As a commercial photographer, it might not seem unusual that for the last five months, Ailine Liefeld has been growing a popular Instagram page. Yet, it might be more surprising to hear that the page isn’t anything directly to do with her photography at all. What’s got this photographer so obsessed? Bread. And her 3,000-plus followers are all there for her crispy, airy, soft and often artsy sourdough.
Between March and April 2020, Google searches for the term “sourdough” skyrocketed. People around the world fought over bags of flour. One or two sorry loaves of bread were made. It was fun, while it lasted. But for most people, they quickly forgot about their sourdough starters — an essential sourdough ingredient homemade by fermenting flour and water — leaving them to die like a hungry Tamagotchi shortly after Christmas.
For Ailine though, it wasn’t a trend or a phase. A self-confessed nerd, she spent weeks delving into the processes and techniques behind the perfect sourdough before even starting to bake. She was so happy with her first loaf of bread that it spurred her to keep baking daily before eventually starting A Sour Story, an Instagram page where she shares her journey, baking tips, recipes and stunning loaves of bread.
To find out more about her craft, how she got to where she is today and what it is about baking bread she loves most, Ailine joined us via video for a conversation.
What were you doing at the beginning of 2020 before the world changed?
I was working as a photographer. I’m always in Cape Town from October to March so I was there working, hanging out with my boyfriend and doing nice things. My birthday was in March which was really nice because I rented a house, all my friends were there and we talked over drinks and food for days.
But, one week later, the social distancing started and shortly before the lockdown my boyfriend decided to break up with me. So all of a sudden, my life went from exciting — friends, boyfriend, work — to staying at home alone. The first two weeks were rough but then a friend moved in with me because he was stuck in South Africa too and we started cooking every day, playing board games and cards. When he left, the bread started.
Did you discover sourdough through boredom during lockdown or is it something you’ve been intrigued by for a long time?
At the beginning of lockdown, I was very lazy. Everyone else was talking about working out, learning and doing Zoom meetups and I was just at home, in bed, watching TV shows. But after five or six weeks it was getting boring. I cooked a lot and then I noticed a lot of people were making sourdough and I’d always wanted to try it. It was love at first sight!
What do you most enjoy about it?
It’s the process of working with dough. It’s very soothing, it keeps me sane. I posted a video the other day where I was watching TV and just folding the dough, I shared it in slow-mo so people could understand how sensual it is. You don’t think about anything else while doing it, it’s just you and the dough, it’s like meditation. As much as I enjoy photography, I don’t always love the job as it has too many rules made by others. But with this, I make the rules, I make the bread.
It’s exciting because I’m also making the wooden tools to score the bread and linen bags for storage. I’m doing marketing and working out how to start a business, I’m doing photography and videos of my bread and the processes. All these creative fields are coming together under sourdough. It’s fascinating and mindblowing.
Is making bread an art or a science?
For me, the dough is science. And what you do with the bread — like — how you score it or shape it — is the art. The recipes can also be a form of art, like any cooking. It’s about understanding what flours go well together and what spices go well with which flours.
You named your very first starter after your grandmother Ingrid and she recently gave you her beloved sewing machine to help with the project. Has she been a big influence on you and your life?
My grandmother always did lots of cooking and baking. She used to be a seamstress while my grandfather was a carpenter. So they both inspired me to work with my hands. They had a little self-sustaining farm and I was always around all these crafts and natural things. I spent a lot of time with her in the kitchen, she didn’t bake a lot of bread but she’d make these yeast buns that I loved. It was only natural that I named my first starter after her.
You’re launching a website soon, what can you tell us about that?
It was supposed to be a small blog and place where I could sell my scoring tools and linen collection but now that I have other plans for where I’m taking all of this I have to rethink the website and content. I’ll probably launch the website in December now, just before Christmas. I’ll be selling my scoring tools, a linen collection, proofing baskets and some sort of mixing bowls hopefully.
You’ve mentioned you’d also like to open a bread bar in Cape Town. What’s your vision for that?
I’ve always been very German when it comes to my meals, so naturally they contain bread. For the last month, I’ve been eating a lot of bread and drinking a lot of wine with my friends. Cape Town is famous for its wine, but there isn’t anywhere in Cape Town you can get proper sandwiches or just good bread, cheese and wine. That’s where I’d like to start.
If that works out well, then there’s always the dream of opening a bakery. But that would be much more work. If I have a bakery and a bar, then I’m never going to sleep again.
Are you going to continue with photography?
Definitely but I’ll be more selective with the clients and projects I work on. There’s usually a lot of time between big photography jobs so I can continue to do those while spending the time in between baking and working on other aspects of this new business.
What is the most important life lesson you’ve learnt during this sourdough journey?
The advice I always give to people is that if you want to do something just make a plan and do it. Talk to people about it to keep motivated! Don’t give up after two or three weeks because it’s hard. You have to push through. You have to continually teach and educate yourself. From my career in photography I know that it’s often painful and long but you’ll get there in the end.
There are no shortcuts. You have to do the work and put the effort in. People see the results but they don’t realise how difficult it is to get there. Most of all though, look at yourself, not at others. Happiness in what you do comes from within you, not by comparing yourself to others.
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Words: Aaron Howes
Photos: Ailine Liefeld