It seems the whole culinary world is talking about fermented foods these days. You would think, from their appearance on the fashionable menus of several high profile restaurants, particularly the ‘New Nordic’ cookery establishments, that the process had been discovered only yesterday and has become the latest ‘new’ thing. But in actual fact, fermentation has been in the food repertoire of human beings for thousands of years. The definition of fermentation is a process of chemical breakdown of a substance by bacteria (primarily lactic acid bacteria), yeasts or other micro-ogranisms. For example, in the making of wine or beer, live yeasts feed off sugar to produce alcohol. Since much wine and beer was made by the monks of ancient times, it’s safe to assume they came across fermentation and it’s usefulness long before we did. (Hic!) As is pretty usual in the history of certain foods, the process of natural fermentation was employed as a way to preserve fresh foods in times of plenty, to ensure supplies in times of scarcity. Who knew it was going to become a trend?! Fermenting was just one way of making fresh food last longer. Smoking and curing were others. All these preserved specialites we see on menus today are not about discovering, but rather ‘rediscovering’ what went before. Which is no bad thing. Food heritage is important if we want to appreciate the real value of what we eat and understand why certain foods are elevated, by huge surges in popularity, to an almost ‘brand new’ culinary status.
You’ve probably eaten fermented foods without realising it, long before they ever got ‘posh’. Think Sauerkraut, which would be a fairly standard example of a fresh food (cabbage) preserved by lactic fermentation (where the lactic acid bacteria breaks down the sugars in the cabbage) in Germany and Scandinavia. Preserving vegetables this way is also popular in Eastern European cuisines. You’ve probably been shaking soy sauce over your stir fries for yonks, and if you’re into Thai cuisine, stirring shrimp paste or fish sauce into your curries. These too are examples of foods produced by fermentation, now everyday items in the cupboards of most regular home cooks. In more recent times, sourdough bread has become popular in Ireland, even though it was the traditional bread of France and Eastern Europe for centuries. Sourdough is the king of fermented breads – a purist’s loaf, made by making a ‘starter culture’ from flour and water, which is left in a warm place to ferment, then matured and fed with more flour, until it has reached a point where it can be used as the raising agent in bread making. Getting a starter culture ready to go can take anything from a few days to over a week, depending on the environment and temperature, plus quality of the flour. The best sourdough breads have a full ‘sour’ taste, made from long matured cultures. They are heady and fragrant with that distinct lactic smell – a perfectly addictive aroma! Declan Ryan of Arbutus breads has a starter culture which is now around two decades in age, fed daily with fresh flour to keep it alive and vibrant and continually maturing. No wonder his sourdough breads are soooo good! .
Records have shown that humans have been fermenting the milk of cows, buffaloes, camels, goats and sheep for centuries. It’s thought the first yogurts may well have been invented by carrying milk in goat skin bags, tied onto the backs of camels walking in desert heat. Gentle agitation from the movement and constant warm temperatures would create an ideal environment for the lactic acid bacteria in the milk to work, making a ‘soured’ drink which lasted longer than fresh milk, and had health benefits. At Glenilen Farm in West Cork, yogurt making is now a highly prized skill, and the latest additions to the range include a ‘live’ natural yogurt fortified with extra goodness from nuts and seeds Ukranian Zoologist Elie Metchnikoff (1845-1916) pioneered groundbreaking research into the immune system. During his career, the Nobel Prize winning scientist made connections between lactic acid bacteria and good gut health. It is known that Metchnikoff drank soured milk every day and produced a research paper on the potential effects of lactic acid bacteria in prolonging life, based on the longevity of the people of Bulgaria, who regularly included fermented milks in the diet.
So there you have it, a potted history, excuse the pun, of fermentation and how it came to be. Research into this subject is vast and interesting. On the health front, there seems to be much to be said for including fermented foods in the diet more regularly . Lactobacillus acidophilus and other live bacteria found in fermented foods are gut friendly and said to boost the immune system. On the pleasure front, some fermented foods may be an acquired taste! There is always an acidic note to the flavours – which can be gentle or intense, according to the recipe. Sauerkraut may not be everyone’s bowl of cabbage, but having been instructed by a German chef to heat it gently in a little melted butter, with seasoning and the addition of a couple of cracked juniper berries, this writer has enjoyed its delicious ‘bite’ with meaty sausages and even a traditional Christmas goose, German style. Fermentation has been around for millenia. It looks like it’s here to stay.