The Simple Art of Lacto-Fermentation: An Introduction
Eating food: one of the simplest activities we do, yet one of such joyous importance to us that it can be seen as a celebration every time we do it. Why not? Wherever we are, we all understand the significance of eating together as a group: from the days-long Eid celebrations of the Muslim world (1) to the Thanksgiving feasts of the USA, originally a Native American tradition and now celebrated by people who descend from many different races across the planet (2).
There is something special about sharing food with others, especially when that food has a significance which can connect us in more ways than just physically. Most of us have memories of visiting family members when we were children and enjoying a particular kind of food whose meaning goes far beyond the simple nutritional value. One of my own examples is my grandfather’s home-made bread. Though I have gone through many dietary evolutions over the past few decades, from vegetarian and vegan to only raw food, and stranger combinations such as the GAPs diet (grain and starch-free) and have made many investigations into both literature on these subjects and the reactions of my own body, coming to the conclusion that for me, at least (though perhaps for many others as well), wheat can have quite a detrimental effect on my digestive system.
When I visit my grandparents, however, this conclusion goes out of the window. I have long maintained that my grandpa’s bread is the best in the world and even though my diet is pretty strictly gluten-free at any other time, I have to admit that his bread still remains the best now. The interesting thing is that when I eat it now (he still bakes, though over 90 years of age) it does not feel heavy and uncomfortable in my stomach like other gluten products. This seems to be an example of an experience where the cultural or personal significance of food can give it a greater meaning than the simple physical properties, and that our relationship to our food is probably just as important to the food’s effect on our bodies as choosing what it is that we eat.
The messages we send
That is not to say that the choosing itself is not important; and with the current global food system being the complex network of relationships that it is, this can sometimes get a little confusing. It may be the case that all we want is a simple particular vegetable – a carrot, say – but where that carrot comes from and the methods in which it was grown all affect things far beyond ourselves, though they also directly relate to how healthy the carrot will be for us as well. As Jules Pretty says in her book Agri-Culture (3), when we buy food,
“As consumers…the choices we make send strong signals about the systems of agricultural production that we prefer. We may not realise that we are sending these messages, but we are.” (Pretty, 2002)
Even when we are aware of these messages to some extent, we still may not be able to always obtain our ideal diet. One simple way I have found to send messages about food production systems which benefit the earth as well as people is to buy organic food; then at least you know that it has been produced without chemicals. Yet this is neither possible nor practical all of the time. It may be the case that my local shop here in Brighton has a choice of organic and non-organic apples; the organic ones flown in from New Zealand and the non-organic ones grown right here in the local area. If I buy the non-organic ones I am helping improve soil health in New Zealand, but causing more pollution to the air of the entire planet.
These issues are complex and highly intriguing to consider when rethinking our relationships to food and culture, and you can be sure I will touch upon them again in future posts here (you can also check out my article ‘The Importance of Eating Food’ here). One thing which I would like to concentrate on now is a particular way I have found of boosting my own nutrition level whilst encouraging a healthy and beneficial culture and relationship to our food. In a happy coincidence (coincidence?) the method used to make such food involves the creation of culture itself.
There has been quite a lot of literature suggesting that in order to strengthen our relationship to each other and redress the balance of mutual beneficial actions on this planet, there is a need to create a whole new culture (see for example 3, 4, 5). That is not to say that we cannot use aspects of what we have now, but in order to grow healthy relationships with ourselves and the rest of the planet there can be seen a need to grow whole new ways of acting. For me, these new ways involve looking holistically at all aspects of life, utilising efficient methods and designs to benefit as many people/plants/things as possible, sharing in the joy and celebration of life with others through frequent communal meals, singing and dancing, and recognition of the true abundance of our beautiful world. This list is not exhaustive; merely a taster, if you will.
One way in which we can efficiently use the food which the abundance of nature gives us is by preserving it, and my favourite way to do this is the simple yet highly effective (and tasty) art of lacto-fermentation.
Lacto? So you’re preserving with milk?
