From China to Europe, from health food hipsters to deep sea sailors, fermented and living foods has a global reach and has pervaded our global cuisine since forever.
Did you know Captain Cook and his crew brought Sauerkraut with them on their voyage to Australia? The high Vitamin C content and its non-perishable nature made Sauerkraut an ideal foodstuff on the high seas.
I’ve been fermenting food in the kitchen for about 7 years now. My first fermenting experience was with making sourdough bread. Everyday I would pour out some of the fermented flour – known as a starter or more poetically a “mother” – to make my bread with and then I would feed the starter with more flour and water to replace what I had taken. In this way starters stay alive more or less indefinitely. Our starter was a “newborn”, being only about 4 years old – whereas some starters are (reputedly) literally decades or even hundreds of years old. This is quite a fascinating thing as the starters need to be fed everyday, so it represents a bit of care and dedication on the bread-makers part.
I also had a great passion for cheese. The best cheese is made from raw milk, teeming with bacteria and is a living food that certainly changes with time. It was really rewarding to come in everyday and notice the subtle changes in the cheese and to be able to recommend to the maitre’d which cheeses we should showcase that day based on their ripeness.
In the past few years I have become interested in the pickling aspect of fermentation. Traditional pickles like Sauerkraut develop their sour acidity by way of lactic acid build up as the lacto-bacteria live and breathe. This acidity has a delicious seasoning effect when paired with other foods, but the depth of flavour and intense complexity that develops is what is hard to put into words and gets me excited as a chef.
How can you describe to someone what a beautifully ripe blue cheese like Roquefort tastes like? Cheeses like Roquefort and Camembert take the living foods to the next level. In addition to their bacteria content, they also contain the famous mould Penicillin, a strain of this mould is the foundation for antibiotic medicine. It is this connection between microorganisms and bigger animals (like us) which I find so interesting.
As an illustration, let’s take the noble cow as an example. Nature has allowed for plants – grass in this case – to convert sunlight into carbohydrates but unfortunately, they are pretty difficult to digest in the grassy fibrous form they come in. That’s why the cow’s stomach is like a giant fermenting crockpot! The cow is basically feeding it’s gut bacteria in a ‘quid pro quo’ arrangement with the bacteria in the cow’s stomach releasing fatty acids and other nutrients, the bacteria itself is responsible for 40% of the cows protein requirements as it is absorbed by the cow as the bacteria dies off in it’s 15 minute lifecycle. Interesting stuff, but what about us?
People have been fermenting foods since Ancient Egypt. It helps to stop food from spoiling and has been used mainly for this reason as a way to avoid losing precious food. It has also been shown that the probiotic content of fermented foods can help in conditions related to the bowel including Chrohn’s disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome and others. The mechanism is not well understood but it appears that the gut biome is a competitive place and the balance of bacteria in the gut influences overall health, by adding in bacteria like lactobacillus you can help to create a better environment which might be more conducive to overall health. If you would like to read more on the health benefits, I recommend Lucy Shewell PhD’s articles here.
With summer drawing to a close you might want to try this recipe that allows for preserving tomatoes for use in the long nights of autumn and winter. I’m playing with this idea for a new eatery I’m assisting to open, and I’m hoping this will be a big favourite on the menu – I think serving it with the labneh, roast broccolini and some Eye Fillet should be a crowd pleaser.
- 1 litre Natural Yoghurt
- ½ to 1 tsp Salt
- For Storing and Marinading:
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 1 clove Garlic
- 1 tsp Cumin Seeds
- 1 Lemon Zested and Juiced
Line a bowl or a colander with a clean towel. Empty the yoghurt into a bowl, season with the salt to your taste then pour the yoghurt into the towel. Gather the ends of the towel together and using some string (or a taut piece of clingwrap) tie the ends together. Ideally you will have a hook or some way to catch the knot onto something and let it hang in the fridge with a bowl underneath to catch the falling whey.
Leave the yoghurt to hang overnight and the next day you will find a pool of whey in the bowl, we will use this as a starter for our next recipe (this can be used as a starter for other pickles like sauerkraut as a way to speed the process up as well as increase the (already good) chances of success). In the cloth will be your thick hung yoghurt. If it is thick enough to ball then you are ready for the next stage, if not, you can transfer the hung yoghurt to another cloth and repeat the process for one more day.
The dry cloth will draw more moisture and the extra day should ensure the yoghurt is suitably thick. Once the yoghurt is thickened to a goat’s cheese-esque thickness you can carefully ball it into little balls of about 25g weight. Place the balls in a dishwasher-sterilised jar and top the jar up with the olive oil. Add to the jar the zest and juice of the lemon (the juice helps to acidify the oil which will help to stop any nasty bacteria interfering with your lovely balls), as well as the cumin seeds and garlic.
Store the jar in the fridge and when you want to use the labneh, simply fish it out with a spoon. You can roll the balls in Dukkah once they come out of the oil and they are a lovely addition to an antipasti board or as an accompaniment to a salad or anything where you might use a soft cheese. The labneh should last up to a month in the fridge.
The next component of the salad is the funky salsa. We are using the whey which ran off from the yoghurt from the labneh recipe to help the salsa get going.
- 6 Tomatoes
- 2 Red Onions
- 1 Capsicum
- 1 small bunch of Coriander (to your taste)
- 1 Chilli (to your taste, if you like it hotter you’re going to do what you’re going to do)
- 1 clove of Garlic
- 1 Lemon and or Lime
- 1 tsp Cumin
- 1 tsp Ground Coriander
- 1 tsp Paprika
- 1 tsp Salt (to taste)
- ½ cup of whey
Dice the tomato, onions, capsicum to the size you like – place the ingredients in a large bowl. Finely chop some coriander, chilli and garlic and add to the bowl. Zest a lemon and or a lime and juice the lemon/lime into the bowl. Add the cumin, ground coriander, paprika and salt to the bowl and stir well. Add the whey to the salsa and give one last stir before transferring to a dishwasher-sterilised mason jar. Wrap the jars lid section with clingwrap to help make it air-sealed. Store somewhere dark and cool for at least 2 days (the flavour develops over time, I’m currently experimenting with 2 batches just now and I will age one further once I taste one to see what I prefer) before refrigerating until needed.
The salsa should last up to a month in the fridge. If you notice and mould or any suspicious appearance or smell coming from the salsa or the labneh don’t risk it, just ditch it and start again. I have a 100% success rate from fermenting so far (which is thoroughly jinxed now) and I think if you take due care and attention you will to.
Using the whey is a powerful tool in your fermentation toolbox, try and make some pickled cucumbers (gherkins) by salting some cucumbers and making a whey/water solution before jarring. You can have a go at kimchi (basically an Asian flavoured Sauerkraut) with or without adding the whey. Fermented and living foods is a great addition to your pantry, it’s cheap and easy to make and I can’t wait to teach my little one how to make it – hopefully she’ll find it as amazing as I do!