Chef Jefferey Talbot of Ancora Pizzeria has a truly intimate relationship with his bread starter. In fact, they have been seeing each other for daily feedings for over 7 years now. Talbot says it's pretty much the only thing in his professional career that he has done so consistently and for such a long time. I remember poking around Ancora right before they opened in 2011 and Jeff showing off his bubbling blob of a starter like a proud dad introducing his child. This is a man, to put it mildly, that is in love with making bread. He wears his flour covered t-shirt like a well earned badge, manning the stunningly beautiful wood-fired Italian oven on a nightly basis. Jeff makes it a priority to personally tend to the oven himself. He says that his favorite chefs are the ones that are intimately hands on in their kitchen. Not because they are micro-managers, but because they just love the thing that they do so much, they can't pull themselves away from it.
"I want to be the one making the pizza for everyone that walks through the door."
|Jeff feeding the starter. Love that hat!|
So what is a bread starter and what makes it so special? To put it simply, a bread starter is a mixture of some type of grain (like flour or rye), water, and yeast. The mixture is allowed to ferment and kept alive through constant feeding for an indefinite amount of time. Over time the starter picks up various ambient wild yeasts and cultivates a distinct profile based on its surrounding environment. This greater diversity of microbial organisms leads to a more complex and interesting loaf of bread, or pizza crust for that matter. The other more common way of making bread is to use commercial yeasts which are laboratory grown and have very consistent and predictable results. There is a clear parallel in the cheese world here which is raw milk cheese vs. pasteurized cheese. Raw milk cheeses allow the naturally present and diverse group of bacteria in the milk do all of the fermenting work. When cheese is pasteurized, the naturally present bacteria in the milk is killed through high temperature heating, then lab cultivated strains of bacteria are added. These strains have very predictable results, much like commercial bread yeast. Using lab made bacteria and yeast limits the failure curve, but also reduces the complex and wide range of flavors that were possible due to the diversity of bacteria naturally in the milk.
|Diavola Pizza (Spicy Salami, Fior di Latte, Chili ant Tomato)|
The result of all this fuss is a pizza crust with a great chew and a crispy bottom that is perfectly charred in just a few spots. There is a real rustic and earthy quality to the crust, with just a hint of acidity from the bread starter. Texturally it is slightly more toothsome than your average thin and crispy style pizza. The topping choices are purposely few, but well thought out and sourced from quality vendors. My personal favorite is the Diavola with spicy salami, fior di latte (fresh mozzarella), chili and tomato. But honestly, I have never had a bad pie here. I highly recommend that you also try the dessert, which is a daily fruit and nut bread served with mascarpone cheese and honey. The starter has more of a detectable presence in the loaf breads, given that yeasts are allowed more time to ferment and develop character. This dessert bread was honesty the catalyst for me writing a post on Ancora in the first place. I love simple food treated simply, with very few, but very high quality ingredients. Even the mascarpone is sourced from one of the best mascarpone producers in the country, Vermont Creamery.
|Fruit and nut dessert bread with mascarpone cheese and bee juice|
American publisher and author William Feather said, "Beware of the person who cannot be bothered by details." Ancora is the kind of restaurant that stakes it's reputation on details. And in my opinion, they knock it out of the park!
Up next... The Chimay Cheeseburger from Avenue Pub