How to ferment your way into greater wellbeing.
This month’s article is about fermenting and the reason is because I am staying at a permaculture farm at the foothills of Serra D’Arada in central-western Portugal. The place is nestled between pine-and-eucalyptus-framed hills and lush green valleys. This time of the year the air is filled with sweet aromas of blossoms and the garden is full of organic edibles from cherry tomatoes, grapes, peppers, to pumpkins, nasturtiums and aromatic herbs. The warm evenings are long and serene ambience lends itself perfectly to retreats which began at this enchanting oasis.
My periods of writing are interrupted with highly enjoyable although intense bursts of cooking and fermentation sessions when we turn the owner’s kitchen into an alchemist’s lab. When I arrive at the farm, I am immediately drawn to the plant called mullein (Verbascum densiflorum), a pretty flowering plant with large velvety silver-green leaves I was trying to encounter en route here – which is happily growing on the land to the owner’s delight who can make use of it for asthma. The plant, which has long been considered sacred throughout Eastern and central Europe, has many healing properties. This incredible herb can alleviate respiratory problems when its dried flowers and leaves are inhaled as steam, drunk as tea, or even smoked. Additionally, the scent of the plant repels aphids and dry stems are known to deter rodents. I have a stash of it with me and I am looking forward to growing my own medicinal mullein from the seeds which I shall collect here.
Fermenting craft has always been part of my growing up as my mother with almost saintly reverence dedicated a few weeks every summer to pickling and fermenting summer fruit and vegetables to make preserves for the whole winter. So, whenever we get together my brothers and I can, to this day, try different delicious home-made pickles, jams and beverages lining up the shelves of our mother’s compact cellar. During my research I also learnt that Korean mothers do the same by preparing vast quantities of kimchi to satisfy their family’s desire for this obligatory fermented condiment in Asian households.
Fermentation is an ancient gift from our ancestors according to indigenous beliefs. It had always held a special place within first civilisations that delved into mysteries of plants, grains and yeasts and fell in love with the art of alchemical miracles that fermenting foods offered. We also share a built-in affinity for this increasingly popular craft and a way of living with the contemporary and past explorers of the arcane knowledge. Many of us are natural at this art of transforming raw food into healthier foods and beverages despite of fermenting being so complex and nuanced that it revels in a status of scientific discipline called zymology or zymurgy.
God made yeast, as well as a dough, and loves fermentation just as dearly as he loves vegetation.
Ralph W. Emerson, Essays.
A deeper look beneath the surface of “fermented foods and brews”
As far as human development goes, it has been commonly accepted that domestication of grains is the precursor to the civilisation as we know it, living static lives. This is today disputed by some researchers as more evidence comes to light that fermenting could be a much older activity, with honey now understood to be fermented long before grains – as long as 35,000 years ago. So, fermentation is the most likely reason for human settling in one place, growing grains and forming societies. Fermentation made food last longer and increased their nutritional value. Millet, cultivated on a large scale in Tanzania and Himalayas, seem to further prove this interesting theory as it was used only for fermentations and never or rarely eaten.
Many indigenous cultures on every continent believe that fermentation wasn’t discovered by man but given to humankind by intervening sacred beings to which the peoples prayed, made offerings and conducted rituals involving the use of plant medicines. In Europe, wild plants such as rosemary, sage, wormwood and even lichens and mosses were often added to the brews to impart their medicinal qualities. This skilful art is well documented by ethnobotanical research. It is suggested that beers were used as carriers for these medicinal herbs in the same way as alcohol is in tinctures. The extract of a healing herb needs a carrier, in this case a fermented wheat beverage, to do its healing job. It is known that alcoholic wort boiled at a high temperature could extract that goodness contained in herbal admixtures much better than an herb and water infusion would do.
Often certain herbal additions produced intoxicating effects that were deliberately sought by brewers as it was with the application of mandrake or henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) to fortify the beverage, which I have touched on in my previous articles.
Psychoactive tropane alkaloids are contained in henbane and henbane beers were common in Germany and Sweden until Germans introduced a legal act in 1516 to rid their beers of this powerful additive. The Celts and Wiccans revered the plant and its connection to long lost fermentation use remains etymological in nature as the German word for henbane, Bilsenkraut means pilsner brewing plant.
Herbs also flavour and preserve foods and drinks just like vinegar does which can alter the appearance and taste of pickled vegetables. Vinegar, which features in my mother’s recipes, is always white vinegar. The simplest purest vinegar is best- I was always told. This time round I use local good quality white wine vinegar, which is a good alternative.
