Patiently, methodically, stretching and folding the dough, feeling the texture in my fingers, sticking to my cuticles. It feels right, a bit shaggy and damp, but reasonably formed. Fermented in the pantry for 12 hours, then on the hanging rack over the stove for four more hours in the morning. Clean and then stoke the wood-fired oven. Form the boule in the dutch oven. Proof for a spell. Recipes are precise, but I am not. This time should be better. I can feel it. It feels light in my mind and in my belly, like yeast in flour, little bubbles of air filling out, puffing, bulging. I was transferring this hope onto the loaf in front of me. Hope feels a bit like leavened bread at times. Into the oven, another attempt at a sourdough loaf.

Jonathan, our host and mentor in this and all the other ranch things, patiently coached us through four immaculate rustic loaves. Now he is gone and we’re on our third semi-failed attempt. Semi-failed because failure is a matter of perspective. Even the slightly burnt, or under-cooked loaves get eaten. The dense, pemmican-like ones as well as the ones still gooey that we have to slice open and bake again, inside out. Nobody likes gooey bread. All of those are still edible. We aren’t in it to impress anyone here in this remote corner of Patagonia. The bread is simple sustenance for our family. Any entitlement to something more aesthetic and pleasing is based on an internal drive for mastery or, if not that, at least basic competency. A loaf we would want to share with good friends, if not bring to a dinner party, or sell at a local market.

We’re just getting going on our relationship with this little fungus mother growing in the flour in our kitchen. Forgive me if we’re a bit late to the game. Sourdough yarns are so overdone by now. Who didn’t start baking sourdough in the past 4 years? Some people bought pets, made babies, bought camper vans, and some bought sourdough starters, or were gifted them, or cultured them themselves. It could be called a craze. 

In our defense for our tardiness, we are only now coming to the sourdough craze out of necessity. If we want bread, we have to bake it, period. The craft has come to us more than us coming to it. It is refreshing when these things aren’t forced. We can make chapatis, or use the quick-rise yeast. Naan, tortillas, pizzas, biscuits, scones – there are many other things we could do with the precious flour we hike and row in. But we have the starter in the pantry, and we have plenty of time on the ranch, and fresh sourdough is incomparably soul nourishing.

I want to peek now at the loaf in the oven. It’s only been a few minutes out of the 20 on my timer, but I feel an urge to check. Resisting the urge, I let myself trust the timer. Without a thermometer on the oven we are left simply feeling the heat and having a sense for the temperature based on the amount of wood burning and the built-in gap that swells on the stove-top as the temperature climbs. The right temperature is around a 1 cm gap. After 20 minutes we take the lid off the dutch over to form the crust to a nice brown for another 7 minutes or so, and then flip the loaf over to cook the bottom of the loaf. These steps are necessary in this oven where the only heat comes from above. When we take the loaf out after another 20 minutes, it sounds hollow, it looks right. It’s hot. I’m reminded that I forgot to score the bread before baking, again. Letting it cool for another 30 minutes. The previous loaf, in our eagerness, we broke open too early to reveal a gooey uncooked interior. This time we were patient. We find ourselves learning from our mistakes.The result? Not even close to the quality of our friend Michael and his famous Michael’s Bread in Boulder, but the best loaf out of the past 5 we’ve made. We’d likely bring it to a potluck.

Baking is another way we are working to re-embody our existence. The motivation often comes from limitations on our options. With no other options for bread, it is easy to find motivation to bake. And with a wood fired oven always burning hot, there is a desire to work with that energy, to stack functions with the heat energy already being spent in boiling water or cooking rice on the stove-top. Without these limitations and opportunities, there is always a calculation in the modern economic mind – I want to bake bread, but how strong is that craving? Is it worth 3 hours of my time, 1-3 days a week? Is it a wiser use of my time to work those hours and then buy 10 loaves of an assortment of breads. These pervasive modern calculations eat into the possibilities of how we spend our time, and act out our passions. There is no moral imperative or inherent benefit of baking bread over any other way we choose to spend our time, but there is a benefit to being closer, in as many ways as possible, to the source and story of things. The benefit is in the respect and appreciation we gain by knowing those things that sustain us.