This year at the Ballymaloe Literary Festival I was delighted to meet one of Ireland’s great fermentation enthusiasts, Dearbhla Reynolds. Dearbhla has written an amazing book on the vast subject of fermentation; called The Cultured Club – Fabulously Funky Fermentation Recipes, which was John McKenna’s Book of the Year for 2016. The book covers everything about fermentation - why you should be interested, how to go about it and dozens and dozens of fabulous recipes on fermenting everything from miso eggs to fermented hummus! Dearbhla is incredibly passionate about fermentation (as one would want to be to write a book on the subject!) and she is particularly interested in helping people to bring fermented foods firmly and fully into their diets and lives, rather than simply eating them as side dishes. But more on that and on the amazing feast we are planning to host with Dearbhla later... for now, why are we banging on about fermented foods anyway?
Fermentation is mostly used as a way of preserving food. There are many different ways of preserving foods - drying, salting, jarring/bottling/canning, you can refrigerate, preserve in vinegar or you can ferment. In many countries where they don’t import fresh veg all year round the way we do, fermenting is still very important. The main difference as far as I can see between fermented foods and dried or canned foods is that fermenting actually increases the health benefits of the foods.
The main reason for the rich health benefits of fermented foods is the live bacterial cultures they contain. We all know about bacteria, and good bacteria, but we are so schooled to think of bacteria being bad (for example most hand washes promise to kill 99.9 % of bacteria - despite the fact that most bacteria are our friends!). We have been taught to think about bacteria as something we should wage a war against because it makes us sick, and good bacteria (probiotics) as something that comes in a capsule form to take after an antibiotic. But more and more we are becoming aware that good bacteria are also in and on our food and drinks, for example Kefir, Kombucha, ginger bug, traditionally made buttermilk, fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut and some types of pickles; and some types of soya foods such as tofu.
Probably the most important way fermentation improves the health benefits of our foods is through pre-digestion or breaking down the foods slightly before we eat it. For example, there are many cultures who depend on Soy as a staple protein but they never sit down and eat a plate full of freshly cooked soybeans as they are completely indigestible! If you try it once you will never forget the experience (ouch). Instead, they ferment the bean slightly before they make tofu and this makes all the difference - suddenly it transforms an indigestible plate of beans to a nutritious and tasty food. In the same way there are many people who cannot drink milk unless it has been ‘fermented’ or is a yoghurt culture or a kefir culture (kefir is amazing, it looks like rice pudding but it is a live ‘community of bacteria’ that has incredible health-giving properties. More on that later). And if you eat a genuine Sourdough bread which made using a fermented starter instead of yeast, the gluten content is reduced and it is vastly more digestible to those of us with gluten intolerances ( if you are interested come and try our slow risen sourdough - we have it most Thursdays Fridays and Saturdays and it’s AMAZING if I say so myself!!)
The second health benefit of fermentation is detoxification - some foods cannot be safely eaten without being fermented, due to some naturally occurring chemical they contain. Kassava is an example of this; some types of Kassava, which is a staple in parts of South America, contain a form of cyanide which is fatal. In Australia there are types of nuts which must be soaked/fermented to rid them of a different chemical. And amazingly, fermenting helps rid foods of some of the chemicals used in commercial farming such as organophosphates. They get broken down and made safe.
Then there are the different ways foods are made more nutritionally rich through fermenting. For example Sauerkraut contains anti-carcinogenic compounds, and Natto Miso, a form of fermented Soya miso, contains NattoKinase which is being widely used and sold as a supplement in the US because it has been shown to slow down the aging process, treat many types of cardiovascular disease, varicose veins, and DVT. It is also used for pain, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, endometriosis, uterine fibroids, muscle spasms, infertility, cancer, and more.
But most of all, fermented foods can be delicious, fun and funky. If you want to learn more Dearbhla’s book is a great starting point and we have it in stock.
If you like the taste but making your own fermented foods seems a step too far for you, perhaps you need some serious inspiration! In that case why not come along to our Fermented Foods Feast in September with Dearbhla, it’s part of the Taste of West Cork week:
Friday September 15th at Organico Cafe
The Cultured Club and Organico Cafe join forces to present to you an exciting six course vegetarian tasting supper. Plates will feature a variety of cultured and fermented foods combined with local seasonal treats to tickle your taste buds and keep your gut happy!
Time 19:30, Cost €45 with naturally fermented organic wines available at an extra cost. Tickets both online at www.organico.ie and from us directly - call us on 027 51391 or 027 55905 to book.