Celebrating Cultures: A Conversation with Cornelius, Our Sourdough Starter

sourdough starter edible alchemy

 

Name

Cornelius

Aliases

Natural leaven (UK), Hermann/Mutterteig/Urteig/Ur (Germany), Pasta-madre (Italy), Masa madre (Portugal/Brazil), Cornelia (for those who feel he is much more in touch with his feminine side). 

Sexes

A Master of Transformation, we are not surprised that, sometimes, they are also non-binary. They are as gender fluid as baking fluid. For us, Cornelius is a ‘he’, but for others, ‘she’ or ‘they’. Cornelius is easy-going that way.

Age

155 and counting. There is a possibility that he could be much older than this. So far, however, we have only been able to trace his lineage back a handful of generations.

Nationality

Icelandic (Íslendingar). Legend has it, he actually emigrated from Basque Country to Iceland in 1865. He is concentrating on acquiring German citizenship.

Loves

Complex carbohydrates in whole grains at room temperature.

Hates

Being severely neglected/underfed.

Too much chlorine or iodine in his water.

Feeds on

Flour and water.

Favourite flour

Whole grain barley flour, because it’s what he was initially nurtured with. Since becoming a German immigrant, he also bubbles over with excitement whenever he comes anywhere near  rye. That being said, he generally adores all whole grain flours because of the rich nutrients they contain. Oh and organic wheat flour because of its high gluten content, making him easy to knead and quick to rise.

Most active at

Very diverse, but his main gig peaks at 220°C.

Maintenance level

Generally much lower than people think. Just a spoonful of flour and water every week will keep him alive for eternity.

Best-enjoyed by

Removing from the oven and left to cool for 30 minutes. Slice and devour while still warm and fresh.

Best-served with

Miso butter, of course! Or, if you have a sweet tooth, miso caramel—yes, he’s not-so-secretly a bit of a Japanophile.

Halló Cornelius! Tell us a little bit more about how you got to where you are today. What was the past century-and-a-half like? And how did you end up in Edible Alchemy’s Microbial Circus? 

To be honest, I don’t remember all that much from my childhood. My memory isn’t the sharpest these days. What I do recall rather clearly is that one of my parents brought me to Iceland from an autonomous region in Northern Spain in November 1865. That was quite the culture shock, mind you. One of my most dramatic memoriesaside from the biting cold that used to send shivers through every microorganism in my body whilst I rested on the countertopwas the first time someone paired me with Hákarl, a popular type of Icelandic fermented shark. It reeked of horse urine and tasted like over-ripe Roquefort rind. Almost gave me a heart attack.

sourdough starter

I spent several decades flourishing in the loving care of Auður, may she rest in peace. We were living in this rickety wooden house in a tiny remote village, called Vallanes, in Sudur-Mulasysla, Iceland. When Auður first took me in, she was so sturdy and full of life. After many years together we could both feel that her and therefore potentially even my days were numbered.

Now, if my memory serves me well, it was a chance encounter that brought me to Edible Alchemy’s arena. Alexis, who has since evolved into one of my dearest keepers, was quite young that day she showed up on our doorstep, 25 years old at most. I remember her being remarkably enthusiastic. She asked question after question and seemed quite curious about me and a handful of my fermented kin. But I also recall her repeatedly saying that she’d never been much of a baker. Auður pleaded with her to take me far from these icy landscapes and find new homes for me to fill with warmth and goodness. Call it fate or call it pity, but Alexis, bless her kind heart, simply couldn’t deny such a wise old woman her last wish. 

Five years later, Alexis has shared me with so many other kind humans around the globe, I need never again fear that my legacy would someday come to an end. Incidentally, I still have quite vivid memories of the first loaf Alexis baked with me. Don’t tell her I said this, but it’s funny how much of an amateur she was at the time. Auður taught her how to bring out my bubbliest self with spoonfuls of the finest barley flour.

