He is a rich man (keeping priceless treasures) – moreover he is…I would say the guardian of the holy breadbaking grail. Every homebaker has dreamed of either raiding his vault or of getting a place for her or his sourdough in it.
Karl de Smedt is the sourdough librarian – on #brotokoll he is talking about the maybe most remarkable job in the world, exotic sourdoughs and he is kicking off the upcoming #brotokoll Fleur de Levain Series.
Fleur de Levain? Well, have a look at this amazing interview…
Happy reading & happy baking!
Karl you are the sourdough librarian – could you explain us: what are your tasks as librarian and moreover: what is the sourdough library?
The Puratos Sourdough Library in Belgium is where we physically store many of the most interesting sourdoughs from around the world so as to safeguard them for future generations.
Sourdoughs are living, breathing fermented cultures of flour or other cereals and are therefore by definition fragile, meaning they can always be lost or damaged. So just as the world has found a safe place to keep seeds (for example in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway), Puratos felt there was a need for a place to keep the sourdough heritage of the world alive and well too. Not surprisingly many of the leading bakers of the world agreed and have been happy that someone has volunteered to nurture and has taken care of a portion of their live sourdough culture elsewhere than in their bakery. After all, their unique sourdough is not just part of the taste heritage of the world but directly linked to their livelihood as well. At last count in July 2018, one hundred and eight bakers from 21 different countries in the world had sent a sample of their sourdough culture to be kept in the physical library.
While the collection itself is growing, the purpose of the library itself merits more of an explanation. It exists for three main reasons:
- Preserves the biodiversity of sourdough. All over the world there are bakers making sourdoughs. The aim is to collect and preserve certain important sourdoughs coming from a specific region, made from a specific flour or recipe, having a specific story etc. When these sourdoughs arrive, they are stored, analysed and documented for the future.
- Backup. A sourdough is the soul of a bakery. By looking after it, and keeping them alive somewhere else than on the bakery premises itself, we are able to provide a sample back to the donors in case their sourdough is lost or damaged, for example if ever there was an accident at their bakery. A certificate and a symbolic key (to enter the library) is given to every donor so that they can remind their customers just how important the heritage of sourdough is, and how they have a guarantee that the taste they like so much will never be lost.
- Research: the library is also evidence of Puratos’ expertise on sourdough and our passion for bread baking in general. Indeed, it has become a key part of the our company’s quest to master natural fermentation. Besides that, it has also helped develop a body of research on how to keep these “babies” alive. For the reality is, they need to be fed regularly, and kept in the right conditions, all the time
My task as the sourdough librarian is to manage this library, that means that I am taking care together with my team of the feeding of the starters. Collecting the flours every year from the places the sourdoughs are coming from. Next to that I take care of the promotion of this library through The Quest for Sourdough. That is a program in order to identify all the starters in the world. That way we can have a better view ojn the ones that deserve a place in the library to be preserved for the future.
I believe that I have a unique job, there is no other sourdough library in the world. Making the movies that tell the stories, sharing on social media, give masterclasses about the science behind sourdough etc… I’m one lucky guy 😉
How is it possible to place a sourdough in the library’s archive (for homebakers and professionals) ?
When a sourdough is registered on the website (The Quest for Sourdough ) we can already evaluate what kind of flour is used, the location, the owner, the process, the way the sourdough was created. All this information is key in order to decide whether we accept the sourdough in the library or not. We can add approximately 21 new sourdoughs to the library every year. We have sourdoughs from homebakers, schools, artisan and industrial bakeries and even pizzeria’s.
You have travelled a lot and have seen and for sure also tasted a lot of different sourdoughs – could you name us three of your all-time favorites and what was so special about them?
It is difficult to give only three. What happens is that the sourdoughs that I have been recording in a video mean more to me because I lived a story with them. The one from Mexico ( #72) is special because refreshments are done with eggs, beer and lime, and on top of that it’s history goes back to a soldier “Camille Pirotte” of the Maximilian I of Mexico. Pirotte might have had Belgian roots. Then there is the one from Tokyo, Japan #100 made out of cooked rice. Dating back to 1873 also with a great story and a very distinctive aroma. And last but not least, #43. This sourdough from San Francisco was my very first one I saw in my life. Back in 1994 when I started to work for Puratos as a test baker one of my tasks was to refresh this starter every week. I baked my first sourdough bread with it.
Talking about sourdough – for you as as specialist in this area – what are the most important characteristics of a good, healthy and powerful sourdough?
