Based in Belgium, unique library is dedicated to cataloging and saving sourdough from all over the world
It’s a Monday morning on Bainbridge Island in Washington State. The spring sun is trying its best to break through stubborn Pacific Northwest storm clouds and, except for the sound of commuters making their way to the Seattle ferry, all is quiet and serene. Little would anyone suspect that, on this otherwise typical morning, history is being made at a 34-year-old Island staple: That’s A Some Pizza.
The last year has been a busy one for That’s A Some Pizza, which is home to the 2017 Caputo Cup winner for Best Pizza in America (the restaurant’s Vegetarian Gorgonzola). This spring morning marks another milestone with owner and Pizzaiolo Will Grant showing Karl de Smedt around the restaurant’s cozy, 500-square-foot space.
De Smedt is with The Quest for Sourdough, a project dedicated to protecting and keeping all things sourdough: recipes, history, and, most importantly, the starters that are at the heart of sourdough’s life and culture. Born out of The Quest is The Puratos World Heritage Sourdough Library, a vault that stores, saves, and catalogs the world’s oldest sourdough starters.
Great pizza is about flavor and, of course, the crust. For That’s A Some Pizza, both of those things begin with their 120-year-old sourdough starter. Dating back to the Alaskan gold rush in the late 1800s, the pizzeria’s sourdough starter is the oldest in commercial use in the Pacific Northwest and one of the oldest being used for pizza in the United States.
That’s A Some Pizza’s starter caught the attention of The Quest for Sourdough last year. After a lot of emails and calls between Grant and the Library’s home base in Belgium, a trip was set up for De Smedt to visit and record a segment for Quest for Sourdough’s YouTube series. De Smedt, inspired by the history of That’s A Some Pizza’s starter, went on an epic journey from Bainbridge Island to the wilds of Alaska to learn about the close relationship between Gold Rush explorers and the sourdough starters that often meant the difference between life and death.
That’s A Some’s starter made the opposite journey—from the harsh, unforgiving wilderness of the Yukon to a bustling pizza shop across the Puget Sound from Seattle—and its place in history will never be forgotten as an inductee into the Sourdough Library.
“We preserve sourdough because you never know what’s going to happen,” said De Smedt. “There could be a fire or a flood and the sourdough, all of that history, would be lost forever. Now, with the Library, should the worst happen, the sourdough lives on.”
In addition to the sample that went into the Library’s sealed vaults, two others were collected: one for DNA analysis and, the other, sent to Puratos’ micro biology lab to test for pH, lactic acid type, and Total Titratable Acidity (that is, the amount of lactic acid in the starter) as well as to measure color and other variables.
As there’s no way to scientifically determine the age or origin of sourdough starter, oral histories have to tell the tale. The goal of the Library, with its rigorous cataloging process, is to build a base set of data for each of the starters to see how they evolve with age or, even, the seasons or other environmental conditions. This initial analysis allows for comparisons between the original submitted sample and a new sample taken from the original starter source in the future.
“In a library, you study. That’s what we do, except, instead of books, we study sourdough,” said De Smedt. “Our goal is to find new and more efficient ways to store and test sourdough and, of course, map all the sourdoughs in the world.”
Inspired by seed banks, The Puratos World Heritage Sourdough Library was founded in 2013 with 43 original sourdough starters from all over the world. To date, the Library has 106 samples with 17 in the collection hailing from the U.S. That’s A Some Pizza’s starter—sample number 104—is one of only four that is being used commercially. It’s the only one De Smedt has experienced being used to make pizza.
“Many of these (sourdough) starters are passed down through families. They are kept like treasures and have histories and stories of their own,” said De Smedt.
A sourdough, along with its flavor profile, is often defined by its lactic acid bacteria. The most common lactic acid in sourdough is Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis, which is used to make the well-known San Francisco sourdough.
De Smedt is quick to point out that while there are some more common types of sourdough starter they can take many different forms. While most varieties have the consistency of very wet dough, the Library has samples that range from liquid to dry and crumbly, such a starter from Tokyo that is made using cooked rice. The Quest for Sourdough has sent De Smedt all over the world to collect starters, including, of course, to Will Grant’s unassuming award-winning pizza shop on Bainbridge Island.
“We’ve always known our sourdough starter was special, even before my parents opened That’s A Some Pizza,” said Grant. “It’s humbling to have it now be a part of the Sourdough Library and the science and history that goes along with it. I’m proud to have That’s A Some Pizza included in the world’s sourdough library.”
That’s A Some Pizza is located at 488 Winslow Way E. on Bainbridge Island, just down the street from the ferry to Seattle.
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