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Vittles 5.8 - Fermenting and Success
Fermenting with Dame Thom Eagle 4: What Success Looks Like
A few years ago I went to a talk on the role of texture in Chinese food, presented by the British food writer Fuchsia Dunlop. The main thesis of the talk was that as much as the UK has embraced many aspects of Chinese food, texture has been misunderstood. Not only is texture an integral part of Chinese cuisine, Dunlop argued, but it is something that can be sought out in itself even if you strip away things like flavour and aroma. The QQ texture of a tapioca ball; the crunch of cartilage in a pig’s ear; daintily nibbling around a duck’s foot. Dunlop offered a theory: the reason for this lack of understanding is most likely down to the inadequacy of translation — there are simply no words in the English language to convey the appeal of these things. Well there are, but none of them sound good: chewy, jellied, rubbery, gristly. As someone who works in tea, mainly Chinese tea, this makes sense. Much of translating Chinese tea to westerners involves explaining terms like huigan (returning sweetness), ku (bitterness, but in tea’s case a welcome quality) and qi (untranslatable) and trying to dismantle preconceptions of what is and isn’t desirable.
Dunlop was asked if this worked the other way, and indeed it did. While researching Shaoxing chou mei (stinky, fermented) vegetables she had the idea of bringing over some cheese from Neal’s Yard Dairy to give to chefs used to heavily fermented flavours. Many of them were still repelled by them on an instinctual level although having someone to explain what they were helped open them up to some of them, although not the ones you might expect (Dunlop wrote this story up here).
I think this story shows the power of translation in food. New foods always have to go through the conduit of an expert — ideally a white expert, before they filter down to everyone else. Except in food’s case, it’s not trying to convince you that the food is good, or tasty, it’s more that it wont kill you. Go back far enough and you will see food writers and critics explaining this in extremely hilarious terms: those peppercorns in Sichuan food are supposed to numb your mouth; the fish in that sushi is supposed to be raw; those meatballs in the ragu are supposed to be spherical. I wonder how many cuisines have not percolated into the national consciousness because they don’t have that expert with a media platform to translate them? I have my theories.
All of which brings us to today’s newsletter, the fourth in an ongoing series on fermentation by Thom Eagle. Last time he told you not to fear failure. This time he shows you how to recognise success when you haven’t experienced it before. Maybe you’ve tried the kraut recipe and it’s fizzing a bit? Or you’re not quite sure how sour that kombucha is supposed to be? Thom is here to say “don’t worry, it won’t kill you (probably)” and actually these things may be considered desirable and even tasty. It’s all a matter of recalibrating your tastebuds.
It would also be remiss of me not to say that Thom has an excellent book out right now called Summer’s Lease which in its own way is an act of translation for those who fear cooking without heat. If you have enjoyed his columns so far, then I highly recommend getting it: it’s like a really useful version of his first book.
Fermenting with Dame Thom Eagle 4: What Success Looks Like
If fear of failure is a barrier to successful fermentation, as it is to any endeavour, it can be equally debilitating not to know what success might look like. British cuisine is largely bereft of fermented vegetables, which we usually pickle in vinegar instead. The so-called fermentation revival here has largely not been a case of rediscovering native traditional skills but rather of acquiring and adapting those of other cultures as immigrants recent and less so — from Georgia, from Turkey, from Poland, from Ukraine, from Romania, from Korea, from Japan — bring their own techniques and recipes to the table. To put it another way, without a common reference point you might have no idea when you start to make kombucha or kraut how in fact they are supposed to taste; I know I didn’t.
An obvious answer to this is that they are supposed to taste good, like something you would want to eat. What do you like, though? I certainly don’t know. What we tend to put in our mouths comes from a very narrow part of what is in fact edible, and, while this varies across individuals and cultures, practically speaking we tend to lock ourselves quite early in our lives into a fairly narrow range of accepted flavours. Foods which lie outside this range might be considered too bland, or too spicy, too sour, too bitter, off-tasting, or not even food at all, but it is important to remember that if somebody somewhere likes to eat something it should never be dismissed as disgusting; it is only the narrowness of your experience talking.
All of this is by way of saying that you might follow a recipe perfectly, have it ferment exactly as it should – and it still might not taste good to you. ‘Good’ of course is a very imprecise word, especially when it comes to what we put in our mouths. What is good food? Some plants and animals are poisonous to our species and some we can’t digest; individuals and populations may be more or less intolerant to various foods. Relative to this, good food can be defined simply as “something you can eat”. Within this broad category good is measured chiefly by the caprices of taste. This is fine, of course. There is no moral obligation to like everything, just as there is no particular merit to be found in not liking things; still, if you are inclined to do so, I think it is worthwhile pushing your palate every now and then. We think of children and teenagers as being fussy eaters, but remember the almost physical effort it took teaching yourself to like bitter coffee or beer or cigarettes, persevering in the knowledge that these were adult tastes you hadn’t quite matured into yet, and see if you can apply that to yourself, now.