Our ancestors thought of plants as the sacred sources from which the knowledge of the craft itself as well as the essence of the sacredness of the plant agents comes. This covers a cornucopia of fermenting and also psychoactive compounds found in grains, fungi, and herbal and tree plants. These allies as they are called are employed in spiritual shamanic practices aimed at healing all kinds of ailments. We continue to learn that these were inseparable from making beverages we call beers or wines in the West. There are many, at times, less conventional ways to ferment. For instance, during my travel in Peru, I got to try a maize beer (chicha) offered to me by an elderly woman who was fermenting her brews by converting corn starch into sugar with her own saliva. She would chew the grain and repeatedly spit it out into a ceramic tub where the drink was kept. This is a common practice also among the North American Indians who also make chicha and often add coca leaves (Erythroxylon coca) and other plant psychotropes, i.e. plants that affect the mind. In South America fermenting is mostly handled by peasant women without any formal education. They say that the technical wisdom and spiritual guidance is received during ceremonies from plant medicines themselves. This concept, although strange to us, makes the only sense as the female brewers or curanderas have no formal or higher education to know what exact compounds they are adding, in what proportions and what their corresponding effects on body and consciousness are. This is also the case with shamans or curanderos who practice the art of communing with plant medicines; the mystery and cosmology of the universe is discovered at the intersection of higher intelligence of plant medicines and human willingness to humbly accept these other subtle realities.
So going back to saliva and its role in fermenting, it is the action of an enzyme diastase that breaks down the starch. It is said that this mastication of grains and roots with human saliva goes back to early times of experimentation with plant medicines even before domestication linked to cultivation. Making sacred brews, using fermenting, helped people ease their labour and spirits; bring higher understanding and joy into their lives.
An anecdotal fact that I found interesting delving into the history of fermenting by different cultures is that in Mexico, a certain tribe calls fermenting, boiling. This is perhaps because when observed a fermenting liquid produces bubbles that may look like boiling. Fermenting vessels are called ‘boiling jars’ and unfermented beverage is placed next to ‘boiled’ one for it to ‘learn’ from the other. This poetic concept can perhaps simply explain an airborne passage of yeast spores from one jar to another, or equally it may mean exactly that. A magical knowledge exchange takes place between the jars and this can only be perceived when a sacred brew is ingested.
The Indigenous Psyche conceives and perceives reality in a different way to our Western perspective. Within the New World vision legends of sacred plants manifesting in peoples’ lives abound; herbs, cacti and fungi are teachers and together with rocks and rivers are considered living beings having intelligent awareness – Logos. This awareness moves through it all and can be consulted to find diseases and cures simultaneously if one knows how to work with plant medicines. So it is hardly surprising that throughout history of fermenting, many prominent doctors the like of Pliny, Democritus, Pasteur and Rilke have explored fermentation for human benefit.
There is no activity more feminist than fermentation
Women were first to ferment different foods -from yoghurt to cheese, vegetables to bread and beer making- they started, innovated and developed the craft. Later on scientists came along, observed how it was done, interpreted the processes and results, and created laboratory-controlled fermentations in precise batches that were different from the original inspired fermentations. For example, Bulgarian yoghurt making had sacred, pagan dimension to it as peasant women had always fermented milk available on a day by singing special sounds and drawing a cross over fermented milk, before it got inoculated with the backslopped maya (culture) to ensure that the process works.
Pasteurising and industrialisation of these activities has taken the craft from women’s hands to men’s and put men in control of the microbes and the entire fermentation process in most of Europe. However, the brewing and fermenting is still predominantly women’s work in Asia and across South America.
Fermenting in a nutshell
Firstly, we prepare our fermenting and pickling containers, which in our case are all sorts of second-hand glass jam jars as well as new large jars as we have vegetable loads to pack into them. If we want to ferment our food in a traditional nutritional way, we can begin by sterilising empty jars beforehand. However, a traditional way is to store fermenting vegetables in a huge ceramic crock or wooden barrel that already has some microbial starter culture from previous fermentations, through a process called backslopping. Seeing this was a constant in my childhood when people regularly fermented cabbage in the same vessel again and again until the culture was no longer viable.
When pickling with vinegar and sugar brine, pasteurising can be either done with empty jars or once the pickling brine covers the vegetables in the jars by placing ready jars in a large saucepan of just boiled water. We just simmer the mixture in jars, we do not boil it. This usually takes several minutes and ensures that the pickles will last long enough for you to enjoy without spoiling. Pasteurising not only kills unsafe bacteria but it also preserves the flavour and increases the shelf life of foods. In fact, Louis Pasteur is known to have used this process for wines.
