Fermentation heralds from ancient traditions the world over, and, used in the production of alcohols, sourdoughs, yogurts, cheeses, miso and a host of lesser known foods, it remains a fairly common part of our everyday diet. As to the lacto-fermentation of vegetables, it is best-known in Europe in the too-often-dismissed form of sauerkraut. Before you turn your gaze away in festering disgust, I beg you to look again on this sour cabbage, which has too long mouldered in the cupboards of pungent Northern European cuisine. Today, nutritionally, ethically and ecologically, lacto-fermentation is proving to be the edgiest in food thinking (and a great way of dealing with garden gluts.
Lacto-fermentation preserves vegetables in an environment of living cultures. These good bacteria are known as lactobacilli, they break the vegetables’ nutrients into more digestible forms, thus facilitating their assimilation, remove toxins and increase (yup!) vitamin levels, all whilst conserving the vegetables in a raw state. And, you can try this at home!
The lacto-fermenters of this world suggest that a diet in which everything is bacteria free and pasteurised starves our intestinal flora of the necessary nourishment, making us more susceptible to disease. Acknowledging that certain bacteria are very important for the functioning of the immune system and also provide competition for heavier, more potent bacteria, we can begin to dispel these current hygiene frenzy myths. Indeed, barrels of sauerkraut onboard ships saved sailors from the recurrent sea-disease, scurvy. And, the process of lacto-fermentation, as opposed to pickling and pasteurizing, by using living cultures keeps vegetables crunchy, sharp and alive over the winter months. What offers more delight than, in deep winter when barely a leek is standing in the garden, levering the lid of one of your fermented pots to let the smell of sparky summer vegetables pervade the room.
When fermenting, I refer to two excellent writers, perfect opposites, they are perfect complements. The first is highly practical Scandinavian Annelies Schöneck. Hers is a deep technical knowledge, and she tends to offer an introduction reminiscent of science lessons, followed by step by step fermentation recipes. She has at least a couple of books that have been translated into English: Making Sauerkraut and Pickled Vegetables at Home: Creative Recipes for Lactic-Fermented Food to improve your health and The cultured cabbage. Vaguely retro, you might just spot their faded covers on the bookshelves of your local charity shop.
At the other extreme is a startling book by Sandor Ellix Katz, called Wild Fermentation. Quite as wild as the title suggests, Katz looks at fermentation as a means of revolt amidst a mainstream culture of mass produced, plastic packaged foods. With sections entitled: Cultural homogenization; Fermented stimulants and the rise of globalization; Resisting the commodification of culture; his book outlines how “we can merge appetite with activism and choose to involve ourselves in food as cocreators”. Wild Fermentation is an extraordinary, lucid food process, a recipe book which is less about quantities and ingredients, but about concepts, methods and practice.
Katz’s lesson is important, that the consumption of live foods offers a spiritual and practical interaction, interdependence and interconnection with the surrounding life forces. Lacto-fermentation shifts the food process from the near passive consuming of long dead food, to a creative, transformative action, from one of decomposition and decay to one of life, reproduction and transformation.
On a more practical level, lacto-fermentation manages to preserve vegetables without the use of freezers, canners, without pasteurizing or heating, simply by placing them in conditions that encourage the production of lactic-acid bacteria (lactobacilli), this natural preservative that inhibits the production of other bacteria. These conditions are Anaerobic and demand Pressure, a Catalyst and Salt. As with all food, the best results will be obtained with the best ingredients, so a wild sea-salt (such as Sel de Guérande) a pure unfiltered water or natural spring water and of course the freshest vegetables.
The catalyst is usually already present in vegetables, for example in the organisms on the cabbage leaves. However, to ensure a good outcome, I tend to use a supplementary catalyst. This can be blackcurrant (or gooseberry, raspberry or similar) leaves, which are high in lactic acid bacteria, and have their own sweet, subtle yet unmistakeable flavour. Whey can also be used, I make it straining yogurt or separating milk.
