Florentine Quarantine: Thus Begins the Second Month

Quarantine boule, I am making YOU this weekend.
Photo by Jørgen Håland on Unsplash

Today is the first day of the second month in the Italian nationally-decreed shutdown. I keep an eye on a calendar hanging from a nail on our laundry room door; ironically, it is from l’Erbolario, one of my favorite Italian shops, full of natural, Italian-informed fragrance, and features woodland and nature scenes, which provide a nice reminder of Life Before, back when we could go Outdoors.

Last night, I asked Jason if he ever read “All Summer in a Day” in school. No, he said, then wait, tell me more. I recounted what I remembered of it. We read it in the seventh grade, when I was twelve. Bradbury. Oh yeah, he said, the memory of it dawning across his face. We did read that. Going outside now feels a little like those kids in school on Venus. Being inside, on the other hand, feels a little like those people on the spaceship in “Wall*E,” where the ship announcer says “you may have noticed a slight reduction in bone density while on board” and the x-rays show nubbins of bone where skeletons used to join bone to bone. We need earthy tasks to connect us to ourselves since we are getting a lot less time outdoors, and when we do make it outside, it is starting to feel … unnatural. Unusual. I miss having a garden patch like I had in Seattle. I love getting my hands dirty and tending a process with patience.

So, after days of idle research, and repeat apologies from Jason that yeast is sold out across the city and probably the planet, I pulled the plug and started my own lievito madre, a starter of wild yeast grown with only flour and water captured from the air and nurtured in a pungent bucket. I began with starter instructions from Kitchn, but then was passed a link for the King Arthur site Little Spoon Farm, which was more thorough. There also seems to be a lot of Jewish baking literature from kosher kitchens about wild yeast, which was interesting.

Because the first site I read was a kosher baking site that strongly recommended using any starter discard to make cinnamon buns, I knew my starter was Jewish and so named him first Isidore, then Isadora, when I quickly realized she was female, destined to be a farinaceous Gaia. I measured out the water and flour and put them in the bucket. Our apartment is drafty and I was worried I would not find a safe place for Izzy. I tried atop a slightly warm radiator, but that was too warm. Nothing really happened. I moved Izzy to the corner of the bathroom, high atop another radiator. Still too high, and on Saturday morning a thin brown layer of “hooch” covered the flour. Boy did it reek. It was not looking right at all, but some ferment was obviously happening. Still, Izzy was not mixing up right. I consulted my instructions again. I realized that Izzy needed to breathe, so covered her with a paper towel, secured with a large rubberband. I moved her away from the warm radiators and placed her as a centerpiece on our massive dining room table. Izzy’s pleasure was immediately apparent, and she became bubbly and happy on the next overnight (this was when I started calling her Izzy, since it was clear she planned to stick around). When I stirred her, the sponge and bubble and lightness was apparent. I cannot tell you how satisfying this is.

Some additional research revealed that Izzy’s bucket is best changed each day (the metaphor used was “like cleaning a horse stall”) and so I started doing that yesterday. I plan to put Izzy to work toward the end of this week, on schiacciata (a kind of simple foccaccia) and tortillas (on request from Vic, because we have some fantastic burrito hacks on old Quarantine Farm). If Izzy is good to go, she’s going into the fridge for weekly feedings, and I will probably use the preferent (the proofed dough) on a weekly or semiweekly basis. Definitely for my weekly boule, which I made for over a decade in the US, and which was our lunchtime staple with Dijon mustard, sliced cheese, ham, and a panini press, which I did ship here in 2016 – this seemed idiotic at the time (“Why did I ship myself a ten-pound cast-iron kitchen implement when we’re moving to a country that invented this thing!?”), but we have actually used it a ton. I think it was Jason’s anniversary gift from me for the iron anniversary (6th), so that must have been in 2012. In any case, it’s red-enamel cast iron, both grill and press, now stained and well-used and -seasoned, and we love it.

This is all great news down on the old Quarantine Farm, since Farm Wife must have yeast for baking, and Miss Anxiety can now check on the calm progress of her new friend and meditation instructor, Izzy. Apparently a particular “mother” has been in continuous perpetual use in San Francisco since 1849, so that’s the kind of thrift, prep, and respect for history that Farm Wife can really relate to. More news to come as Izzy progresses.