Fermenting Change

The ancient culinary craft of fermentation is bubbling up once again

Extracting nutrition via the bacteria and yeasts that live on the surfaces of food sources has traditionally enabled people all over the world to store seasonal abundance for leaner times. In a climate-constrained future, when the use of fossil fuels (and thus refrigeration) will need to be greatly reduced, fermentation could play a key role in preserving both our food and our cultural diversity.

 FermentationPhoto by Wild Fermentation Sandor Ellix Katz gives a workshop on the craft of making sauerkraut and other fermented vegetables. Revived in workshops and community kitchens, fermentation has become one of the many “reskilling” projects taking place in grassroots cultures from Europe to the United States in response to economic and environmental drivers.

“To ferment your food,” declares American food journalist Michael Pollan, “is to lodge an eloquent protest — of the senses — against the homogenizations of flavors and food experiences. It’s a way of engaging with the world… a declaration of independence.”

That’s because this revival is not just learning how to prep and preserve cabbage: it’s also a way for people get their hands (literally) on another social narrative and activate a different relationship with life. It runs counter to an industrialized and passive consumer lifestyle “now rolling like a great undifferentiated lawn across the globe.” Fermentation requires time and intuition and participation in a transformative process where no two sauerkrauts will turn out the same. And it can bring people together in practical and surprising ways.

In England, members of Transition Plymouth, part of the worldwide Transition movement, meet regularly over their kitchen tables to chop vegetables: “Dried, tinned, bottled, cooked, irradiated, pasteurized, supermarket fare is predominantly dead food — deliberately made in order to ‘protect’ our health and enhance shelf life,” explains Colin Trier, one of the group’s activists. “Our fermentation workshops have served many purposes: to reintroduce us to making our own live foods; bringing us together as a community exchanging recipes and skills; seeking out and sharing local sources of supply; and developing resilience through home preservation of much more than jam.”

Kimchi Photo by DevitreeCrunching down: an assortment of raw chopped and squeezed vegetables
is pushed under the liquid for the famous Korean fermented dish of kimchi
at a workshop taught by Sandor Ellix Katz.

Some of this revival is due to the bold maverick moves of Sandor Ellix Katz, a self-taught fermenter based in rural Tennessee whose online demonstrations and guidebooks have grabbed the imaginations of cooks and homesteaders everywhere. In his latest book, the encyclopaedic The Art of Fermentation, he documents fermentation practices around the world, capturing modern and indigenous voices as he goes, discussing everything from molecular biology to cultural history, from philosophy to health benefits.

Before refrigeration came into our houses and global supply chains, most of our winter stores were salted, pickled, and dried. Many of the strong compelling flavors found in European delicatessens come via fermentation: cheese, salami, gherkins, vinegar, olives. Likewise the mainstays of Oriental cuisine — soy, miso, and tempeh — and the whole of the world’s drinks cabinet including everyday luxuries such as coffee and chocolate.

If you were wary of venturing into this unknown territory alone, you could not hope for a more enthralling guide than Katz: “My advice is to reject the cult of expertise. Do not be afraid. You can do it yourself.” There is no recorded case, he assures us, of poisoning from fermented vegetables.

Fermenting foods is not simply another culinary fashion. In the same way that baking bread or growing vegetables helps decouple us from the industrial food system, remembering these skills puts the art of food production back into our own hands and brings back the meaning and joy of eating into everyday life.

Who could not be excited by the prospect of making herbal elixirs from raw honey and wild fruit, or discovering how to make South Indian dosa pancakes, or turning a garden glut of beans and beets into a colorful row of shiny bottles? The act of fermenting not only makes us aware of the living microbial world that underpins all life, it connects us to thousands of years of human hands-on knowledge and ingenuity.

Fermentation is above all a creative process. Eva Bakkeslett, artist and “gentle activist” from north Norway, teaches Living Culture workshops that inspire people to reconnect with the traditional skills of making kefir, yogurt, and sourdough bread. “I explore fermentation in my art practice because it reveals how a living cultural process works and shows the key ingredients we need to cultivate sustainable cultures for the future: time, conditions (warmth), nurturing and sharing, good quality materials, and a touch of magic,” explains Bakkeslett. “It makes us aware that living on Earth entails a seamless sharing between species and makes it hard to define the self as an isolated entity.”

Bakkeslett works with heirloom microbial communities from all over the world: from a yogurt culture originating in Eastern Europe and cultivated for over 100 years in a small Jewish café in New York, to an old Russian sourdough handed down by “real bread” baker and campaigner Andrew Whitley, to a kefir from the Caucasus — originally made in leather bags hung by the entrance of a house, so everyone passing by would give it a knock to keep it going.

Her workshops are not just about food, they are places for social fermentation, where conversations and new perspectives can emerge and the generous, self-organizing nature of sharing cultures, skills, knowledge, and stories can thrive.

Fermenting as a preservation technique has evolved, like our digestion, over thousands of years. Today one of its main attractions is a way to maintain and restore good health, often impaired by a fast, factory-processed diet. Full of enzymes and beneficial flora (some appearing in different times during the process), fermented foods help heal the gut wall and chase off harmful invaders. The intestine, as Katz reminds us, is the largest part of the immune system in the body.

“Fermented foods tick all the boxes,” says London Transitioner and health writer Gill Jacobs. “They are traditional products, underpinned by the wisdom that comes from being passed down over time. They also run counter to our modern fixation with ‘germs’ and foods that are sterilized to help shelf life but not our bodies.”

Where to start? Jacobs suggests one of the easiest is kvass, a fermented drink made with beets, which is an excellent blood tonic and liver cleanser. All you need is a large jar into which you pour 2 liters of filtered water. Add three medium-sized organic beetroots, peeled and chopped, together with 1 tablespoon of sea salt and a quarter of a cup of whey (or you can omit the whey and double the salt). Leave out for two to three days. Transfer the strained liquid to the fridge, keeping the beets for another batch. Start each day with a 4-ounce glass. 

Rediscovering these cultures is beneficial not just for people but for the planet as well. As climate change intensifies, industrial countries are being challenged to reduce their fossil-fuel consumption. The “cold chains” of the global food system, which include field precooling stations, slaughterhouses, distribution centers, trucks, supermarkets, and domestic refrigerators, all require large amounts of energy. Today this modern method of preservation is responsible for 15 percent of global electricity consumption, a percentage that most likely will keep rising as refrigeration spreads around the world.

In China, where fermented food has ancestral roots, refrigeration is rapidly transforming a diverse vernacular food culture into the industrial model found in Europe and the United States. Fermentation — which uses no energy and is entirely natural — is one practical way we can reverse the trend, reclaiming both our heritage from the past and the climate for the future.

As Katz declares in his Cultural Revivalist Manifesto: “Food is much more than simply nourishment. It embodies a complex web of relationships. It is a huge part of the context in which we exist.”

Time to get out the pickle jar!

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