Giancarlo Buonomo: Sourdough starter the secret to Jolly Pumpkin's success

Thursday, September 17, 2015 - 6:19pm

“My pizza is built on …”

I’m sitting in a dim booth on the second floor of the Jolly Pumpkin Cafe & Brewery on Main Street. Maggie Long, chef and managing partner, sits across from me. She’s short and sinewy, with cropped hair and an oven-baked face. As she starts this sentence, I try to guess what she’ll finish with. The granite oven? Local produce? Some secret ingredient?

“Community.”

A community of surviving, thriving bacteria and yeasts. Jolly Pumpkin pizza is baked on a sourdough crust, made with a starter that could be 130 years old, has traveled thousands of miles and changed hands several times. How is this possible?

Sourdough was the first leavened bread, developed thousands of years ago in Mesopotamia. Bakers would leave dough to sit overnight, and it would pick up ambient yeasts and bacteria. These microbes would digest the natural sugars in the dough, converting them into carbon dioxide, which made the dough rise, and acids, which flavored the dough and prevented spoilage. Today, even though yeast is commercially available, many bakers prefer the distinctive tang and chew that lactic-acid bacteria provide (this process is also what gives pickles and yogurt their flavor). Instead of letting every batch of dough sit out overnight, they have a starter — a mixture of flour and water that collects and incubates wild yeasts and bacteria, and is then added to the fresh dough before baking. As long as the microbes are fed fresh water and flour every day, they’ll survive and reproduce indefinitely, developing new, deeper flavors as time passes. 

Sourdough is not traditionally used for pizza crust. But one day, years ago, Long was in Berkeley, California, and she came upon The Cheeseboard Collective, a worker-owned cooperative that runs a bakery, cheese shop and pizzeria. Hungry and intrigued, she stopped for a slice.

“It was the most gorgeous pizza crust I’d ever seen,” she says, still enthralled. “it had a shine to it, a chew, and this flavor that I can’t really explain,”

Long inquired about this magisterial crust, and learned that it was made using sourdough from their bakery. In early 2009, as she was planning to open The Jolly Pumpkin, she knew sourdough pizza had to be on the menu. She began frequenting the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market, hoping to make connections with local farmers and artisans. She struck up a conversation with John Savanna of Mill Pond Bakery in nearby Chelsea, who sold his sourdough bread at the Saturday market. Long was just looking for tips on how to make her own sourdough. But Savanna took a liking to her and the nascent restaurant. One day, in late June, he handed her a mason jar of his sourdough starter, the starter he’d been using since he opened Mill Pond in the early ‘80s. But the starter was even even older than that.

“(My father) acquired the sourdough starter from a colleague of his in California in the late seventies in the San Francisco area,” his son Steve Savanna wrote to me in an e-mail. “At that time the sourdough culture dated back over 100 years and originated in France.”

Steve, who now helps run the bakery, recalls his father’s obsessive devotion to this delicate treasure. One time, while vacationing in Northern Michigan, John drove all the way back to Chelsea to personally feed the starter. It may sound a bit much, but the longevity of a sourdough starter is only potential — without regular feeding, it will die, and, though it can be coaxed back to life, the flavor won’t be the same.

John Savanna must have seen something in Maggie Long. And he saw right. In the six years since they’ve opened, Long’s cache of starter has never perished.

“This is one of the things in this restaurant that we baby to death,” Long tells me back at our booth. “It sounds really stupid to do that, but it’s a piece of us, and a piece of somebody else.”

At Jolly Pumpkin, they feed the starter twice a day. Before every feeding, half of it is thrown away — otherwise, the starter would grow exponentially. Long didn’t realize this back in 2009, or was just unwilling to waste any of Savanna’s gift. After a month, the mason jar couldn’t contain the starter. Neither could a single five-gallon bucket. It took five of them for Long to realize that she had to throw some out. Now, they have around four gallons, and mix a gallon of it every day with five times as much fresh dough, and let it ferment overnight. After years of residing in this basement, the starter has taken in the local microbes, making it unique to this location.

“May I see it?” I ask Long, expecting the answer to be a firm “No.”

She springs up from her seat, and leads me to the basement prep kitchen, cautioning me to mind the recently mopped stairs. The air is damp and cool and ripe-smelling, like a forest after a storm.

I couldn’t tell at first what the starter was. After hearing the 25 gallon saga, I’d envisioned some captive beast, oozing through its chains and howling for more flour. Instead, the starter resides in a battered white bucket, next to containers of fermenting lemons and kimchi. It resembles thick pancake batter, with lazy bubbles pushing their way to the surface every few seconds. I lean my face closer, picking up its sour, starchy, bottom-of-a-beer-bottle smell. Long invites me to dip a finger in and have a taste. It’s no cookie-dough, to be sure, but thick and appealingly tangy, like Greek yogurt.

As I’m leaving, Long hands me a takeout-soup container of starter. I gingerly accept it, as if it might crumble in my hands.

“Make your own bread,” she encourages. “But I’d research how to feed starter if I were you.”

At home, I place the container on top of my fridge, pledging to go buy flour within the hour. But that hour stretches into two, then three, then a whole night. I stumble into the kitchen the next morning and take a peek.

It’s gruesome. The starter has risen up, popped the lid off and cascaded down the sides of the container, hardening like toothpaste. There are no more bubbles, and it now just smells like flour, which I guess means it smells like death. I scrape what I can into a new container and place it in the fridge, hoping to revive it the next day.

Meanwhile, in the basement kitchen, someone feeds the starter, keeping the community going.

Buonomo’s pizza is built on you, the readers. Grab a slice of his pie at gbuonomo@umich.edu.