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.
Get your own cabbage crop off to the best start by first heading over to our brassica hub page, find links to all you need to grow your own leafy greens.
Phillippa Lambert is a landscape designer based on the Isle of Wight at a unique site in the Undercliff of the Island — a favoured microclimate sheltered by enormous south facing cliffs. In 2002 Phillippa and Stephen Lambert came across the ‘lost’ gardens of a Victorian mansion dating back to the 1820s, managed to acquire part of the site, including the walled garden and ornamental lake, and have since worked on their restoration. The result is not an ‘expert’ garden and does not try for technical perfection in any sense. ‘Make do and mend’ is the keynote — most plants being raised from seed or cuttings— and self-sufficiency is the motivation for all the growing in the walled garden. In essence, this site goes back to the philosophy of ancient gardens in sustaining the body as well as the soul. Read more at Lakehouse Design.
Great article Phillippa. My first vegetable ferment was carrot, ginger and onions and it was really tasty. To begin with it seemed too salty, but after a day or two that saltiness just seems to disappear. Thanks for the inspiration. The ‘whey’ to go for improved digestion and immunity!!
Very interesting and will also be trying this – look forward to trying it
What a very interesting subject. I really enjoyed reading your article Phillipa ,it is very clearly written and has inspired me to try. I will take your advice and as a novice will start fermenting carrot and ginger first. I look forward to reading more from you.
Many thanks, Anna, for your kind words! Carrot and Ginger is a real winner for a first time ferment — good luck with that.
As always, Phillippa is interesting, innovative and inspiring. Having never thought of fermented vegetables before I can’t wait to have a go.
Harriet — very pleased to hear you are inspired to give fermenting a try. There are so many interesting ways to incorporate fermentation into foods — a whole world awaits!
A great article Phillippa, highlighting a very important subject.
Particularly at a time when food is becoming more sterile, and we are increasingly ingesting antibacterial and anti fungal agents, it is time to take matters into our hands and get fermenting!
Although it can be a bit daunting to begin, it is well worth investing a bit of effort for the sake of our long term health and well being. I would highly recommend both books you mentioned as a fun and accessible way to get started!
Apart from my great sourdough love, we have fermenting as we speak, red cabbage, kimchi, ginger beer, horseradish, lemons, carrot and ginger! Watered down honey will spontaneously ferment and that is what we use to get all these wonderful things started, although as you say, things eventually ferment quite happily on their own.
Thank you, Annie, you really are an expert! Your very interesting response gives an idea of just how extensive and important fermentation can be. Sounds like your kitchen is full of exciting jars!
A very interesting article, thank you!
Phillipa — very pleased you enjoyed the article!
I found this article extremely interesting, having tried making various chutneys and jams, this opens up a whole new world for using up those surplus vegetables from the autumn. Inspiring!!! Will certainly give it a go!
Gillian — pleased to hear you are inspired to try out some fermenting! It really is an easy and cheap way to make something unusual and nourishing — especially if you have spare vegetables you have grown at home.