Sandor Katz on the global importance of fermentation in our food, drinks and more
When I think back to some of the travels of my youth, I can see that long before my interest in fermentation began in earnest, travelling primed me to think about fermentation in ways that I likely would not have otherwise.
As a 23-year-old, fresh out of college and seeking adventure, I travelled in Africa for several months with my friend Todd Weir. We didn’t drink, or even encounter, any alcohol as we crossed the Sahara Desert overland through Algeria for a month, taking buses as far as they went, then hitchhiking. But after we crossed into Niger and the increasingly tropical West African landscape, we began to see beer and locally produced palm wine – the fermented sap of palm trees.
The palm wine we encountered and tried was wonderful, and we greatly appreciated the renewed availability of alcohol. I was struck by the fact that the palm wine was always served from open vessels rather than bottles, and seemed to be a product of cottage industry. The beer that was available was made by national breweries, but the palm wine was all made by people at home, or in very small-scale enterprises. Sometimes we bought it, and other times it was served to us as an expression of hospitality. We were also served home-brewed millet beer and other types of homemade alcohol.
I thought of this often eight or nine years later, after I became interested in fermentation. The literature for hobbyists about home beer brewing and winemaking was so technical. I found it somewhat off-putting in all its emphasis on chemicals to purify the fermentation substrate; sanitisation at every step of the process; and special equipment, commercial yeast cultures, and yeast nutrients.
All of this made me wonder about the people we had encountered making palm wine and millet beer in remote villages with limited technology and resources. Where were they getting their carboys and airlocks? Where were they getting their tablets of potassium metabisulfite and yeast nutrients? Or, how had they been able to ferment these delicious beverages without all of that? What were the simpler, more traditional ways?
Without this experience of travelling in Africa, I wouldn’t have known to ask such questions. There, as everywhere, fermentation is an essential aspect of how people make effective use of food resources – not only palm sap, but everything from milk, meat, and fish to grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits.
Fermentation is truly a global phenomenon, practised and of practical importance everywhere, and people in every part of the world make use of fermentation in similar ways. The benefits are numerous. Fermentation is a strategy for safety, producing acids, alcohol, and a range of other by-products that prevent pathogens from growing. It makes many foods more flavourful, and it underlies the beloved flavours of delicacies including chocolate, vanilla, coffee, bread, cheese, cured meats, olives, pickles, condiments, and so much more.
Fermentation extends the lifespan of many foods, among them cabbage and other vegetables (sauerkraut and pickles), milk (cheese and yogurt), meat (salami), and grapes (wine). The most widespread form of fermentation is the production of alcohol, from every carbohydrate source imaginable. Fermentation also enhances nutrients and makes them more accessible, and it breaks down many plant toxins and antinutrient compounds. Certain ferments, eaten or drunk raw after fermentation, provide potentially beneficial bacteria, in great density and biodiversity. The process of fermentation confers all these benefits, and more.
We now understand that all the plant and animal products that comprise our food are populated by elaborate microbial communities. There is therefore a certain inevitability to microbial transformation. Cultures around the world have made use of this inevitability, developing techniques that effectively guide microbial transformation, not only in the context of food, but also in agriculture, fiber arts, building, and other realms.
Yet far from a unified set of techniques, fermentation encompasses a wide array of distinct processes, and it manifests in different ways in different places, depending upon what foods are abundant, what the climate is like, and other factors. The ferments of the tropics are altogether different from the ferments of the Arctic, starting with the starkly different available food resources, and then the varying climate conditions and practical needs compound the differences even more.
This book takes you to both extremes. Even when environmental differences are not so stark, the ways that people work out to make use of microbial activity vary from place to place. Witness the diversity of cheeses, all made from milk, for an easy example. Then, because human migration and the resulting cultural cross-pollination have always been such constants, others’ practices and techniques inevitably influence people everywhere. Like seeds, domesticated animals, culinary techniques, or virtually any aspect of cultural practice, fermentation spreads.
The above is an extract from Sandor Katz’s Fermentation Journeys (Chelsea Green Publishing, £30). To buy a copy, click here and enter IDLER30 at the checkout to get 30% off.
Sandor will be joining us for our online event A Drink with the Idler, Thursday 16 June, 6pm London time. £7.50; free for subscribers.
Subscribe to the Idler here and get 26% off the cover price plus a free copy of An Idler’s Manual.
Buy single issues here.