Throughout known history, virtually every society ate, drank and enjoyed fermented foods. From this, regional flavors and techniques gradually developed into a large array of enjoyable, low-‐tech delicacies. This gives a cornucopia to explore of easy to preserve delights that you can make in your own kitchen.
When you go out to ethnic restaurants have you ever noticed that many cuisines serve fermented foods with their meals? In Asian cuisine, you find small dishes of pickled vegetables or spicy Kim chi; in Indian cuisine, you can enjoy fabulous chutney or lentil dosa; from the Mediterranean, an aromatic herbal beverage after the meal.
Fermented foods and beverages are delectable players in the overall dance of flavors, textures, and tastes of a meal. But it doesn’t stop there. Fermented food plays a valuable role in the digestion of a meal and subsequent health of our digestive system. Fermentation makes those foods more digestible and therefore more nutritious. It is just a great bonus that fermented foods also taste fabulous.
Best of all, it is pretty difficult to get food poisoning from wrongly fermented foods. If the food goes ‘bad,’ it smells that way and you won’t want to eat it. Another experiment feeds the compost pile!
The origin of fermentation is lost in antiquity, but most likely these first fermentations were happy accidents that made some foods taste better and keep longer. It didn’t take long for our ancestors to learn how to seduce these various microorganisms into playing a role in their cuisine.
Yes, fermentation is the employ of microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, and molds) primarily acting on the carbohydrate (sugar) content of food. This process breaks down food, giving off gases and producing beneficial acids and/or alcohol, providing yogurts, kefirs, cheeses, breads, sausages, ales, wines, beers, pickles, olives, sauerkrauts and many other delicacies to the world’s epicurean delights. Think of these microorganisms as super industrious workers that do most of our ‘cooking’ for us, while we do other projects. They are kind of like the elves in the shoemaker’s workshop that make all the shoes while the shoemaker is sleeping. They are not that different than the bee pollinating large parts of our crops, contributing an immeasurable amounts to human food productions.
Ferment comes from the Latin root fervere, which means: “to boil”. Fermentation is definitely one of the world oldest food preservation methods. We see the art of fermenting in pre-‐ Vedic India over 5,000 years ago, in the Indus Valley during the Harappan spread. By this time agriculture and animal husbandry was already highly developed. The Veda (sacred Hindu writings) mention curded and fermented food in many locations. In ancient Egypt and the Middle East we see many artifacts related to fermenting. We even see evidence of ancient use of fermentation in the Americas.
We can see many crossovers between cultures and regions of the world in the realms of fermentation. Where a fermented food started from is not always straightforward. A good example is sauerkraut, or fermented cabbage. The name comes from the German words sauer (meaning sour) and kraut (meaning herb), giving most of us the impression that its origin is German. But in fact cabbage was fermented more than 2000 years ago in China. It was a staple food for workers contributing to the Great Wall of China. A thousand years later, Genghis Khan employed it as a good transportable food, bringing it to Eastern Europe during his invasions. The European peasants co-‐opted it, finding it an enjoyable way to preserve their crops for the winter.
Sailors often took barrels of sauerkraut on long sea voyages, as it was known to prevent scurvy, a Vitamin C deficiency. Eventually sauerkraut came to the Americas and became a traditional part of farm life, as homesteaders turned their cabbage crops into sauerkraut, effectively preserving them for winter. We still carry out that tradition on our farm, enjoying an abundance of freshly fermented cabbage through the year.
We can see similar stories for yogurt, kefir and cheeses. In the Middle East, nomads would fill canteens (usually made from animal stomachs) with milk. The canteen stomachs contained an enzyme called rennin, which coagulated, or curdled, the milk. When they opened their canteens they found cheese, as the rennin, plus the bumpy journey had turned the contents into primitive cheese. Of course they learned to repeat this process, as it too was a tasty way to preserve milk for future use.
In Northern Europe we find locals incorporating grains, fruits and honey into their own styles of beers, ales, ciders, and meads. In South America we see chicha, each with their local variety of various fermented corn beverages. The Maya created pozol, a fermented corn dough. In Russia you can find kvass, a commonly consumed drink that is prepared in a few days from stale bread or beets.
In the next few blogs, we will share more detail about health benefits and recipes. . . .
Or maybe take a Fermentation course with a special discount.