Living Library

Living Library

Turkish people are bread eaters, no doubt about that. In this country, without bread, people do not consider their belly satisfied. However, in the past few years, many doctors and dieticians claimed that bread is bad for one’s health, stirring heated arguments. Stuck in between pros and cons of the debate, one crucial point is seldom scrutinized. Which bread are we talking about?

First we have to go back into history to see our deep-rooted relation with wheat and bread. The history of wheat extends to almost thirteen thousand years in Anatolia, if we take the findings of wild wheat grains in Göbeklitepe excavations as a starting point. We can say wheat, either wild or cultivated, must have been consumed for at least a good 10.000 years here. At some point the wheat was milled, transformed to flour and the rest is obvious, it was made into bread. It is true that some Anatolian bread types are unleavened, but even certain flatbreads have a sourdough base. In Anatolian history especially the Hittite civilization has an incredibly rich bread culture with numerous bread names listed in texts, even giving detailed descriptions of leavening the bread dough with yeast. Since then bread had been the staple food in this geography.

Until a few decades ago, before the industrial and instant yeasts were introduced, a portion of the previous bread dough was kept as a starter of the next one. That is what we call sourdough now. I remember my grandmother asking the local a baker to have a nugget of dough to start her own, if she was to bake something at home. It was an unbroken chain that sustained for years and generations on. Now often in those debates about whether eating bread is right or wrong, this seems to be the missing link. Sourdough, as we know or name today, is practically a healthy living thing, pretty much like a treasure chest full with precious microorganisms and enzymes that are good for us. The name is sometimes misleading; sourdough is not for making the bread sour, but for making it rise. Active living sourdough is not like an additive. Sourdough in a way pre-digests the flour before the body. That is why it is healthier.

Apart from health benefits there is something intriguing about the sourdough. Every single one is unique and has a taste and story of its own. Noticing this, Puratos, a 100-year-old Belgian company, started to focus their researches on sourdough. Dedicated to produce patisserie, bread and baking ingredients, the company searched everything about sourdough across the globe and eventually decided to establish a sourdough library in 2013. Librarian Karl de Smedt, a bread and sourdough expert, working for Puratos since 1994, is responsible for the library and he still travels across the world to expand the library. By the way, the library is not about books and reference sources about the history of bread, but it houses actual authentic traditional sourdough cultures from around the world. It is a living library of living organisms. The culture samples are stored in glass jars in a condition-controlled environment, kept at 4°C in fridges, and refreshed and fed periodically according to the instructions provided by the source of that particular sample. Each sample is also periodically tested to monitor the microorganism flora within the culture, to check whether it maintains its original qualities.

This monitoring procedure sometimes reveals amazing findings. A test on a sample provided by the famous Eric Kayser bakery in Paris, spotted a special microorganism found only in the digestion system of honeybees. Actually that particular sourdough was initially made by using honey, and after a span of 10 years, that microorganism was still very much alive in the starter culture. This example alone tells a great deal about the uniqueness of sourdough, it possesses invaluable information about our history. A simple sourdough culture sample may unlock the secrets of the past, might reveal information of the long lost flora and fauna of the land. Bread had been a staple food in Anatolia for thousands of years, we often brag about the rich bread culture of Hittites, a civilization contemporary with that of the Egyptian. Imagine finding a sourdough morsel hidden in an obscure corner, still having traces of all those diverse cultures of history. Just Thrilling!

Fork of the Week: Librarian Karl de Smedt, recently lead a quick expedition tour in Turkey, together with his colleague Hakan Doğan of Pasto bakery in Bursa, another passionate collector of sourdough cultures. They have visited Bursa where Pasto bakery is, and then headed of to the Black Sea visiting Vakfı Kebir in Trabzon and Gümüşhane, eventually visiting Uşak and Denizli in the Aegean region. Their short trip proved to be fruitful, four sourdough cultures made it to the library in Belgium. Ali Bodur, Gümüşhane; Hasan Kutoğlu, Vakfı Kebir; Döndü Çöven, Denizli and Hakan Doğan, Bursa also received a certificate for their contribution to the library. He says, he was particularly taken by the incredible smell of the bread in Gümüşhane made by baker Ali Bodur and was intrigued by the way Döndü Çöven started her culture by the dew she collects from the leaves at Hıdrellez, the May Spring festival. Follow these names and look out for their bakeries and breads, you’ll be rewarded. Also note that Hakan Doğan has a similar mission; he is exploring the bread along the Silk Route, collecting and storing samples in his own archive. His bakery is worth a visit to Bursa.

Cork of the Week: When talking about bread and yeast, it is inevitable to talk about beer. Unfortunately brands in Turkey are not particularly keen on launching winter editions, but one recent gossip is a small beloved boutique brewery in Muğla is soon coming up with an exciting limited edition. The news is they had their stout steeped in old oak whisky casks. Oak is “meşe’ in Turkish, the result is as oaky or “meşeli” as it can get, adding a forest mist to the glass, with a whiff of whisky.