About this time last year, my friend Sandy Bogusis and myself were elbow deep in our own sourdough starters. I’d worked up a minor obsession with the idea that there was no commercial baker’s yeast during the period of the Spring Creek (Beechworth) gold rush, which in my fevered mind begged certain questions concerning how bread was leavened in 1852.
Meanwhile, Sandy, who owns The Baker’s Cottage B&B in Eldorado, was exploring all things baking related: a state which tends to happen when the property you own includes a fully-functional historic Scotch oven bakery. (1)
After receiving some sage advice from Richard Verrocchio, chef at Wangaratta’s Cafe Derailleur (where kitchen staff regularly have to beat over-vigorous sourdough starters into submission), we were modestly successful. Having proved to ourselves that we could make a slurry of flour and water, use this to capture and culture wild yeast, and use this culture to leaven and bake tolerable sourdough loaves, Sandy and I let our sourdough starters go.
[If you’re just interested in tips for sourdough starters, skip to the last paragraph of this post.]
Since childhood, I’d held the assumption that in ‘the olden days’ bush people only made damper — because leavening dough (making it rise) with baking powder (a combination of bicarbonate soda and tartaric acid) was quick and easy. Like a million school kids, I’d even made damper on a campfire.
Given that commercial baker’s yeast was in its infancy at the time of the Victorian gold rushes, I subsequently imagined that all bread on the goldfields was damper. This supposition was supported by the fact that one of the key guidebooks of the period, written specifically for prospective gold diggers, James Bonwick’s Notes of a gold digger, and gold digger’s guide (1852), gives a (somewhat cheesy) explanation of how to make damper:
Take a washing tin dish, and clearing off the dirt a little, six or eight pannicans of flour are thrown in; half a tablespoon of carbonate of soda, the like quantity of tartaric acid, and a spoonful of salt are then mixed together in a pannican, and then well mingled with the dry flour. Water is then poured in, the whole thoroughly knuckled, rolled into a good shaped loaf, and tumbled at once into the warmed camp oven. Fire is applied beneath and in a couple of hours or less will turn out a loaf fit to set before a queen. (2)
Then one day, I came across this historical account from Emily Skinner, a young English miner’s wife living in the Woolshed Valley in the 1850s. Initially, I ignored it. (However, I later realised that it is quite funny if you read it aloud with accents):
Soon after my arrival, one of the men (a Yankee and a baker by trade) working in the claim was in the house and said to me, “are you acquainted with the art of making bread, because if you like I will come and show you.” I was obliged to confess that I was not “that at home”. “Sakes alive, gal, don’t quote,” interrupted he, “This is your hum, and though by no means equal to our great and glorious America, still ’tis a very decent country and miles before your worn out old country over there.” I was obliged to keep quite, though I didn’t quite agree with him, so he gave me a very good lesson, showed me how to make the “risin’” or yeast, and very soon by practice I became quite expert. (3)
As I said, I ignored Emily Skinner’s talk of making yeast for years, until I came across another reference — this time written by Mrs Campbell, who was married to the police magistrate for the Ovens Goldfields, Alexander Campbell, and who had the luxury of a man servant to help her keep house at the Commissioner’s Camp in 1853. She described how:
Frederick and I having overcome our greatest difficulty—the making of yeast and bread—were bold enough to try muffins, cakes, pastry, &c.; and here I found myself more at home, as the latter I had often made, to please myself, in Canada… (5)
Exactly how this ‘yeast’ was made was unclear to me until I came across yet another reference, which really spells it out. This, from an English gold digger, Edward Ridpath, who lived on Spring Creek in 1852-3 and who seemed well-pleased with himself when he wrote in his journal,
…on my arrival here I was as ignorant of cookery in any shape as on the day of my entry into the world, now I am somewhat initiated into its mysteries, and might advertise in case of necessity to the situation of a plain cook, I can bake a tolerably good loaf in a camp oven, made to rise with yeast composed of flour, water, and sugar, this makes the bread so light that it will bear comparison with a French loaf… (6)
So here we have five people (three men, two women) during the Beechworth gold rushes, involved in making ‘yeast’ in a form which today we’d call a ‘sourdough starter,’ and using it to make bread. That they bothered to celebrate their efforts by writing about it suggests that they considered making ‘yeast’ a significant step towards self-sufficiency in their new environment. I doubt that they were alone in their efforts.
When the Californian gold rushes (1848-9) began to peter out, many Americans made their way to the Victorian diggings — so many, in fact, that within the first year or so, the Spring Creek diggings had its own ‘Yankee Hill’. (4) Sourdough bread was a staple on the Californian diggings, and apparently plenty of American ‘Miner Forty-Niners’ knew how to make it. I think there’s a fair chance that just as the gold cradle was a piece of technology imported from California to Victoria, so was the art of making sourdough.
However, I still felt that I had to confirm whether making ‘yeast’ was really something so simple it could have been done in a tent or bark hut on the diggings. As it turns out, it’s so simple that you can do it: take a quantity of flour (say, a cup or two) and mix it with water until it is the consistency of loose pancake batter, cover the bowl with a piece of muslin or a tea towel, and put it somewhere warm. Every day, add fresh flour and whisk it in with more water (aeration is good) to ‘feed’ the mixture. Do not underfeed your starter! If it looks lame (brown liquid floating on top is a sign — just pour it off), up the amount of flour you feed it. It will become increasingly bubbly, and should smell vaguely fruity and pleasant, almost like overripe fruit that has fallen on the ground. The best results come from using organic flour which has not been over-processed, because it has a greater chance of containing the wild yeast spores, as well as the lactobacilli bacteria that create the distinctive sour flavour. Undoubtedly the flour on the gold diggings was not as sterile and bleached as today’s supermarket offerings, so it would have been ideal.
(1) Sandy Bogusis is currently researching a book on Scotch ovens in Australia.
(2) James Bonwick, Notes of a gold digger, and gold digger’s guide, R. Connebee, Melbourne, 1852, p.20.
(3) Edward Duyker (ed.), A Woman On The Goldfields, Recollections of Emily Skinner, 1852-1878, Melbourne University Press, 1995, p.54.
(4) Gordon F. Tucker, Journal, 1853 Apr. 12-1857 June 6. [manuscript MS 10649], State Library of Victoria. Sunday Oct 29, 1853: ‘moved our tent up on Yankee hill near the woods.’
(5) Mrs A. Campbell, Rough and smooth, or, Ho! for an Australian gold field, Hunter, Rose & Co., Quebec, 1865, p.89.
(6) Edward Ridpath, Journal, transcription of letters to his father, possibly in his own hand, 1850-53? [manuscript MS 8759], State Library of Victoria, Box 1012/4 [Box also includes his gold license from 3 August 1853].