It wasn’t until later, when I began to ferment raw vegetables into sauerkraut, kimchi and curtido (recipe below), however, that the wild alchemy and beauty of fermentation completely revolutionised my attitude towards food, microbes (and life!).
Fermentation is the action of millions of bacteria and wild yeasts breaking down vegetables and fruit (and other plant and animal matter) into forms that not only can be digested, but also rendered less toxic. Without fermentation, foods and drinks like coffee, tea, chocolate, cheese, tofu, beers and wines simply wouldn’t exist. What excites me about DIY fermentation, is that it allows us to wrest at least some of our food production out of the industrialised food system and back into our own hands.
Getting out of your mind and into your hands
March 2022 I stand with the large bowl in front of me and with my bare hands mix chopped red and white cabbage with thinly sliced carrot, chopped onion, salt, a few chipotle and jalapeño chilli flakes and some dried oregano. I pour a cup of salted apple juice mixed with water into the mix and then massage and rub the ingredients together, before stuffing them into a Kilner (or Mason) jar, pressing down hard until the liquid covers the vegetables. Then I use some folded cabbage leaves and the stump of the cabbage to keep the juice above the vegetables when I close the lid. I put the jar on the living room table so we can watch as the microbes do their break-down dance, taste the ferment as it develops, and open it regularly to keep it well burped and avoid explosions due to the build-up of gas. We’ll probably start eating this curtido within a week, whilst it’s still fizzing. A jar usually lasts us no more than a week – the strong, salty, acidic flavours are compelling and extremely more-ish.
I wasn’t always this enthusiastic about the bubbling jar. Not so many years ago I would try to hide my panic when faced with the home-made ferments others had made. Terrified of ‘germs’ and being poisoned, I missed out on a lot of mouth-watering, gut-benefitting, life-enhancing delights – quite embarrassing when I look back.
But I’m no longer that person. And a major part of this radical shift in attitude is due to the work of ‘fermentation revivalist’ Sandor Katz and the books he has produced: Wild Fermentation (2003), The Art of Fermentation (2012), Fermentation as Metaphor (2020) and Sandor Katz’s Fermentation Journeys (2021), all published by Chelsea Green.
The first two books are the ones I’d recommend if you want to get started on hands-on fermentation at home. A self-described generalist, Katz’s enthusiasm is infectious, inclusive, and his knowledge wide and hands-on. It’s as if he’s standing beside you in your first attempts, cheering you on: ‘That’s right, get your hands into those vegetables. Just remember, “chop, salt, pack!” And love those bubbling microbes!’
It’s as if he’s standing beside you, cheering you on: ‘That’s right, get your hands into those vegetables. Just remember, “chop, salt, pack!” And love those bubbling microbes!’
In amongst all the bubbly descriptions of fermented food from all over the world are some sober and powerful insights about our essential relationships with earthly life. One of the many radical threads woven into the pattern of Katz’s work, along with preserving cultures (sic) and becoming more intimate with the food we eat, is the challenge to the modern obsession with being pure, clean and uncontaminated.
Whereas his other books focus mainly on the practical, cultural and experimental sides of fermentation, in Fermentation as Metaphor, Katz discusses the more metaphysical aspects of this ancient art. How with social fermentation old human structures are broken down in order feed new manifestations of the human experience, how even the boundaries of our bodies and skin are more fluid than we think, constantly interacting with the world. So if we can’t purge ourselves of the microbes, because ‘they’ are ‘us’, ‘we’ need a whole new approach to ‘them’.
Microbial biodiversity is the matrix for all life. It is neither possible nor desirable to escape it … We live our lives in a sort of microbial forcefield, a complex community of bacteria, viruses, fungi and other organisms that live upon and within us…1
This microbial field is porous and interacts and communicates with the other beings, both human and non-human, wherever we are. Active wild yeasts exist in the air all around us as well as on cabbage leaves. We are not as individual as we like to believe. And we are definitely not alone. Working with ferments makes you question whether individuality even really exists, and realise that the massive focus on individualism has led to a chronic disconnection from the forces that make us truly alive. When this hit me, my former tendency for over-zealous handwashing disappeared almost overnight.
I had never thought about it before: there is an entire community of microorganisms living in our guts, including bacteria and yeasts, which is referred to as the gut microbiome. The trillions of bacterial cells in the large intestine alone are vital for the healthy regulation of our immune and digestive systems. What? You mean it’s not just me and my body? That’s right, folks. We’re hosting shapeshifting multitudes.
According to baker Vanessa Kimbell, in The Sourdough School of Sweet Baking, our industrialised, monocultural, sugar-heavy, low-fibre modern diet reduces the diversity of the gut microbiome (by as much as 50% in the UK population). This affects our physical and mental health adversely, leading to autoimmune, digestive and psychological problems. Live fermented foods help replenish and support this microbiome – and being hands-on and making your own, whether it’s sourdough bread or sauerkraut, is part of the reconnection. And the process of fermentation itself, contrary to popular imagination, actually ensures the safety of the food or drink being fermented because of the actions of the acids created in the process.
The change that fermentation has brought about in my attitude towards what’s clean or wholesome has been radical. Our ‘culture’ is always telling us to get rid of and destroy all kinds of ‘germs’, be tidy, tidy, tidy, be in ‘control over’ rather than in ‘relationship with’ life. We’re educated to be super clean and so we connect that with optimum health. But there is a very unhealthy side to too much obsession with cleanliness, which might point more to mental health suffering and OCD than to godliness. Now, when people say to me nervously, ‘But is fermentation safe? Is it clean?’ I quell the impulse to say, ‘Oh, get over yourself!’, try to recall my own nerves in my pre-fermentation days, take a deep breath, and see if I can come up with something a bit more friendly.
