Librarians Of Bread

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Karl De Smedt in the Puratos Center for Bread Flavor, the world’s most extensive collection of sourdough starters, in St. Vith, Belgium. Puratos Center for Bread Flavor

Bread is a frequent flier of a topic on this platform, including sourdough specifically. Ditto for libraries and their librarians and the creative things they do. Franz Lidz is not a writer we have featured in our pages before, but with a story like this one we will be watching for more.

At the Sourdough Library, With Some Very Old Mothers

Some starters never die, they just get filed away here.

In these housebound times, Americans have gone stark baking mad. Shut-ins are channeling their anxieties into pandemic pastries and quarantine cookies, some with icing piped in the shape of surgical masks, others frosted with the face of Dr. Anthony Fauci. Baking essentials such as yeast and flour are in short supply, and Google searches for bread recipes are on the rise, so to speak.

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Puratos Center for Bread Flavour

Curiously, during this apocalyptic spring, the best thing since sliced bread turns out not to be sliced bread. The most coveted isolation loaves seem to be sourdough, a knobbly, rugged variety that requires patience, handmade fermentations and something like affection. “Working with sourdough is part art, part science,” said Karl De Smedt. “You don’t tell the dough when it’s time to be shaped. The dough tells you.”

Mr. De Smedt is the curator of the world’s only sourdough library. Located in the flyspeck village of St. Vith, 87 miles southeast of Brussels, the library houses the world’s most extensive collection of sourdough starters, those bubbling beige globs of bacteria and wild yeast — known as “mothers” — that bakers mix into dough to produce flavorful loaves with interestingly shaped holes. If a mother isn’t regularly divided and kneaded and fed with flour and water, she will eventually go dormant or die. “A starter has its own heart, almost its own will,” Mr. De Smedt said. “Treat a starter nice and it will reward you tremendously, like a good friend.”

Like Norway’s Svalbard seed vault, which safeguards crops against disasters, and the Ice Memory project in Antarctica, which protects glacial ice cores threatened by climate change, the sourdough library is essentially a preservation center. Besides showcasing geographically diverse varieties of yeast, it conserves a burgeoning stockpile for future generations to study.

“The samples serve as backups for bakers and bakeries that might lose or damage their own supply,” said Mr. De Smedt who spoke by video from his home in Brussels. Although the library, created in 2013 by the Belgian bakery supply company Puratos, is not open to the public, its online database offers detailed notes on the colors, flavors and textures of all the starters.

Mr. De Smedt, 49, is a convivial fellow who wears a full beard and an air of becoming modesty. “The idea for the library was hatched after a Syrian baker of traditional chickpea cookies contacted Puratos to see if the company would document and preserve his starter,” Mr. De Smedt said. “His two sons wanted to switch from his time-honored leavening to commercial yeast. He feared that the starter would disappear, and hoped that we would find a home for it.”…

Read the whole story here.

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