Well…not exactly. In fact – vegans, you can come back! – there isn’t actually any milk involved in the process. It is way of storing vegetables so that they stay fresh for months or even years, retaining their nutritional value and even gaining in it (see for example 6, 7). In this way it is excellent to do with vegetables which have not been produced organically. Such vegetables may well be lacking in nutrients; but you can, as it were, re-nutritionalise them by fermenting them.
In order to do this you do not need to cook the vegetable – in fact, it won’t work if you do. You do not need fancy equipment – just a bowl or pan would suffice, though I prefer to use glass jars. And you do not need to sterilise any equipment – indeed, this will also stop the process from working.
Here in Brighton fermentation has become something of a ‘hot topic’, with many very eager to find out more about this intriguing and somewhat forgotten art. Of course, anything that you don’t know how to do can seem mysterious and difficult, but lacto-fermentation is so simple that you may well be surprised how quickly you can become, like me, a lacto-fiend.
You see, what you need in order to lacto-ferment a vegetable is: the vegetable. Some water. And a tiny bit of salt.
Sound do-able? Read on…
The fermentation which happens is actually the process of a particular class of bacteria which colonises your chosen receptacle. These are ‘lacto bacillus’ and various friends (6, 7); which are the same bacteria used to turn yoghurt into milk, hence the milk connection.
The salt in the water acts as a barrier against any other cultures; hence how you can just leave the vegetables in water and instead of rotting they become deliciously pickled.
Lacto-fermentation has been used as a traditional way of preserving food for thousands of years, and is still very common in many cultures. You may be familiar with the term sauerkraut; this is lacto-fermented cabbage, a traditional German delicacy.
In Korea, lacto-fermentation is a key part of the culture through the highly popular kimchi. Apparently, a meal without this spicy pickled vegetable dish in unthinkable in Korea, as well as “lacking in style and grace” (8).
However, in spite of the fact that the knowledge for how to do these things has been around for many thousands of years, we in this time and place may be forgetting it. In spite of being such an important national dish that the entire country eats it on a daily basis, a lot of kimchi in Korea now is imported from China, and the actual art of making it yourself appears to be dying out (9). As an activity of great social and cultural import this is quite alarming; a few years ago kimchi-making itself was recognised as having world cultural heritage status by Unesco, a telling fact on the importance fermentation can have for ourselves and our communities (9).
Revive the ferment!
When bringing back this art it is very important to exercise caution and (of course) common sense when attempting your own lacto-ferments. The method which I am about to share with you involves catching the bacteria from the air to encourage it to colonise your jar. I have been using this method on a weekly basis for over three years now and have never got sick from eating the produce of my labour.
In spite of this, it is important to note that when you are catching bacteria from the air it is inevitable that every batch will be different and, unless you happen to have a biology lab in your kitchen, you will never be able to identify exactly every single bacteria and their ratios within your food. But can you do this anyway? Even if you have a label on your vegetables with their nutritional breakdown, it probably won’t include the amounts of chemical fertiliser, pesticide, soap or other random elements which will all be affecting your body probably far more intrusively than the simple fermenting bacteria. Even so, if you do not feel comfortable making your own experiments, I advise against you trying my lacto-ferment recipe.
If you do, check it out!
- Martin et al, 2003. Encyclopaedia of Islam and the Muslim World. Macmillan Reference USA: New York City
- Plimoth Plantation, 2014. ‘Thanksgiving History’. http://www.plimoth.org/learn/MRL/read/thanksgiving-history – retrieved 10/10/14
- Pretty, Jules, 2002. Agri-Culture: Reconnecting People, Land and Nature. Earthscan: Oxford
- Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Pantheon: New York City
- Campbell, J, 1991. The Masks of God IV: Creative Mythology. Arkana: New York City
- Rameley, Dr. D, 2008. ‘Benefits of Fermentation’. Seattle Natural Health, 2008. http://www.seattlenaturalhealth.com/fermentation.html – retrieved 10/10/14
- Katz, S, 2012. The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World. Chelsea Green: London
- Homestay Korea, 2014. ‘Kimchi and Koreans’. http://www.homestaykorea.com/?document_srl=30429 – retrieved 10/10/14
- McCurry, J, 2014. ‘Crisis in Korea as younger generation abandons kimchi’. Guardian, 21/3/2014. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/21/crisis-in-korea-kimchi – retrieved 10/10/14