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This sourdough loaf was made with 4,500-year-old Egyptian yeast

It seems there’s no neutral ground when it comes to sourdough. Those who love it (this writer included) love it a lot. Some bakers, both professional and amateur, have been known to travel with their mother dough, tending to its needs as one would a pet. Others, like Xbox creator and physicist Seamus Blackley, go to great lengths to source ancient grains and gather wild yeasts: Extracting strains from medieval forests and most notably, Egyptian artifacts.

In July, Blackley teamed up with Queensland-based archaeologist and Egyptologist Serena Love, and Iowa microbiologist Richard Bowman to collect 4,500-year-old yeast from ancient museum pottery. Using what he describes on Twitter as a “non-destructive process and careful sterile technique,” the team sampled vessels that had been used to make beer and bread.

Clay vessels are porous, and as such, present an ideal environment for storing “the symbiotic mixture of starter culture”: Yeast and bacteria. “Yeast is incredible as an animal. It can survive in space and in a vacuum. You can freeze it. You can do all sorts of abuse to it and it will still bounce back. It can hibernate for thousands of years,” Blackley told the CBC.

With the goal of providing the same sustenance the organisms would have lived on millennia ago, he fed the samples freshly milled barley and einkorn flour until he achieved an active, bubbly sourdough starter primed for baking. On Aug. 5, in his Pasadena, Calif. kitchen, Blackley baked with it for the first time. The resulting barley-kamut-einkorn loaf, a blend of ancient ingredients and modern baking techniques, was a success.

“The crumb (the interior of the bread) is light and airy, especially for a 100 per cent ancient grain loaf,” he wrote on Twitter. “The aroma and flavour are incredible. I’m emotional. It’s really different, and you can easily tell even if you’re not a bread nerd. This is incredibly exciting, and I’m so amazed that it worked.”

Although the loaf was tasty with a sweet and rich aroma, he stressed on Twitter that the experiment “was just for practice.” The next step, he added, is for Bowman to analyze the cultures to confirm whether or not he was baking with an ancient strain of yeast or modern interloper spores, and for he and Love to teach themselves how “to actually bake like Egyptians.”

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