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Vittles 5.4 - Fermenting and Failure
Fermenting With Thom Eagle 3: Troubleshooting
I want to talk about the fear of mould and about the fear of failure.
Today’s newsletter by Thom Eagle is the third part of his fermentation series and deals with what to do when things don’t quite work out as expected. I hope that many of you have been convinced by Thom’s silver tongued prose to start fermenting and maybe you’re wondering why it took you so long to start in the first place? Or maybe you’re wondering if it’s still all going to go tits up, and that you’ll check back on your kraut only to find some still-hard cabbage languishing in salty water, or, worse yet, a furry scarf of mould?
We can be terrified of mould. It signifies death and decay; its alarmingly bright blue, green and red spores say “do not eat me, this thing has expired”. As a child I would inwardly retch to see my mum thriftily cutting mould off pieces of cheese or loaves of bread so as not to waste the whole. It made me suspicious of everything in her fridge. that if I stuck my hand in, it might emerge with something living on it. I would be berated for constantly sniffing the lids of milk, opening new ones if I had any suspicions; “Johnny, I’ve just bought that one!”. During the fermentation process you might think mould signifies failure, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Moulds are generally neutral: not that you should scrape off the white film from a peach and eat it, but when directed, moulds also give us the creamy funk of blue cheese, the forest-floor umami of aged meat. And as Thom points out, once you remove that mould, you might discover that actually you didn’t fail at all.
Yesterday on Twitter, Thom mentioned that at a round table discussion he was asked ‘how do I get into food writing?’, and then expounded on how it took him a few years to come to terms that being a food writer rather than simply ‘A Writer’ wasn’t failure. As Thom says, the simplest way of getting into food writing is just to write about food. But fear of failure stalks us. It stalked me for a good part of 10 years, during which I didn’t even try to write. It wasn’t until George Reynolds slipped into my DMs one evening exactly two years ago to ask me if I wanted to write about mithai (I had just been to Kingsbury to get mangoes) that I realised writing was even a possibility. Two years later and there are no good mangoes to be found, but at least I’m still writing.
For those currently not at work, use this time to fail. Do whatever you think you might love to do - baking, fermenting, whatever - and fail at it. Maybe even spectacularly. I look at the first piece of writing I did for Eater London and it doesn’t even sound like me, but simply the act of writing it was a personal victory on the scale of Agincourt.
So whatever it is, now’s the time to fail at it; if it happens to be food writing, well, you know where to pitch.
Fermenting With Thom Eagle: Troubleshooting
When I used to run pickling and fermenting workshops we would usually begin by discussing what if any experience the attendees had in fermenting food or drinks at home; what would follow more often than not was a litany of disasters. “I tried kimchi, but it smelled terrible”; “I left my sauerkraut in the shed and I think it went mouldy”; “my gherkins are soft”.Usually after these initial failures people had not tried again, or at least had waited for somebody more experienced to tell them what to do. My own first attempt at sauerkraut, thanks in part to an unclear recipe but mostly to my then total lack of understanding, resulted in a large tub full of stinking white fur which sat sulking in the utility room for weeks before I could bring myself to deal with it. Being naturally pig-headed I didn’t let that stop me, although it was some time before I felt confident to experiment again. When I did it was while at (the recently closed) Darsham Nurseries Café in Suffolk, with a kitchen garden producing its own abundance and, opening only during the day, my evenings free to mess around. It was a recipe of Olia Hercules which reignited my interest in fermenting, following it several times and realised essentially that it was almost impossible to mess up.
All of this is by way of saying that while, yes, things can go wrong with ferments, it is easy enough to ensure that they do not. Even when things start to go wrong, it is usually fairly simple to rectify them. The principle, remember, is that you are aiming to create a salty and acidic environment which is secure from the air, and the majority of problems come from a failure to achieve this. Keeping an eye on your ferment, especially in its first most active stage, is useful – topping up brine if necessary, burping jars and so on – although generally, assuming you made it carefully in the first place, the best thing you can do to a ferment is leave it alone. The most I tend to do, especially as the seasons change or as I accidentally leave the heating on all night, is to make sure that wherever my jars sit is not too hot; much above a warm room temperature and fermentation will go too quickly, the vegetable softening before it has a chance to sour. Occasionally diligence dips, of course; a weight shifts as you move a jar, or sauerkraut floats up above its juices. It’s very easily done, and the usual result is the appearance of some fine white stuff on the surface of whatever vegetable you are fermenting; the important thing at this point is not to worry too much. It is natural, in our increasingly sterilised world, to be scared of decay, a fear which I don’t think the bizarre labelling of some microbes as ‘good’ and the rest as ‘bad’ does anything to assuage. Even when we accept fermentation as a kind of controlled rot it is easy to see anything outside this control as being dangerous.
