Food Cultures: a workshop on how and why to ferment
We'll be holding this workshop again on Sat. 24th Feb - Sign up here!
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It probably hasn’t escaped your notice that fermented foods are the newest foodie fad. Raw vegetables everywhere are at serious risk of being chopped, salted and left to grow sour, as increasing numbers of folk pursue better gut health.
This is one fad I’m genuinely and un-cynically in support of, not solely because I am pleased for the population’s gut flora, but also because it appears to symbolize a positive shift in the popular attitude towards cooking and eating.
Not so long ago, the UK seemed to be gripped by a neurotic obsession with food hygiene (some would say this is still the case), which brought aggressive anti-bacterial sprays and hand-washes into our kitchens and cultivated a serious distrust of previously celebrated items, such as raw milk cheese, cured meats, and the very soil all food needs in order to grow. According to the likes of Sandor Katz (a self-proclaimed fermentation revivalist), this came at the cost of our health, as the bacteria living on and in our bodies that we rely upon for digestion, immunity and good mood, came under attack.
The growing appreciation for bubbling, slimy, unpredictable, and often stinky, ferments is a significant shift in this attitude. The recognition that diverse populations of bacteria may in fact be just what we need for better health, could also be an acknowledgement that we are part of a greater ecosystem which we may not fully understand, let alone control.
Fermenting food is no recent innovation, but a practice almost as old as mankind. In last autumn’s workshop, I collaborated with avid fermenter and Gastronomist, Will Bain, in exploring the history, cultural and spiritual significance, practicalities, and health related myths and realities of fermented foods. Everyone who attended the workshop had prior experience fermenting things, but all were genuinely surprised to learn the full influence of this simple and mysterious practice on our lives.
The most common reason for fermenting is most likely to be preservation, then flavor, but the tradition potentially began for more hedonistic reasons. Ancient man developed a number of different ways to extend the harvest, predominantly smoking, curing and fermentation. The first fermentations were most likely accidents – grains or flour being forgotten in water and producing a bubbling, and slightly alcoholic, mess. Many academics and historians believe it may have been the incentive of alcohol that encouraged nomadic man to settle (the amount of grain needed requiring cultivation, rather than wild harvest) and that beer preceded bread in early culinary experiments.
One thing is for sure, fermentation has long been equated with a mystical transformation; the process itself seeming magical, as previously ‘inert’ substances begin to bubble and change, but also because of the transformation enacted upon the imbiber. Indeed, alcohol has been prized, revered and respected across millennia as a gift from the Gods, a substance that – if used wisely – could bring us closer to the divine.
We mulled over these beliefs while trying different kinds of rather delicious mead, then explored some of the ways fermentation has been used around the world, sampling and making kvass, kefir, kombucha, water kefir, and various krauts, before appreciating some of the ferments we have come to consider as ‘normal’, but which our cuisine would be much poorer without. Cheese, coffee and tea, chocolate, and yoghurt are just a few of the everyday items in our diet that require fermentation for flavour, texture, stability and longevity. And sure enough, with the pleasure they impart, these products also have the power to transform our mood as well as our state of nourishment.
The ferments most commonly valued by today’s health conscious foodies (e.g. kefir, kombucha and kraut) are believed to have the capability of transforming our gut micro-biome, and thus improving our overall physical and mental health. But as we discovered in our workshop, the transformation is not isolated to the gut. Incorporating something so alive, erratic, weird tasting and unpredictable into our cuisine, has symbolic potential extending into the political (disrupting the predictable, replicable industrialised food system), the social (embracing the need for diversity of ‘culture’) and the ecological (a recognition of our part in a much broader and complex ecosystem).
All the more reason to adopt this particular trend and engage in a bit of radical fermentation.
Join us for our next fermentation workshop on Saturday 24th April, 2018, where you can explore the practical, political and pleasurable world of fermenting your own food.
really fun, very well researched and super-informative.
Jill - Food Cultures participant, Oct. 2017