A good sourdough needs to have a good fermentation power and a pleasant smell. When shaking with the jar or bucket after a couple of hours fermentation should result in a nice bubbly mass.
In many countries, a lot of bakers tend to switch back to naturally leavened breads. How do you see this development?
Today we talk about disruptive business models like Uber or airbnb who are changing the way people go from one place to another or spend time in other places. In the bakery this disruption found place 150 years ago when Louis Pasteur wrote his “Mémoire sur la fermentation alcoolique”. By doing so he introduced the production of baker’s yeast on large scale. Bakers suddenly had an ingredient that was easy to store, maintain & dose. An easier and faster way to ferment their breads. They could suddenly make more bread in a shorter amount of time. Have a better control over the fermentation and not being slave anymore of their sourdough. They adopted this “miracle” ingredient and forgot a 5000 year old way of bread making. Where as in other fields of fermentation like beer brewing, wine or cheese making the knowledge was passed from one generation to another until today. Not so in bakery, many bakers have never learned how to make sourdough, not to say bake with it.
Sourdough is coming back in the bakers life. Puratos, the company I work for is producing sourdough since 1994. We have presented this to all our bakery customers since then. I must say, some loved it right away others were more reluctant. With the success of typical sourdough bakeries and the fight for the best breads in the market sourdough is an ideal solution to create differentiation. Because it is unique and helps bakers to create signature breads. That combined with the better understanding of what’s going on, cooling techniques and baking skills bakers can now go back to this 5000 year old process.
Are you a homebaker? Which is your personal favorite sourdough?
I do bake at home, but I graduated from Bakery and Patisserie school in 1988 in Brussels, Belgium. I worked for six years as a confectioner in a pastry shop in Brussels before joining Puratos. I traveled the world for many years a s a technical advisor and later as a product trainer. In 2002 I became allergic to flour and had to stop my fulltime activities in the bakery. Since 2008 I am responsible for the Puratos Center for Bread Flavour. That is a expertise center where customers from all around the world gather in order to increase their knowledge on sourdough and get inspired. Since 2013 it hosts also the sourdough library.
At home I have tree sourdoughs now. Barbara & Amanda that you can find back on the quest for sourdough. And Ione’s, a sourdough dating back to the Klondike Gold rush that I received during my last quest for Sourdough trip.
As all homebakers are experiencing this issue: after feeding there always remains plenty of unused sourdough. Keyword “Fleur de Levain”. How did you come up with this tasty and also recycling idea?
The idea is very simple. I wanted to show a new way to use discard for other than waffles, cookies and pancakes. I wanted to show a unique way for home bakers to create some extra flavour notes that you can never obtain by only using sourdough, hydration levels, fermentation times and temperatures. At Puratos we are drying sourdough since 1994, so I knew what I was doing. For me showing how to make #fleurdelevain was a way to show what sourdough powder is and how it’s made. Of course we do this at large scale, in controlled environments and we do not use discard. Many people say that sourdough powder is made chemical. That is just not true. It’s comparable to other foods that are dried, like milk powder. Milk powder might be of greater use than milk itself. Milk chocolate could not exist if there was no milk powder. Sun dried tomatoes or raisins, herbs spices. There are many examples of ingredients that can be used to create new, other tastes, flavours or colours. I received many great reaction on my #fleurdelevain tutorial video. Sourdough powders can be used to flavour breads, or to create a different flavour profile in existing sourdough processes. We call it “Our Flavours, Your Taste” because they are compatible with any kind of sourdough.
Do you have any final recommendations for homebakers working with sourdough?
First of all I invite everyone to register his or her sourdough to join me on The Quest for Sourdough. Secondly to treat your sourdough with love and respect. Keep it in the fridge if you are not baking with it and make sure that you feed it at least every two months. If you do not do that you might lose some of the micro-organisms that are present. Of course it is possible to store sourdough longer in the fridge but at the next feed new micro-organisms might invade and change your starter. There is a great community on Facebook. For me the groups mipano or Perfect Sourdough are a great source of exchange. And of course everyone who reads this should like my page of the Quest for Sourdough 😉 or follow me on Instagram @the_sourdough_librarian.
Thank you Karl for this interview and your time – it is an honor to have you on #brotokoll.
Did you already register your sourdough? HERE is your direct link to the registration form! Who knows, maybe it will be your sourdough which will make it to the sourdough librarian’s vault!