Belgium Is Home to the World’s Only Sourdough Library

iStock.com/muratkoc
iStock.com/muratkoc

Though we usually think of libraries as a place that shelters books, some of humanity's most valuable items are a little more ephemeral. Consider the Svalbard global seed vault, which protects the world's crops against disasters, or the Ice Memory project in Antarctica, which is preserving ice cores from endangered glaciers in the face of climate catastrophe. Consider, too, the Puratos World Heritage Sourdough Library in St. Vith, Belgium, which is safeguarding more than 100 bubbling bread starters, as Atlas Obscura reported.

Sourdough may be the world's original leavened loaf. Though today most bakers use commercial yeasts, for thousands of years people relied on starters nourished by wild yeasts and local bacteria, which fermented over a period of days to produce a living, breathing blob. Bakers would spoon out a little at a time to add to new mixtures of flour and water before shaping their loaves; mothers would pass on the blobs to daughters beginning new families; immigrants and travelers would pack the starters to bake bread in new lands. Today, the sourdough starters in kitchens around the world represent a legacy of baking history, microbial diversity, and mouthwatering flavor.

The Belgian bakery supply company Puratos has been collecting sourdough starters since 1989, when they began with a venerable San Francisco sample. Part of the Puratos Center for Bread Flavor, the Sourdough Library—which opened in 2013—currently houses 108 starters from Italy, China, Hungary, Greece, Canada, and elsewhere, some of which date back hundreds of years. The collection is overseen by a genial man named Karl De Smedt, a "sourdough librarian" who travels the world to find new samples. De Smedt also makes sure the starters are "fed" every two months with flour provided by the original donors. "It's alive, it's like a pet," De Smedt told Atlas Obscura of the painstaking care they require.

De Smedt travels the world to find areas with robust sourdough traditions, like Canada's Yukon, where commercial yeast often hasn't survived in rugged conditions. After he airmails the starters in special kits back to Belgium, scientists analyze them to document their unique combinations of microorganisms. So far, more than 800 strains of yeast and bacteria have been found in the goo. The microorganism samples themselves are stored in a freezer at -112°F to preserve them, while the sourdough starters are kept in glass jars in the library at a more comfortable 39°F.

These days, sourdough is having a bit of a resurgence. Alongside the interest in all things handcrafted and artisanal, some have found that sourdough's long fermentation process produces a more digestible product for those with gluten sensitivity. The library's samples serve as backups for organizations and home cooks who might damage their own supply, as well as a fertile breeding ground (pun intended) for research and commercialization opportunities. Puratos also hosts an online sourdough database, where anyone can enter their recipe.

The library isn't open to the public, but Atlas Obscura notes that De Smedt is happy to show visitors around if they contact him via social media. And for those who can't make the trip to Belgium, an online version of the database provides detailed notes on the colors, textures, and flavors of more than 1400 starters. The library itself can also be explored via a series of videos here. You might just be inspired to rise to the occasion and bake your own loaf.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

11 Unusual Cutting and Cheese Boards

Fred & Friends, Amazon
Fred & Friends, Amazon

Planning a wine and cheese party? Make sure what you're using to serve snacks is just as cute as your food is delicious.

1. Mouse Trap; $21

A cheese board shaped like a mouse trap

Fred & Friends, Amazon

At first glance, this item just looks like an oversized mouse trap. Ingeniously, the snapping part of the trap can be removed to reveal it's actually a cheese slicer. A chunk of cheese can be displayed and sliced on the 9-inch-long board—just don't invite any mice to the party.

Find it: Amazon

2. MOUSE BOARD; $30

A board shaped like a mouse hole with a mouse-shaped cheese cutter on top

Fred & Friends, Amazon

If a mouse trap is a little too macabre for your shindig, consider this adorable alternative. Assemble your cheeses on the 8-inch-long board and slice them up with a mouse-shaped knife that can be stored in the Tom and Jerry-esque mouse hole at the bottom.

Find it: Amazon

3. STATE SLATE; $20

Cheese and crackers arrayed on a slate cheese board

Bison Hill Stonecrafts, Amazon

Celebrate cheese from all over the United States with this patriotic slate. You can even grab a piece of chalk and write down the names of all the cheeses for hungry guests. Creator Bison Hill Stonecrafts will even personalize your board with a laser engraving, if you'd like.

Find it: Amazon

4. Log and Axe; $25

A cheese board shaped like a cut tree trunk

Fred & Friends, Amazon

Give your cheese a rustic presentation with this log and axe set-up. The solid beech cutting board is shaped like a log and comes with an axe-shaped knife to help you bring out your inner lumberjack.

Find it: Amazon

5. Mariner Wheel; $35

Invite all your sailor friends over for snacks with this nautical cheese board. When each of the four differently-shaped knives are placed into their respective holes in the board, the board looks like a ship's wheel.

Find it: UncommonGoods

6. Cheese Degrees; $20

A cutting board with a protractor design

Fred & Friends, Amazon

Make sure everyone gets an even amount of cheese with this obsessively precise cutting board. Whether you want perfect cubes or exactly portioned triangles, this cheese board can help ensure that everything is perfectly sliced.

Find it: Amazon

7. The States; $28

A cheese board in the shape of New York state

Amy Stringer-Mowat and Bill Mowat, UncommonGoods

Celebrate your home state with a bamboo cutting board created by New York-based woodworkers Amy Stringer-Mowat and Bill Mowat. You can see all the available state shapes in this PDF.

Find it: UncommonGoods

8. Voodoo Doll; $20

Pull out this voodoo doll-shaped board when you're feeling a little vindictive. You can hack away at meats and cheese and then store the knife appropriately in the wooden doll's back.

Find it: Overstock.com

9. Ampersand; $48

Delight your guests with some knowledge about where the ampersand comes from while using this board, which lets you fill a twisting line of crackers around three different cheeses.

Find it: UncommonGoods

10. Say Cheese; $19

A cheese board shaped like a smiling mouth

Fred & Friends, Amazon

Smile! It's cheese time. This mouth-shaped cheese board looks just as happy about the selection as you do. Underneath all the food, the board says "say cheese" in the center.

Find it: Amazon

11. The Obsessive Chef; $27

A cutting board with measurements on it

Fred & Friends, Amazon

This product comes with a series of lines to guide the cutter, including how to medium dice, small dice, brunoise, fine brunoise, batonnet, allumette, julienne, and fine julienne. The lines are burnished instead of printed, so they'll never get worn away.

Find it: Amazon or at one of the retailers below:

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

A version of this article first ran in 2017. It has been updated to reflect current availability.

A Massive Beef Recall Due to E. Coli Might Affect Your Memorial Day Meal Plans

iStock/Kameleon007
iStock/Kameleon007

If your Memorial Day weekend plans involve grilling meat, you're going to want to take some extra precautions. The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Wednesday that 62,112 pounds of raw beef are being recalled due to possible contamination with E. coli bacteria, which causes food poisoning.

The meat originated with the Aurora Packing Company of North Aurora, Illinois on April 19. Aurora Packing is recalling the products, which have an EST. 788 number on the USDA mark of inspection found on packaging and were shipped to stores around the country. The meat was packaged in multiple cuts, including ribeye and briskets.

Escherichia coli, better known as E. coli, is bacteria that affects the gastrointestinal system, causing cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, and other serious symptoms that can derail one's celebratory mood. If you think you've purchased any of the contaminated meat, it's recommended that you immediately discard it.

[h/t USA Today]

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