Sourdough or bitter ale?
NOT CONTENT WITH MASTERING BREAD, BAKE OFF STAR JAMES MORTON HAS TURNED HIS HAND TO BREWING BEER TOO. HE TALKS TO KATIE WRIGHT AND ELLA WALKER
‘THEY are microbiological wonders,” James Morton says of two of his great loves: sourdough and beer brewing. “They’re both very scientific, very measured. And they’re both ways of achieving taste nirvana.”
And they’re the subject of his two new cookery guides, From Scratch: Sourdough and From Scratch: Brew.
The former Great British Bake Off contestant, who lives in Glasgow, has been making sourdough since his late-teens, and has been pleased to see the lockdownfriendly bread in particular get “the recognition it deserves”. His other bread books actually sold out as bread-making boomed during the pandemic – but as a doctor, there have been lows among the bread-based highs. “We’ve all had a few crises, a few wobbles,” says James, who also become a father to daughter Lily during the pandemic. But, he adds, “I’ve got a feeling we’re getting there. I’m feeling really, really positive.”
So why do you think sourdough became so popular in lockdown?
It’s a labour of love, there’s this story of creating something from literally just flour and water, bringing it to life, sharing it with other people, sharing it online – which has become a really important part of it. And the fact it’s just awesome. You can make bread as good as the best bread in the world, in the comfort of your own home.
So is there a secret to producing perfect sourdough?
Sourdough is just a mixture of flour, water and salt, but there’s all this biochemical madness going on in order for you to get this loaf of bread, and the most important part of that is the starter.
“It’s just flour and water that you leave to go off, it starts to bubble, it’s full of yeast and bacteria, and if you neglect it, let it just fizzle out and fade over time without feeding it, or taking proper care of it, it will just not produce good bread.
How often do you bake bread?
I make bread two to three times a week, two to three loaves at a time. So we get through a lot of bread. I’ve been making the focaccia and my staple, the country loaf [in the book].
It’s mostly white, with a bit of rye or oatmeal in there to give it some earthy crunch.
When did you first find yourself drawn to brewing beer?
I did get into it as a student. One of my friends happens to be a UK champion homebrewer, and so he introduced me to this idea that homebrew wasn’t just something that tasted dodgy, brewed in these big plastic buckets with little airlocks, that bubbled on top and was always sour, or the bottles were exploding.
Why do you think it’s worth the effort of brewing your own?
My first homebrew pint, I opened up, it fizzed everywhere and tasted sour, infected with the wrong sort of bugs – probably
that had got there from my sourdough starter, actually.
But the first taste of my first proper homebrew – which was an oatmeal stout in a 500ml Samuel Smiths bottle, with the remnants of gold foil around the top – I popped the cap and there’s this amazing hiss, and that hiss and that first bottle, there is no feeling like that in the entire world, it is awesome. Then you pour it and it’s black with a head that almost looks like a pint of very nice Guinness. And you taste it, and it’s just so much better than any Guinness you have ever had.
Has the pandemic affected your eating habits?
Not really. We get our veg box and try to try to keep everything as local and as seasonal as possible, which in Scotland means lots and lots of potatoes, carrots and swedes at this time of year!
Have you tried any meal kits?
We’ve done absolutely tons of them, which has been great, having a baby. Having a load of really good restaurants very nearby means there are loads of dine-athome options and we’ve not had to get a babysitter.
Do you still watch Bake Off?
I watch it most years. I watched this year. It was a really nice light relief from [the pandemic].
Does it bring back memories?
Yes, it’s not always good! It makes me feel stressed, like I’m going to be judged again!