In the 80s and 90s, I spent a lot of time in Mexico. I drank many different types of tequila and mescal (both fermented alcoholic drinks from the maguey or Century plant [Agave ssp]), but I only ever tasted pulque once. Also a fermented drink from the Agave, pulque was ignored and disdained by most modern people as a poor man’s drink, unclean and unappealing. This attitude, Sandor Katz writes in Fermentation Journeys, was deliberately fostered by politicians and soft drink corporations in the early 20th century. Modern, ‘hygienic’ ‘[f]actory production of Western beer and Coca-Cola was touted as safer than traditional small-scale pulque production.’
But like many ferments, pulque has a rich cultural heritage and in some places is considered as a living being in its own right. Every pulque maker (tlachiquero) has their own method of harvesting and preparing the drink, and though tlachiqueros have traditionally been men, there is now an increase in women tlachiqueras, including a collective, the Mujeres Milenarias,2 all dedicated to rehabilitating pulque to its rightful place in the culture.
When we get hands-on into fermenting food ourselves and within our communities, it helps to dislodge the hegemony of the industrialised food system within the imagination and show there are alternative ways to approach food, where we can actually get involved in the process rather than being removed from it or handing it over to faceless organisations.
When we get hands-on into fermenting food ourselves and within our communities, it helps to dislodge the hegemony of the industrialised food system within the imagination
There is also something innately social and cultural about fermenting food. It makes you want to share the know-how (and the ferments) with others, pass it on, and not ‘be an end user’, as Frank Cook used to say.3 This is the spirit that bubbles throughout all of Katz’s work. In his latest book, Fermentation Journeys, he documents his travels and meetings with fermenters over the years everywhere from Indigenous Alaska to Italy to China, with the help of many wonderful photos of plants, people and life (and bubbling jars). His discoveries and recipes are brought right to our kitchen tables, so wherever we are, we can be stirred (sic) to begin our own fermentation journey – and watch the transformation!
The red and white cabbage curtido was opened and tasted after three or four days, still fizzy, with a light crunch and the bold flavours of the cabbage, onion and oregano. We left it on the table for a couple more days, then transferred it to another jar and put it in the fridge. A week or so later, there’s just a small amount left. I think I’m going to mix it with some eggs and make an omelette for breakfast…
A recipe for curtido
This is a ferment popular in Central America, similar to (but not the same as) European sauerkraut or Korean kimchi. Like other ferments, this one never comes out the same way twice, but it always tastes great, and can be ready within three days for a fabulous, gut-friendly relish! Enjoy it with eggs, rice, potatoes, fritters, on its own, or whatever appeals to you…
There are some tasty commercial curtidos available in the UK, but it’s more rewarding and less expensive to have a go at it yourself. Here’s how I made today’s jar:
1/3 medium white cabbage (one of the denser varieties) chopped/shredded
1/3 medium red cabbage, chopped/shredded
1 carrot, julienned
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 level teaspoon chipotle chile flakes
1 level teaspoon jalapeño chile flakes
1 tsp of Mexican oregano (Mexican oregano is in the verbena rather than the mint family, and is stronger than the regular oregano we’re used to in the UK, but you can substitute this for two teaspoons of regular oregano)
2 teaspoons freshly ground cumin (I heat the seeds in a dry frying pan before I grind them)
2 teaspoons sea salt
1/2 cup of lightly salted water and apple juice mix (50/50)
In a bowl mix the cabbage, carrot, onion, salt, chile flakes, oregano and cumin until evenly distributed. (You can massage the cabbage first if you want to.)
Pour in the apple/water mix.
In a 1 litre Kilner/Mason jar press the vegetables down hard. I use the end of a rolling pin for this, and that gets the juices flowing. You can also use a few whole cabbage leaves to cover the vegetables.
You need to make sure the curtido is covered with liquid, so if necessary, use the cabbage heart to hold the vegetables down firmly when you close the Kilner jar.
Keep in a warm place out of the sunlight (in the winter I use the airing cupboard) and place the jar in a bowl to catch any of the liquid that might (and probably will) escape. These ferments can get fizzy quite quickly. Open the lid once (at least) or twice a day to burp the jar.
This ferment can be enjoyed after as few as three to five days. After about five days I generally place it in a new jar and keep it in the fridge, where it doesn’t remain long!
Mark Watson will be teaching How We Walk Through the Fire’s fourth workshop, Plant Dialogues, with Charlotte Du Cann, marking the beginning of the summer around May Day. We will focus on connecting with the plant kingdom in times of ecological crisis, and how we might re-entangle ourselves with the intelligence and beauty of wild plants, working with the key leaves, flowers and trees of the season. This workshop forms part of a year-long creative exploration, tracking the ancestral, solar year.
Credits and references
Pulque in gourd in the Mixteca Alta, Oaxaca, Mexico, December 2019, © Lyzy30, Wikimedia Commons
1 Sandor Elliz Katz, Fermentation as Metaphor, Chelsea Green (2020) pp. 34–37
2 Sandor Katz’s Fermentation Journeys, Chelsea Green (2021), p.10
3 Sandor Ellix Katz, The Art of Fermentation, Chelsea Green (2012)
Sandor Katz’s website: Wild Fermentation
Mark Watson’s (intermittent but sometimes fizzing) blog: MarkInFlowers
Dark Mountain: Issue 23 – Dark Kitchen
The Spring issue 2023 is set around our Dark Kitchen table where writers, artists and cooks explore food culture in a time of unravelling