From reviews of climate change collections and peak oil fiction, to a Talkback essay on resilience studies to the art of making pages out of foraged plants, books form an integral part of all TFP issues. In the autumn edition Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything features in our editorial and Dark Mountain editor, Nick Hunt looks at contemporary responses to the call for a new narrative. Here Alexis Rowell breaks out the pickle jars in his hands-on review of a store cupboard maesterwerk (Ednote: the mead was our toast to TFP at a recent editorial meeting…it was divine!)
“Between fresh and rotten,” says Sandor Ellix Katz, “there is a creative space in which some of the most compelling of flavours arise.” I’m right in that creative space, but my partner, Sarah, is starting to complain about the smells coming from my fermenting cabbage!
I’m a novice fermenter. It’s something I’ve admired from afar but I’d always felt a bit daunted by the mystique surrounding fermented foods and all that bacteria.
“My advice,” says Sandor – a self-described ‘fermentation fetishist’ – “is to reject the cult of expertise. Do not be afraid. You can do it yourself.”
I started with fruit mead. All you need is a bail-top jar, a pot of raw honey, water and fruit. I used redcurrants from a friend’s allotment, cherry plums from Hampstead Heath and rose petals from my neighbour’s garden.
Reject the cult of expertise. Do not allow yourself to be intimidated
“It looks great – if you like murky pond water,” said Sarah dubiously. But a few days later it was bubbling furiously and had turned a beautiful rose-orange colour. “That looks great,” said a friend, “can I have the recipe?” “Recipe?” I laughed. “Sure – combine honey, water, fruit and petals. Stir and release the pressure twice a day. Drink and be merry after ten days!”
Next up – sauerkraut. Pack a bail-top jar with shredded cabbage, juniper berries (or caraway seeds or other spices) and brine (salty water), weigh it down with a small glass jar filled with water to keep the cabbage submerged, then leave to ferment.
After a week it was starting to release some powerful odours, Sarah was apologising to visitors and I was worrying I’d got it wrong. But it tasted great. A few days later it tasted even better and it was time to move it to the fridge to slow down the fermentation process.
My fermented radishes looked fabulous as the brine turned red. “Are you sure we’ll be able to eat all this stuff? asked Sarah nervously, as I made plans for a huge jar of kohlrabi, carrot and beetroot kraut.
It’s perhaps a shame there aren’t more photos in The Art of Fermentation and that the illustrations, although lovely, are repeated a lot. But these seem like minor gripes set against the delight of learning from a master fermenter. For this is the omnibus, the bible, the encyclopaedia – it is everything you’ll ever need to know about fermentation – from molecular biology to cultural history, from philosophy to health benefits.
Sandor himself is a larger than life character with a massive handlebar moustache. He looks a picture of health, although he doesn’t hide the fact that he’s been living with HIV for ten years. “Is he healthy because of fermented foods?” I ask. He won’t go that far, but it’s hard not to draw that conclusion.
His book is also a remarkable political statement about the perils of industrialised food and the need for humans to reconnect with nature. In his words: “As microorganisms work their transformative magic and you witness the miracles of fermentation, envision yourself as an agent for change, creating agitation, releasing bubbles of transformation into the social order.”
The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz is published by Chelsea Green. Beginners might like to start with his earlier book, Wild Fermentation.
Images: cover of The Art of Fermentation; Sandor Ellix Katz teaching a fermentation class (www.wildfermentation.com); Alexis’ summer mead undergoing fermentation (Sarah Nicholl)