I did a terrible thing the other week. I was standing at the counter feeding my hungry mothers ready for the great sourdoughing session the next day according to my normal practice. I have a little routine to the feeding - with three of the hungry little devils I need to have some set order or I get horribly lost.
I take the mothers out of the fridge and put them in a row on the worktop. I fill and boil the kettle. I go and fetch my tub of rye flour and my tub of strong bread flour. I get out my scoop. I hunt around for my little plastic pot with the dishwasher salt in it which weighs a total of 154g, a figure which by no coincidence at all is exactly the same as one of my mother boxes sans lid. I fill my jug up with mostly cold water and a good slosh of kettle hot water, and that's me ready.
Take the lid off the first mother box. Tare the scales using the little pot, whip it off replacing it, Indiana Jones style, with the delidded mother. Take note of the weight of the contents. Work out in head how much mother I'll need the next day. If adding a third of the mother's weight in flour will exceed my requirements, then bung in a third of my mother's weight in flour. If it won't exceed my requirements, dither while working out in head how much flour to add to bring mother to a quantity suitable for my needs with some left over to blup in the fridge for next time. Add about that much flour. Take off the scales and place on the worktop next to its lid. Slosh into the box sufficient water to allow mixing to the right consistency. Mix to the right consistency.
Repeat the process with the second mother.
Repeat the process with the third mother.
Relid and leave mothers in a row on the worktop to froth and bubble overnight.
That's the plan, anyway.
Where it goes wrong is when you're not paying attention to which flour you're using. Remember we got out two tubs. Imagine you're on automatic pilot when feeding the first mother, working out quantities in your head and so on. In goes the flour. In goes the water. Mixmixmixmix mixmix mix mix m i x m i x m i x m i ...
If you've three mothers, two of which need fed with wheat flour and one of which needs rye, and you just reach for the wheat flour and feed the nearest mother, the odds are pretty good that you've fed a wheat mother with wheat flour. Unless you're me, that is.
Aghast, I surveyed my replete rye mother which had, for the first time, tasted wheat. Now in many respects this wouldn't be too much of a disaster. It would quite happily feed on the wheat flour and be ready the next day as usual. But I had just polluted my 100% rye mother. The 100% rye mother that I use to make loaves which I sometimes give to my wheat free colleague. I decided then and there that she had to go. I'd let her ferment overnight, use her all up tomorrow and then that would be it. Not such a drastic course of action in the light of the backup I'd taken of it a few months ago.
I rummaged in the freezer and pulled out the lump of solid starter. It was a rather strange shape, but I didn't hold that against it, and left it in its bag in a bowl overnight on the worktop. In the morning it was sludge, and ready for a feed. I spooned in a good helping of rye flour (after a triple check and a final hesitation before tipping the scoop), sloshed in some water and mixed it all up, confident that it would be bubbling merrily in no time.
It wasn't. The next day I fed and watered it more. The next day it sullenly failed to bubble. The day after that I fed it again, rewarded this time by an utter failure of fermentation. Nothing, not even the tiniest little fartlet.
Now, I did have a get-out-of-jail-free card, in the shape of Clive Mellum who is the father of my mother and who would, I was sure, happily come to my aid if I were to email him a tale of woe and zoom up to the test bakery at Shipton Mill with a suitable receptacle and an expression of deep appreciation. It would be embarrassing to admit that I hadn't taken enough care of his mother, and in many ways more embarrassing to admit to what almost felt like a murder rather than simple neglectful matricide. I resolved that I'd arrange to do this once I could drive again and make my own way there. In the intervening weeks, I'd just not have rye starter bread on the menu.
Come Friday, when routine mother feeding time arrived, I went to the fridge to get them out and realised that there were only two in there. The rye mother had been sitting disregarded in a corner of the worktop for days, my attempts at resuscitation failed. I popped the lid off to empty it out and was met with a small area of healthy bubbling. Mother's alive! I scooped out the bubbly bit into a bowl, emptied the rest out, tipped the bubbly bit back and gave it the feed of its life. In the morning it was fair honeycombed with bubbles all the way through and ready to go back into production use.
So now through no care or expertise, I've got three mothers blupping away in the fridge again. Huzzah! I am going to be awfully careful about feeding in future, and I am so glad I had a backed up version in the freezer. In fact I'd better do another backup before I get it all wrong again...