When an old woman gifted her a little bit of heirloom sourdough starter in Anchorage, Kelsey Shields didn’t know it would be a staple in her bakery and deli almost a decade later.
Today, however, the owner of Lucy’s Market in Soldotna uses the starter for nearly all of the store’s homemade breads.
During an interview with the Clarion in her market last week, Shields described the woman — one of her friend’s landlords — as quirky and always up for a chat. By her account, the sourdough starter, named Marlis after the woman, was a family inheritance cultivated in Germany 250-some-odd years before it ended up in Shields’s kitchen.
“I managed to keep it alive all this time,” Shields said. “Which is remarkable because I neglected it often.”
Sourdough starter, which is a live culture of yeast and lactobacilli, is a fundamental ingredient in breads that don’t contain commercial yeast, and is replenished with flour and water.
Shields said she has spent a good amount of time learning about Marlis, and the best ways to use her in different kinds of breads.
“It’s kind of fun learning her moods and how she reacts to environmental changes throughout the year,” Shields said.
The bakers at Lucy’s Market feed Marlis every day — flour and water — and are cautious to use her during the “peak time,” before she becomes over-proofed.
“What’s kind of amazing about it is, once you settle into a season … she sort of steadies out and gets used to her new climate,” Shields said.
Shields and her staff have had to get creative to accommodate Marlis, finding her perfect temperature. They’ve done everything from cracking the window open to setting her on top of the cool cheese case to get it just right.
Morgan Davie — Lucy Market’s head baker — was busy making new dough and pulling fresh loaves out of the industrial oven when she spoke with the Clarion last week.
Instead of kneading the sourdough, Davie uses a stretch and fold technique to strengthen it.
Shields said the art of a wild-starter sourdough is that the chemical reaction inside the dough is a slow process.
“There’s a lot of science going into it but that slow process is what makes it better for your body to digest,” she said. “So you’re still mimicking that act of kneading.”
The different kinds of loaves sold at Lucy’s Market are made by hand — mostly by Davie’s hands in particular. There isn’t a breadmaker or heavy baking machinery on-site.
While stretching out the next round of sourdough, Davie said she thinks baking runs in her blood.
“Why do I like to cook?” she said. “I know no other way.”
The market has undergone a lot of changes in the past few years, with first a location change and then the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily halting operations.
Shields said she had to let a lot of staff go at the beginning of the pandemic when business plummeted across the country.
They did a delivery service for a few weeks, then ultimately closed until further notice.
Now, however, they have reopened slowly, only allowing orders for pickup at first. In just recent weeks they have opened their dining room for in-house seating again.
“We did the best with the information we were given,” Shields said.
Shields and Marlis — the woman, not the starter — lost touch over the years. She said when Marlis gifted Shields some of her family’s 250-year-old starter: “It was just this special moment in time.”