In the tiny municipality of St. Vith, Belgium, there’s a most unusual library. Unusual, that is, because the objects on its shelves need to be fed every few months. Burbling away in refrigerators are 105 sourdough starters from around the world. It’s a modern way to store what used to be a familiar feature of home kitchens: starters, the fermented mixtures of flour and water added to dough to provide rise and flavor.
The Puratos Sourdough Library is not in an area famous for sourdough. Especially among Americans, San Francisco may be best known for the bread. But according to Karl De Smedt, the sourdough librarian, sourdough belongs to the entire world. Until 160 years ago, “everyone who was making bread was using sourdough.”
De Smedt is both an obvious and unlikely candidate for the world’s first sourdough librarian. A confectioner and baker by training, he is passionate about sourdough and has worked at the Belgium-based bakery supply company Puratos since the ’90s. He’s also essentially allergic to flour. But this is not uncommon for bakers—De Smedt developed his asthma-like symptoms in 2002 due to his long exposure to flour dust.
Due to the condition, De Smedt shifted to corporate training at Puratos. At the time, global interest in artisanal bread, especially sourdough, was growing. Puratos had long been collecting bread starters for research, starting with a San Francisco sourdough in 1989. Puratos opened a Center for Bread Flavor in St. Vith in 2008. As the Center collected bread starters, De Smedt proposed displaying them in one place. Given essentially carte blanche by Puratos to promote the center’s projects and sourdough in particular, De Smedt oversaw the opening of the Sourdough library at the center in 2013.
The library’s website likens the project to other preservation centers, such as Norway’s Svalbard seed vault. According to Anne A. Madden, a microbiologist at the Rob Dunn Lab at North Carolina State University, the story of humanity has long been entwined with sourdough. Madden, who works on the Dunn Lab’s Sourdough Project, nevertheless says that microbes in sourdough “remain somewhat of a mystery.” (Researchers have long devoted more attention to other fermented products, such as beer.) Efforts like the library are important, since by not studying sourdough, “we might be losing flavors and bread aspects that we’ve not yet experienced.” But there’s undoubtedly a commercial element to the library: In 2015, Puratos CEO Daniel Malcorps told attendees at an industry event that customers are clamoring for artisanal tastes with a heritage, especially that of sourdough.
When collecting starters, De Smedt prioritizes renown, unusual origins, and often, their estimated age. When I ask about the oldest starter in the collection, De Smedt says there’s no surefire way to tell. “If someone tells me I have a 500-year-old sourdough, I have to believe them,” he says. How a starter is fed and maintained can change its microbial colonies, sometimes completely. At some point, it’s hard to say if a century-old starter is really that old. Part of the purpose of the library is to maintain the sourdough starters in a state close to how De Smedt gathered them. De Smedt hopes that over decades, the starters collected in the library will be continuously…
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