The downside I suppose is that fermented foods don’t generally have a psychoactive component to keep you interested; the upside is that once you have a taste for them they are a way into any number of cuisines. I had always been fairly dismissive of classical French food, thinking of it as one-dimensional, both too rich and too bland, until it was pointed out to me that as a cuisine it was designed almost as a counterpoint to wine, the acidity and tannin giving structure to the sometimes amorphous dishes. Similarly, while we can mostly agree on a basic level that kebabs are delicious, the smoke and the fat of Turkish food really makes sense once you see it against the background of salt-pickled chillies, cabbage, turnip, carrot, beetroot and tomato on which the cuisine rests.
To get back to your ferment — you want it to taste good, but you need a context for what good means. So if you can taste and try, greedily; get a jar of green tomatoes from the Turkish grocer and eat them with your fingers; get a vac-pack of kimchi from an Asian supermarket and eat it quickly, with everything, before your whole fridge smells of it. Drink pickle brine straight from the jar. You might not like everything, but even, or perhaps especially, the things you don’t like might give you a better picture of what you are aiming for in your little bubbling jar. Still, even if you have a clear idea of how you want your ferment to taste, you may have little idea of what it might look like as it gets there. Much of what a ferment does as it ferments looks, in any other context, like failure; we looked at the worst parts of this last week, but now I want to talk about the good ones.
It’s worth bearing in mind what is actually happening in your jar as it ferments. Bacteria, are consuming the sugars present in your vegetables and transforming them on the one hand into lactic acid, which sours and preserves, and on the other into carbon dioxide. Although with different actors this is broadly the same process that makes lager or champagne or kombucha fizzy, and it is why you have to burp jars of pickles, especially in the early and most active stages of fermentation. Bubbles are good, essentially, and while a real fizz is probably a sign of a too-active ferment it’s not actually harmful; it’s just a stage that it needs to get through. I’ve had people tell me they’ve chucked away pickles that were bubbling or fizzing, which was sad but understandable. Usually food we preserve is expected to be inert, and a can of beans that fizzed and swelled would certainly be cause for alarm, but it is important to remember that a ferment is alive, and that signs of that life are good.
As time passes your ferment will cloud over, most noticeably in brine, taking on a milky opacity not unlike that of whey or fresh buttermilk, a sign that bacteria are multiplying and it is souring well; it is usually at this point that I begin to taste it, for sourness, for crunch. How do you know it is ready, people often ask, and the answer really is that there is no metric for readiness beyond how you want it to taste. A new sauerkraut has a fresh and lemony sourness to it, and it is not until later that it will take on the mustier funk often associated with fermentation.
In the end it comes down to what you want to do with your ferment. Kimchi can be incredibly intense, both with chilli and with the flavour of fermented fish and brassica; partly perhaps your palate is not used to it, but equally the intensity is not designed to be experienced alone, rather diffused across bites of plain rice or into a soup. That fresh lemony sauerkraut is good to eat as a pile of pickle, but wouldn’t stand up to the rigour of cooking. For that you want something well-aged, gone past fizzing and through cloudiness, but still with a bite to it, a month or more old.
If you let a kraut go that long or much longer it becomes an excellent store-cupboard ingredient, on hand to add a quite surprising depth of flavour to soups or stews or braises. Choucroute garnie is the classic cooked kraut dish, an Alsatian medley of fermented cabbage and pork products; I like this dish, from the Italian region Friuli, whose cuisine shares more with its northern and eastern neighbours than it does with the warm south. It is endlessly variable – I’ve made it with all kinds of pork bits, with smoked eel or goose or salt cod instead, with different beans, with or without potatoes, and only once have I remembered to put the polenta in. Do though, it brings the whole together nicely.
200g piece of smoked bacon or ham end
1 onion, roughly chopped
1 stick of celery, roughly chopped
1 bulb of garlic, halved across the middle
1 bay leaf
1 tin borlotti beans
2 or 3 potatoes, peeled and chopped into chunks
2 tbsp polenta
1 tsp dried oregano
Put the bacon, onion, celery, garlic and bay in a pan and cover with 2 litres of water. Bring to a simmer and cook, skimming, for about an hour. Strain into a clean pan or fish out the vegetables with a slotted spoon; in either case discard the veg but cut the bacon into chunks and return to the broth.
Add the rest of the ingredients, stirring the polenta through well, and bring back to a simmer. Cook for another half an hour or so, until the potatoes are tender and the polenta has thickened to a sort of congee consistency. Traditionally the soup would be finished with a pesto of pounded pork fat and raw garlic, but I normally just eat it with oil and bread.
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. His second book, Summer’s Lease, was released this month. 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.
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