There are few trends born out of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting quarantine that have become more omnipresent than baking bread. And it’s not just experienced home cooks whipping up their own loaves during periods of self-isolation-induced boredom. People who never considered themselves bakers before the pandemic are experimenting with bread baking too.
The pastime has become so popular that King Arthur flour reported that the website’s March traffic was higher than last Thanksgiving. No longer is baking bread the realm of auteur, or a task deemed too time consuming for the average person to master. Yes, our national bread obsession is in full swing, which is why it might interest some new bread obsessives that a Belgian library containing 120 sourdough starters is now offering virtual tours.
Karl De Smedt, a baker by training, is the librarian at the Puratos Sourdough Library in St. Vith, Belgium, which opened in 2013. But according to Smithsonian Magazine, De Smedt began traveling the world gathering the starters that now make up much of the library’s collection in 1989. He found most of the starters in Italy, though there are starters from the United States, Greece, and China as well. The Belgian bakery supply company Puratos funded De Smedt’s efforts, and eventually suggested that the company open up a gallery in which to display the starters.
The virtual tour offers a 360-degree view of the facility, which is lined with refrigerated cabinets containing just 12 of 125 starters that Puratos keeps in storage. De Smedt is on hand to give a brief introduction to the collection and the facility, and there are short videos detailing the history and story behind each of the displayed starters.
If you want to get even more background on the collection, the website Quest for Sourdough catalogues each of De Smedt’s discoveries, including the Kosmas sourdough, from a small village in Greece, that is fed with holy water. No doubt anyone who picked up bread baking in quarantine will be interested in learning more about the vast and complex tradition behind their new hobby. Maybe this bread obsession won’t last forever, but at least the people who indulged it learned a new skill, and even a little history, that will last a lifetime.