Wednesday, November 15, 2006

For The Love of Spoilage

This is a pretty nice loaf, eh? The color is dark, it has a clever design from the proofing basket and the shape suggests a vigorous oven spring. You can't tell from looking at it, but its interior was nothing to scoff at either. And, so long as we are not being modest, the flavor was first class -- complex and sour with an aftertaste that lingered for at least of quarter of an hour (I'm not kidding about the after taste -- its a curious thing about real sour dough.) While the key to the loaf's appearance is probably the adobe oven, the key to the flavor is the living beast pictured below -- my starter -- a frothing colony of hungry bacteria and yeast that thrives until it can't tolerate its own excreta any more.
Its an interesting observation, I think, that many of the foods about which we obsess the most involve a culture or a fermentation -- think wine, spirits, cheese (and sourdough). Part of it is the complexity of the resulting taste, but part of it also, I think, is primal. There is something darkly appealing about a delicious flavor that flirts with the taste of spoilage. How else can one account for the beloved french cheeses such as morbier, which have distinct overtones of toenail clippings and dead animals.

My well-researched and scientifically-supported theory suggests this results from natural selection. The BackBou and his team of dedicated research assistants postulate that a preference for the spoiled-food-that-won't-kill-you is evolutionarily selected for. Back in the day, pretty much everything was spoiled (this is fact). If it wasn't spoiled when you found it, it sure as heck was spoiled shortly thereafter. Finicky humans who couldn't stomach the taste of spoiled stuff died out -- except for the people who settled Iowa. Most of the folks whose palates couldn't distinguish between the deadly vs. edible spoiled food also pretty much died out, though enough of those unrefined palates lived on to support, for example, the deadly American fast food industry. That left the rest of us. Now, not everyone has awakened his or her inner love for the benevolent spoiled foods, but rest assured it lingers somewhere in all of us.