The first time I met the fermentation guru Sandor Katz, I thought: "Wow, this guy is the healthiest looking dude I have ever seen!"
Which was kind of amazing, given that he was supposed to be dead.
But Katz was far from dead, and was more alive than anyone in the room, despite having been diagnosed as HIV positive many years before.
His healthfulness can be summed up in one great big word – ecoimmunonutrition.
Sure, it’s a mouthful, and a syntactical trainwreck all in one. But it’s a term that’s simple to understand, and one that is important as we face into a Winter of Discontent brought on by the threat of the Australian flu bugs that have laid low the health services of that country: A (H3N2) and B.
The flu vaccine designed to combat these two types of influenza has been shown to be relatively ineffectual and, combined with a shortage of acute care beds in our hospitals, we are looking at a big healthcare double whammy.
Which is where ecoimmunonutrition comes in. As Katz writes, our bodies’ immune function “occurs in the context of an ecology, an ecosystem of different microbial cultures, and that it is possible to build and develop that cultural ecology in oneself through diet”.
You can put it this way: feed the good bugs in your body, and they will fight off the bad bugs. And that’s the way to stay well, and stay out of the A&E, through the looming Winter of Discontent.
As a leading authority on fermentation, Katz of course recommends that we eat lots of fermented foods, to make sure the microflora in our gut are fighting fit.
We need sauerkraut, and kimchi, and bowls of good miso soup. Lots of natural yogurt will help – not the commercial sweetened versions – and if you strain the yogurt to make labneh to have with your Ottolenghi recipe, then save the whey and add it to chopped beetroot to make kvass.
The effectiveness of these good gut foods can be seen in Korea. Despite the worst recorded levels of avian flu infestations at poultry farms, Korea hasn’t seen any human deaths or infection from avian flu. All that kimchi has given the people the ecoimmunonutrition they need to stay healthy.
So, let’s remember that we are faced with an unprecedented threat this winter – the Hurricane Ophelia for our Health Service – so how can we step up our immune system?
The answer is to turn to those superfoods that armour-plate our system: ginger; turmeric; bone broth; cider vinegar; garlic; seaweeds.
Sally Fallon adds grated ginger, lemon juice, chilli flakes and coconut milk to chicken broth, a real belter of Jewish penicillin. In her book, Fresh India, Meera Sodha describes her grandmother's ginger pieces, where matchsticks of fresh, peeled ginger are rubbed with salt, turmeric and lemon juice, marinated then drained and dried for a few days in a warm place. When you feel a cold coming on, just reach for a ginger piece.
In her masterly book, The Cultured Club, the Irish fermentation guru Dearbhla Reynolds brings all these miracle workers together in her Master Tonic.
Ms Reynolds fills a kilner jar with grated ginger, a bulb of peeled and chopped garlic, a diced onion, 4 jalapeno chillies and 4 scotch bonnet chilies, and some freshly grated horseradish. She covers them in kombucha vinegar, lets it sit for a fortnight, then strains it, and sips it “when you feel the sniffles coming on”.
The sniffles never had a chance.
- John McKenna is editor at guides.ie