When in Britain we look at the food of other cultures we tend to treat the products of fermentation, especially the non-vegetable ones, with almost comical disgust, a scoffing disbelief that anyone could actually eat this stuff. Fermented shark? Thousand-year eggs? These are products which most people in this country have not tried, but only know the process of – and the process seems deranged. All this really demonstrates is how little we know about what we eat. Outside of the world of clean white tiles and plastic packaging tiny fish are layered with salt and their own intestines and left to ferment in full sun; bits of bluing bread are poked into cheese to spread veins throughout it; legs of hanging meat are scrubbed with vinegar to slow and control the progression across them of dense white fur. Food is alive, and that life does not stop when we slaughter the animal, drag the fish up to suffocate, or pull the vegetable from the earth.
The fact is that the majority of microbial life is neither harmful nor particularly beneficial to us but rather goes its own merry way, and that the salt and acidity of fermentation keep us safe from most of what would be harmful; the fine white deposit on your pickle is probably not mould but yeast, and you can scrape it off or mix it in as you please. It comes from the air and thrives on the airy surface of your brine, but acid and bacteria will see to it easily enough. Ferments left undisturbed for longer, and particularly those with a higher sugar content (I always seem to get it on beetroot-heavy sauerkraut style ferments) might develop a thicker white layer that ripples like the skin of a sharpei. This is a kind of yeast called Kahm yeast, and if you ferment a lot of things it can spread like a virus between them, but it causes no particular harm beyond smelling bad. If you leave it for a long time it might make the rest of your ferment smell and indeed taste bad too, but if caught quickly you can just scrape off the affected layer and chuck it away. To a large extent you have to be guided by your own senses. Kahm yeast is recognisable because it smells very strongly and somewhat unpleasantly of yeast, the way your forgotten sourdough starter smells, or the dregs of an ale that’s on the turn; it is very different to the damply subterranean smell of mould.
Moulds, especially when you get into the furry or blue kinds, are a little more problematic. I have never seen a black or a red mould on the surface of a ferment but if you do you should, I’m afraid, chuck it away immediately. Mould of any sort on a brine ferment will usually make the whole thing taste of it, but the density of sauerkraut usually means you can get away with just scraping off a good inch from the top; I probably shouldn’t admit this, but the best sauerkraut I ever made was rescued from beneath a layer of mould as thick as my arm. The mould had formed a kind of cap beneath which fermentation continued completely away from the air and, perhaps as importantly, away from my interference; the kraut had aged much better and fully than any I had made before or perhaps since. As I’ve said before fermentation, in terms of the technical demands it places on you as a cook, is really not difficult at all in the way that delicate pastry is difficult, or handling wet dough is difficult, or sushi is difficult. The barrier rather is a mental one, the fear of things going wrong, the fear in the first place of placing your food in the care of micro-organisms entirely beyond your control. When it doesn’t stop people from even making the attempt this fear can manifest itself in an urge to poke around in your ferment, to tinker when you should leave it well alone – which of course makes it more likely that something might go wrong. The urge to interfere is probably for most of us greater now than ever, stuck at home, portioning out the minutes between mealtimes – I know I’m incapable of making a stew or a soup without checking it every three minutes to see how it’s getting on. It is also however an ideal time to try new things, things which won’t be seen by anyone but you and your quarantine partner(s) unless you want them to be, and to do so without fear of failure – or at least in the knowledge that if you do mess up, not much bad will come of it.
The worst in the sense of the most irritating thing that can go wrong with your ferments is when they go mushy. This can happen for a few reasons – a result of mould, enzymes from the vegetables themselves, exceptionally warm weather – but in any case it is particularly annoying as the mushy pickles are as safe to eat as they are unpleasant. You feel bad about chucking them away, but often they just sit uneaten, taking up a valuable jar. Here’s something to do with them.
Mushy pickle ketchup
1kg of mushy gherkins (or you can use perfectly good ones)
1 tbsp yellow mustard seeds
1 tbsp coarsely ground black or white pepper
100ml of gherkin brine or vinegar if you want a sharper taste
50-100g sugar (it’s your ketchup, you decide)
A chunk of fresh ginger, grated finely
2 cloves of garlic, grated finely
Blitz the pickles to a puree. Toast the spices in a dry saucepan then add the brine or vinegar, the sugar, the garlic and ginger. Simmer until the sugar dissolves then mix the spiced syrup with the gherkin. Taste for salt / sweet / acid and bottle when you’re happy with it.
Thom Eagle is a writer and chef whose first book First, Catch is available from all good bookstores. Before the pandemic, he was also cooking semi-regularly at Bottega Caruso in Margate. He was paid for this newsletter.
The illustration was done by Caitlin Isola Caprio whose work you can find at https://caitlinisola.com/ . Caitlin donated her illustration to Vittles.