The Revival of Sourdough — Sparking new Thoughts on Agriculture

Every sourdough - that culture of lactic acid bacteria and yeast in a mixture of flour and water - is unique, like a fingerprint, because in every region there are individual bacteria in the air that give each loaf its very own flavour. One person who knows more about the infinite variety of sourdough cultures than most - whose culture is culture, so to speak - is the Belgian Karl De Smedt, keeper and archivist of Europe's only sourdough library.

The Craft of Fermenting and Baking

Until the turn of the century before last, almost all bread was baked with sourdough. The yeast produced during fermentation, which produces CO2, allows dough to rise in an airy and flexible way, as the air in the small chambers heats up and expands these chambers. The yeast also ensures that the grain is completely or almost completely broken down. In this way, it contributes to digestibility, depending on the so-called rising time of the dough.

(see also: our article on Julius Brantner)

Sourdough is sour in the sense that, as a fermented product, it naturally tends to smell slightly sour and has a corresponding flavour. The word “sour” is not used in other languages’ translations. Lievito Madre (Italian) translates as “mother yeast” and Massa Madre (Spanish) is “mother dough”. It is said to be a tradition in Spain to give the bride Massa Madre at the wedding ceremony so that her family never goes hungry and remains forever connected to the bride’s homeland.

Due to the uniqueness of each sourdough, its unique composition, the length of its life and, last but not least, its health potential, every dough is worth saving. Which brings us to Karl De Smedt. On behalf of the Belgian food company Puratos, he archives cultures, feeds them every two months with the original flour that has also been archived – and saves them. (Incidentally, you can witness this and help feeding the doughs if you visit the library in St. Vith, Belgium).

A Sourdough started in the 1890ies won ‘Best Pizza Dough in 2017’

Of course, biodiversity, i.e. genetic material, is important if a new start is needed or desired at some point. But it also tastes good. And above all interesting: Isn’t it exciting to imagine experiencing a flavour that is a hundred years old or even older? The treasures in Karl’s collection include, for example, a Japanese dough that dates back to 1875. A very special one is a dough from California and the gold rush era, keyword Klondike, from the 1890s, which was kept ever since and formed the basis for an award-winning “Best Pizza in the USA” in 2017.

The sourdough trend and the bread baking trend, represent also the desire to correct something that has gone wrong for decades: The belief – favoured by two world wars, population growth and the pursuit of prosperity – that industrial production is the solution to pretty much everything. Leavening agents and baking sodas accelerate and replace the otherwise very slow process of fermentation. Nature is being tricked, so to speak. The result of decades of consumption: allergies and intolerances, especially to the actually ‘good’ gluten. Besides, resulting in breads that taste all the same.

Today, sourdough stands for longing but also for the simplicity of healthy food, and bread is a cultural asset and much more than just a loaf of bread: in Germany, Brotzeit or Abendbrot are whole meals that are eaten cold with bread in combination with other ingredients (e.g. butter, cheese, cold cuts, spreads, etc.).

Looking Back and Envision the Future – Grain, Agriculture, Landscapes

“The renewed interest in bread also raises the hope that it will provide an impetus for the future, a future in which agriculture and the environment are protected, in which the principle of ‘less is more’ takes centre stage, in which food as an expression of health is once again given central importance.” – from: Kleiner Atlas der Kulinarik, by Martina Liverani; Knesebeck Verlag

Thinking further, entire landscapes would change if it were a consumer-driven desire for more cereal variety. We would no longer eat what can be grown and harvested efficiently, but what tastes good and is good for us. Cultivated areas would become less monocultured and hence smaller, the space between the fields would provide a habitat for natural pest controllers — birds and insects — and much of what is now regulated with chemicals that are ultimately part of our food chain, would be left to nature. A naive but pleasant thought.

One grain mill that we portray in our book is Drax Mühle, run by Monika Drax in Rechtmehring, east of Munich. Almost 40 grain farmers within a radius of just 50 kilometres supply the conventional and organic grains, which are free from additives such as enzymes, ascorbic acid or preservatives, in a range of 30 varieties of 100% natural flours.

When we curated the Makers Bible and the topic of flour and bread, the question of where and in which country the best breads can be found came up again and again. It is impossible to answer this question, because fresh natural bread, perhaps still warm from the oven, distributing this irresistable aroma, always tastes good everywhere.

At least, we had a search engine answer the question about the country with the greatest variety of bread and did it in different languages, just to sure the algorithm would not be biased.

According to Google – Germany is the Country with the Greatest Variety of Bread

Depending on the language you enter it in the search engine, the number of types of breads, however, varies: in German: 300 sorts of bread are quoted; in Italian it says 400 sorts and in English even 1300, which is not even claimed by Germans themselves; but everyone – or at least Google – agrees that Germany is the country with the greatest variety of breads.

You are fond of learning the ropes in baking with sourdough? In Switzerland there is a Guru offering baking courses. He also happens to be Makers Bible’ curator: Claudio Del Principe, from Basel with his infamous self-nourished Lievito Madre called “Bianca”. The pictures on his Instagram are certainly an inspiration, check it out and learn dates of his courses.

Further useful links:

Our book on crafting cuisine and more about bread and flour.

Watch the video of the sourdough library of Karl de Smedt, in St Vith.

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