A cultured approach to bacteria
Fermented food has not played a large part in our diet but we need it for healthy bacteria
BACK IN the day, when HEALTHplus was called the Health Supplement, and came in broadsheet size, one of the paper’s early contributors was a guy called Haydn Shaughnessy. Mr Shaughnessy covered a lot of health-related topics, but there was one that he could never keep away from for very long: why have we Irish so little fermented food in our diets? Where is our sauerkraut? Where is our kefir? Where is our miso? Mr Shaughnessy asked, and kept on asking.
Okay, so there is a bit of buttermilk floating around for our soda bread, but who drinks the stuff these days? And how often can you get the real deal, and not just some facsimile? And don’t talk about yogurt, because it’s so loaded with sugar that it doesn’t do what a cultured product is supposed to.
Like many thinkers and artists, Mr Shaughnessy was ahead of his time. Way ahead of his time.
If he was writing for HEALTHplus today, he could dip into the hottest new cookery book from the world’s hippest chef – Magnus Nilsson of Sweden’s Fäviken restaurant – and point to any number of recipes, such as “Fermented paste of pulses”, or “Grains and grain vinegar, steamed and pickled onions, fermented carrots and almost-raw kale juice” and say: “See, told you this stuff would have its day.”
He could dig out recent editions of The New York Times and find articles on Manhattan’s artisan pickle producers, and fancy restaurants serving smoked herring Caesar salad.
Above all, he could haul out a copy of The Art of Fermentation, a magnum opus by Sandor Ellix Katz and justifiably say: “Was I right? Or was I right?”
Mr Shaughnessy was dead right, and the rise of interest in fermented foods is a very, very good thing for our eating habits. Above all, though, the interest in fermenting is very, very good news, for our health.
Why so? As Katz writes: “Fermentation is the transformation of food by various bacteria, fungi, and the enzymes they produce.”
Our bodies need these bacteria – they outnumber the cells of our unique DNA by 10 to 1 and most of them live and work in our intestines – and yet, for more than a century, we have in effect been waging war on bacteria, we have been fighting against the very thing that enables us to exist.
As Katz says: “We’ve heard for a decade about the War on Terror, and for two decades before that about the War on Drugs. Although it rarely gets named as such, the War on Bacteria is much older than either of these, and over the past generations it has indoctrinated almost everyone.”
We have co-evolved with, and because of, bacteria and, if we want to have lots of healthy bacteria keeping us healthy, then we can do something simple: ferment our foods.
Now you can take fermentation very seriously, and start to make your own kimchi and sauerkraut, bake your own sourdough bread, brine your own olives. But, there are easier ways.
Katz writes vividly about wandering through “Zabars, a New York city gourmet food wonderland I have visited since early childhood.” All around are the fermented foods: cured olives; vinegars; farmhouse cheeses; breads; salamis and pastramis; chocolate and coffee; wine and beer; and soy sauce.
In reality, fermented foods are common to every human culinary culture. Indeed, they go further than the culinary culture: in the Catholic church, the doctrine of transubstantiation is centred on bread and wine, both fermented. And we use the same word – culture – to describe the bacteria that turns milk into yogurts or cheeses as we do to describe the very things that make us human – music, art, language, literature, spirituality, faith.
A simple way to begin your fermentation journey is to do something you may already be doing: if you soak the morning’s porridge the night before, then you are essentially fermenting your oatmeal, making the nutrients more available, enhancing the digestibility, and improving the taste.
So, let’s raise a glass to toast visionaries such as Mr Shaughnessy and Mr Katz. I’ll have some cheese with my beer, and you nibble some olives with your wine. And we can call ourselves truly cultured.
The Art of Fermentation, by Sandor Ellix Katz (Chelsea Green Publishing) chelseagreen.com
JOHN McKENNAis author of The Irish Food Guide: guides.ie