Most of us tend to view the world of microbes with some suspicion, convinced that these bugs can do us harm or make us unwell, in fact there is a whole world of beneficial organisms out there that can help us unlock additional nourishment from our food, and at the same time populate us with ‘probiotics’. Thinking about the foods and drinks we value for their taste and beneficial qualities – wine, sourdough bread, yogurt, olives, blue cheeses, to name but few – all these are created or processed with the help of the ‘good bugs’, without which many gourmet foods would simply not exist.
Almost all the traditional cultures of the world have learned independently to ferment vegetables – the French have a fermented cabbage known as ‘choucroute’, the same spoken in German is ‘sauerkraut'; right through Asia including China, Vietnam, Japan, Korea and Malaysia they make ferments called kimchi, traditionally eaten with every meal. This lactobacillus fermentation process not only preserves the food in its raw state, makes it more digestible, but also endows it with extra nutrients and vitamins over and above that found in the original raw food. The explorer, Captain Cook, understood the benefits of fermented foods; in the 1770’s he took 60 barrels of sauerkraut on a voyage that lasted over two years, and returned with all his crew free of scurvy, the deficiency disease that previously decimated ship’s crews on circumnavigations.
Many of the vegetables that we might have in storage from last summer are still perfect for fermenting – red cabbage, carrots, onions, turnips, celeriac, winter radish and beetroot – will all produce tangy, nutritious additions to meals. Fermented veg are used as a condiment, in the way that a small amount of chutney might accompany cold meat or a salad, rather than eaten by the plate full. The taste of them is sharp, fresh and ‘grown up'; those with a very sweet tooth might find them an acquired taste, so if you always prefer the dessert trolley to the cheese board they may not be for you!
A great introduction to the world of fermentation is Sandor Katz’ book ‘Wild Fermentation’. This video is a talk given by him outlining basic principles:
I recently made up a jar of Cortido, the South American version of fermented cabbage, using up some of my stored vegetables in the process, and transforming them into something rather exciting! The recipe I used is from Sally Fallon’s very good book ‘Nourishing Traditions’, and her full recipe can be found online here.
Although ferments can be started without using whey, I find the results are much more predictable if the mix is inoculated with whey. Whey? This is the slightly cloudy, yellowish liquid that can be strained out of liquid dairy products – easiest to make at home by buying a carton of plain ‘bio live’ organic yogurt and straining it using double-folded butter muslin, or a coffee filter, placed in a sieve over a container. The whey will slowly drip through, leaving you with ‘yogurt cheese’ in the filter. Whey keeps for months in a closed jar in the refrigerator.
After the fermentation period is complete, the vegetables can be eaten straight away, but taste much better after a month or two of storage – they become more mellow and flavourful with the passage of time. Just leave them somewhere cool, or if your house is too warm, then the top shelf of the fridge will be fine.
One of my favourite ferments is carrot and ginger — easy and tasty for those trying this clever technique for the first time.