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.
Remember, canning was only invented by the French in the late 18th century and freezing obviously "just now" in terms of relative history. Katz points out it is no accident that the word "culture" is synonymous with both a bacterial process and with the advancement of civilization. Discovering a method for preserving a harvest of anything, from cabbage to herring, allowed "culture" to advance. In fact, Katz points out, the first great globalized industry, that sent fleets of ships sailing and filled coffers from The Netherlands to Sri Lanka — chocolate, coffee and tea — all depended upon someone understanding fermentation.
Some recognized long ago fermentation's nutritional powers: The explorer Captain Cook used sauerkraut to prevent scurvy in his ship's crew when crossing the Pacific to discover the Hawaiian Islands, but a thousand years before him the Polynesians crossed the Pacific to Hawaii nutritionally charged with poi, a porridge of fermented taro root, still popular in the Hawaiian Islands today.
Honey wine, or mead, was probably the first fermented food, probably the happy accident of a honeycomb having fallen into the water-filled hollow of a tree trunk. A little water, a little honey, a little time, some bacterially charged air, and you've got a batch of mead. By the way, Isaak's of Salem brews, right in Beverly, a delicious Honey Wine in a couple of varieties, available at Salem Wine Importers in Salem, or the Isaak's of Salem website. http://blog.isaaksofsalem.com/
Here are the health benefits Captain Cook and others understood, and out of which we may have sanitized and sterilized ourselves: According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, which promotes fermentation as a critical source of nutrients worldwide, fermentation improves the bioavailabilty of minerals present in food. Katz claims that fermentation also creates new nutrients — microbial cultures create B vitamins, including folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, and biotin. That means you start with cabbage, salt it, add air and time, and you have an almost entirely different food, packed with a different nutrition profile.
Fermentation also breaks down foods naturally difficult to digest. Soybeans for example, can be eaten raw, but fermented are much more digestible and interesting in the form of tamari (soy sauce), miso, tempeh, tofu. Lactobacillii breaks down the lactose in milk to the more digestible and interesting yogurt. By eating a variety of fermented foods we produce biodiversity in our gut. A healthy gut means a better working one, which means it has the resources to better extract nutrients.
Here's the part that's going to send you running out for miso: Live fermented foods (Bread is fermented, but baked, and therefore not live.) most importantly are packed with enzymes that some people claim are the key to aging. Our pancreas produces enzymes, but begins to run out toward the middle of life. The more foods we can consume that pile on enzymes, thus relieving the burden on our pancreas, the better. Do you remember the study that launched the homemade yogurt trend of the 1970s? Russian immunologist and Nobel laureate Elie Metchnikoff went looking for the long-life secrets of 100-year-old Balkans. The answer? Yogurt. Metchnikoff concurred that with a daily diet of live-cultured yogurt, the centenarian Balkans were getting a daily dose of lactobacilii, which "postpone and ameliorate old age."
Perhaps, because of all that pasteurization and those hand sanitizers, our culture has regressed, not advanced. We've been foolish thinking we could, and should, sterilize bacteria away. Instead we should consider them important local ingredients. To quote the master of the process himself, Louis Pasteur, "It's the microbes that will have the last word."
Katz's book offers a broad selection of recipes, from healthful sauerkraut to Kvass, a drink made from fermented stale bread, and which Tolstoy's Anna Karenina noted the peasants drinking.
Time frame: one week
Ingredients for one quart
2 plums, pitted
2 pears, cored
1 apple, cored
1 small bunch grapes, stemmed
1/2 cup cashew or other nuts
2 teaspoons sea salt
juice of one lemon
one small bunch cilantro, chopped
1 to 2 fresh jalapeno peppers, finely chopped
1 to 2 hot red chilies, or any form of hot red pepper, fresh or dried
1 leek or onion, finely chopped
3 to 4 cloves garlic (or more), finely chopped
3 tablespoons grated ginger
Chop fruit into bite-size pieces. Peel if you wish. Leave grapes whole. Add in any other fruit you want to try. Add nuts. Mix fruit and nuts together in a bowl. Add salt, lemon juice, and spices and mix well.
Stuff kimchee mixture into a clean quart-size jar. Pack it tightly into the jar, pressing down until the brine rises. If necessary, add a little water. Weight down with a smaller jar, or a zip-lock jar filled with some brine. Or if you think you can remember to check the kimchee every day; with clean fingers push the fruit down into the brine. Keep covered to keep out flies. Ferment in a warm place. After a week of fermenting, when it tastes "ripe," move to the refrigerator.
Food for Thought runs weekly in the Times' Taste of the Times section and is written by Heather Atwood, an author and mother from Rockport. Questions and comments can be sent to Heather at email@example.com. And follow her blog at gloucestertimes.com/foodforthought.