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Fun with fermentation

03:00pm, 01/12/13

Since man started farming and growing fruit and vegetables, there has been a need to preserve them. Not only fruit and vegetables, but meat and fish too, and the one important ingredient needed to preserve food well and keep starvation at bay was of course, salt. Everything was salted and therefore preserved for the winter months. Fish, especially herrings, were salted and stored in big barrels until well into the 20th century.

My own homemade fermented fruit and veg

Nowadays there is no need to preserve in such a way. We have freezers, so why bother?! Well, there is this thought – not everything freezes well, certainly not on a domestic level, and if you have a garden full of lovely home-grown veg, you would probably want to keep it to eat for as long as possible rather than feed the compost heap with perfectly good produce.

Here on the British Isles, the tradition, at least in the last 150 years or so when sugar became much more accessible, has been for jams, chutneys and pickles. Fermenting has been left to Continental countries where there is more of a tradition of making sauerkrauts. I have a theory as to why we tend to prefer pickles to krauts in this country which I shall come to in a moment.

I shall explain a bit about why I have suddenly started fermenting fruit and vegetables. The answer is simple – digestion! As I have mentioned before, I find that I am really a pretty “meaty” sort of person, doing much better on protein foods than carbohydrate. But of course one still needs vegetable matter in the diet, and I was finding more and more that ordinary vegetables, be they cooked or raw, were upsetting my stomach. Brassicas especially would set my abdomen griping, grumbling and complaining, giving me quite a few sleepless nights. Peas, beans and carrots were becoming the only veg I could happily eat – oh and asparagus, which I love, but who can afford to live on it? It was getting harder and harder to include veg in my diet and although I am not a great believer in this “five a day” thing which the government has chosen to back, I do know that eating a reasonable amount of veg is important.

Then I discovered how to ferment successfully. I mention above about the fact that pickling is more of a tradition in Britain than fermenting, and I think that has to do with our damp climate. I had tried making sauerkraut, carefully following the recipe which tells you to cover the cut up cabbage in brine, completely submerging it and then weighing it down with a plate and a jug full of water. Well, in no time mould was happily growing on top of the liquid! In fact, this doesn’t affect the cabbage underneath – it is safe and sound in its brine – but I found it extremely difficult both physically and emotionally to deal with the layer of mould!

Then we had a good summer of vegetable production in the garden, plus my lovely Thai neighbour gave me loads of swedes and cabbages – and I had to do something to preserve this bounty for the winter. I had already discovered that I could stomach sauerkraut in a way that I really could not fresh cabbage and I started looking at recipes for fermenting.

One reason for not wanting to pickle everything in vinegar was the amount of sugar needed to take the sting out of the vinegar, but I read on Wikipedia that fermenting and pickling were actually the same thing – chutneys being different as the vegetables are cooked down a bit like fruit for jam making, and so the enzymes needed for the vegetables (and fruit) to ferment tended to get killed off in the process. I did, however, make a couple of excellent pickles using in one instance runner beans and in another cucumbers, which I certainly could never consider eating fresh.

Kilner jars, great for preserving and fermentingBut how to get over the “mould” problem? Well, for this I turned to that great invention, the Kilner jar (or Parfait jar) – known in the States as Mason jars. I discovered that if you put your vegetables, seasonings and salt in a “bottling” jar and shut the lid, leaving the jar at room temperature for a few days – Bob’s your uncle! Not only does fermentation take place, but the vegetables keep and keep… As I have whey on hand in the fridge, I add a spoonful or two of that as it helps the fermenting process, but there is no need to add it. You can tell when the fermentation is happening because when you open the lid, you get that satisfying “puff” of released air.

All the recipes on the web or in books tell you to cover the veg in brine, but experimentation has proved to me that it really isn’t necessary, so long as the jars are kept well shut. It isn’t even necessary to keep them in the fridge if you have somewhere cool to store them – I use our porch as it is cold enough in there even in summer. The one thing that gave me confidence to try this way was the fact that when you buy sauerkraut there is virtually no liquid in the jar, but the cabbage keeps fresh for weeks even after opening. That seemed significant to me; and so it proved.

I now have jars of kimchi (that oh so tasty Korean ferment) swede, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower and apples. So many things can be used to create a tasty dish. You can season as you like. For example I put crushed cumin and Sichuan pepper with my last batch of swede, and it is just amazing – much more tasty than boiled swede for sure and no more complicated to prepare. These jarfuls of taste are so quick and easy to put together, and no cooking is involved. They also last a long time as you really don’t need much in one serving, which is an added bonus as grocery costs are set to keep rising.

So there you have it. Now I enjoy all sorts of green vegetables; I have no more stomach gripes from eating them and my taste buds are titillated instead of bored to tears :-) And I have no worries about how to use up a glut from the garden!

[Kilner jar photo by Jerry Pank]