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Who needs a 500-year-old pizza starter?

Many restaurants, cafés, kombucha and cheese makers are importing their fermentation starters for an authentic flavour profile

At Alt. Pizza, Bengaluru.
At Alt. Pizza, Bengaluru.

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Have you really thought about what goes into your artisanal sourdough pizza? Or what gives your favourite sourdough bread its tangy, fermented taste? What about that block or wheel of handmade Gouda or Brie?

In every case, it’s the mother starter or culture that largely lends aroma and flavour to the end product. Now, in an attempt to offer Indian consumers the authentic taste, a clutch of brands are going the extra mile: using age-old fermentation starters sourced from other countries.

For instance, the Singapore-based pizza bar Alt. Pizza, which has just launched its first Indian outlet in Bengaluru, is importing a nine-year-old starter culture, named Sophia, from Singapore.

“Sophia, our mother starter, was created from scratch. Like a child, she has been nurtured, feeding on different flours. Over the years, she has evolved into her own and developed her own character and flavour notes which we want in the dough for our pizza pies,” explains Ravi Nahappan, founder, Foodsta Kitchens, which also operates Nasi and Mee, a casual Asian dining restaurant in Bengaluru.

Similarly, Mumbai-based pizzeria Si Nonna’s—The Original Sourdough Pizza imports its culture from Naples, Italy, using a 500-year-old starter for its sourdough pizzas. “Our sourdough starter comes from a mother dough that dates back to the 18th century. It has been nurtured by generations of the Galliano family in Naples and carries a whole lot of tradition, history and nostalgia,” says Ayush Jatia, founder, Si Nonna’s.

Si Nonna's fermentation culture made with the 500-year-old starter.
Si Nonna's fermentation culture made with the 500-year-old starter.

The pizzeria, known for its Neapolitan-style pizzas, uses a unique blend that combines different varieties of flour, sourced from across India, and the age-old starter to give the right balance of protein and moisture to the dough.

Sorano, an Italian restaurant in Kolkata launched a few months ago, gets the starter culture for its breads and sourdough pizzas from Florence, Italy. The starter is approximately 15 years old.

So, what’s the rationale for using an imported starter rather than one fermented locally?

Saket Agarwal, co-founder, Sorano, says sourdough is still a relatively new concept in India. “The more aged the starter, the better the product, which is why we sourced ours from Italy. A good starter is crucial because sourdough enhances the flavour of the pizza and also aids in the rise of the dough,” he notes.

Jatia adds that if properly maintained, a mother dough or starter, fed every day with equal parts of water and flour, can live indefinitely, only getting better with age. “The older the starter, the more active it is, with a very distinct and prominent sour taste and texture.”

At Alt. Pizza, Nahappan says that for every batch of fresh dough, they add 3% of weight as the starter. The dough includes water, flour, extra virgin olive oil and sea salt to make a fresh batch. This is then fermented for 48 hours before being made into pizza dough balls; it is then fermented for another 24 hours.

Also read | Chef's Table Pizza: Finding perfection in simplicity

A little goes a long way

It’s not just sourdough pizzas. Cheesemaking too calls for fermentation cultures that are specific to certain varieties of cheese, especially if it is an international cheese. Bengaluru-based Begum Victoria, an artisanal cheese brand, imports its cultures from the US, Canada and Germany, using these for its fresh, young and medium-aged cheeses such as Cheddar, Gouda, Havarti, as well as washed and bloomy rind cheese such as Brie.

Chef Manu Chandra, co-founder, Begum Victoria Cheese, says they import cultures simply because there aren’t any Indian companies that make these specific cultures.

Begum Victoria's cheese cave in Bengaluru. (Photo courtesy: Reuben Singh)
Begum Victoria's cheese cave in Bengaluru. (Photo courtesy: Reuben Singh)

“Cultures or starters are essentially a product of their environment. So, in the quest to offer a similar flavour profile and emulate the taste of the original, these cultures are used,” he says. For instance, a Cheddar or a Gouda get their sharpness or saltiness, and their distinct flavour profiles, through these cultures. And a little goes a long way.

Tempeh, which finds its origins in Indonesia and has come on the map in recent times as a healthy fermented food, is another example. One of the brands retailing this is Bengaluru-based Hello Tempayy, which makes flavoured and plain varieties of tempeh, using a fifth-generation starter culture and a specific strain that works to their requirements. This is sourced from the Netherlands.

“As our tempeh is made with just three ingredients—soybean, water and the culture—it was important that we find the right fit for the type of product we make, hence the idea to source from another country” says Siddharth Ramasubramanian, founder and CEO, Hello Tempayy. “Possibly at some point in the future we may choose to make our own culture in India.”

The idea seems here to stay, given the trend towards fermentation techniques, the shift from commercially produced yeast towards natural leaveners, and the quest for authentic flavour profiles.

Arzoo Dina is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.

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