About a year ago, I was given a plant cutting from a friend who had just returned to the UK from Greece. The plant was a basil, but it was neither the large leafed sweet basil nor the small leafed Greek globe basil, both of which I use in cooking and can often be found in pots on my kitchen windowsill. The leaves of this new basil were of moderate size, and slightly pointy. But, it smelled strongly of basil and turned out to be just another of the many varieties of ocimum basilicum, sweet basil. It was Greek column basil (ocimum basilicum citriodorum), so named since it has an upright growing habit that can reach 3 feet in height. It was nothing out of the ordinary, but the story that came with it was extraordinary. It naturally piqued my interest in all things to do with culinary tradition.
That cutting, now rooted and potted up, originally came from Arcadia, a province in the Peloponnese, Greece. It, along with others, had been taken to church to be blessed by the priest before they were distributed to be used in bread making – not as an ingredient in the bread, but as an aid placed in with the dough during the production of the sourdough starter. Apparently, it is an old tradition, but no one seems to know where and how it came about. But, like many of these traditions, it may have roots in the ancient pagan past.
Was this purely superstition or based on logical observation? In other words, could there be a scientific explanation for this custom of placing a sprig of basil in with the starter? With a great deal of internet searching, the only thing that I can find is that basil is known as an inhibitor of bacteria. That might be the answer, but not being a food chemist, I had to fall back on the logic of folk custom.
As an experiment, I applied this “basil effect” to my own starter, as the plant had now reached the proportions that it was wise to nip its top to promote lateral growth. I chose a traditional French levain. For instructions on making the levain and attracting those wild yeasts, I turned to Daniel Leader’s wonderful book Local Breads: Sourdough and Whole-Grain Recipes from Europe’s Best Artisan Bakers. Leader very clearly lays out the step-by step procedure for the 4 day procedure (in some cases up to 10 days) to produce the starter. I won’t repeat his lenghty instructions here, but if you are serious about making your own levain, I can highly recommend this book or Daniel Leader’ previous book, Bread Alone: Bold Fresh Loaves from Your Own Hands.
As you see in the photos above, I followed Leader’s instructions rigorously, but added a small sprig of the “blessed” basil to the dough, picking it out each time the levain needed to be fed or refreshed before placing it back again. Anything to help the process in a solid stone house in Northern England where the optimum temperatures for sour dough starters are rarely achieved. Whether it is due to science or superstition, the levain was created. Overnight, it magically trebled in volume!
I’ve named my starter “Vaso”, after a Greek friend and fellow bread baker. But, doubly appropriate since Vaso is a shortened form of Vasiliki, the feminine version Vasilios – both etymologically related to the Greek for king (vasilias, βασιλιάς), but also for the king of herbs, basil (vasileios, βασίλειος). A portion of the starter went to that friend who initially supplied me with the basil and the rest was put to use in my kitchen. The first baking with Vaso was brilliant – lovely crusty bread, chewy texture and a slight sour taste, just right for sourdough. Not sure the “basil effect” had a hand in the outcome, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt.