Since February this year, we've been meeting on the 3rd Tuesday of every month in The Sky and the Ground, South Main Street Wexford to talk about science. It's partly to generate some parity of esteem for Science in a town which is dominated by the Arts. The Wexford Opera Festival has been running for two generations bringing "difficult" sung music to the fore. The attitude of the organisers is that a rousing chorus from Aida or a perfectly eye-moistening duet from Puccini, let alone a jolly bit of Gilbo and Sulli, can be had any fine day on the classical music station on the wireless. But obscure opera from Central Europe? Not so much. Menotti is about as accessible as the Wexford Opera gets. There may be a reason why Lortzing's Der Wildschütz and the knobblier bits of Mozart have been left on the cutting room floor of history.
Last night it was my turn again at the Science Cafe. The venture is along way from going viral and we rarely get more that two handfuls of people to turn up. So the turn of the usual suspects comes round all too often. I thought it would be easiest if I cobbled something together about the microbes which are important to food. As always, when you start doing research, even in an area where you think you know something, you turn up some really interesting specimens from under the stones of the interweb. I divided my findings into two long lists.
Bad Boys: the bacteria and fungi that do a number on what we want to eat. Making it unpalatable / repulsive or downright dangerous. I've written about Campylobacter before. but the fact that this bug is present in all chicken and causes 3x more deaths and lost work-days than, say, Salmonella was news to some of last night's congregation. Everyone knows about Salmonella and E. coli although only a few can spell Escherichia, but Campylobacter is the micro-elephant in the food industry room. As I say my list was a lot longer than Campy and I'll be mining it from now till Christmas.
As an antidote to my woeful tales of talking to the porcelain telephone, I took one example from an even longer list of food Good Girls. To make it real, I made a small batch of sourdough and punched out a baker's dozen of small sourdough buns so that our scientists could have a nibble with their pints. I also brought in an aliquot of the starter which had caused these mini-breads to rise. It was a great batch, even if I say so myself, the insides pocked with large ragged-sized holes like the ciabatta you might buy from an artisan bakery. Good sourdough has to be made a little sloppy if you want it big-bubbly. Like really fine emmental, it is bubbly because it is filled with carbon-dioxide. The CO2 comes from the activity of a community of bacteria (mostly Lactbacillus spp.) and fungi (mostly Saccharomyces spp.) which prop each other up in a multi-species mutual support group. All the baker needs to do is given them more flour every 1-5 days. I was told last night that I was mad to keep my starter in a plastic dish - the plastic leaches stuff into the stew than makes the bugs feel a little crook. I'll shift them into a glass jar soonest and see if they go from being good to being glorious.