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Microbes in the kitchen

I’m always interested in what people are doing in their kitchens. Here is something new (or new for many of us: it’s actually been around for millennia).

I was in NSW last month seeing family and had a chance to attend a session at Sydney University with ‘fermento’-in-chief Sandor Katz, who travels the world from his San Francisco base spreading the word about this exciting and healthy branch of food culture. He ran a very enjoyable collaborative session. Sydney chefs brought samples of their own fermented foods for the group to sample, and there was much helpful information for beginners like myself. Fermenting porridge – porridge was once fermented for at least two days as a matter of course – breaks down the nutrients, making it more creamy and digestible, and should always be done. Soaked in water for two days, oats increase their flavour, becoming mildly umami in taste. This process is fermentation at its simplest, entry-level. More minerals in the food become nutritionally available with an alkalising effect that is excellent for people looking to reduce the acidity of their diet.

Sandor had a very quiet, open presence and was willing for people to share their stories. Mustachioed, he has fine posture, almost military bearing, and he lives on a self-proclaimed ‘fairy commune’. He brought along a hot plate, cutting boards, and a large collection of jars containing ingredients of various subtle hues – too-bright colours are warning signs of harmful rather than beneficial bacteria. Fermented rice made from a starter was passed around. This tasted medieval, with honey-roasted flavours that seemed both new and slightly familiar, unheimlich (uncanny) even, and surprisingly delicious. Millet porridge also had a richly complex flavour.

We heard stories from all over the world of unusual ways of preserving food that took advantage of seasonal gluts. In South Sea islands, custard fruit buried in pits with a small sprinkling of top soil is known as famine protection food and lasts up to 10 years. Quite a lot of fermentation sounds scary and you need to change the way you think about aged food. What was apparent is that a whole community is rebuilding knowledge about this fascinating approach to food preparation. I queried Sandor about designing or adapting kitchens for fermentation work at the end of the talk. Beyond a good sized end-grain cutting board and plenty of jars, we devised a checklist that includes different temperature zones, in particular incubation chambers that you can either build into your own furniture or buy as standalone appliances, with temperatures of 13-15 degrees for faster fermenting and 17-18 degrees for slow, hotter for Natto – but this has be done by adapting an oven. Lots of shelves would enable the watching of contents of glass jars changing state, part of your kitchen looking like an old-fashioned pharmacy store (or an edible Damien Hirst installation), with condiments brewing to add to any meal that needs a boost with umami, sweet, sour or salty flavours. I can’t wait to do this with the help of Sandor’s new book, The Art of Fermentation.

See the Guardian article by Tony Naylor on fermenting vegetables this week

Check out The Ethicurean restaurant, Bristol’s answer to Noma’s Redzepi. Fermented food is definitively on the menu.

Sandor Katz’s website - he is visiting The Wild Festival in Somerset on 4th May and Ballymaloe Literary Festival on 18th May.


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