There's a certain romance to the idea of a dough starter—smuggling it home from a French bakery, coddling it like some kind of temperamental, gassy baby, working it into every crust and crumb you touch. But that's just it: romance. The 150-year-old starter that gives your breads so much carb-gravitas is actually changing about as frequently, and awkwardly, as a prepubescent teen. If you're lucky, what you hold in your hands today is a kind of bread zombie: a pre-ferment that's been fed, consumed, and revived through generations of handling.
But even staring this doughy irony in the face—that the lineage of a starter is broken by the very process necessary to maintain it—where bread's concerned, it's almost impossible not to embrace the story. And maybe no story we've heard better exemplifies the tragicomic life and times of a starter than the starter from Cyrus, and its several journeys across the United States.
"I actually started it at my house," says Jeff Talbot, chef of Ancora Pizza in New Orleans and victim of at least two untimely starter deaths. When he first created his starter, Talbot was living about 2,300 miles across the country, working as a sous chef at Cyrus in Healdsburg, California. At the time, Cyrus got their bread from Della Fattoria in Petaluma. But Talbot, a craftsman at heart, got it into his head to try his hand at making his own. "I read a lot about it before I started," he says. "It's been alive for seven years now," during which time it's traveled to Louisiana, Houston, Ohio, Illinois, and (possibly) Kenya.
Some dough starters incorporate baker's yeast and/or sugar (sugar and salt can actually retard the fermentation process, and Talbot's of the opinion that sugar isn't healthy for the yeast). But Talbot's process is classic, along the lines of sourdough: "I took organic whole grain rye flour, added water, and let that ferment for a couple days," reacting with wild yeasts (some present on the rye) and ambient microorganisms. Romantic, right? "It smelled like crap," Talbot remembers. He let his starter ferment at room temperature (cold temps slow the reaction, while excessively warm temperatures either dangerously accelerate fermentation or kill the yeast), finally giving it the first feeding on day three.
From there it was just a matter of regularly incorporating flour and water, first to the entire starter mixture, and then to portions of it per usage. "Every time you feed the starter, you have to take some out," says Talbot. That doesn't, however, mean you should bake bread with it. Yet. "That first week, I baked bread, and it was horrible," Talbot remembers. "It's your baby, and you're so proud of it, but it was bad," like sending your unwashed kid to picture day bad. "The bread was too sour." The maturity Talbot was looking for comes only once you reach the final feeding regimen, plus time, what Talbot calls "Day Seven, and Forever." For Talbot, the result is a starter with the unmistakable tang of yogurt, echoed in flavor in his dough at Ancora, and second only to the primary flavor of "wheat—undeniable wheat." Feeding regimens and flavor vary depending on the starter base and how frequently you use it. But the point is reaching that point, where "you see that the starter has life." Then it's just a matter of getting to know it, and not murdering it.
The Talbot-Cyrus starter might be about 7 years old, but it's had a couple reincarnations. One was just a close call—Talbot left the starter at home with his wife, and instructions to feed it. "I came back, and it had a sort of pinkish hue to it. That's not a good sign." But the most devastating scare happened when Talbot left Cyrus in 2009, heading back to his home state of Louisiana with a piece of starter in tow. "I packed it like I normally do, in a Tupperware container on ice," he says. "I really don't know why it didn't make it." He just remembers opening it up sometime along the drive to feed it and "it just didn't do anything. I was devastated."
That might have been the end of the Cyrus starter, at least for Talbot, except for a lucky break. "My wife was a teacher in California, and she'd flown back to go watch some kids do something—graduate?" When she flew back, she connected with Cyrus' sous Amos Watts, who'd been tending to Talbot's original. "She drove two hours out of her way to go up there and get the starter from him." Watts remembers the trip. "I fed it 10 seconds before she left to go to the airport," he says. "I put it in a gallon bag with ice packs on it." (And maybe said a silent prayer?)
Despite the best intentions of increased airport security, Mrs. Talbot was not stopped with her gallon bag of puddy-like substance by TSA officers. ("I told her to tell them it was cookie dough," Talbot says.) She miraculously made it all the way back to New Orleans with a living, breathing, hungry starter. "It seems happier here now than it's ever been before," says Talbot. And that's because starters, like teenagers or plants, react to their environment pretty aggressively, another reason Talbot's NOLA starter isn't (quite) what it was in Healdsburg. "Whenever you put it in your own personal environment, it's no longer what it was before. Going back to California and getting the starter was more romantic than anything else," he says. "I started the starter, but it's not the same starter as it was. It's pretty evident in the bread we do."
Talbot is very serious about the bread he does. Ancora has actually closed on five non-consecutive days because the starter wasn't working, a respect for the process he learned from Della Fattoria. "Looking back on it, we didn't really listen to what the starter said. It said, 'you screwed me up,'" he remembers. "That's what it's all about. Listening to it. If you're not listening to it, it'll make you pay."
Thankfully "pay" doesn't mean child support, because Talbot's an indirect bread baby daddy to starters in several states. And that's because Amos Watts, the same sous chef who administered a last-minute pre-flight meal to the Talbot starter, has been distributing it over the past several years. "I've given it out to more people than Jeff has," he says. "When he left Cyrus in 2009, I still had the starter. At the time we had begun a bread program at Cyrus, and I used that starter as the starter for the bread program, which they're still using now."
It didn't stop there. Beyond bringing some ill-fated starter to his grandmother in Nashville, Illinois—"it died; she used to love to bake, but I think she just kind of wanted to play with it"—Watts brought some of it back to Omaha, Nebraska, where it stayed with him and his parents in between cooking gigs. And when he made his most recent move to Jax Fish House in downtown Denver, Colorado, Watts took some of the starter with him and, once again, it morphed into something different. "The bread I make now tastes completely different from the bread in Healdsburg," says Watts. "It's the local yeasts. It's way less sour." Watts isn't looking for intense sourness; he uses a small portion (about five percent) of the dough to give structure to Jax's doughnuts. He also plans to incorporate a much larger percentage of it into rye bread for an upcoming "Jewish Deli" dinner, complete with pumpernickel-infused bourbon cocktails.
There are bacterially unique iterations of Cyrus starter out there that Talbot and Watts don't even know about. Watts gave some of it to Barbie Duncan, "who started the bread program at Cyrus. She has it now," he says, "and I don't know where she is." In yet more starter mystery, Watts wonders what became of the starter given to Roy Svhartvapel, pastry chef at Cyrus when Talbot left. "I gave it to Roy, and he left Cyrus, probably a year and a half ago, and went back to Houston," says Watts. "He's starting some stuff right now, maybe a bakery? But he's in Kenya at the moment. I don't know if he took it to Kenya. I doubt it. But maybe?"
Wherever it is, the Cyrus starter is irrevocably out there—shared with a greater sense of romance than reason—falling, eating, extruding gas, and forever changing amidst the hodgepodge of yeasts and microorganisms of its many foster homes.