Day 26: Natural Wine, Natural Pie #1

Wolfgang Weber and Jon Bonné are both San Francisco wine writers, with Wine&Spirits and the San Francisco Chronicle respectively. They are also wine bloggers (Spume and The Cellarist) as well as friends. Here they teamed like Steven Seagal and Jean Claude van Damme in that movie i imagined was made (just with less ponytails and kicking and more pizza and wine) for a two day post. Enjoy!

Day Minus 11. Generating yeast above the fridge.

Wolfgang: Yeasts and fermentation have interested me since at least high school when I brewed beer for chemistry class (got an A; still had to drink the beer at home). So perhaps more than most aspects or facets behind natural wine, it’s the ambient/native yeast fermentations that intrigue me most – a process that historically speaking is at once understood yet completely mysterious.

When it came to think about what to do for a 31 Days contribution I knew that I wanted to do something with yeasts. I called up Jon and as we talked about ideas we thought hey, let’s team up for a couple of posts. And why not, let’s make pizza while we’re at it. And because he likes to take things to their logical conclusion, Jon suggested making a sourdough (aka, ambient yeast) starter for the dough. Natural wine, natural pizza — although we drew the line at making our own mozzarella. We’ll save that for when Cory does “31 Days of Supernatural Wine.”

(View the entire pizza dough experiment flickrstream HERE)

Jon: The starter/dough recipe came from Peter Reinhart’s “American Pie,”perhaps the best book ever to consider the topic of pizza dough. Reinhart is a baker, and brings a baker’s soul to the task.

What this means, in more practical terms, is a good 10-day lead time before the dough is ready. In our case, we began June 30, about 10 days out. The dough itself is made from a “mother” (a precursor dough with a high level of fermentative activity), but before you can create the mother, you need a seed starter with enough yeast to generate the mother in a timely fashion. Reinhart’s starter begins with high-protein flour and pineapple juice — the acid in the pineapple inhibiting bacterial growth during the first day of yeast propagation. Then you cut the starter in half, add dough and water, and mix back together. (At this point, Wolfgang picked up half of the initial starter run and took it home to Hayes Valley.)

And then you repeat. Several times. Until the dough can double in size within 24 hours, a sign of its fermentation potential.

Due to scheduling, Wolfgang left his starter alone for about four days, while I refreshed mine daily. No matter. Wolfgang returned to find a robust starter, while I finally capitulated and began making the mother around the fifth day. Already, the terroir — at least the yeast-generating potential — was appearing between Hayes Valley and the north end of Pacific Heights. And Hayes Valley was winning the yeasty game.

We both turned our starters into mother dough by adding far more flour and water to create a sort of sponge, which we then watched for signs of fermentation. An uncommonly hot San Francisco day, and my oven-like sunroom, pushed the process along, with small bubbles appearing and a dull warmth permeating the bottom of the bowl. And that, friends, was the sign of fermentation.

Wolfgang: Even with my starter taking off while I was out of town for a few days, I still felt nervous. Not that I can make any claim to sharing this kind of concern, but during the process I kept saying to myself “thank god this isn’t my entire harvest and I’m not waiting for it to just kick off.” That nervousness nagged me through making the mother and later inoculating the dough. Will it work? Or did I just make a big bowl of glue? I didn’t really get relief until I felt the dull warmth on the bowl, and saw the condensation building up under the plastic wrap. And even that wasn’t very reassuring. So, I’ll say it now: Working with ambient yeasts is a nerve-racking experience.

Jon: Of course, natural winemakers can leave their fermentations to progress leisurely, and had we the time to let our ambient yeasts build up, we would have eventually cultured proper fermenting capabilities. (Even if I was gaming the system slightly by warming the starter and mother, not unlike raising the temperature in a winery to activate yeast growth.)

But we had a timeline, and mouths to feed. So at minus 3 days, the mothers needed to be made and the dough produced from them.

Finally, the night of the party, we had two notably different doughs. You can see the differences in the picture below: On the left, Wolfgang’s dough and on the right my dough. They both smelled faintly like San Francisco’s famous sourdough.

A side-by-side comparison.

Wolfgang: Since we had all this time waiting for starters, mothers and doughs to ferment and rise, we began discussing wines. We decided to avoid the iconoclast and over-intellectualized wines for the most part, and instead looked for wines that are meant to go with food (especially pizza). After all, one of the great attractions to natural wine is precisely that the wines themselves are anti-blockbusters, bottles to complement, not clobber.
Swiss wine?  Sure, why not.
Hard to fetishize a wine you’ve never heard of.

Jon: There is a tendency to fetishize natural wines. No surprise there. These are idiosyncratic wines made by idiosyncratic people. Unlike most wines in the world — yeasted like clockwork and made by formula — these are somewhat unruly efforts with colorful, dramatic stories behind them. Hence, fetishization.

Our goal was somewhat different. To us, the point of natural wine – aside from its inherent virtues — is to taste good, to fit seamlessly within wine’s most natural context: at the table. That’s precisely where we were headed.

Day Minus 2. Watching the sourdough mother ferment (look for the bubbles) on a very warm day.
Follow day by day here:

Up next: Day 2; or: Day Two

~ by Cory Cartwright on July 16, 2009.

3 Responses to “Day 26: Natural Wine, Natural Pie #1”

  1. Eagerly awaiting day 2, guys.

  2. […] considered the virtues (and challenges) of ambient yeasts through pizza dough and wine. Part I is here and Part II is here. And you can follow the progress of all 31 Days […]

  3. […] […]

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