Hywel Sedgwick-Jell

“To begin your starter, mix 50g flour with 50g tepid water in a jar. Make sure all the flour is incorporated and leave, semi-uncovered, at room temperature for 24 hrs. Naming is optional!”

I decided to name mine though – ‘Yolanda’ after an old friend, who I’d lost touch with a while back. It seemed appropriate given her bubbly personality, and occasional neediness.

That’s what they don’t tell you about a sourdough starter; they’re very high maintenance creatures. Constantly demanding to be fed, and very sensitive to changes in temperature.

When I casually joked it was like having a child, on yet another Instagram update about my little Kilner jar of joy, it felt like some of my followers with families may have taken offence – making passive aggressive comments like ‘just wait until you have a real one!’ followed by the gritting teeth emoji.

That said, Yolanda was bubbling along nicely, and I was keeping her happy by feeding her and baking with her everyday. It was worth the distinctive and pervasive smell, and the ludicrous amounts of flour required, to have that freshly baked loaf every morning.

One night, after making my levan just before bed as was my routine at the time, and taking myself off to bed, I could’ve sworn I could hear Yolanda bubbling away all the way at the other end of the house, and found the noise strangely soothing as I drifted off to sleep.

The next day, I decided to branch out from my usual loaf, and experiment with some sourdough bagels. Something seemed to go wrong with the first prove though, and they came out distinctly flatter than I’d hoped – more like those Party Ring biscuits you used to get at kids’ birthday parties, rather than the plump New York deli style I’d been aiming for.

Disheartened, I decided to have an early night and fed Yolanda as usual. I was woken up by a very unusual noise in the middle of the night, a loud popping noise, like when you open a fresh can of tennis balls, or a flip-top beer bottle. I looked over at the alarm clock on my bedside table which read 00:00 and was flashing repeatedly. The power had obviously tripped at some point after I’d gone to bed.

I pulled on a pair of long johns which were crumpled up under my pillow, and went to investigate. The popping sound has now been replaced by a deep oozing, which resonated throughout the whole flat.

When I entered the kitchen, I saw it. The lid had come off my starter, and it was now spilling out over the counter top, and dripping slowly onto the black tiled floor. The substance almost appeared to be glowing in the darkness, and the sound of it fermenting happily was astonishingly loud in the relative quiet of the night.

I quickly and carefully scooped Yolanda up and put her back in her Kilner home – forgetting in my haste to wash my hands to ensure the starter remained sterile. Little did I know how much I would live to regret that decision.

The next morning I was woken yet again, this time with a crash of breaking glass. I leapt out of bed and ran to the kitchen – knowing this time that Yolanda was going to be the source of the commotion.

There was broken glass everywhere, and a strong aroma of fermenting yeast. Yolanda was in the middle of the kitchen floor, pulsating and making a low cooing noise, like a wood pigeon first thing in the morning. I frantically Googled ‘sourdough smashing jar’ and ‘starter making bird noises’ to little avail, and then decided to WhatsApp my friend Hugh – a man who’d provided me with plenty of baking advice over the years.

{ Hey Hugh, how’s it going? So my starter exploded out of it’s jar this morning, and is now making some very strange noises – is this normal?}

{Wow no I’ve never heard of that happening! Could it have got contaminated at all? I know that can sometimes lead to quicker than usual growth? Let me know if I can help at all!}

Well other than coming to help me scoop Yolanda up off the floor, I couldn’t see what more Hugh could do.  I approached the oozing mass warily, grabbing a ladle from the hooks above the oven, and tentatively prodding Yolanda in what I assumed to be approximately her midriff.

This resulted in a high pitched scream, the likes of which I’d never heard before. Yolanda started to spread across the floor, bubbling furiously. I debated dialling 999, but felt that I would probably be deemed a prank caller if I tried to explain my predicament.

Tentatively, I said ‘Hello?’ – there was a long silence, followed by a low rumbling, which rattled the conservatory windows in their PVC frames. It was then that Yolanda turned to me (well as far as an amorphous blob can be perceived as turning) and a large opening appeared in the midst of her glutinous mass – a noise came out which sounded unmistakably like ‘hungry’.

‘You’re hungry?’ I stammered, scarcely believing I was holding a conversation with something from my store cupboard. ‘HUNGRY!’ Yolanda bellowed in response – I got the message and ran to the pantry to fetch her usual feed of strong bread flour, via the tap to fill a large jug with water to combine with the flour and create her favourite snack.

I poured a jug-full of the concoction into the opening in the midst of Yolanda’s many folds and rolls, which prompted a noise like a bathtub draining, followed by a return to the gentle cooing noise which I had woken up to in the first place.

At a loss, I decided that on balance this was a marked improvement on the situation, and crawled back to bed – confused and exhausted and feeling way out of my depth in terms of sourdough expertise.  

The next day, I awoke in almost total darkness. Yolanda was looming in front of my bedroom window, gently muttering ‘hungry, hungry, hungry’. I sighed and dragged myself over to the kitchen to mix her up a morning breakfast smoothie of more strong white and H20. I was going to run out of flour very quickly at this rate, and shops had been running low of late. I kicked myself for not having stockpiled a little more, and asked my Google assistant ‘flour delivery North London’. ‘Did you mean flower delivery?’ she helpfully replied – but we got there in the end, and I ordered 5kg of bread flour from a local wholesaler, and wondered what to do next.

All the while, Yolanda had been staring (or at least I think she was staring) in my general direction, while noisily digesting her morning meal.

In sheer desperation, and at a complete loss of what else to do, I went to the website of the local council, and clicked on the button labelled ‘bulky waste removals’ and booked Yolanda in for a 9am pickup the next day – I guess I’d be using easy bake yeast for the foreseeable. Under ‘category’ I paused for a moment, eventually selecting ‘biological waste’ as the closest fit from the options available. 

The next morning I was rudely awoken yet again, this time by a pounding on the front door, coupled with a repeated ringing of the doorbell. I squeezed past Yolanda, who was evidently still asleep, gently pulsating in the living room, and flung open the door. I was met with the sight of three people in full biohazard suits, standing in front of a large white unmarked van. They nodded at me curtly, pushing past me through the hallway and into the orbit of Yolanda’s now astonishingly large mass.

They worked with impressive efficiency, bundling my now mountain gorilla sized starter into a kind of large moulded plastic bubble, and rolling her quickly out of the flat and into the waiting vehicle. They then turned their attention to me.

‘How long have you been in contact with the specimen Sir?’ one of them barked. ‘Well I started making the starter a couple of weeks ago’ I replied, ‘but it wasn’t until the other day that she..’

At that point I was cut off abruptly, as another of their plastic spheres emerged to swallow me up, and I too was manoeuvered into the van. Now I don’t know how many days have passed in quarantine, but I’m hoping this account will make anyone out there reading this think twice before getting into baking sourdough.

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