To ferment or to pickle – that is the question
To ferment you need three main ingredients; food, sugar and time. There are a few methods of fermenting however, whenever there is a source of readily available sugar, fermentation will start on its own. We are familiar with this when we leave fruit for longer than intended. When sugars are hidden by the plant, as it is in the case of grains, we need something else to access the sugars for fermentation; this process is called malting by brewers. By germinating seeds of barley, wheat or other plants we do just that- we unlock and deliver the sugars to kick-start the process. This more labour-intensive method is known to have originated in the ancient Sumer- today’s Iraq and Egypt around 10,000 years ago where it was turned into a sophisticated craft whilst the rest of the world was still fermenting in old ways.
Most of us have tried one type of fermented food or another as our supermarkets and local groceries generally carry foods such as sourdough bread, sauerkraut, Tabasco sauce or kefir drink. There are also super healthy vegetarian and vegan fermentations including Eastern innovations of tempeh, miso, kimchi, sambar or Kombucha tea, which was already a healing remedy in Russia in 1920. Today, these foods and drinks gain mainstream traction because their health credentials stimulate wider awareness. Their origin and history of use continue to shed an illuminating light on the role fermentation and its varied plant sources had played in different cultures before they almost vanished from Western medicinal and cook books to reappear again with a new vigour.
There are two types of pickling methods: one is brining using a salt solution with added vinegar to ferment vegetables or fruits fast. The vinegar is a preserving agent and also a destroyer of bad bacteria. The downside to this method is that it also removes flora that is beneficial to our digestive system, rendering the fermented mixture less nutritious albeit delicious. The other method is a process of true fermentation which slowly, over the course of several weeks alters the properties of the raw food in a way that it is assimilated better, enhanced with probiotics and antioxidants protecting the body by strengthening its immune defences, more palatable and longer-lasting. In case of beans, the fermentation makes them easier to digest breaking down proteins into amino acids that can be more easily absorbed by our bodies. In fact, this pre-digestion done by fermenting bacteria is the most effective way for us humans to access maximum nutrition of the legumes when we eat fermented foods. Some say that human and fermented cultures are intertwined; it is true for me especially, as I remember always hearing as a kid that Polish folk is much healthier because we consume huge amounts of Vitamin-C-rich sauerkraut during our lives. The same applies to our neighbouring countries where this tradition of eating a lot of fermented foods as accompaniment to meals is kept alive. The effectiveness of fermented foods against diseases that stem from our poor Western diets has even pointed some researchers to investigate links between these benefits and Covid-19 since the onset of the virus.
Fermenting times are a great opportunity to discuss food and sociological issues and I gathered from comments made during our culinary sessions that working directly with vegetables and fermenting them can positively alter our perception of microbes and their role in our lives. Generally speaking, we in the West tend to raise our shoulders in disgust when the word microbe is uttered as it brings up all sorts of negative connotations in our cultured minds. But with time, as we get a chance to try different mixes of fermented vegetables at different stages of fermentation, our senses sharpen and perception softens in favour of these good microbes, pre-digesting the food for our benefit. We all agree: it is a lesson worth learning and a new experience worth having.
For me fermenting wins hands down each time, as it preserves all nutrition contained within the foods thanks to the action of yeasts that naturally form during the process. However, as pickles are tasty and much quicker to make, I also had a go at pickling at the farm as we had to process the ubiquitous amounts of never ending supply of fresh vegetables and fruits. All thanks to our generous hosts, reliably present Portuguese sun and pristine mountainous climate that creates perfect growing conditions and generous yields.
“Kombucha –Miracle Fungus.” Harald Tietze, Gateway Books, 1994.
Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers. Stephen H. Buhner. Siris Books, 1998.
‘The Mead of Inspiration.” Christian Ratsch, in Ralph Metzner, The Well of Remembrance (Boston: Shambhala Press, 1994).
“Plant Powers, Poisons and Herbcraft.” Dale Pendell. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California, 1995.
Wild Fermentation – The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods. Sandor E. Katz, 2016.
“Teaching Embodied Fermentation Knowledges: Against Purity/ Towards Entanglement.” Michaela Kennedy (online source: pdf version), 2017.
All photographs except for an image of henbane by Kinga Monica. All Rights Reserved.