International News

Interview with the only sourdough librarian in the world


We want to end this year with a special post. After more than 12 publications where the elaboration of Healthy Bread with Sourdough has been defended, where different points of view have been shared, always with the support of scientific arguments and paraphrasing great and renowned scientists. Richemont defends and supports bread making with Sourdough as a commitment made to defend Healthy Bread and the consumer. For this reason, we wanted to end this year with this interview with such a special and beloved character as Karl De Smedt.

Karl De Smedt, who calls himself "The sourdough librarian". The director of the Weinheim Bread Academy, Bernd Kütscher, calls him the "Guru of Sourdough". Guru is a word that comes from Sanskrit and means, "person who puts light, who removes darkness." Obviously for someone to be called a Guru, it means that they have immense knowledge in this area. Hence our interest in having this interview with Karl, let us see why they call him that. 

Karl, tell us a little about your career path. How did you become the Sourdough Librarian? 

Karl: At the age of ten I already knew I wanted to be a pastry chef. In Belgium you could follow a 6-year program to become a pâtissier, bakery, chocolatier, ice cream and candy maker. The first two years it was even combined with cooking and butchery classes. When I finished my training, I worked for 6 years in a Patisserie in Brussels. I had the opportunity to buy this pastry shop, but my wife didn´t want me to follow that adventure. This is when I decided to start to work for Puratos as a demonstrator. That was back in 1994.

I started in the lab as a test baker. That was the moment I discovered sourdough. It was one that was brought back from San Francisco by a colleague back in 1989. After 1,5 years of test baking, I became demonstrator, first for the Belgian market later I joined the international team. A flour allergy made me switch my activities. I started to give theoretical trainings to Puratos´ sales and technical teams. In 2008 I had the opportunity to become in charge of what we call now "The Center for Bread Flavour". That is a place where bakeries from all over the world, small and big ones, visit us to learn more about sourdough fermentation. This is also the place where we opened the world's first and only "sourdough library" back in 2013. 

What are your duties as a "Sourdough Librarian"? 

Karl: Mainly to answer any type of questions that come to us about sourdough. I have become the go-to person for finding answers to many of those questions in the last 7 years. I guess that is why the director of the Weinheim Academy calls me the Guru of sourdough.

I also attend conferences, congresses, summits, or competitions where sometimes I am asked to be a member of the jury. I continue to give "masterclasses" in Training Centres in the US or Singapore and of course I am still involved in training clients and employees within Puratos. Every so often I get call from journalists and am asked to contribute to their articles. Currently due to the COVID situation I participate in live interventions or webinars via "zoom" or other streaming applications. 

How many different types of sourdough do you have in the Library and what do you do with them?

Karl: In the Library we physically have 130 types Sourdough from 25 countries. It usually takes about 3 months, in the university to analyse each sourdough that arrives at the Library. But in the future, it will take less time. It is about learning from each of them and sharing the knowledge.

Sourdoughs differ in bacteria. What Causes That? Is there a direct relationship with the local land (cereals) and water?

Karl: In the Library we have several types of Sourdough from the same country, but just because they are from the same country does not mean they are the same. In fact, no two Sourdoughs are the same. The field where the flour comes from will give them different characteristics. If the sourdough has more or less water, then the sourdough will be more consistent or runny. If the bakery where it has been made is contaminated with yeast, obviously all this influences whether one sourdough may be different from another. There are bakers who refresh the sourdough once a day, there are others who refresh it two or even three times a day. From what we know so far we can say that every sourdough is unique. Depending on the ingredients, the location where it is created, the climate, the baker and how it is maintained.

There are still bakers who do not make bread from sourdough. What would you say to them?

Karl: If you look at the history of mankind, the Romans were already fermenting. Whole empires were built based on bread. The soldiers were paid with bread. Bread has always been a staple food for the past 5,000 years and will remain so for the next 5,000 years. Fermentation is nothing new. But with industrialization it was lost. Baking schools today still teach how to make the maximum volume of bread in the shortest time. The problem is that the human body, unlike that of animals such as cows or goats, cannot digest grains. We need to eat foods that have already fermented because that replaces part of the digestion.

The beauty of fermentation is that in the bakery world, the baker ends up becoming a daily fermentation specialist, whereas in beer or wine making it only takes fermentation once a year or several times a year. The highest level of fermentation is in the domain of maintaining the sourdough.

Fermentation might have been a greater discovery than fire. 

by David Rains Wallace

So, from your point of view, what is missing in the world of bakery for bakers to achieve as high a recognition as cooks in the world of cooking?

Karl: A chef in the kitchen does not limit himself. While in the bakery we look back to see how bread was made, maintaining tradition is a good thing, however, from my point of view our biggest barrier. We should learn from the past, to make the good or right decisions for the future. We need people who want to do crazy things, experiment with techniques like Ferran Adriá, and many others have done in the culinary world.

 Working for a bigger company like Puratos, where the impact on the bakery world is big makes it easier to make changes. By promoting sourdough bread, and the healthier aspect of it all over the world, the overall image of breads is changing in a positive way. All bakers will benefit from this. Being able to witness that change makes me incredibly happy.

We want to thank Karl De Smedt again for his time and for sharing his knowledge with us. Karl has a Facebook and Instagram account @the_sourdough_librerian, as well as a website where he consistently posts news about the Sourdough Library and the sourdoughs they acquire and the research they carry out. The website is open to all bakers and pastry chefs in the world who wish to include their Sourdough and its characteristics, more than 1,300 have already incorporated it. We invite you to add yours and we recommend following this wonderful passionate about bread.



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Tuesday, 21 May 2024

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