Turnagain Arm, north of Alyeska Bake Shop. Photo by Teri Carns.
What’s older than you, and me, and anyone we know, but still bubbling along cheerfully? Answer: The sourdough starter at the Alyeska Bake Shop in Girdwood, Alaska. Those tasty sandwiches and pancakes that tempt you after a brisk winter ski are made with historic Alaska yeasts. A gold miner near Fairbanks gave some starter – a mix of flour, water, and colonies of living yeasts and edible bacteria – to the owner of the Sourdough Lodge on Richardson Highway in the late 1800s. Those same yeasts have been growing and multiplying, raising and flavoring Alaskan breads ever since. In 1964, Werner Egloff who built the Alyeska Bake Shop stopped there on his way north, and the lodge owner gave him both starter and a pancake recipe.
Lucky me – on Easter Sunday, half a century later, I overheard a woman asking the staff if she could have some of that same starter. The answer was “yes,” so emboldened, I asked for a bit too. Brooke Bjorkman, baker and chef, gave me a cup half full with fragrant, creamy batter (leaving room for the starter to grow), and talked about its lineage and care.
“We double the starter twice a day,” she said, by feeding it two parts flour to one part water. The mix stays about the consistency of a good milkshake, a little thicker than pancake batter. The frequently-fed starter gets used for white sourdough bread and pancakes. But “Michael Flynn, the owner, lets some of the starter go a couple of days or longer between feedings. That makes it more sour, and suits the rye and whole wheat breads that he experiments with.”
Bjorkman said that the starter is sturdy stuff, as might be expected for something still going strong after a hundred years or more. When the Bakeshop closes in late October for its annual cleaning and refreshment, the starter goes into the refrigerator and is fed only every other day. Bjorkman said that her aunt dried sourdough starter for traveling by spreading a thin layer on waxed paper. Once the water evaporated, the aunt packaged up the powdered starter, then rejuvenated it by mixing with flour and water.
Alyeska Bake Shop treasures its starter. “If the building is burning down, save the starter,” is the staff motto. Years ago, a new employee accidentally threw out the starter. The owner hastily drove two hundred miles to Homer where another colony of the same starter was growing to bring some back to Girdwood.
My kids don’t know this yet, but along with the family jewels (of which there aren’t many), they’ll inherit something maybe more valuable – a sourdough starter, way older than me, that came to Alaska during the gold rush days.
Alyeska Bake Shop is in Girdwood, Alaska, next to the day lodge at the ski resort. It’s open year-round from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. (8:00 p.m. on Saturdays). Check out the menu,. Seating is available in the restaurant, or get your food to go. The Sourdough Lodge is still at Mile 147.5 on the Richardson Highway (according the the Copper Valley Chamber of Commerce), but as of this post, does not have a web site.