120-year-old Yukon Gold Rush sourdough heads to Belgian sourdough library

A sourdough librarian travelled all the way from Belgium to try Ione Christensen's waffles and take home a little dough.

A Belgian sourdough collector travelled to the Yukon for Ione Christensen's special recipe

Ione Christensen's waffles are made with a sourdough starter that's been alive since at least 1898. She recently cooked a special breakfast for Karl De Smedt, a sourdough librarian. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

Ione Christensen cooked a special breakfast in her Whitehorse kitchen recently for a guest of honour who travelled all the way from Belgium to try her waffles.

Christensen's waffles are made with a sourdough starter that's been alive since at least 1898. Her great-grandfather might have picked it up in Alaska before trekking over the Chilkoot Pass on his way to Dawson City during the height of the Klondike Gold Rush.

Her guest is Karl De Smedt — the sourdough librarian.

Christensen's precious sourdough starter that dates back to the 19th century. (Meagan Deuling)

He collects samples of sourdough from around the world, tests and studies them. Then, he stores them at the Puratos Sourdough Library in eastern Belgium for the future.

It was a CBC story that led him to Christensen. The label on the starter container reads "100-year-old Yukon sourdough — DO NOT THROW OUT."

"I saw the picture of this and that already convinced me that ... we should have [the starter] in our library because it's very valuable. I'm very happy that I'm here and that I get to meet it," De Smedt told Christensen as they whipped up the batch of waffles.

De Smedt and his film crew are documenting sourdough's route during the Gold Rush, starting in Seattle, then Alaska and now Whitehorse to taste Christensen's starter.

Ione Christensen's 1898 sourdough starter, which her great-grandfather may have picked up in Alaska. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

A dough with history

It's the same starter Christensen's mother used to make bread and flapjacks when she was growing up in Fort Selkirk, Yukon, where her father was an RCMP officer.

The 84-year-old former senator said sourdough played a pivotal part in building Yukon.

Christensen said stampeders kept a ball of sourdough starter in their sack of flour. It is what kept them alive on their gruelling trek over the Chilkoot Trail to the gold fields of the Klondike.

"One of the things they'd say is 'you're sour on the country, but no dough to get out,'" said Christensen.

New Yukoners earn the nickname "sourdough" if they survive a winter in the territory.

Ione Christensen, centre, with her mom and dad in 1939 in Fort Selkirk, Yukon. (Submitted by Ione Christensen)

Christensen said she's proud to have Yukon sourdough join the library.

"I don't consider it mine. I just consider [myself] one of the keepers of it. It is Yukon sourdough and it belongs to Yukon," she said.

Dough heads to Belgium, Italy for testing

Now De Smedt wants to preserve that history for the future.

The starter, and the same flour used to feed it, will be sent to Belgium in an insulated box with cold packs.

Part of it will join the other jars of sourdough starters in the museum's fridges. It will become sample number 106 in the library — the second from Canada.

Christensen makes special waffles for her Belgian guest. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

Another sample will be sent to a university in Italy, where it will be tested to discover what micro-organisms are thriving in the bread.

"If we were to start understanding which micro-organisms are responsible for that or that production of flavour, we could guide people and say, 'Well, look if you want a sourdough that is more like that, or like that, then maybe you should try this or that,'" said De Smedt.

"The aim is to make the bread become better," he said.

What is sourdough starter?

De Smedt said sourdough starter is what was used as a leavening agent in baking for 5,000 years, before the yeast could be extracted.

The starter begins with flour and water getting mixed together and then left to sit for 24 hours. Then each day, more flour and water is added.

De Smedt said after a few days it might start to smell, but that's when you have to keep feeding it.

This is amazing. This is something I will definitely make at home.- Karl De Smedt, sourdough librarian

"The micro-organisms from within the flour, the environment, or maybe the hands of the baker will start to eat the sugars that are present in the flour from the starch. They convert the sugars into lactic acid, acetic acid and the yeast, they will turn the sugars into gas," said De Smedt.

Once you have a starter, you take it out the night before you're going to bake with it, mix in more flour and water until it's "nice and bubbly in the morning," said Christensen.

The most important step is taking out a scoop of dough and putting it aside so you have starter for the next time you're going to bake.

"It's your little pet."

Christensen and her dog Tippy in 1935 in Fort Selkirk. (Submitted by Ione Christensen)

Belgian sourdough waffles in Yukon

It's not only about the science, it's also about eating the sourdough.

"As a kid, we ate those just with powdered sugar, icing sugar, and that's it — so very light batter," said De Smedt about Belgian waffles. He said he never learned how to make them with sourdough, though.

"We make them just with yeast inside. So I am thrilled to finally discover in the Yukon," he said.

"This is amazing. This is something I will definitely make at home."

Christensen with De Smedt, who collects samples of sourdough from around the world. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

After breakfast, De Smedt and his team packed their bags.

They are heading to Dawson City to follow in the steps of the stampeders. He plans to cook sourdough flapjacks over an old miner's stove. And maybe become sourdoughs themselves.