21 February 2017

Environmental scientist wins Fulbright Scholarship to write ‘A short history of the world in a loaf of sourdough’

Professor Eric Pallant has been nurturing his sourdough bread ‘starter’  - the collection of bacteria that makes the bread rise - for longer than he’s been nurturing his grown up children. 

It was this realisation that got Eric interested in the provenance of his sourdough starter, and of bread-making in general, which goes back 6000 years and has its roots in the Middle East.

Sourdough starters pass from person to person so Eric contacted the man who gave him his first starter, and then the person who that man got it from, and so on. Eventually he tracked the starter back 125 years to the American Gold Rush era: he was hooked.

He began researching the history of bread-making and realised it shed light on wider changes in our society, and our impact on the environment.

“In the last 100 years we have forsaken quality for speed and efficiencyIt’s hard to live a sustainable life at the speed at which we are living now:  there are huge environmental costs to our throw away, drive through society,” said Eric, the head of The Environmental Science department Allegheny University in Pennsylvania, USA

Eric, whose expertise spans soil science, sustainable and community agriculture, forestry and green campuses, applied for a Fulbright Scholarship to spend six months at the Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University. His aim is to write a book about the rise and fall, and rise again, of traditional bread-making, and what it tells us about the state of the world today.

“Sourdough was was the only way to make bread until the British ruined it with the industrial revolution,” Eric explains. “The invention of the spinning jenny to make textiles got people wondering what else could be made with a machine.”

This coincided with the development of large scale brewing, which produced a lot of waste yeast which could be used to replace sourdough starter.

“The British brought the two ideas together and created machine made bread to feed the industrial workers who had no time to make bread for themselves.”

“The process of making bread with sourdough culture became as endangered as whales, until it was revived by hippies in the 1960s.”

Lancaster seemed a perfect place to come: his university has a student exchange programme with Lancaster University, it has an international reputation for environmental science, and the industrial revolution, which almost killed off sourdough, began in the UK.

As well as teaching a course on Global Consumption, examining the lifecycle impact of a variety of products,  Eric is spending his time in the UK visiting places connected to industrial bread-making, and doing some primary research on sourdough starters.

One of his research questions is whether nature or nurture has most impact on the bacteria in sourdough starters.

“It’s the bacteria that gives the bread its flavour.,” Eric explains. “Originally people just used the bacteria that fell into their porridge from the atmosphere.”

But what happens, Eric wondered, when starters get passed around and moved from place to place: does the original mix of bacteria get added to and changed by the bacteria in the new location.

Before leaving America, Eric dried some of his sourdough starter, which freezes its bacteria in time. He also brought some live starter with him to continue making bread with while he’s in the UK.  He can now compare the DNA in his dried samples and the starter that has been sitting around in the Lancaster atmosphere. absorbing Lancaster bacteria.

Eric will also try to encourage his students on his Global Consumption course to understand the value of slowing down. “There’s a lot to be said for reclaiming handmade and homemade products and for reclaiming the time it takes to make the things we consume, like a loaf of bread.”You can hear Eric talking about the development of bread making and what it tells us about human civilisation on Wednesday 1 March in the Lancaster Environment Centre training rooms.