For a few years now we have been happily using the term "friendly bacteria" and at least have a vague idea that we should be eating more live yoghurt. However, the health of our gut bacteria and its impact on our physical and mental health is becoming a big topic. As scientists gradually begin to unpick the complex relationship between our health and the trillions of microbes that live on and in us, more and more is coming to light about the importance of treating our microbiome with the respect it deserves.
Personally I feel blessed with a relatively happy gut, although I don't take this for granted and do try to treat it well. My husband, in contrast, has struggled with IBS all his life and in the last year has been prescribed antibiotics on a number of occasions, only compounding his issues. Having read the excellent book "The Clever Guts Diet" by Trust Me I'm A Doctor presenter Dr Michael Mosley, he now buys in a cocktail of pre- and pro-biotics in an attempt to help restore his system and improve his condition. Dr Mosley also includes in his book a number of recipes and suggested foods that should be eaten. It is perhaps unsurprising that these include fermented foods.
Historically fermenting food has been done as a way to preserve food, increase the flavour and in some cases to produce alcohol for its recreational benefits. However, these days there is an increasing interest in fermented foods for their benefits to our gut health. It is very much an international past-time and each culture seems to have developed its own range of fermented foods and drinks which these days we embrace with renewed interest as we enjoy foods from different regional cuisines. Where once my first thought of fermented food may have been sauerkraut, these days kimchi would probably be top of my list.
I have dabbled with fermented foods in the past. Sourdough is one example. These days I make yoghurt weekly and a glut in Chinese cabbage led me to a brief foray into kimchi making in the summer. I was, however, of the opinion that I would rather have pickled cabbage on my plate than sauerkraut and, quite frankly, the likes of fermented vegetables and the weird sounding fermented tea kombucha sounded both unappetising and slightly scary.
However, when Turan from Coldsmoking Cookery School offered me the opportunity to sit in on a practice run through of a new fermented food course I was both excited and a little nervous to find out more.
Upon my arrival, Kevan, the course tutor, was unpacking a selection of fermented foods onto the table. It was, as I had feared, a collection of mostly unidentifiable substances in an array of Kilner jars and swing top bottles. I had seen the course outline and I knew we would be expected to taste these as well as make some of them to take home. Still, my mind was open and you never know until you try...
Finding out about Kevan's backgrounds in both microbiology and food foraging is a reassuring way to start a course about fermenting. He is clearly the right man to handhold newbies through the process and avoid accidentally culturing something deadly. Actually, he is very reassuring on this matter and soon convinced me that this was a) highly unlikely to happen and b) likely to create something so "bad" that you wouldn't eat it anyway. In a culture where we reach for the antibacterial spray and bleach in a bid to keep ourselves safe, it can take a little bit of adjusting to get your head around the concept of deliberately growing microbes.
After a brief introduction to the history and purpose of food fermenting we were invited to taste the samples of sauerkraut and kimchi on the table. Probably not my usual go-to option for elevenses but I was here to learn - as much about the flavours as the process. And, I was pleasantly surprised. The red cabbage sauerkraut was a particular stroke of genius and I made a mental note to give that one a try in the autumn when my red cabbages are ready.
It was time to get properly hands on and for the next part of the course we busied ourselves with the simple process of making a batch of sauerkraut and then a batch of kimchi. Soon the room was filled with the delicious smells of fresh vegetables, garlic and ginger and I felt very much back in my comfort zone, shoving stuff into jars.
We continued in well known territory after that by looking at yoghurt making. This traditional fermented food is so familiar and ubiquitous that it is almost a comfort food. Indeed, as I make it every week, I was very much at home with the processes and concepts but nonetheless Kevan managed to give me a tip or too that I'm looking forward to trying. Familiar, as I am, I know full well that in order to create the satisfying Greek-style yoghurt, it needs to be strained and this creates the waste product, whey. Sometimes I just throw my whey down the plughole but I am fully aware that it is a useful product in itself, high in protein and full of all the cultures found in yoghurt. I have used mine in the past to make a high protein chocolate mousse (a favourite with my kids) and I have used it successfully in homemade bread. I was interested to know what Kevan did with his so I asked and then he completely blew my mind by explaining that if you mix it into homemade mayonnaise or salsa you actually increase its shelf life. The cultures in the whey help to keep away potentially harmful microbes. Goodness me! Imagine that adding a waste milk product to a something can actually increase its shelf-life! He also invited me to try some fermented radishes that he had made using whey. Fermented radishes. I don't even like radishes, let alone fermented ones... only it turned out that I did. They had a lovely, completely un-radishy flavour; a mild pickle with a satisfying crunch. Having previously dismissed the idea of growing radishes this year (because no one actually likes them) they are now back on my must-grow list.
By this point I was fully into the whole fermented foods thing and keen to find out more. But then we moved on to that weird sounding fermented tea - kombucha. The unappealing blobby jelly thing (SCOBY) required to kick start the fermenting process did nothing to whet my appetite. A sample awaited for tasting...
Again, mind blown!
How can something made from tea taste so beautifully of apples? Actually, the answer is quite straightforward and Kevan explained the biochemistry, but all the same, it was unexpected and (science aside) magical!
Finally, we moved on to learning about and tasting milk and water kefirs. I was completely unaware of these previously so I had no preconceived ideas. Besides, by this point I had learnt it was best to park my preconceptions as they had been proved wrong over and over again. Whilst milk kefirs are best compared to the likes of Yakult, water kefirs are similar to Fentiman's Botanically Brewed drinks. So delightful to find delicious drinks that are neither overly sweet or alcoholic, with the added benefit of an impressive array of friendly bacteria and yeasts. Yep, I was sold.
I have done a number of food courses now and I am used to going home with the delicious makings from the day ready to please and impress my family. But this was different. Nothing more than a couple of jars of chopped vegetables, yet to be transformed into the wonders of sauerkraut and kimchi and three jars in which lurked starter cultures in the form of alien blobs. Yet, my enthusiasm and excitement was overflowing. Stopping off to buy whole milk and some mineral water (chlorinated tap water is a no no), I came home ready to get fermenting and by the end of the day I had a row of jars bubbling away on my work top and a book on fermented foods on order.
However, the family were less impressed and wholly unconvinced.
By the next morning the bubbly liquid in the jar of water kefir was causing my daughter to question: "What even is that?!" But by the evening the milk kefir was ready and with the addition of some homemade raspberry syrup I was handing out glasses along the lines of yoghurt drink. "That," said my other daughter, "is actually quite nice." The next day the water kefir was ready for tasting and I'm pleased to say that my husband very much enjoyed that. In the meantime, we patiently await more fermented marvels to finish their magic and I look forward to enjoying a whole new part of my kitchen repertoire.
I would highly recommend this course and think it will be an excellent addition to the courses offered at Coldsmoking Cookery. Should you wish to book yourself a place, the next one takes place on 29th June 2018