EATING WELL: More people are buying US-style 'super fridges'. But growing reliance on refrigeration is destroying our healthy relationship with bacteria, argues Haydn Shaughnessy.who says 'bring on the pickled cabbage'
The iceman, as in he who cometh, used to be commonplace - one of the practicalities of pre-refrigerated life - delivering ice to the wealthy home. We commemorate icemen in horror flicks now, a cultural bogey that obscures the fascinating journey, through the 20th century, of the human stomach and its relationship to food preservation. That journey ends with the latest fashion, the super-huge American fridges that are now catching on in Europe. These are ostensibly purchased to allow us a wider choice of fresh, chilled food. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The 20th century marked the high epoch of experimental eating, when humans, in the Western world at least, subjected their digestive processes to repeated innovation without any clear sense of why. There was the novelty of cold breakfast cereals, the invention of margarine for cooking, the use of artificial preservatives and flavouring, long-distance food trucking, eating out of the home, and latterly, extreme protein overload.
No innovation had a more fundamental impact on stomachs than the refrigerator, a device that transformed the human relationship with dirt and bacteria. The "Guardian Frigerator" was one of the first. General Motors Corporation purchased the invention in 1918 and changed the name to Frigidaire, a brand that became one of the biggest household names of the last century, visible in its two-door format, along with the Westinghouse, in every soap and post-war movie-of-manners.
Prior to mass production, people who could afford it bought their ice in bucket loads, from the iceman, and stacked it in their icebox. Previously, people knew that the evaporation of brine used heat so placing a jar or pot in a bowl of brine was a way to keep it cool. The fridge deposed brine and salt as common preservatives, though we've kept brine as a method for curing bacon and we habitually give most foodstuffs a sprinkle of salt before we eat.
The refrigerator was bad business for salt miners. It also displaced fermentation. Fermentation is mankind's alliance with the bacterial world, according to fermenting guru Sandor Katz. Whereas today we might regularly reach for the Dettol to sanitise the kitchen, of old we had to confront the bacterial world and use it. To ferment is to exploit rather than succumb to bacteria.
Fermentation, in its pristine form, captures natural airborne bacteria. These bacteria and those resident in food interact over time to produce an entirely new food or drink with different benefits from the fresh forebears. "Ferments are literally alive with flavour and nutrition," Katz claims.
People who ferment engage with the bacterial world in a way that appears altogether sordid and dangerous to us now. But, of course, we are surrounded by fermented foods. Left for long enough, hops and barley produce beer, ale and stout, ideal media for storing minerals.
Cheese, one of the great ferments, is a superior way of capturing the goodness of milk. Drinking glasses of milk is a late-20th-century diktat drawn up by post-second World War governments. Cabbage soaked in its own juices for a few weeks produces choucroute or sauerkraut, and there are few dishes so steeped in beneficial gut bacteria.
Sadly, say fermenters, many of the fermented foods we do still use are pasteurised and refined to the point where beneficial bacterial processes are eliminated. According to fermentation advocates, pasteurisation and chemical stabilisation make fermentation appear safe, but at the expense of destroying the bacterial benefits fermentation brings. One might add that for food producers, there are margins to be had in throwing a few probiotics back in. Probiotics are exactly what fermentation creates and they disappeared from our diets as chilling took hold.
The bible of home fermentation is Katz's Wild Fermentation, a primer on how to use the dirty world around us to beneficial effect. As the title suggests, Katz doesn't go for any namby-pamby types of fermentation. As far as possible, he uses the natural fermentation triggers available in the air around us, though he does concede and use yeast in one of his bread recipes.
What kind of foods can you ferment at home? Sauerkraut obviously. Kimchi, the Korean preserve, different breads, home-made beer, and cheese, to list a few. Great cultures the world over make use of ferments in ways that define their character. Soy sauce, or fermented soy beans, is the distinctive taste of Japan, along with pickled ginger.
Scientists are beginning to realise, belatedly, that refrigeration's impact on fermentation had a serious downside. To accentuate the positive for a moment, it has apparently reduced the incidence of stomach cancers caused by the excessive use of salt. But it also transformed the way people deal with food. Our food is now so sanitised that the human stomach has permanent bogeys in residence, in the form of bacteria such as helicobacter pylori, that cause inflammation and ulcers. Ulcers and other gut disorders have their own chequered relationship to dirt. In the 1980s scientists recognised that some bad bacteria survive the thrice-daily assault of hydrochloric acid triggered by the process of eating.
Antibiotics became the therapy of choice for ulcers in the 1990s after the discovery of h.pylori. Widespread over-prescribing from the 1970s onwards, however, contributed to the decline of good gut bacteria, laying the ground for ulcers and inflammation.
The combination of antibiotic overuse and our troubled relationship with dirt has produced the superbug, resistant to anything the artificial world can throw at it, but clearly ineffective when people have adequate natural immunity. Bring on the pickled cabbage.
Finnish researchers have recently discovered that the fermentation process that produces sauerkraut also creates isothiocyanates, a compound known for its anti-carcinogenic qualities. So, fermented cabbages happen to be healthier than raw or cooked ones. Scientists at the University of Alberta have isolated a new cure for stomach disorders and a new way to attack h. pylori. It is the humble yoghurt - or fermented milk.
In time, say people such as Katz, the rest of us will realise that fermentation provides exceptional health benefits. Without engaging with the world of dirt and bacteria head on and, once again turning it to our advantage, we will become its victims. As larger fridges become the norm, we all need to chill a little less.
Wild Fermentation: The Flavour, Nutrition and Craft of Live-Culture Foods, by Sandor Ellix Katz, is published by Chelsea Green Books (£13.61 in UK)
This is adapted from Sandor Katz's sour pickled vegetables. My main successes have come with fruit rather than vegetables, but this is one I am trying now.
1 litre filtered or bottled water
4 tbsp fine crystal salt
2 red chillies
8 cloves garlic
A pinch of crushed black pepper
A few sprigs of dill
Your choice of whole baby carrots, small peppers, runner beans, cabbage heart (if you use cabbage, shred and pound to get the juices going), whole aubergine (if you have a big enough jar) or any other vegetable
1 large cabbage leaf
A large jar into which you can fit a second smaller jar
A saucer or plate that fits into the top of the large jar
Rinse vegetables. Make up a litre of brine with the water and salt. Put the dill, garlic, chillies and black pepper into the large jar. Fill with selected whole vegetables. Pour in as much brine as necessary to cover them. Place a whole cabbage leaf over the vegetables. Place the saucer on the cabbage leaf.
Take the second jar, filled with water, and place it on the saucer. Cover with a cloth. Check daily and skim off any mould that forms. Eat after about two weeks. Sauerkraut or pickled vegetables sold in jars also do the trick.