The call of the wild

Wild fermentation that is

Fermentation has been calling me for some time and I’ve finally given in to it! I first read about fermenting veg to make sauerkraut or kimchi in Alys Fowler’s book Abundance. At that time it went right over my head. I have pickled, frozen, canned, chutneyed and dried veg, but it had never occurred to me to ferment them. It seemed a bit extreme!

Fermentation, meaning harnessing microbes to transform food in a way that preserves its food value rather than rotting it, covers a multitude of practices that are almost as old as human civilisation. Brewing, winemaking, yoghurt, cheese and bread-making are all fermentations. Even chocolate, tea and coffee are produced by fermentation. It seems to produce complex flavours that we humans value highly.

I have made yoghurt quite often, and I dabbled with making sourdough bread a couple of years back, just beginning to make some progress before finding out that my husband is gluten-intolerant and abandoning the project. I have never made beer, but I have brewed some decent blackberry wine (for ‘decent’ read ‘have more than a glass and forget who you are and where you live!’). Fermenting veg by just chopping it up, mixing with salt and letting the bugs in the air do their work though – scary!

I had heard that Lactobacillus products are extremely good for you, but it was reading Michael Pollan’s Cooked that really brought it home, as he lays out exactly how the miraculous Lactobacillus bugs transform food and how important they are to digestive health, and as a result mental health and overall health and immunity. Then I stumbled across Kombucha, made by Avalon Kombucha, at Langport market. A probiotic drink full of Lactobacillus, it was delicious, although it’s too early to judge the effects on health and digestion.

Finally, I was at Bristol Food Connections at a talk with Matthew Pennington from Ethicurean restaurant. He made an onion, carrot and celery ferment there on the stage, in 5 minutes, and described how, after a month, it tastes like ‘unami tomato’. That decided it. The time had come to join the heaving ranks of veg fermentors! I ordered some air-locked jars, and a book by fermenting guru Sandor Katz. Progress reports will follow, and photos on Twitter.

The effect of wild yeasts and Lactobacillus on wheat in breadmaking is really startling. We humans are way too clever for our own good, and never to leave well alone. Having perfected the art of breakmaking, we carried on developing it, and developed the nutrition right out of it. From a time when the bulk of the population lived on bread, 2 lb of it per day, and were quite healthy, a substantial proportion now can’t eat it, and the rest feel guilty about eating it and think they should avoid it.

The wheat grains themselves have been bred to the point where they are largely starch, the ‘germ’, the bit with all the nutrition in, which inconveniently doesn’t keep well, reduced as much as possible. Then the commercial mills are designed to strip out the bran and the germ as the first step, leaving just the white endosperm, the starchy bit. If they produce wholemeal flour, it’s by adding bran back in later, and whether they add the germ back in is unclear, since it goes rancid quickly and is commercially inconvenient. This is why, if you buy flour to make your own bread, it’s important to go for an organic, stone-ground one, preferably a local, authentically produced one, and fresh, since proper flour doesn’t keep long.

Then there is modern commercial yeast, added in huge quantities to achieve a quick rise in the industrial process, and voila! Lots of cheap, white, fluffy bread devoid of nutrition that makes your blood sugar soar!

There is a reason why bread used to take so long to rise. In a sourdough process, the yeast and Lactobacillus bacteria carve out a perfect environment for themselves, with each living off the waste products of the other and excluding harmful microbes. The process breaks down the starches, releases enzymes and modifies the gluten in a way that makes it much easier to digest, doesn’t trash your blood sugar and is far more nutritious.

Somewhere in all the industrial meddling is the combination of factors that has produced spiralling levels of gluten intolerance and coeliac disease. It’s difficult to go back to a less industrialised wheat – the ‘medieval’ ones you can buy are a little too primitive and have very little gluten, although they taste great. What is needed is a middle ground, wheat from 100 years ago, which isn’t available. However, it is not difficult to buy proper stone-ground flour. Here in Dorset we have Stoates at Shaftesbury producing just that.

And you can develop sourdough skills. (Beware the label ‘sourdough’ in supermarkets, it’s often not what it should be.) That’s where I’m at. This time I’m cheating. I ordered a mature starter, ready to go, rather than trying to develop my own from scratch, and my efforts were quite successful – details will follow in another blog.


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I grow veg on my one-acre garden in Blackmore Vale, Dorset, and I cook, preserve and write about it. I am developing a perennial veg 'edimental' garden, and a forest garden, as well as a conventional veg patch. Earlier blogs can be found at

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