San Francisco, CA — Long before Rice-a-Roni was ‘the San Francisco treat,’ the city by the bay was known for one of the most ancient forms of bread making: sourdough. The history of the tangy bread dates back to the California Gold Rush, where bread, particularly sourdough prepared at a local bakery called Boudin in 1849, became the staple of a growing city.
Yet, have you ever wondered how the bread got its unique flavor?
Artisan bread foodies will tell you long stories about sourdough “starters” brought over from the Basque area of Spain that has been nurtured for generations and added to each batch of bread, giving its distinctive “wang.” According to food scientists, it’s the lactic acid produced from a unique strain of bacteria in the San Francisco starter. But it’s how this is strain is fed, which is the topic of a new book from “slow food” specialist Justin Waters. It’s what makes this bacteria special that is also raising more than one eyebrow in the food world.
[below is a segment of a 2-hour interview between Gish Gallop’s food critic Loretta Splitair and Ancient Eats writer Justin Waters]
Gish Gallop: Congratulations on your new book Ancient Eats, Justin. It was a fantastic read.
Justin: Thanks, I’m proud of it.
Gish Gallop: In your book, you talk about re-discovering old ways of cooking. Would you explain that a bit?
Justin: Sure. You have to remember that long ago, they didn’t have refrigeration and many of what we would call necessities of today. So they used what they had when they had it. What I mean by re-discovering is food anthropologists like myself need to go back into history and unearth all the secrets of the ancient ways. That’s what I call in the book, ancient eating.
Gish Gallop: Of course the most, well, the shocking part of the book is in your entire chapter dedicated to Sourdough bread. That the starter was started with human urine.
Justin: Well, it’s complicated, but yes human urine and other animal’s urine played a considerable role in the development of sourdough starters.
Gish Gallop: I think many people would be shocked to learn that the sourdough they’re eating contains urine.
Justin: As I said, it’s complicated. The bread doesn’t contain urine, but rather uric acid, which is the byproduct of broken down urine. See, hundreds of years ago, and frankly no one is sure exactly how this happened, Basque farmers somehow came up with the idea to use urine to preserve foods. They understood that urine would break down in the correct environments. And that’s how sourdough bread originally got it’s, how shall I say it, ‘wang.’ Now over the years, people have substituted other things, notably lactobacillus bacteria, to produce the same effect, but it all started with farmer John’s pee.
Gish Gallop: You cover that in great detail in the book, which, of course, is fascinating. But it’s that other revelation about modern interpretations of sourdough bread making that was tough to swallow, pardon the pun.
Justin: Oh, you mean the hipster baker part?
Gish Gallop: Yes
Justin: Well, I had no idea either. I don’t want to give away the whole book, but it’s true. Several bakers in San Francisco are embracing the ancient methods and urinating into their starters. Now I don’t condone that, but it’s fascinating. And I have to tell you. It’s also delicious.
Gish Gallop: So you tried some?
Justin: Of course! And it was quite different than what we think of as modern sourdough. It’s earthier; certainly, much more sour, and the color, as you might expect, is, um, well…different.
Gish Gallop: Do you think this ‘urine’ trend will catch on to other parts of the country?
Justin: Probably not, San Francisco is a unique place in that regard. Also, it’s an underground movement. You have to ask for it over the bakery counters at places that use this technique.
Gish Gallop: Care to share a few of the names?
Justin: [laughing] Absolutely not. But you can find them on social media.