Finding Fermentation

Introduction

After another of those runs where I came home and wondered when – if – I’d ever experience that elusive post-exercise euphoria, I flopped into the sofa with half an ear to the radio. An unnamed guest spoke eloquently about the largely unknown world that lies within each of us: the gut, and its apparently fascinating microbiome. It sparked a chain of small revelatory discoveries that quietly changed my life.

Perhaps like many, I unthinkingly pictured the internals of digestion as a slightly refined tangle of bicycle inner tube leading to a hot water bottle of a stomach, in which all the sorting of Useful from Useless took place, before another slightly more direct inner tube took the Useless to be reunited with the outside world. In my post-run melting, my awareness that the gut must be something more complex than inner tubes and hot water bottles was transformed into a sense of wonder. Not only are we apparently forested with living organisms working to our benefit, research increasingly indicates that our physical and mental wellbeing owes much to the vitality and diversity of this remarkable ecology. The guest assured us that in the same way that mental health was little spoken of three decades ago, yet its importance is now appreciated as it should be, so too our internal microbiome would come to be recognized as a world as fascinating and undiscovered as outer space.

I listened again online the next day, taking notes. I bought the book; I devoured the book; I went from occasional intermittent fermenter to avid reader and experimenter. I listened to the few fascinating fermenters I knew, I spent a day with Sandor Katz, I listened ever more intently to the brilliant Gaby and Hans Wieland from the Neantóg Kitchen Garden School in Ireland, I lapped up so much of Naomi Devlin and Dearbhla Reynolds’ bright, fresh takes on fermenting, I drank my wife’s unbeatable kombucha – the fruit of her own inquisitive dabblings. I was hooked.

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A Natural Process

Glass coffee dripper with wooden collar

Fermentation is the gentle art of allowing or encouraging food to transform into something delicious and nutritious under the action of beneficial bacteria. Fermented foods require us to embrace the presence and activity of invisible microbes that are working in our culinary interest. Humans have spent much of their time on Earth finding ways to hold off the decay of food through drying, salting, burying, smoking and more; fermentation works less aggressively against the natural trajectory of decomposition, by creating favourable conditions that slow the breakdown and harness it to our culinary and nutritive benefit.

You would not be alone in feeling slightly intimidated by the prospect of consuming fermented foods – we are more used to hearing of bacteria doing us harm than being essential to our existence. Fear not – these are foods that most cultures have been eating in one form or another for millennia. You may be familiar with some of sauerkraut, kimchi, miso and kombucha; it is only comparatively few (primarily Western) cultures where fermented foods are rare. It is estimated that a third of the food we humans consume globally is fermented. In many ways, fermented foods are the medicine we have been denying ourselves while we ran off to spend all our time with sugar. Let me encourage you towards culinary polygamy.

This book will familiarize you with a series of simple transformations that create exceptional flavours, and often provide the starting point for so many other recipes. Each of the nutritious ferments come about by offering a gentle guiding hand on a natural process that would happen without you, encouraging the largely invisible activity of bacteria to work to our advantage. These skills take little of your time, they are particular yet simple, and the results are extraordinary.

You can, of course, buy all the ferments you need: you can find them in most grocery stores, otherwise online. Many of them are excellent, yet they are rarely as good as your own, and in the making comes much of the pleasure. The process of fermenting is also good for the soul. Being able to make sauerkraut or kombucha is a life-enriching pleasure in itself, as much as the eating and drinking of it. Even if you only make kimchi or kombucha once in a while, the fact that you can makes you more of a free-range human, and that can only be a good thing.

You may feel you are too busy, too idle or perhaps intimidated by the idea of working with bacteria or the inexact nature of fermentation: put these concerns to one side. Making sauerkraut takes a little time, but almost all of that is waiting for it to transform into something delicious and wildly good for you.

Of course, there are times I’m as idle as the next person and I’m by no means advocating a life of self-sufficient fundamentalism, but why not gamble a few minutes and try each method once – you have nothing to lose and all to gain. The fermenting skills are easy to acquire, utterly adaptable to individual expression and personal preference, and each enables you to do one of the things that turns existing into living: feeding yourself and your loved ones well.

