Fermented food. Fringe at best. The preserve of hippies and overhyped, anti-ageing, marketing driven food fads, right? WRONG. Fermented food is at the core of your daily diet whether you like it or not. You’ve heard of sandwiches right? The ubiquitous “desk lunch” that has kept the corporate machine in business for the past few decades has literally been funded by the simple sandwich. And a more fermented luncheon menu you simply could not hope for. Your bread: fermented, cheese: fermented, the pickles: very fermented, even the salami: fermented - well the last one’s up for debate a bit these days but traditionally salami makers used mould to improve the flavour of this meaty delicacy. But you get the point. Fermented food is literally all around us. And whether we control the decay process or not, microbes are both desperate, and highly successful at eating our food before we get our teeth around it.
Since man came along, he’s been fermenting things. Funnily enough archeologists and anthropologists have both come to the same conclusion that our first fumblings in the world of fermented foods were designed to get us drunk. Someone accidentally left those grapes out in the sun and they had a wild old time when they came back to eat them a few days later - wine was born. Even the advent of bread, it is theorised, was conceived as a method for preserving and transporting yeasts in order to brew beer in far off lands. The emergence of a sliced pan may have been just as accidental as the discovery of fire.
Ferments like bread have a history of travel too, like one of our favourites, kefir, apparently picked up on the famous Silk Route, on which goods moved globally at a camel’s pace. And when they got to Georgia, they found strange things happening in the Caucasus Mountains. Inside the door of each dwelling hung a cow’s stomach, filled with what appeared to be rotting milk. The cultural (see what we did there?) tradition of a polite guest was to lightly thump the stomach, thereby mixing the liquid milk inside that sat with their fermenting kefir “grains” by gently agitating them, preventing stagnation and spoilage.
Just as kefir travelled from Georgia, so too Kombucha, the tea mushroom, moved from Asia (parts unknown but somewhere tea plants were grown because that’s it’s staple diet) via the Silk Route to Europe around 2000 years ago. Possibly the craziest part for me in all the aspects of kefir and kombucha is that we’re still consuming direct descendents of those ancients cultures, that mankind has managed to never break the lineage of these fermenting food cultures, which demonstrates, I think, just how vital they were and are considered for our survival as a species. And it’s another depiction of that delicious symbiosis, because just as the kombucha and kefir need to be kept well fed (with fresh tea and sugar or milk), in doing so the cultures support us in return. It amazes me how we still try to consider ourselves separate from or in command over nature when you reflect on this interdependence and how much we are nature really, and who’s in the driving seat, well who knows really!!!
Okay misty eyed moment over for a second - so just as kombucha and kefir started to move around the world so too did our familiar sauerkraut - actually courtesy of the marauding Gengis Khan, who apparently brought it along on his conquests as it made vital nutrients available to his troops as they trekked through inhospitable territories that may not have yielded fresh food for many miles. He really had that whole “an army marches on its stomach” thing well worked out. Because the benefits of fermentation are indeed food preservation, in most cases. Humans have relied on fermented foods to make use of the seasons in which nature provides all its bounty, in order to eke out a life in the leaner months when fresh food sources dwindle and vanish. That is really the magic of microbes that in working with them as co-creators we selectively encourage the good ones (in very very basic ways such as salting), and those bacteria create an environment that is so hostile to “pathogens” or food spoilage bacteria, that we can consume these foods many months after preparing them.
As our food industry has industrialised we’ve made countless attempts (and still do) to better the food preserving talents of nature, but nearly always with disastrous results. Although originally hailing from China and containing no tomatoes at all, when traditionally fermented ketchup recipes migrated to the U.S., commercial versions became used as a way to sell the unripe and over ripe tomatoes, masking their acrid flavour and lack lustre appearance with such hobgoblins of the food industry as coal tar and preserving them with sodium benzoate, with who’s safety records health authorities were becoming concerned even in those early days of modern medicine. Good old Henry J. Heinz put a stop to that with the addition of significant amounts of vinegar and sugar to stabilise the product and Heinz dominated the ketchup market almost immediately, selling 5 million bottles in its first 30 years on the market. But our dalliance with synthetic preservatives continues, to the detriment of our health, and the loss of food preserving wisdom. Even so called “natural flavours” can contain some nasties and “natural colours”, also used to stabilise the colours in foods long after they’ve left the vine, are allowed to contain propylene glycol (anti-freeze) and polysorbate-80, which has been shown to cause cancer in mice. It’s a dark path we need to rescue ourselves from these days and in our shop we engage in this conversation with our customers every day as part of our quest to save traditional recipes and bring back some resilience to our communities by helping you guys understand how to make your own ferments in workshops and by answering your questions every day on the shop floor.
And when you come talking to us about fermented foods, it’s not usually just preserving nutrients that you guys are after, it’s the mercurial “probiotic” benefits that have kombucha trending in the food charts consistently these days. But what does a probiotic really do for us anyway? And do the ones in foods really do what they say on the tin?
So there’s a million articles and studies that tell us all about the benefits of probiotics and here’s a small list of what the research tells us they can be consumed to improve - bowel conditions, atopic eczema, mental health, heart health, immunity, adiposity - so kind of...everything?? Kind of. But one of the things that frustrates us in The Hopsack is how those studies encourage folk to jump at taking a probiotic supplement when they’re suffering from the flu or bloating after meals. That is NOT how probiotics work. Those little bacteria, especially when taken in capsule form, are playing the long game. Unlike the pathogenic bacteria that bring about extreme and immediate results (think vomiting and diarrhoea from a stomach bug), the interplay between gut friendly microbes and your own cells as their hosts is both subtle and extremely complex. The short chain fatty acids that they produce along with many other compounds, some known some still mysterious to us, influence our metabolism, our immune system, and the neurotransmitter network in our gut. We know that around 80-90% of all our immune cells in our body inhabit our digestive tract and that there are more neurotransmitters produced in our gut than in our brain, and hence the the balance of these little messenger microbes plays a profound and powerful part in authoring our health. In most cases they appear to modulate and restore balance to the host, as opposed to stimulating or suppressing functionality. Hence, don’t look for them to just “fight the flu”, but if we think of them in the same way as we used to chop logs and cure them in the heat of the summer - to prepare our home for the winter to give us a steady supply of fuel through the dark winter days. Literally like the canning and preserving process of old, the bacteria, which are many millenia older than our own bodies as hosts, help to stabilise our internal environment and keep us afloat, like little life preservers in the storm of immune system assaults that is our daily life.