Monday 26 January 2015

The Krunchy Kitchen

2014 was a raw year.  It began with dandelion flower beer in Spring. A gentle fizz of golden heads. In June I 'uncooked' a meal with the Happy Mondays Community Kitchen crew. We rubbed kale, filled Vietnamese lettuce 'tacos', blended almond cream, talked alchemy, wellbeing and social fermentation. The long table buzzed. Everyone wanted to do the raw thing. At our autumn Transition Free Press meeting, we had a major honey high on a summertime mead Alexis made from redcurrants and roses. Mark gave his first raw food demos at Simon's shop: sunflower seed cheese, cauliflower tabbouleh and courgetti with home-grown pesto. Then he started fermenting for real: kimchi, kraut, kvass and all manner of krunchy transformative things in jars. I'll let him tell his lively story here. Here's my rather more sober take for Future Perfect, a new storytelling project going global this year. Feel the fizz! 

Fermenting Change 

We must reclaim our food. Food is much more than simply nourishment. It embodies a complex web of relationships. It is a huge part of the context in which we exist. Reclaiming our food means actively involving ourselves in this web.” (from ‘A Cultural Revivalist Manifesto’ - Sandor Ellix Katz)

The ancient culinary craft of fermentation is bubbling back up. Revived in workshops, discussed in on-line forums, taught in community kitchens and shared in mead circles, fermentation has become one of the many ‘reskilling’ projects taking place in grassroots cultures from Europe to the US in response to economic and environmental drivers. 
Extracting nutrition via the bacteria and yeasts that live on the surfaces of food sources has traditionally enabled people all over the world  to make use of seasonal abundance for leaner times. And crucially in times of climate change without the use of fossil fuels. 

“To ferment your food,” declares food journalist, Michael Pollan, “ Is to lodge an eloquent protest – of the senses – against the homogenisation of flavours and food experiences. It’s a way of engaging with the world... a declaration of independence.” 

Because this revival is not just learning how to prep and preserve cabbage: it’s also a way for people to get their hands (literally) on another social narrative and activate a different relationship with life. It runs counter to an industrialised and passive consumer lifestyle “now rolling like a great undifferentiated lawn across the globe”. Fermentation requires time and intuition and participation in a transformative process where no two sauerkrauts will turn out the same. And it can bring people together in practical and surprising ways. 

In England members of Transition Plymouth, part of the worldwide Transition movement, meet regularly over their kitchen tables to chop vegetables: “Dried, tinned, bottled, cooked, irradiated, pasteurised, supermarket fare is predominantly dead food- deliberately made in order to ‘protect’ our health and enhance shelf life,” explains Colin Trier, one of the group's activists. “Our fermentation workshops have served many purposes: to reintroduce us to making our own live foods; bringing us together as a community exchanging recipes and skills; seeking out and sharing local sources of supply; and developing resilience through home preservation of much more than jam."  

A fermenting revivalist

Some of this revival is due to the bold maverick moves of Sandor Ellix Katz, a self-taught fermenter based in rural Tennessee, whose on-line demonstrations and guide books have grabbed the imaginations of cooks and homesteaders everywhere. In his latest book, the encyclopaedic Art of Fermentation, he documents fermentation practices around the world, capturing the voices of modern and indigenous voices as he goes, discussing everything from molecular biology to cultural history, from philosophy to health benefits.
Before refrigeration came into our houses and global supply chains most of our winter stores were salted, pickled and dried. Many of those strong compelling flavours found in European delicatessens come via fermentation: coffee, chocolate, cheese, salami, olives. Likewise the mainstays of Oriental cuisine – soy, miso and tempeh - and the whole of the world’s drinks cabinet, from African palm wine to English cider.

If you were wary of venturing into this unknown territory alone, you could not hope for a more enthralling guide than Sandor: “My advice is to reject the cult of expertise. Do not be afraid. You can do it yourself.” There is no recorded case, he assures us, of poisoning from fermented vegetables.

