Throwing out your sourdough

Happy (late) Passover, Easter, and springtime. We are part way through the season for eating the bread of affliction, which is a good name for matzah if you have thrown out all your bread, flour and other baked goods and are eating factory-made sheets of unleavened bread (aka cardboard) for a week. Here’s what you’re missing.


Sourdough is the exact opposite of matzah, and that got me wondering what all today’s home sourdough bakers do for Passover, if they also happen to be observant. The rules say you have to get rid of all leaven, but leaven is precisely what your precious sourdough starter is. It’s one thing using up your bread, chucking away any flour or grain based products you happen to have, and of course any yeast, and surviving with only approved kosher for Passover alternatives for a week. It’s another if you have been nurturing your sourdough for months or years. Professional bakeries claim to have kept theirs going for decades.  Joel and I got ours started only three weeks ago and I’m not as attached to mine as people who take theirs out for walks (seriously – it’s to catch more wild yeasts) or give it a name. The Bread Ahead bakery supposedly calls theirs Bruce. Our tutor in the flatbread baking class scoffed at that and claimed he calls his cat ‘the cat’, so why bother naming the sourdough starter? I can see it’s an acknowledgement that the natural yeast you’re cultivating is alive, although it’s a plant rather than an animal and isn’t a single creature but consists of billions of cells. But the point is, sourdough bakers are going to find it hard to throw the whole lot out.

A little online investigation turned up two options, depending what people thought the point of the prohibition on leaven was all about. If you think it’s only commemorating the flight from Egypt and the Israelites not having time to let their bread rise, then it’s fair enough to ask a neighbour or friend to mind your sourdough starter for a week, and then get it back. As long as it’s not in your own home, you’re within the rules. On the other hand, if you think it’s to do with starting afresh and renewal – a reasonable view given all the fresh green stuff on the Seder plate, and the fact that it’s an agricultural spring festival associated with the barley harvest – you might decide that it’s important to get rid of your old sourdough and use the new grain to start again.


Leaving aside the Biblical story about not having time to make leavened bread, there could be other possible significance for singling it out for a temporary prohibition. The most interesting suggestions link to the history of bread baking, and the distinctions that might have been made in ancient Egypt between raised bread that was likely to have been more expensive and eaten by wealthier classes, and flatbread which might still have been leavened but didn’t take as long to make, eaten by poorer workers. Alternatively it could mark a symbolic distinction between Egypt’s settled, grain-growing culture and the culture of a more nomadic community. There was definitely good reason to see fancier breadmaking as an aspect of Egyptian culture, going back at least four thousand years.

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics have several signs for bread – flatbread, raised bread or rolls – and there are tomb paintings showing elaborate bakeries.


Originally matzah would have been much closer to other types of flatbread. The machine made boxed version is recent and not much of a guide. Of course, you can now get artisan matzahs and some home bakers are now making their own (unlikely to suit anyone very orthodox as the flour and the entire baking environment must all be guaranteed leaven free, the whole process must take no more than 18 minutes, and as yeast is in the air all around it isn’t generally practicable). I’ve seen recipes by and for people who are either less concerned or have really set up alternative artisan matzah production, and they make it sound fairly palatable with additions like olive oil and honey. Two top suggestions: bashing nails into a wooden rolling pin so you can roll out matzah with perforations to make it look like the boxed version (why? and where would you keep such an implement the rest of the year?) and using the matzah recipe to make alternative communion wafers, which apparently also need a reboot.

Elizabeth David’s book on bread and yeast cookery has a great facsimile of an 1896 poster for Squire’s Patent Balloon Yeast. Absolutely Pure, Never Done Rising. (You can actually blow up a balloon with yeast if you want to experiment with how it behaves.) Modern day baker’s yeast has only been factory-produced since the nineteenth  ccentury. Before that, bakers all used naturally occurring leaven, cultivated their own sourdough or used ale barm. I’ve been making bread using commercial yeast for many years and have made sourdough bread for only a couple of weeks, but I’m already struck by how much easier it is. That wasn’t what I was expecting. It’s also very different handling the bread dough. I caught a living metaphor in the wild last week (see here for more about living metaphors) when I found that I was literally getting the feel for it.

Throwing out your sourdough

The London elephants

This post is by request as I’ve been told the blog needs more about elephants. There has been terrible news for the last fortnight so I’m happy to turn to a topic that at least one reader might actually enjoy. London is one of the blog themes, so these aren’t just any elephants. They’re London elephants.

Mercifully there aren’t any live elephants in London now as far as I know since the zoo shipped theirs out to Whipsnade years ago. But if you look, there are plenty of others. First up, naturally, the ones that come with castles. Elephant and Castle is where the bad dentist who was eventually struck off had a practice, resulting in the confusing news headline ‘Elephant dentist struck off‘ and later on, this far less confusing blog name. The name goes back to at least the 15th century and a sign with the elephant image, the badge of the Cutlers’ company (in a reference to ivory).  The Cutlers’ website shows plenty of elephant imagery including on their coat of arms. They still have a guildhall in the City.


Next week I’m going to see the National Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night. A line in the play shows that Shakespeare knew the area. Antonio tells Sebastian, who needs a place to stay,  ‘In the south suburbs, at the Elephant [probably meaning a tavern], is best to lodge.’ The area hasn’t had that kind of reputation lately but there’s a huge regeneration programme underway that includes a new green space, Elephant Park. I don’t expect there will be elephants. The local arts festival is called Elefest, but again no elephants.

Elephants with castles on their backs also show up on the walls of the Indian High Commission  (India House, Aldwych), but here you can clearly see that the castle is actually a howdah.


There are some beautiful centuries-old Indian elephant chess pieces in the Victoria and Albert museum. These would most likely have been the equivalent of bishops rather than rooks, and show war elephants, since chess was a battle game. Here’s one (V&A image used with permission).

Victoria_and_AlbertMuseum chess piece

The ivory is too old to be illegal but still, better to look at some painted elephants instead from a wall near me (21st century Rajasthan). It looks like they’re on a tiger hunt.


Back at India House, there are stone elephant’s head statues flanking the entrance. These are not great to look at, but better than the elephants on the façade of Africa House on Kingsway, a 1920s building with a hideous portrayal of ivory hunters. I’m not showing that. Here’s an India House elephant’s head, in profile.


Until recently I worked in Hawley Crescent, at the Open University’s London centre. The Elephant’s Head pub is on one corner of the road. At the other end is Elephant House, a listed building, once the bottling plant for Camden Brewery. The brewery used to make Elephant beer and the building has elephant imagery in stone.

Back in 2010 a herd of 260 small elephants appeared around London as part of an art project raising funds for small elephant conservation. Here are a few along the Thames.

Thames elephants

Also in south London, we’ve had the Dali space elephant and a giant elephant sculpture in Waterloo station. A short way along the riverbank from the spot above you get to Gabriel’s Wharf and Ganesha, which can sell you an ugly macrame elephant’s head for no good reason, but has a pretty pink shopfront.


Now we’re on the way back to the Elephant, as everyone local calls it, where there used to be a notorious gang known as the Elephant boys. Muriel Spark wrote about them in a short vicious novel, The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960).  News stories now are more likely to be about the regeneration controversies as the vast 1970s-built Heygate Estate has been demolished and replaced by fancier high rise apartments, and eventually by Elephant Park.

If you want more London elephants, there are other sites here and here.  [Postscript: Thanks to Alasdair for reminding me about the London elephant parade.]


The London elephants