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Bacteria and Sourness

In many ways, a good part of this book is the story of spoiling, of encouraging or allowing things to start to go ‘off’ in a way that suits us. That we have made a simple craft of these gentle dilapidations is quite something. The recipes herein are the result of the beautifully effective action of beneficial bacteria. In specific yet very easily replicable conditions, these bacteria transform raw ingredients into the artisan – sourdough, kombucha, kimchi among them – each with an element of sourness that reflects the process of acidification that the bacteria bring about. Many fermented foods owe their sourness to lactic acid bacteria that multiply in anaerobic conditions (i.e. in the absence of oxygen), converting sugars into lactic acid. The change is more profound than flavour: in many cases, the composition of the raw ingredients is altered in such a way so as to align more completely with how our body can assimilate them, and in doing so we introduce our gut to representatives from the bacterial community that promote healthy digestion and physical and mental wellbeing. The combination ensures we assimilate more of the nutrients in what we eat. We are, simply, made to thrive on these foods.

The beneficial microorganisms that live in, and are introduced by fermented food to our gut, are known as probiotics. They aid digestion in numerous ways and establishing and maintaining a flourishing population plays a crucial role in our health. As with all living organisms, probiotic bacteria need food, and their preferred diet consists of plant fibres known as prebiotics. Probiotics eat prebiotics. This is useful to remember; eating probiotics promotes a healthy gut, and eating prebiotics helps ensure probiotics are able to thrive. Foods high in fibre tend to be laden with prebiotics: root vegetables, avocados, apples, bananas, asparagus, whole grains and cold rice are excellent sources. There are any number of benefits attributed to fermented foods and drinks – a stronger immune system, reduced dietary intolerances, improved mood and energy levels among them – but even if all it gives us is delicious, nutritious food, that’s more than plenty for me. Feel free to learn more about pickling, relish & fermenting basics.

Relaxing Into It

Glass jar of pickled garlic on wooden surface

You’ll get most out of this book, the recipes and cooking if you develop a bit of a feel for the nature of fermentation. When you are dealing with living entities, predictability is at a premium. We are used to following exact instructions leading to predictable outcomes, and while there are very definite methods, they are open to a number of variables that make developing a feel for what you’re doing an essential part of the process. Embrace this. While accuracy is important in places, timings will vary with season, temperature, the freshness of the vegetables, the origin of the ingredients and more. This is to be celebrated; it is how it should be. Your sauerkraut will be unique to you, your kitchen, the time of year, your tastes and where you live. Taste, compare and enjoy the fun. The fact is, it works; you just need to be present enough to observe, to choose and to enjoy. Familiarity is everything here: likely as not, buying kefir grains or a starter for kombucha feels a little more intimidating than a packet of dried yeast. I felt the same. Jump in the pool, the water’s fine.

I have a rule I try not to break: the first time I make someone’s recipe, I do it to the letter; thereafter, I’ll embellish as I please. I see it as the right thing, what the author would have wanted. If it’s not the original song I’m listening to, I want to hear it done differently while keeping its spirit, so once you know the tune, sing as you like.

Now you’ve taken the plunge, a word of caution: if you are new to fermented foods, take an enthusiastic yet steady approach at first. Introducing a diverse population of health-giving bacteria to a digestive system unused to them can bring a little turmoil if not done with care. Frequency is the thing: a little once a day is exactly the way to go. You are inoculating yourself with beautifully beneficial bacteria, but allow them to colonize your gut slowly and you’ll enjoy their goodness without upset.

Now is the Time

We are simple creatures: in the end, pleasure wins us over. If you are even mildly inquisitive about what you eat, there are only so many times you can enjoy a jar of kimchi or pay a fiver for an excellent loaf without coaxing yourself through the turnstile of culinary adventure. Whether making your own fermented fruit and vegetables, bread and vinegars is new to you or not, you will find methods that I hope you’ll enjoy for the pleasure of the doing, as well as for the creation of unique ingredients that, delicious as they may be in themselves, can be employed yet further in all manner of recipes.

If, like me, you are the sort to prevaricate over everything, from adopting a new fitness regime that will at last turn you into a specimen worthy of objectifying, to what to do on your day off, you may take some persuading to make a loaf or to risk a jar of kombucha fermenting in your kitchen. You can learn more details of pickling and vinegars.

Exploring Beyond

Herein lies all you need to know to become not only familiar but confident with fermenting fruit and vegetables. There are recipes that take the core methods and use them to create sides, mains, condiments and drinks. You’ll find methods for making sourdough, vinegar and milk kefir, each great on its own, but also as a springboard to using in combination with other ingredients too. There is a world of fermentation beyond this: grains, pulses and beans – as nutritious and delicious as they are – form the next level of fermentation, and one I think best tackled when you have the basic skills firmly under your belt. I’ve chosen to do what is included full justice, rather than dilute by widening the scope. I hope you approve. And I hope you’ll be bewitched enough by what lies to investigate them down the line.

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