11th August 2016
Interview: Killian Fox
Illustration: Tim Laing
Everybody is eating products of fermentation every day. Most people in our modern, post-industrial societies aren’t necessarily thinking about it, but if you eat bread, chocolate or cheese, or drink beer or wine, you’re consuming something fermented.
I don’t necessarily eat more fermented things than other people. But I probably eat a greater variation – less bread, more live-culture foods. I’m trying different things all the time.
As a child in New York I was drawn to the flavour of fermented foods. I loved sour pickles, but it was something we bought, not something that anyone in my family was making.
What really got me into fermentation was moving from New York City to rural Tennessee over 20 years ago. I started keeping a garden. Naively I didn’t realise all my cabbages would all be ready at the same time. Faced with a cabbage glut, I decided I’d better figure out how to make sauerkraut. I’ve been making it ever since.
I’ll eat sauerkraut with almost anything. Any kind of sandwich. Also tortillas, quesadilla or scrambled eggs. Whatever I eat, I’ll have a little dollop – it adds a little moisture or flavour to what might be bland or dry.
I always recommend fermenting vegetables as a starting point. It’s extremely safe and incredibly easy. The basic sauerkraut is just chopped cabbage with salt, but you can use almost any kind of vegetable. Mix it up and add it to a kilner jar. You can start tasting it after four or five days. If you think it’s as sour as it needs to be, put it into the fridge – that will slow down the fermentation process. It’s so delicious, so versatile and supportive of good health. It has everything to recommend it.
I’ve tried the stinky tofu in Hong Kong, and I rather enjoyed it. A lot of things that are challenging for the Western palate, I like
The fear that bacteria are bad for us is a gross oversimplification. Of course bacteria can cause problems. But all life – including us – is descended from bacteria, and we are utterly dependent on them. Our bodies contain more bacteria cells than cells with our individual DNA code. In order to thrive, we need to start embracing bacteria. And I would argue that traditional fermented foods offer the best, most bio-diverse bacterial stimulation.
My set-up at home is pretty humble – I just have a garden and a small kitchen. The more elaborate fermenting happens in my workshop. But I always have ferments going at home: a sourdough that I use to make pancakes, a yoghurt culture that I’ve had going for a few years, sauerkraut, some miso crocks. Most of the things I do can be done in a pretty standard kitchen.
Until the age of refrigeration, fermentation was essential to meat and fish. The modern style of sushi that has become popular around the world is only possible with a fridge. Traditionally sushi was fish fermented in a bed of rice, which provides the carbohydrates which produce the acids which enable the fish to be well-preserved.
The fresh milk we grew up with is a 20th-century phenomenon. Historically everyone outside the farm where the animals were being milked was drinking sour milk.
There are a lot of notorious ferments I haven’t tried yet: fish in the Arctic that’s fermented in a pit until it decomposes to the texture of cheese, or Icelandic fermented shark. But I have tried the Swedish surströmming1, and the stinky tofu in Hong Kong, and I rather enjoyed them. I love natto too. A lot of things that are challenging for the Western palate, I like.
The flavours of fermentation tend to be acquired tastes. Nobody’s born loving beer or cheese. I always ask my audiences how many agree with the statement, “The further away I can smell the cheese, the more excited I am to taste it”. And always, even among a group interested in fermentation, less than half of the people raise their hands. But the people who learn to love these flavours get really, really passionate about them.
Fermentation is definitely experiencing newfound popularity in the West. But one of the most interesting things for me is listening to immigrants talking about ferments from home, some of which are just the everyday way that people handle their food. After we talk, they go call their aunt in the old country and ask for detailed information about how it’s made.
Why is it important to practice fermentation? Because we’ve allowed our food to become decontextualized, biologically and geographically, and we need to reconnect. Obviously there were decades in the 20th century when people were thrilled to work less for their food and buy everything they needed in one store and not have to spend a lot of time in the kitchen – I totally recognise the benefits and liberation of that. But I think people are starting to recognise what we’ve lost. We’re producing food that is nutritionally diminished by methods that are environmentally destructive, and our economic bases have been decimated by that process. Many people are eager to grow food themselves, support local agriculture, restore a sense of seasonality to what they eat. Part of that is familiarising yourself with fermentation: the processes by which food is transformed from the raw food products of agriculture to what people actually eat. It’s not that I think everybody has to ferment everything for themselves; it’s that fermentation is a critical piece of this recontextualisation of food, which many people are very interested in.
You can ferment in the city. You can make yoghurt in a tiny urban apartment. I hear from college students all the time who are making sauerkraut in dormitories where they don’t even have a kitchen. So it’s possible for anybody with the interest to incorporate some fermentation practice into their life – you certainly don’t need to abandon the city and move to the farm to do so.
For more information on Sandor Katz, visit his website
Follow Sandor: Twitter
Original photograph by Jacqueline Schlossman
Adventures in Whisky – The spirits writer Dave Broom on his whisky epiphany, uncovering the secrets of the industry and the joys of mixing Lagavulin and Coke. Bonus: he picks 9 favourite bottles from his incredible spirits "library"
Adventures In Vegetables – The revered Irish chef Denis Cotter on the challenges of setting up a vegetarian restaurant, the freedoms of meat-free cooking, and how his food has become less "shouty" with age
Adventures in Knives – Food writer and restaurateur Tim Hayward on the weird symbiosis between human and blade that inspired him to write a book about knives
Adventures in Charcuterie – Illtud Llyr Dunsford of Charcutier Ltd on life as a Welsh pig expert, why beer is great for bacon and his ideal British charcuterie board