Although there are beautiful ceramic crocks made for the purpose, with a water airlock system, these are expensive (keep an eye open in flea markets). Kilner jars are likewise good fermentation apparatus, and can be found cheap on markets, however, do get hold of new rubber seals...
Otherwise, a bucket will do.
For a one gallon bucket of sauerkraut:
Roughly 5lb cabbage, 3tbsp sea salt, ¼ pt whey and/or 12 blackcurrant leaves.
Chop or grate cabbage. Pack it into bucket layering it with salt, blackcurrant leaves or whey and other ingredients of your choosing (chopped apples, turnip, horseradish, rocket, caraway seeds, juniper...), pushing down with your fists, kitchen implement or feet as you go. This (pressure) and the salt will help force water from cabbage, to create the brine in which the cabbage will ferment. Once bucket is full put a snugly fitting plate on top and weigh it down with a clean weight (i.e. a large stone you have washed). Cover the whole thing with a cloth. Leave for three or so days at warmish room temperature to get fermentation going, then move to cooler place and allow to ferment slowly. Don’t be afraid to check on it regularly, touching, tasting, noticing changes in consistency... mould may appear on the top, scrape it off, the kraut underneath will be fine, the white substance is lactobacilli... Leave at least three weeks, before digging in... Sauerkraut improves with age!
For a jar of lacto-fermented French beans:
Chop young French beans (roughly 1lb) and push into jar (1 pt), layering with salt (1/2tbsp), blackcurrant leaves (or spoonful of whey) and flavourings of choice (onion, garlic, dill heads, mustard seed, tomatoes...) Put on pressure and add more beans until jar is full and can take no more, cover with water, pressure again and fix lid. 3 days room temp, might start bubbling, then move to cool dark place for at least three weeks. Store until needed, open and enjoy!
This recipe for beans will suit most vegetables, some (such as cabbage, beetroot) will produce their own liquid under pressure, and you probably won’t need to add any water. Always make sure the top layer of vegetables remains under the water, you can use a weight of sorts, as this creates the necessary anaerobic conditions. The amount of salt will affect the speed of fermentation and the length of time the vegetables will remain preserved for, I estimate between ½ - 1 tbsp per pint jar of vegetables.
Lacto-fermentation is experimental, success or failure is bound up in a symphony of tiny details. A serious stench will warn you if things have gone bad. Keep an eye on the developments, test according to your singular tastes, and this curiosity will in its turn allow you to adventure further... Once you have the basics you can experiment, last summer, as well as the staple sauerkrauts and French beans, we had buckets of cucumbers bubbling all over, a pile of delicious carrot kimchi (using chillies, ginger and spices), jars of broad beans (ours were foul, as was our kale!), lacto-fermented beetroot, courgettes, seaweed...
Serve these bright crunchy veggies simply with rice, mix into a potato salad, for breakfast with kippers, amuse-bouche or as a tangy side. You can use the remaining juice as a starter for your next batch of lacto-fermented veggies, or drink it for a serious health-boost.
Fermentation is not only a highly practical skill in this peak-oil era, but is a domain for the curious and those keen to approach food in a more ethical manner. Encouraging a slight deviation in one’s mindset one can begin to experiment with what is growing around us, our climate and living conditions. So, why not reconsider that sour cabbage and join in this latest food frenzy!
Come participate in a cultural revolution! Wild fermentation is a way of incorporating the wild into your body, becoming one with the natural world. Wild foods possess a great, unmediated life force which can help us adapt to shifting conditions and lower our susceptibility to disease. These microorganisms are everywhere and the techniques for fermenting with them are simple and flexible.” Sandor Ellix Katz, Wild FermentationOlivia Heal
This article was orginally published in Permaculture Magazine, PM 64, Summer 2010. Find more articles by Olivia on her food blog: La Bonne Bouffe
Photos of lacto-fermented beans by Olivia Heal; Wild Fermentation book cover and workshop jars by Sandor Ellix Katz. http://www.wildfermentation.com/