If you’re not fermenting with lactic acid you don’t stand a chance. Fermentation is the method of the hour. On autumnal asparagus, winter greengages, promises of healing, and laissez-faire.
Today Lady Beetroot is in the mood for a chat. She has been silent for too long, it’s her third day in the dark, and she’s slowly getting bored. So she blows a few bubbles: blub, blub. Isn’t it great to be alive! She does it again: a few more bubbles. She feels really good. One pot further on, the Cucumber Sisters try to find out if they’re strong enough to lift the lid yet – one, two, three, lift-off! The lid really does move a bit. So there you go! The two have never felt so bubbly. Since they’ve been steeped in salted water in tall crockpots, they’ve constantly had this tingling sensation all over, as if little animals were tickling them all the time.
The grown-up version of this story contains the words “microorganisms”, “lactic”, “anaerobic”, and “starter culture”. “As-paragus”, “greengages”, “radishes” are less technical, more sensuous words, and as for the more philo-sophical expressions, well, there’s “taste of the future”, “a life of one’s own”, and “independence”. Fermentation is one of the great culinary issues of the day. It seems like a fairly recent theme, if you discuss it only in terms of Louis Pasteur’s definition of microbacterial changes in airtight conditions. However, from a broader view that includes maturation and oxidation, it has been a subject for ever. You couldn’t imagine a life without foods and drinks that have only become what they are because of microorganisms.
There’d be serious gaps in the Bible without bread and wine. Without chocolate, beer, salami, cheese and tea, our Western taste range would be reduced. Without miso, natto, stinky tofu and tempeh, many Far East Asians would feel as if they’d lost a limb. If there were no pickles, market stall holders would be without a job, and the line between Berlin and Vienna known as the Pickle Meridian might have remained nameless forever. Indeed, without the on-board supply of pickled cabbage full of vitamin C, James Cook and many other seafarers could have died of scurvy. Food philosopher Michael Pollan’s opinion on fermentation is that if there is any civilisation out there that doesn’t apply fermentation to its food or drink, anthropologists have yet to find it.
Master chefs have discovered fermentation, too. An extreme way of describing it is as a form of letting food go rotten, but desirable, and controlled whenever possible. It’s mostly lactic acid that is used in fermentation today, a method as age-old as it is simple. Beetroot, onions, watermelon peel, pitted fruit, asparagus, cabbage and many other potentials are steeped – separately and sorted by kind and variety, of course – in cold brine with a salt concentration of about 6%. They’re carefully weighted down so that they’re completely immersed and don’t come into any contact with air. Then it’s simply the good microorganisms who do their job, breaking down the sugar into lactic acid, while the salt gets rid of the bad bacteria. Unlike all the others, the bacteria in lactic acid are resistant to salt and can work in the brine. They live nearly everywhere within the fruit and vegetable, so starter cultures are not absolutely necessary. However, sometimes sugar, honey or even grated pears are used to provide the microorganisms with extra nutrients.
Usually the fermenting foodstuff and the brine are kept in tall crocks with a water-filled groove. The lid rests in the water and keeps the pot closed air-tight, but gases developing during fermentation can still escape. Depending on the external temperature, the typical taste of anything fermented in lactic acid develops a few days later. The easiest way to describe it is “sauerkraut-like”, even though this label doesn’t cover it all by any means. During the fermented foods’ storage – traditionally in a cool cellar, now more likely vacuum-packed in a cold store – the flavours continue to develop, often becoming more rounded and full-bodied, but sometimes spicier and sharper. Let yourself be surprised.
Fermenting is more than just a method. One group of supporters led by American guru Sandor Katz views it as promising health and healing. They see it as a tool to free humanity from large conglom-erates and their empty, dead non-foods that don’t support life but make children sick quicker because they no longer develop an immune system. It could make us independent from power cuts and other apocalyptic scenarios, as you don’t need electricity for fermentation and, in most cases, for storage. Katz claims that eating fermented foods and trusting in microorganisms again rather than demonising these tiny creatures is the only way of reining in the ram-pant rise in allergies.
As far as he is concerned, our current phobia of bacteria is absurd: after all, they were used for centuries in the preservation of foods – keyword sauerkraut. We should view life as a side-by-side existence of humans and microbes, and regard those as important, capable partners, Katz postulates with almost religious zeal. In his book The Art of Fermentation, considered the bible of fermenting, he even quotes one of his apos-tles: “May you nourish me as I nourish you.” For other culinary thinkers fermentation is more a philosophy. You could use it to turn seasonality on its head, putting asparagus in the crockpot in spring but serving it in autumn alongside chestnuts and pumpkins as a refreshing and crunchy surprise. Greengages could be fermented in the summer and put on the table during an otherwise dull time when only root vegetables are available. In addition, the nuances between the raw original product and its fermented form are ideal for playing with subtle flavours. For example, the beetroot could present in many variations: raw, boiled or oven-roasted; fermented for a short time and raw or roasted; long-term fermented and cooked, or not. The juice produced in the fermentation process can also be used. With its syrupy texture, this elixir exudes an awesome shade of magenta never before seen in beetroot.
May you nourish me as I nourish you.
Quote from “The Art of Fermentation”
Some gastronomical professionals find the fine line between decomposition and putrefaction highly thrilling, although some guests might balk at the idea. Another refreshing contrast to highly developed culinary technologies is the limited influence of humans. While you can try to monitor the process with starter cultures, painstaking hygiene and closely checked temperatures, you still won’t have total control over the microorganisms in the crock and the final results. Apply another method instead: laissez- faire. Take care of the surrounding conditions and leave the micro- organisms to it. Have faith, and good things will come to you.
Rare vegetable varieties, the taste of tomorrow and cooking for a better world: Stories of tradition and the future of gastronomy.
The articles can be found in the current 'S-Magazine'. Every four months you can find new stories here.