What to call sourdough breads, given that they’re not always sour? There is a variety of alternatives. The French levain is popular, but somewhat poncy and effete. (Unless, of course, you happen to be French.) We do have the perfectly good English word leaven, but for some obscure reason, while the poncy levain is always taken first to mean a natural leaven, or sourdough,1 leaven seems to mean any substance -- yeast or baking powder are often given as examples -- that will cause dough or batter to rise. (Good dictionaries explain that this is usually by fermentation, bad ones seem to think that baking powder raises dough by fermentation.)

The secondary meaning, if one is given, is the one that interests me; something along the lines of a piece of fermented dough kept back to produce fermentation in a new batch of dough. That’s the essence of sourdough. To overcome the commercial yeast objection, I’ve taken to calling my breads natural leaven breads, which frankly is little better than levain, but it works for me.

All of which is not more than throat clearing for a link to a blog post by a cyber companion, in which he waxes lyrical about bread memories and looks forward to the day when glorious artisanal loaves conquer the world. Inbetween times, he links to a segment from an Australian radio programme called Bush Telegraph, which took a look at the natural leaven revolution and agreed that sourdough is not the most descriptive term. I found it a compelling listen, not least because there were several occasions on which my patriotic English pride wanted to toss a lump of sour dough at the host, whose jaundiced view of English cooking and jingoistic ocker sensibilities probably play well at home, but do him no favours in the age of global intertube penetration.

And I learned a great new verb: whiteant.


  1. A native French speaker should probably correct me. 

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