In a pickle: the guru of food fermentation strikes again
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I have finally got into fermenting. Not sourdough bread. I have resisted making that. But I have been pickling cucumbers, preserving lemons and producing gallons of yoghurt, including a batch of viili, a Finnish heirloom yoghurt that cultures at room temperature and contains the fungus geotrichum candidum that is found in brie. Sure enough, it tastes like brie. My most successful attempt has been a mixed-cabbage sauerkraut that started out white, green and purple and turned magenta within a month. It tasted sour and acidic, and I ate it with everything. Least successful were the blueberries I tossed in salt and left for a week, according to a recipe in The Noma Guide to Fermentation. The resulting fruit were pungently salty, boozy and not my thing at all. Next time I’ll eat the blueberries fresh.
When it comes to fermentation – the process by which foodstuffs and beverages are transformed by bacteria, yeast or other microorganisms – these were beginner-level efforts compared to the cultures being tended by “fermentation revivalist” Sandor Katz at his home in Tennessee. As well as the yoghurt, sauerkraut and kimchi that make up his core repertoire, the bestselling author of Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation has the following on the go: a Shoyu soy sauce that’s a little over a year old and requires daily stirring to prevent the build-up of putrefying bacteria; a Sichuan doubanjiang of fava beans and chilli peppers that is “rich, earthy, spicy and bright red, like miso meets chilli sauce”; and a Turkish wheat-and-yoghurt tarhana, which he kneads on a daily basis before drying in the sun to turn into flavoured crumbs.
Katz wants to champion the power of fermentation to deepen flavours and enrich palates, but he also wants people to think about it in broader terms. In addition to the health benefits of foods rich in probiotics, there are social and ecological implications too. Katz sees fermentation as part of a larger revolution, a way for individuals and communities to shake off their reliance on a system of mass food production that is “polluting, resource-depleting and wasteful” and “de-skills and disempowers”. By educating us about food and reconnecting us with our environment, fermentation is more than just a way of doing things, it’s a way of seeing things.
In his new book Fermentation as Metaphor, Katz takes that one step further, making analogies between fermentation and politics, race and gender, among other things. I found some of his suppositions hard to swallow. Movements may be said to “ferment” but is the connection between social or political change and fermentation anything but superficial? Can you gain a deeper understanding of xenophobia, say, by looking at the issue of purity and contamination in food? Perhaps you can, judging by how irrationally freaked out I was to find mould growing on my sauerkraut. Fear of foreign bodies is actually something Katz gets asked about constantly: “People say, ‘I made sauerkraut, I followed your directions and suddenly I have all this anxiety. How do I know I have good bacteria growing in the jar and not something dangerous that might kill me?’” To which Katz replies, “If that happens, you will at least end up in the history books because it’s unprecedented.” As long as the vegetables are submerged, the salinity will ensure any unfriendly bacteria is destroyed.
Katz is most compelling on what he calls our war on bacteria and viruses. Quoting anthropologist Heather Paxson, he writes: “‘Taming nature through forceful eradication’ seems like a losing microbiopolitical strategy… The fantasy of purity is a futile pursuit.” We were taught to fear bacteria. Now we know many are beneficial. Notwithstanding our efforts to manage Covid-19, Katz suggests we need a more nuanced approach to viruses. After all, the most common type (phages) actually attack bacteria and help save lives.
As with any food, though, it’s best not to let the big picture occlude the small pleasures. Fermentation is like gardening. It requires patience, care and surrendering to nature. But “don’t be afraid to play”, says Katz. He suggests experimenting with grain ferments such as Afro-Brazilian acarajé (from black-eyed peas); branching out from kombucha to make Caribbean mauby (from the bark of the mauby tree); and swapping cabbage for other vegetables in sauerkraut. “The best sauerkraut I ever made was from ramsons [wild garlic],” he recalls. “It produced a beautifully balanced flavour almost like caramelised onions. Sadly, I don’t have it any more. It’s just a memory. But I do have some juice left, which I’m rationing and sometimes use in dressing. It’s the most wonderful flavour resource.”
Fermentation as Metaphor by Sandor Ellix Katz (Chelsea Green Publishing, $25).