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Wild Yeast

“The Kingdom of God is like the yeast that a woman used in making bread. Even though she put in only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough.”

My adventure with wild yeast started years ago when my daughter wanted to bake bread with a wild yeast starter. To create a starter, you must first collect some wild yeast. Yeast lives everywhere: on plants, in flour, in our homes and on our skin. I suggested she use organic grapes for the yeast source. Getting a starter going demands intensive timing and once started requires regular feeding to keep it alive. Eventually I inherited it and began learning to relate to a live organism that marches to its own drummer. Before it was through, I had to learn about gluten, and flour and altitude and moisture. My adventure eventually took me to the huge kitchen beneath the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington, D.C. to talk to Chef Joseph the baker and to the Head Chef of the hotel.

Yeast is a microscopic fungus of single oval cells that reproduces by budding. It lives by a process called fermentation: harvesting energy from sugar, without oxygen, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. It can change flour and water into bread. It can break down the protein in flour to make it more nutritious and digestible. It’s been around forever but it began its relationship with humans thousands of years ago. Probably by accident, ancient peoples learned how to turn unleavened bread into something better and how to turn grain into beer, safer to drink than water. We now have isolated the strains that are called Bakers Yeast, Brewers Yeast and Wild Yeast. In the 1800s we learned to isolate out the active ingredient to make dough rise quicker, but because it is not whole yeast it cannot ferment anything nor can it provide the specific tastes we long for in our bread or beer or wine.

Back to the adventure. In about three hours, the dough in the photo above, had filled the bowl and was ready to be shaped into loaves. After another rise for an hour or so, it baked into two beautiful, golden, delicious works of art. The story could end here but you wouldn’t know the spiritual journey these little microscopic cells have taken me on over the years.

First, I had to understand that I was in a relationship with a living organism. That it responds to the environment I provide for it. If it is to survive, I must feed it regularly. It is super sensitive. It will take its time to rise in a cool kitchen and speeds up in a warm one. I had to learn to know just when it is ready to move on. It can get tired. If I don’t pay attention to it, the dough can collapse into a sad blob. In my bare hands, I learned to appreciate what it is to hold life in its simplest form; a relationship on the most primitive level.

Most importantly: it taught me that it is forgiving. Removing the loaves from the proofing baskets causes them to deflate a little. If the loaf isn’t to explode in the oven, steam cuts in its thin skin must be made with a sharp razor. The loaf deflates a little more. By the time it is in the oven the loaf looks very deflated. Then comes what is called oven rise. Water in the loaf turns to steam and puffs the loaf back up as it turns golden.

The Bible has a lot to say about yeast or leaven. In fact the bible says it’s bad stuff. It’s mentioned 22 times in the Old Testament and 17 times in the New. Almost always used as the synonym for sin or evil. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5 that “you must remove the old yeast of sin so that you will be entirely pure. Then you will be like a new batch of dough without any yeast”. It’s just that a new batch of dough isn’t going anywhere without yeast. Given that in that day no one understood what yeast is or does or the Bible might have been written differently. Sadly, the concept that we are all basically bad started early and it was enhanced by a guy named Augustine who convinced the church that we are born in sin. Sadly, the Western Church still reminds us constantly that we are sinful. It’s the Celts who believe in basic goodness and the power of love.

It took Jesus to tell us that the Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast. That a little bit of good stuff can transform the world. I love it that Jesus likens us to yeast and reminds us that a little bit of microscopic good stuff can permeate the world and bring about what is good.

Ann Dolbier is a Celtic Way contributor and good friend!

Read more about Ann here.


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