Fermented foods – why rotting vegetables are in vogue

Fermentation is the latest foodie obsession. What is the appeal of decaying veg?

I have just spent an hour of my apportioned time upon earth getting intimate with cabbage. I selected a tender specimen from my greengrocer; I sliced it into ribbons; I massaged it with sea salt; I teased out the juices; I opened the windows to get rid of the cabbagey stench; I apologised to my wife; I packed the cabbage tightly into a jar, along with a few spices; I took a quick iPhone pic and then I left it on a shelf to reach a beautiful decay.

I hate to break it to you, but this makes me about 100 times more fashionable than you. I don’t care if you’re in head-to-toe Diane von Furstenberg reclining as Dr Dre personally sings you his new album. Unless you’re making like a 19th-century German hausfrau with the sauerkraut you’re hopelessly passé. A Kilner jar of fermenting cabbage has eclipsed the spiraliser as the kitchen accessory du jour — ask the Hemsley Sisters, who say it’s their “ultimate condiment for health”.

In the September issue of Vogue, the writer Susie Rushton records a fermentation odyssey that began with her noticing the popularity of kombucha — a Chinese fermented tea with much-vaunted digestive properties — among fashionistas. After attending a fermentation workshop in Muswell Hill, north London, and making kimchi with the chef Gizzi Erskine, she overcame her squeamishness and learnt to love the jar of mutating bacteria: “Like a garden, it is a living thing that needs tending, and in the waiting and the monitoring of its slow organic process, there is surprising pleasure,” she concludes.

On-trend London restaurants such as Rawduck, Craft London and Portland place great emphasis on pickles and ferments, and their apparent health benefits. At parties these days, you must reference the “flora” in your stomach and say: “Which way to the loo? I’m just so regular since I got into fermenting!” Meanwhile, the popularity of Asian food is helping to spread the gospel of Korean kimchi (fermented cabbage) and Indonesisan tempeh (cultured soybeans).

So culture is the new culture, kimchi is the new Kimye. Though according to Charlotte Pike, author of Fermented — which teaches you how to make these decaying delicacies at home — it’s far from new.

“Many cooks are interested in revisiting forgotten skills and fermentation falls into this category,” she says. “It has largely been forgotten by western culture over the past 50-100 years as food production has become more industrialised. There is also a greater interest in healthy foods and fermented foods are very nutritious. They are a rich source of beneficial bacteria and nutrients that our diets often lack.”

She maintains that it’s safer than it sounds (as long as you watch out for really horrible odours). And it’s actually quite easy compared with, say, sourcing 12-year-old Galician steak or cold-pressing a head of organic kale, to take two other current foodie obsessions.

My cabbage cost 50p, the jar £1 from Ikea and the salt, juniper, caraway and coriander weren’t dear. There are more involved ferments (to make miso or kombucha you need a starter mould) but for the novice, the only significant investment is time.

Still, to understand why fermenting has become such an obsession, you need to go back to the godfather of the movement, a mellow middle-aged American named Sandor Katz, author of the influential 2003 pamphlet, Wild Fermentation (his more recent book, The Art of Fermentation, is a New York Times bestseller).

He got into fermenting in 1993, shortly after he had HIV diagnosed, and credits eating fermented foods for his continued good health, although he is careful to point out that his HIV is still there and he’s alive thanks to medication.

His argument goes a little bit like this. Before refrigeration — and before Louis Pasteur identified what bacteria were up to in the mid-19th century — fermentation was one of humankind’s most reliable ways of preserving food. What you’re doing with a ferment is using bacteria to “cook” the food, by creating conditions for beneficial bacteria to kill harmful bacteria.

As Michael Pollan points out in the fermentation chapter in his bookCooked, most of the tastes we fixate on — cheese, wine, bread, chocolate, coffee, Marmite, soy sauce — rely on some form of fermentation. Somewhere between fresh and rotten lies a sweet spot where biological magic happens.

As food processing became more industrialised and controlled, westerners became more suspicious of bacteria. The US is the most squeamish country — a grown adult eating roquefort is considered more worthy of government intervention than a teenager walking out of a gun store with a semi-automatic weapon. However, even in Britain, the only “live” food we eat with any regularity is yoghurt. Most supermarket “pickles” aren’t true pickles, they’re more dead vegetables marinated in vinegar. Much of the shop-bought sauerkraut in Germany is similarly inert.

This general germophobia explains why “fermentos” — or “post-Pasteurians”, as they like to call themselves — are so passionate. Katz points out that of the millions of strains of bacteria, only about 1 per cent are harmful to humans. We have more bacterial cells in our bodies than human cells, meaning that an alien performing a vivisection on us might conclude that we’re their parasites feeding on our microbial masters.

To declare war on these bacteria — as we have done as a species, with our antibacterial sprays and over-prescription of antibiotics — is a bit like declaring war on ourselves. “For the first time in human history, it has become important to consciously replenish our microflora,” he contends.

There’s growing scientific evidence to support the view that we need more, not less, bacteria. Katz is fairly measured and much more sensible than the idiots who claim that kale makes you happy and alkaline diets will cure cancer. “Fermented food is not the answer to every question and problem,” he told Vogue. “It does have a major role in helping us to digest better, getting nutrients out of food, improving immune function.”

This responds to the pervasive idea that something is fundamentally wrong (“dead”) with our food culture and by extension our wider culture. In extreme Californian fermenting circles, sauerkraut is part of the apocalypse survival kit, along with solar panels and water purification devices. Katz contends that refrigeration is probably “just a phase” so you had better learn how to make local produce last all year.

By the time these ideas reach the mainstream (usually via modish San Francisco chefs, enthusiastic Instagrammers and supermarket buyers), it’s often hard to tell the difference between what’s microbially enlightened and what’s neurotically self-absorbed. The fact that everyone’s digestive system responds so differently to different foods seems to encourage the latter reaction.

Should you find yourself in conversation with a “fermento”, you may conclude that their chat has gone through a similar process of putrefaction as their radishes. Along with German souring techniques comes a very Germanic obsession with “regularity” and “form”. The West may have reached a nadir of narcissism when we’re literally talking s***.

Still, there are a few more things bubbling away in the Kilner jar of 21st-century humanity that help to explain why fermentation has become quite so hip. The time investment is essential to its appeal. It takes two to three weeks for the lactobacillus to turn a jar of salty cabbage into the moreish delicacy that is sauerkraut. Many home chefs will talk of the therapeutic value of losing themselves in the process. A dutiful fermenter will establish a regular pickling rhythm.

Fermented foods are also reliable markers of cultural sophistication. If processed food is like chart pop, ferments are those difficult albums you only really “get” after a few listens. Unless you grew up eating Japanese natto, Chinese century eggs or blue cheese (“the putrefied discharge of a cow’s udder” according to one Chinese diner) the chances are you found it a little rank when you first tried it. If you persisted, it’s testament to your adventurous cosmopolitanism.

There’s also that bracing whiff of danger that comes with duelling with botulism and winning. Fermentation can also be comforting. Many Japanese ladies, I’m told, think of their miso yeast as pets — and I know people who feel the same about their sourdough starters.

I watch my jar of greying cabbage shudder and emit a friendly little bubble. It seems so alive. How happy to be a lactobacillus in that jar! No consciousness to be troubled with thoughts of Instagram or impending apocalypse. Just you and your mates fulfilling your biological destiny. We could learn a lot from bacteria, I reckon.