All Fired Up
October 31, 2017
From starting sourdough cultures in their dorm rooms to baking pizza in the Campus Garden’s earth oven, Washington College’s student gardeners are learning how permaculture helps grow a resilient society.
You might think that the Campus Garden is all about, well, gardening. But this fall, students have been learning how what they grow and nurture—from honeybees to herbs—leads them to the next logical step of preparing remarkable food and drink as part of the Food Initiative.
A successful honey harvest enabled students to transform some of it into mead infused with lemon balm, lemongrass, and apple mint—a beverage destined for an Oktoberfest celebration with the German Club. To complement the drink, they created their own sourdough starter to bake pretzels, artisan breads, cookies, pancakes, and pizza—all in the garden’s earth oven.
Just learning about sourdough was an experience in and of itself, says Emily Castle ’18, the Campus Garden intern, who was one of several students who fussed and marveled over her sourdough starter in her dorm room.
“Air, something that is both elemental and elusive, is the key to sourdough fermentation,” she says. “It is the life that is literally invisible to our eye, the wild yeast floating in the air that we breathe, that transforms flour and water into a food that has been nourishing humans for millennia. I felt like we were recalling a kind of ancient magic.”
Castle says she was little intimidated about the process at first, but as soon as her sourdough starter culture started growing, “my emotional attachment to it kept pace. Evidence of the wild yeast growing and thriving became apparent as tiny bubbles surfaced, the size of the starter significantly increased, and a slightly sour smell developed. I looked forward to ‘feeding’ my starter at around the same time every evening. Over a week, the starter became increasingly bubbly and sweeter in smell as the fermentation progressed.”
Julia Portmann ’20, a biology and environmental science double major, appreciates “the simplicity of making these delicious products. You start with flour and warm water and let nature do its thing.”
The next step was firing up the garden’s earth oven, which previous students had sculpted from sand, clay, and straw. They fired it up for sourdough baking, and soon mastered the nuances of heating an enclosed space.
“One tricky thing is keeping the air flow constant, which takes a while to get used to, especially since the shape of the fire creates a different air flow then a conventional fire,” says German Studies major Melia Greene ’20. After two hours of heating up, the oven reached an interior temperature of over 1,000°F—hot enough to cook a pizza in a few minutes.
Environmental Science major Larisa Prezioso ’19 helped to serve pizza from the earth oven to Campus Garden visitors during Fall Family Weekend. “The sourdough pizza was delicious, and I would love to see the oven used more,” she says. “I think it’s really special that something like that exists on our campus.”
The pizzas showcased wild toppings including fermented ramps, curly dock seeds, primrose flowers, dandelion and lamb’s quarter leaves, as well as chives, sorrel, oregano, and basil plucked from an herb spiral within arm’s reach of the oven. Despite the subdued flavor of chicory flowers, Castle feels they were aesthetically essential. “Plus,” she says, “eating flowers has to be good for the soul.”
“The pizza was delicious,” Portmann says. “All the vegetables with the pizzas were really good, but the best was when we gathered a variety of greens from around the garden and baked them on top. It tasted so good!”
Prezioso appreciates exploring the intersection of gardening and cooking. “It makes you feel a connection between yourself and the things you grow. It’s sort of a feeling of ‘this is what I can do to make you thrive, and this is what you can do for me in return.’ ”
The Campus Garden supports a series of internships and work opportunities for students who want to partner with natural processes to work toward food justice and ecological resilience.
“It’s so cool that a bunch of students with different interests and backgrounds come together for a common purpose,” Prezioso says.
Portmann agrees, emphasizing the importance of working with native plants. “I would love to keep to learning more techniques for transforming these plants and have community events where we share these skills.” She anticipates making acorn flour, fruit leather, and tapping trees for syrup.
Castle foresees more sourdough bread in her future. “The grocery store just doesn’t cut it anymore. Is sourdough pasta a thing?”
Greene envisions something a bit sweeter in the pursuit of ecological resilience: “Definitely, making a dessert would be nice.”