How sourdough baking saved the school holidays

As the summer holidays reach an advanced stage, this teacher is in danger of turning feral...there's only one way to bring structure back to life: sourdough bread

Sarah Ledger

Sour dough

Popular wisdom dictates that when the bell rings at 3.30pm on the final Friday of term, teachers strip off their lanyards, sensible shoes and maths symbol ties revealing swimwear beneath, jump into an over packed Zafira – with mountain bikes lashed to the bumper – and head off to sunny climes where they spend the next six weeks under canvas eating peaches and reading worthy fiction.

But in reality, summer holidays can be a struggle. After 39 weeks of rigid timetabling – where scheduling toilet breaks two weeks ahead is essential – being off grid is unsettling. The first week or so tends to involve the anxious shuffling of folders and fraught dreams about teaching a lesson in a L-shaped room where an Ofsted inspector in the shape of Craig Revel Horwood suddenly appears and scores you a withering "1". Then, once relaxation sets in, it’s easy to turn feral. After all, if your professional reputation no longer depends of getting to the far end of the science block on the dot of 11.35am, why bother with any routine at all?  By the end of the second week you find yourself watching box sets until 5am, getting up at 3pm, answering the door to the Amazon delivery man in nothing but a series of strategically draped bath towels (hoping he doesn’t notice), living off popcorn, grated cheese and some sauerkraut you found in a jar at the back of the fridge.

My eduTwitter timeline is awash with teachers’ plans to strike a balance. Just as in term we try to manage too much work, in the holidays, we try to manage not enough work. Some resort to the perennial six-week exercise and weight-loss plans, book lists and mediation logs. Frankly, I’ve tried all of those without success and by September all I have to show for it is a Netflix recommendation list featuring titles like When Menopausal Women Kill, an extra stone and a concentration span whittled down to around two seconds.

This year, however, there’s been a sudden proliferation of sourdough tweets on eduTwitter. Inspired and desperate for some kind of structure, I have – like all good teachers – jumped on the sourdough bandwagon without thinking it through. SOLO taxonomy anyone? Like teaching, sourdough bakery is a series of simple components: flour water, salt. Like teaching there’s an outcome: a well-risen loaf. Like teaching there’s a process: planning, assembling resources, monitoring, reviewing. And just like teaching, there’s a million ways to bugger it up.

It started promisingly enough. I diligently weighed my starter ingredients every morning and was rewarded at the end of five days with a fragrant bubbling culture. "Turns out I’m good at this," I told myself, "...a natural’. But like a naive NQT who breezes through the first week, I had no idea the starter was just the start. The first loaf was good – but it stuck to the pan and I had to chisel the bottom crust off with a knife. My next problem – and how familiar is this to education professionals? – was timing. You can’t just mix the leaven and pop out to the shops. What if it over-proves? You have to hover anxiously over it making sure it rises but doesn’t rise too much.

Then there are series of tasks that mean you simply cannot divert your attention elsewhere. At 30-minute intervals you are required to stretch and fold the dough over a four-hour period. It’s like teaching a full day and having lunchtime duty on top of it. Then, this point I got lost and I have to admit, I resorted to YouTube to find the sourdough equivalent of Mr Bruff's English videos. To be fair, the shame I experienced on relying on a chatty Swedish baker was nothing compared to the moment I admitted defeat and looked up "tissue" on Mr B’s channel to see if his interpretive observations were more insightful than mine.

Just like education, the internet is awash with contradictory advice. There’s an unashamedly complex 28 step procedure on one website, another simplifies the whole process and a third – totally dumbed down – suggests the use of yeast! Yeast! Like one of those PowerPoints where the dramatic personae in Hamlet are represented by Simpson characters! I resist the urge to take shortcuts.

Meanwhile, just as that Year 8 class who sit docile through the first half of the first term suddenly find their voice, the sweet little sourdough starter builds in strength and power. It’s taken on a bubbling menacing presence in the corner of the kitchen. While it hasn’t kicked off yet, it has the potential to do so. By the first of August, it’s hit puberty and by the week before the Bank Holiday, it’s developed a nascent beard and is vaping behind the sports hall. I’m a bold woman but even I’m intimidated.

I keep it busy; a loaf a day. I divide and conquer pouring off excess. I attempt – as far as I can – to meet its needs. Every waking moment is spent thinking about how to manage the sourdough. I’ve even dreamed about it and I’m thinking of signing up for a sourdough research conference or two.

Each completed loaf is subjected to scrutiny. I’ve followed the plan meticulously but somehow there’s always something to criticise. Did the loaf make progress over time? Is the rise consistent? Have I taken the richness of the culture into consideration? Is there – heaven forfend – a "wow" factor?

Finally, there’s the ultimate question – what is the purpose of sourdough? Is it enough to produce a single perfect loaf? Or is it about creating a continuum, crafting a process – building a legacy for future generations?

I’m completely wrung out. I can’t wait to get back to work and give the sourdough a break.

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