Toronto’s bread-loving bakers share their sourdough-starter origin stories
Flour and yeast are some of the city’s hottest commodities right now, thanks to a baking boom that has swept Toronto (and much of the world). Sure, people are still making banana bread and cookies, but sourdough bread’s the carb du jour. The world’s oldest bread-leavening agent requires only water, flour and time. And while flour might be hard to source right now, these days most of us have plenty of time.
Despite the fact that we’re all social distancing, there’s something incredibly social about sourdough. People who keep sourdough active always have excess starter to give away, so sourdough is something to share. It can be passed down through generations and kept alive for decades (even centuries). We chatted with some of Toronto’s sourdough-obsessed bakers about the origins of their starters and tips for baking perfect loaves.
Bread cred: Owner of Mattachioni, a casual Italian trattoria in the Junction Triangle that churns out wood-fired sourdough pizzas and lusted-over loaves of perfect sourdough.
Starter story: Mattachioni creates a new starter every year. “I think the magic is the person making the bread, not the starter,” says the baker, who has given away starter to hundreds of budding bakers. “It’s just flour and water—the container costs more than the ingredients.”
Sourdough philosophy: “A starter is going to taste like what it’s fed and where it’s kept. It doesn’t matter if your starter came from France or Australia, within a couple of feedings it will be specific to your neighbourhood. It’s going to be flavoured by your terroir, and for us that’s Canadian wheat and Toronto tap water.”
What he’s baking these days: “Pullman loaves, so we can make grilled cheese sandwiches.”
Some sour advice: “Find a recipe that you like that seems straightforward, and just make it. Have fun and don’t be intimidated, it’s just bread.”
Bread cred: Owner of Robinson Bread which wholesales to Burdock Brewery, Paris Paris and Paradise Grapevine. Robinson is set to open her first brick-and-mortar bakery (grand opening date is pandemic pending).
Starter story: “I just made it myself, and have kept it in the fridge for about six or seven years. It’s not a romantic story.”
Sourdough philosophy: “I share my starter quite a bit, and at this point they must all be different. There’s a lot of talk about where starters come from, but I believe that once it’s in a new space it adapts to the microbes that are in that space. Other things like feeding schedules and temperature will affect it, too.”
What she’s baking these days: “I’ve been baking and sharing bread. Lately, I’ve been baking a seeded whole 100 per cent rye and a classic sourdough with some whole wheat and spelt in it.”
Some sour advice: “Taste your starter to make sure it isn’t too acidic—you want a sweet floral note and for it to not be too astringent. Also, consider the temperature—yeast thrives at 75°F—and use good flour. I like Mother Dough and Merrylynd Farm’s flour.”
Bread cred: Owner of Forno Cultura, a modern Italian bakery producing “bread porn for sourdough fanatics,” according to Bon Appetit magazine.
Starter story: Mastrandrea is a third-generation baker. His grandfather started the tradition back in Apulia, Italy, and his father carried the tradition to Toronto, where he opened the family’s first Canadian bakery on Old Weston Road. Back in 2010, Mastrandrea took some of his father’s now-60-year-old starter to begin Forno Cultura’s levain. “The flavour profile was quite aggressive,” says Mastrandrea, so he added some ripe Ontario apricots and peaches and began steering the flavour toward something more delicate. He’s now trained the starter (referred to as “David Doughie” by staff) to eat once a day.
Sourdough philosophy: Mastrandrea doesn’t like to give out or sell his starter. “People think it’s because I don’t want to share, but I think if you are serious about sourdough you should make your own starter. Starting one isn’t hard, maintaining it is the challenge.”
What he’s baking these days: “I actually don’t do much baking at home—I do a lot of cooking.”
Some sour advice: “Starter is the foundation of your baking, so if you’re serious about sourdough, you should make it.”
Bread cred: Owner of Blackbird Baking Co. The bakery’s phenomenal baguettes and seeded loaves gained the attention of sourdough scientist Karl De Smedt, who put a sample of Blackwell’s starter in the Belgian Sourdough Library (it’s one of the only Canadian samples on display).
Starter story: Although Blackwell’s a fourth-generation baker (his family ran a bakery in Staffordshire, England, for almost a century), he came into baking on his own. “I never worked for another baker, I’m self-taught,” Blackwell says. He also didn’t inherit his starter: nine years ago, Blackwell began Blackbird’s levain with organic flour from K2 Milling and some organic Niagara grapes. “The naturally occurring wild yeasts on the skin of the grapes speeds things along.”
Sourdough philosophy: “Bread at the grocery store has all this shit in it. Good bread is just flour, water and salt.”
What he’s baking these days: “When I have time, sometimes I make waffles and English muffins, but usually it’s casual stuff like cookies and banana bread.”
Some sour advice: “You need to be very consistent, especially with your feeding schedule.”
Bread cred: Founder, host and executive producer of Home Cooked, a podcast about family recipes and how they’re passed on.
Starter story: For a recent episode, Martin interviewed Ione Christensen, an 86-year-old Yukoner and the keeper of one of Canada’s oldest still-living sourdough starters. Christensen—Whitehorse’s first-ever female mayor and a now-retired Yukon senator—recently sent Martin some of her 123-year-old starter.
Sourdough philosophy: “Sourdough appeals to me because it’s a personified ingredient that gets passed on. I am new to it, though. At one point I had eight starters going—they seemed to be growing, but everything I baked tasted like glue. Ione usually only mails people dried flakes, which was what I had been using, but then she sent her live starter to me last week and I was finally able to bake bread that didn’t taste like glue.”
What she’s baking these days: “Ione’s hotcakes. The recipe is really good and it’s on my podcast.”
Some sour advice: “Get a digital scale.”
Bread cred: The only baker on this list to have his own Wikipedia page, Alsace-born Thuet made his way through Michelin-starred kitchens in Europe before moving to Toronto, where he now runs a wholesale bakery that sells to big name clients like the Royal York and the CN Tower.
Starter story: Thuet’s a fourth-generation chef, and he was pitching in at his family’s bakery when he was just nine years old. He brought his starter over from the family bakery in France “for the romance of it.” Thuet doesn’t know precisely how old the family heirloom is, but he knows it was around before World War One.
Sourdough philosophy: “My grandma used to say that if you are a baker, even during a tough time or a war, you are going to have a job. She would remind me that our bakery went through World War One and World War Two—and you never know, one day it could survive World War Three! Well, right now, that’s what it feels like. The whole world’s fucked up by one disease, which is our enemy.”
What he’s baking these days: “Pizza. It’s quick, easy and everybody can participate.”
Some sour advice: “Baking bread can be very romantic, but it can also be disappointing in the beginning. You need to continue trying, and to make sure you feed your levain regularly. Use it when it’s active; talk to it.”