Mankind has been preserving food through fermentation artfully for thousands of years, and accidentally for many more. As Sandor Katz, fermentation expert and the author of "Wild Fermentation," explains, it has always been a regional — think of the blocks of salted fish hanging on Gloucester's docks — if not household process, not dangerous, not precarious, not perilously demanding of sterilization. It was loose and yet artful, as fickle and mysterious as the invisible bacteria that make it happen.
"I know of no food that is without a history of fermentation," Katz says.
Every culture has done it.
Except, most recently, ours. With the advent of pasteurized, homogenous foods, the need for — and taste for — fermented food products has almost been lost to us western grocery-store shoppers. In the past 50 years we've almost completely eliminated a complicated food group that civilized mankind has never lived without. This loss may also mean the loss of important nutrients never before absent in our diets.
"Fermentation is the action of life upon death," Katz says. Bacteria in the air acts on the food to produce either alcohol, lactic acid, or acetic acid which retain nutrients and prevent spoilage. Start with wine, beer, yogurt, cheese, sourdough, but then think of miso, natto, seitan, soy sauce, Vietnamese fish sauce and its Roman equivalent made with salted anchovies and sardines, Swedish lutefisk, Korean kimchee, sausages, prosciutto, sauerkraut. In Africa, they ferment sorghum for beer.
According to Harold McKee's" On Food and Cooking," in China they started fermenting fish 2,000 years ago, but Katz points out that as far away as the Arctic they bury whole fish in pits and let them ferment to a cheese-like texture. Those "hundred-year-old eggs" from China are actually fermented only three months in horse urine. Even maple syrup, according to Rowan Jacobsen's book "American Terroir," owes its "maple flavor" to the bacteria in the air excreting enzymes into the sap and breaking down the sugars, one of those "accidental" fermentation jobs.