Alchemy: Lost Art of Fermentation

(Sally Fallon’s Introduction to Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz)
by Susan A.Smith

I planned to write about the importance of bringing naturally fermented foods back into our diets, how we can ferment vegetables, fruits, legumes, dairy, meat, grains, and beverages, making them all healthier. All those bottles and jars in your refrigerator door can be replaced with wholesome, tasty, healthy olives, pickles, catsup, mayonnaise, mustard, sodas, and sauces. Fermented foods and drinks preserve foods, increase vitamin and mineral content, remove toxins, increase immunity, and contain digestive enzymes to restore a strong gut ecology, I was going to write about all this, but the Sandor Katz book named Wild Fermentation is delightful. Sally Fallon's Introduction to his book is perfect.

The process of fermenting foods to preserve them, and to make them more digestible and more nutritious, is as old as humanity. From the Tropics, where cassava is thrown into a hole in the ground to allow it to soften and sweeten, to the Arctic, where fish are customarily eaten aged to the consistency of ice cream, fermented foods are valued for their health-giving properties and for their complex tastes.

Unfortunately, fermented foods have largely disappeared from the Western diet, much to the detriment of our health and economy. Fermented foods are a powerful aid to digestion and a protection against disease. And because fermentation, is by nature, an artisanal process, the disappearance of fermented foods has hastened the centralization and industrialization of our food supply, to the detriment of small farms and local economies.

The taste for fermented foods is usually an acquired taste. Few of us can imagine eating fermented tofu crawling with worms, which is relished in parts of Japan; or bubbly sorghum beer, smelling like the contents of your stomach, which is downed by the gallons in parts of Africa. But then, few Africans or Asians can enjoy the odiferous chunks of rotten milk (called cheese) that are so pleasing to Western palates. To those who have grown up with fermented foods, they offer the most sublime of eating experiences, and there are many that will appeal to Western tastes even without a long period of accustomization.

In the spirit of the great reformers and artists, Sandor Katz has labored mightily to deliver this magnum opus to a population hungry for a reconnection to real food and to the process of life itself. For fermented foods are not only satisfying to eat, they are also immensely satisfying to prepare. From the first successful batch of kombucha to that thrilling taste of homemade sauerkraut, the practice of fermentation is one of partnership with microscopic life. This partnership leads to a reverence for all the processes that contribute to the wellbeing of the human race, from the production of enzymes by invisible bacteria to the gift of milk and meat from the sacred cow.

This science and art of fermentation is, in fact, the basis of human culture: without culturing, there is no culture. Nations that still consume cultured foods, such as France with its wine and cheese, and Japan with its pickles and miso, are recognized as nations that have culture. Culture begins at the farm, not in the opera house, and binds a people to a land and its artisans. Many commentators have observed that America is a nation lacking culture, and how can we be cultured when we eat only food that has been canned, pasteurized, and embalmed? How ironic that the road to culture in our germophobic technological society requires, first and foremost, that we enter into an alchemical relationship with bacteria and fungi, and that we bring to our tables foods and beverages prepared by the magicians, not machines.

Wild Fermentation represents not only an effort to bring back from oblivion these treasured processes but also a road map to a better world, a world of healthy people and equitable economies, a world that especially values those iconoclastic, free-thinking individuals, so often labeled misfits, uniquely qualified to perform the alchemy of fermented foods.


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