If wet grain is allowed to ferment, you end up, more or less, with either bread or beer, depending on how much water there is in the mix. We don’t know (as far as I know) who first noticed this serendipitous natural event and decided it was worth harnessing and taming, nor where they lived. Likely it happened in many places independently, and certainly it happened a long, long time ago.
The most ancient method of encouraging fermentation was of course to save a bit of dough from the previous batch to inoculate the new. This dough, which had continued to slowly ferment between batches (and to attract local bacteria too, which also contributed to the ‘work’), became sour to a varying degree as a result of the process. This then, is ‘sourdough’- the newly popular very ancient method of leavening (meaning ‘lifting’).
Bakers at some time in history began to borrow from the other side of the process, and used ale or beer yeast from the brewery to raise their dough. Eventually, in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, dried yeast began to be made on a large scale in Europe from the yeasty waste of commercial breweries. Home bakers in particular must have loved this new product which helped to take much of the chancy guesswork away from bread-making.
But – every now and again, for all sorts of reasons, there was a need to start again with a fresh lot of yeast. This most likely happened from time to time even in the best regulated households because the dough had gotten unpleasantly sour due to the inability to control the culture, and had to be thrown out. The resourceful housewife would then start again with a fresh batch of bread mix, which she would dose with just a tiny bit of remaining leaven, or ale yeast or commercial dry yeast. This starter mix would be her new, sweeter tasting, leaven.
Once in every so often a really fresh start had to be made from scratch. A young, fresh, pure, unsullied, and sweetly fragrant yeast was needed. A virgin yeast, or a maiden yeast, as it was not unsurprisingly called. How did the housewife do this?
There were many methods using a variety of ingredients, all based on the same principle – harnessing the natural yeasts and bacteria in the local environment. With luck the local community of micro-organisms would produce a particularly good flavour, as happened with the famous sourdough of San Francisco.
Many yeast starters used potato starch, such as the one I give you today, from the irresistibly named A Thousand Notable Things, Embracing a Collection of Scarce, Curious, and Valuable Receipts, &c … , published in Manchester in 1822. The recipe refers to it a s a ‘substitute’ for yeast, but of course it is actual yeast, captured and brought into service as a substitute for a more commercial variety.
Substitute for Yeast.
The following new invented composition may be used instead of yeast. Boil four pounds of potatoes bruise them quite smooth and mix them warm with an ounce of honey. The composition is to be used a few hours after it is made, in proportion of a pint and a half to half a bushel of bread flour worked with warm water, and to be put into the oven as soon as the sponge begins to fall the first time.
Quotation for the Day.
A Book of Verses undeneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—
and Thou Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.