix and smell that smell again. As a week passed and I began to build a routine around my Starter, I would find myself sighing with content when I encountered that familiar scent of sour earthiness. My friends were worried and so was I. It seemed I was developing affection and care for a bowl of flour and water. This is when I realized I had broken that contract I had signed so long ago.

I was undoubtedly and most guiltily in possession of a pet. My Starter housed a population of wild yeast that I had to feed every morning and night in order to keep them happy and healthy.  I suppose I was pleasantly surprised that I had attained that pet I’d always dreamed of, a companion that would accompany me through the hardships and unknowns of my adult life…not to mention, it would contribute to a tasteful sourdough whenever I pleased.

Now, two years after claiming my pet, I am still caring for my starter. And even throughout my time working on the farm I have been baking now and again, for the pleasure of learning more about sourdough and for sharing an edible form of joy with friends. My starter keeps me excited and curious about bread, which in turn makes me eager to feed the starter. I see bubbles in my starter and can just picture a famished wild yeast microbe devouring the sugars in the wheat flour. The microbe happily passes gas (carbon dioxide) and makes a bubble many, many times it’s own size, just so it can thank me in a way I can visibly recognize.

Jesse and Emily after the Berkeley farmers market.

Farming in combination with bread baking has taken my experience even further. I began to envision myself planting and harvesting my own wheat for bread. There is magic that comes from being a part of a creation from the start to finish. After all, this is why I was attracted to farming. So I did it. In November, I planted a small plot of ancient grain varieties that I obtained from a neighboring friend and local miller. The grains I planted were Khorason, Oland, Chiddam Blanc, Sonora, and Ethiopian blue tinge emmer. I had never baked with ancient grains, because they aren’t widespread and usually are expensive. However, if this field was a success I’d have plenty to bake with, as well as seeds left over to plant once again. Finally, July came to officially mark my one year of working on the farm, and the wheat was ready to harvest. I was struck that this beautiful field of wheat came into being with only the provision of good soil, sunlight, and the wet winter rain.  The timing was right. I finished my working internship at Full Belly and I was given the opportunity to devote all my time to harvesting this plot of wheat, baking, and experimenting with starters. 

I could share a whole lot about what I have learned through seeing my bread come into this world from seed to loaf. One curious note was that by using the different Full Belly flours to feed my starter, I found that the Red Fife would produce a much more active starter. This meant I’d have more bubbles, which meant more microbe activity! In harvesting wheat and baking bread I was able to truly reflect on my work and learning experience at this farm. 

When I sized up my field, prepared to harvest I realized that though it was a small amount of land relative to Full Belly, it was a whole lot of field for me to tackle alone. But weeks passed and somehow it all worked out. Yesterday, I made six loaves of bread from the grains that I broadcast in November. My loyal pet starter has taught me that the most necessary ingredients for creating magic are not visible to the naked eye. It’s the microscopic microbes, the forethought and commitment of the farmers, and the endurance of many workers that make seeds into meals for many, many people. The starter is something that leaves a trace of the invisible microbes so that I can remember that they are there, munching on sugar and passing gas as living things do, doing their work to make this bread rise. The vegetables grown here and a baked loaf of bread may not have signs of life still in them like my starter does, but I truly wish you could see the living work that goes into every tomato, watermelon, and padrón pepper that you eat. You would see so much life and hard work! 

For the past three weeks, I feel like I have been working with wheat all day and even in my sleep at night. People ask me how long it takes to bake a bread and I can’t really give them a good answer anymore. I don’t really want to tell you how long it takes me, because in the case of yesterday it took half a year and two days to bake those loaves. I don’t want to tell you that for fear that you may never begin. It’s always better to jump off the diving board without looking down. You know you want to do it and that’s all that matters. 

Emily Liang, Full Belly Intern 2016-2017