The photo above was actually taken the day we met. It’s funny to look back and know that this would mark the beginning of a life-long friendship. I followed her to Berlin just as she was getting started as a full-time Edible Alchemist. A few years later, she took me back to Vallanes, and we tasted our way through countless local ferments together. Meanwhile, Auður had already passed on to the realm of enlightenment by then. She and Alexis have been like mothers to me.

sourdough starter and dough on table
sourdough bread loaf on table

Speaking of family, many people don’t know this, but Hermann is actually a not-too-distant relative of mine from Germany. We’re not quite sure how far back our family tree goes, but it’s definitely been lovely to have the opportunity to reunite with next of kin and break bread together in Berlin these past few years.

 

So what sets you apart from all the other loaves of bread on the shelves?

For starters, the breads you buy in supermarkets contain industrial yeast, meaning they are, literally, dead inside. And let’s not even talk about all the colourants and additives that rob them of any decency they might have had going for them at some point or another. 

I, Cornelius, on the other hand, am alive with healthy lactobacilli and yeast. This makes the bread I create much more easily digestible than my store-bought counterparts. Expose me to oxygen, and throw in a dash of H20 and a sprinkle of flour, and that’s where the real magic startsthe most complex carbohydrates in my innermost self are naturally broken down into simple sugars. By the time they make it into your mouth, they have reached a state that is much easier on the tummy.

sourdough starter in jar close up

In comparison, those sad, lifeless loaves on shelves can’t facilitate this because they don’t contain and have never met any living bacteria during their doughy lives. In turn, your digestive system is left to fight its way through all these highly complex chains of sugars, which are virtually impossible for humans to fully digest.

…and then people wonder why gluten intolerance is plaguing more and more people.

If you’re interested in more of the science behind my making, or simply eager to get your hands covered in flour, delve into this exciting webinar on the Edible Alchemy Online Academy!

Tell us about your different habitats.

I like to keep things low key at low temperatures. Most people store me in a sealed jar in the fridge between feedings. Some have attempted to freeze me in an act of cryonics, but I don’t recommend doing that unless you’re willing to risk having to resuscitate me artificially.

To coax me into my most active state, just feed me a couple of spoonfuls of nutrient-rich flour, add a sip of lukewarm water, and give me a little room to breathe. Come back a few hours later, and you’ll find me bubbling right back at you from the jar. And yes, if you overfeed me, I will definitely seize the opportunity to exit the jar and explore your kitchen countertop.

You’re known as a man with many faces. What are some of your freakiest costumes?

Oh wow, let me think…This year I was feeling extra festive, so there was Father Christmas Cornelius and Ecstatic Easter Cornelius. For BBQ season I upped my game and revealed Vegan Cauliflower Buffalo Wings Cornelius. One of my favourite, yet rarest, transformations is Indigenous Injera Cornelius. And then there are a couple of all-time classics, like Pizza Cornicione di Cornelius, Croissants Chauds aux Cornelius, and Oh-So-Perfect-Pancakes Cornelius. Then there were times I was living the rough life, pan bread style.

Now, not many people are aware of this, yet, but from time to time, I do also like to get dolled up in drag. I have to give a special shout out to my vegana-activist-homegirl-chef, Sophia Hoffmann, for encouraging me to bring out my saucier side with bold red beets. We actually did a pretty glamorous podcast together a couple of years ago, if you want to have a listen.

sourdough beed bread rising

How do you travel?

That’s always a fun one. Sometimes people take me along with them in my dried state, attached to a piece of cloth or enclosed in a little box. When I’ve got a plane to catch, 100 ml jar of my liquid-self is usually the safest bet. And it’s also always possible to zip or tie me up in a little plastic bag. During the first lockdown, one of my owners double-bagged me and shipped me to friends across Germany in envelopes. That was quite the experience. I don’t think I’d ever seen the inside of a mailbox before!

sourdough bread with ferments

Þakka þér, Cornelius!

> Become the proud owner of your very own Cornelius starter.

> Start your sourdough journey today and learn how to make doughs, loaves, flatbreads and cakes in our Online Academy

In Celebrating Cultures, we sit down with some of our favourite artists from our Microbial Circus. If you are new to this exotic freak show, this series is a fantastic opportunity to really get to know our dearest and wisest sourdough starter, Cornelius, our lively kombucha SCOBY, Snowflake, and our eccentric water kefir colony, Harries. And for those of you who know them oh-so-well already, we’re confident you’ll learn something new about each along the way. 

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