I’ve been dabbling in the sourdough subculture (pun intended!) since my daughter-in-law gifted me with a splinter of her starter in the spring. Ever the chemist, I loved experimenting with it — and chowing down on its amazing returns — until I pushed the envelope a little too far and it gave up the ghost.
But all is not lost! I’ve gained new inspiration from Xbox creator and bread nerd Seamus Blackley’s fascinating baking saga. In July, archaeologist Dr Serena Love helped Blackley access Ancient Egyptian beer- and bread-making pots from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Blackley then collaborated with grad student Richard Bowman to collect the yeast microbes inside the pots, which had been dormant for four and a half millennia. Blackley revived a sample of the sleeping yeasties in sterile conditions, and proceeded to bake an authentic loaf of Ancient Egyptian bread with them! Chemical & Engineering News details the science:
“Bowman says they were inspired by Israeli scientists who harvested yeast from ancient beer-brewing vessels, then brewed their own beer with it. The Israeli researchers filled vessels with a nutrient solution to capture their yeast, but Blackley and colleagues wanted to develop a lower-impact method. […]
Blackley used cotton balls and liquid yeast food to lift the microbes from the surface of pottery. Excepting what he kept to make bread, he sent the samples to Bowman, who plans to sequence the genomes of the yeasts to determine their age and whether they are related to modern species.”
Wild yeast notoriously has a mind of its own, so Bowman estimates about a 30% chance that Blackley’s Frankenstarter is derived from a modern contaminant. But I think those are pretty good odds. And it’s pretty good bread: Blackley described his first barley, einkorn, and kamut flour loaf as “AMAZING and NEW. It’s much sweeter and more rich than the sourdough we are used to…The crumb is light and airy, especially for a 100% ancient grain loaf. The aroma and flavor are incredible.”. Who knew eating like an Egyptian could be so satisfying?