Because fermentation is not just another culinary fashion. In the same way baking bread or growing vegetables helps decouple us from the industrial food system, remembering these skills puts the art of production back into our own hands and brings back the meaning and joy of eating into everyday life.

Who could not be excited by the prospect of making herbal elixirs from raw honey and wild fruit, or discovering how to make South Indian dosa pancakes, or turning a garden glut of beans and beets into a colourful row of shiny bottles? The act of fermenting not only makes us aware of the living microbial world that underpins all life, but connect us to thousands of years of human hands-on knowledge and ingenuity. 

Sharing the heritage

 Fermentation is above all a creative process. Eva Bakkeslett, artist and ‘gentle activist’ from north Norway teaches ‘Living Culture’ workshops that inspire people to reconnect with the traditional skills of making kefir, yoghurt and sourdough bread:
I explore fermentation in my art practice because it reveals how a living cultural process works and shows the key ingredients we need to cultivate sustainable cultures for the future: time, conditions (warmth), nurturing and sharing, good quality materials and a touch of magic. It makes us aware that living on Earth entails a seamless sharing between species and makes it hard to define the self as an isolated entity. (from How to Be a Cultural Activist for Playing for Time)
 Eva works with heirloom microbial communities from all over the world: a yoghurt culture originating from Eastern Europe and cultivated for over 100 years in a small Jewish café in New York to an old Russian sourdough from England’s real bread campaigner, Andrew Whitley, to a kefir from the Caucasus, originally made in leather bags hung by the entrance of a house, so everyone passing would give it a knock to keep it going.

Her workshops are not just about food: they are places for social fermentation, where conversations and new perspectives can emerge and the generous, self-organising nature of sharing cultures, skills, knowledge and stories can thrive.   

A healthy practice  

Fermenting as a preservation technique has evolved, like our digestion, over thousands of years. Today one of its main attractions is a way to maintain and restore good health, often impaired by a fast, factory-processed diet. Full of enzymes and beneficial flora (some appearing in different times during the process) ferments help heal the gut wall, and see off harmful invaders. The intestine, as Katz reminds us, is the largest part of the immune system in the body. 

“Fermented foods tick all the boxes,” says London Transitioner and health writer, Gill Jacobs. “They are traditional foods, underpinned by the wisdom that comes from being passed down over time. They also run counter to our modern fixation with ‘germs’ and foods that are sterilised to help shelf life but not our bodies.” 

Where to start with ferments? Gill suggests one of the easiest is beetroot kvass,  an excellent blood tonic and liver cleanser. All you need is a large jar into which you pour 2 litres of filtered water. Add 3 medium sized organic beetroots, peeled and chopped, together with 1 tablespoon of sea salt, and a ¼ cup of whey (or you can omit the whey and double the salt). Leave out for two to three days. Transfer the strained liquid to the fridge. Start each day with a 4 oz glass.

Reclaiming these cultures is beneficial both for people and the planet as refrigeration, the modern fossil-fuelled source of preservation, intensifies. In China, where fermentation has its ancestral roots, industrial refrigeration is transforming a diverse vernacular food culture into the supermarket and distributor hub model that dominates global markets. 

This is not good news for climate change. Cooling is already responsible for 15 percent of all electricity consumption worldwide, and leaks of chemical refrigerants are a major source of greenhouse-gas pollution. If current trends in refrigerant use continue, experts predict that hydro fluorocarbons will be responsible for almost half of all global emissions by 2050.
Time to get out the pickle jar! 

The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz is published by Chelsea Green

Images: dandelion flowers ready for beer making (Mark Watson); klass on kimchi making with Sandor Ellix Katz (Wild Fermentation); Eva Bakkeslett's workshop on making viili in Finland; Mark's red cabbage and pear kimchi and fermented pumpkin; Now rub your kale! Norman's stall, Southwold (MW)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks. Such a LOAD of useful information! I hope to try some of the things here in late summer/early fall.