Friday, August 16, 2013

How to ferment everything from your moustache to the flatulence of a goat to the next-door neighbour's baby

In 1991 Sandor Katz contracted HIV and, looking for a change of life, went to live at a cooperative queer homestead in the woods. He milked goats, made cheese, and did whatever you do to cabbages to make them turn into sauerkraut. At some point between then and now he released the book Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation (which last sits in a big fat satisfying lump on my desk) and became, in other people's words, a 'fermentation revivalist' or 'fermentation guru'.

Though maybe he's just an enthusiast. He's certainly enthusiastic about fermentation; there are copious notes in TAOF about fermenting vegetables, meat, fish, milk, growing mould, and performing various other miraculous acts with the aid of various microorganisms, which microrganisms he is very enthusiastic about indeed. He starts off the book with a paean to bacteria and how we interact with them, and goes on to talk about fermentation in reproduction, fermentation 'as a co-evolutionary force' (whatever co-evolutionary means), not to mention agriculture, waste management, and 'skin-care and aromatherapy'. Look, I skipped most of that stuff; this is the sort of book where you (and by 'you' I mean 'me') skip most of the pages and go to your favourite bits.Who cares about aromatherapy when there are generous chapters devoted to cheese making, wines, and beer?

It's all quite fun and less scientific than it sounds; a lot of passages are devoted to Katz's favourite things to ferment - he likes mead and talks about his friend, plant explorer Frank Cook, who he bonds with 'over our shared passion for mead making'. He explains how he used to crush fruits in his meads to start the fermentation, but stopped 'after my biodynamic farmer friend Jeff Poppen explained the philosophy of fermenting fruit: "It's the essence of the fruit you want, not the substance."' Some of the best stories are from friends and readers of his previous book, like the one from the lady who ferments cider by putting apple juice in a bucket underneath the table and letting wild yeast get into it. Katz also tells a story about a friend who is making a Finnish yoghurt culture, vilii, which culture expands and becomes exceedingly gelatinous when it curdles - his friend pours it into a bowl overnight and when he comes back in the morning, finds that the mixture, has pulled itself entirely out of the brimming bowl onto the bench.

Katz claims, unironically, that 'Meads can possess many powerful and magical botanical qualities' and 'Through fermentation, we can reconnect ourselves to the broader web of life, in spirit and in essence, as well as the physical plane'. I don't know about all that, but that's nothing compared to the book Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers (which has become a kind of brewing classic), quoted in here: 'To do so means reconnecting to the ancient tradition of fermentation - to connect to the thousands of wise women and wise men standing over their brewing vessels in small villages around the world calling on the spirits of fermentation to come to the wort and kindle the fire in it'. (The book also suggests that we use a magical stick in our brew each time as a way of calling on those 'spirits').

And I do like Katz's generous approach and his view that the environment for fermentation should be 'clean, not sterile'; he really likes to encourage bacteria. I especially like the excitement with which he describes the process of microbial alteration that goes on in fermentation, and the relish he takes in the food and drink that results. If you read around in some of the other books about beer making or cheese making you'll find they all talk with such fear of microbial infection; mostly, Katz doesn't worry about that. He suggests leaving cultures out in the open and leaving lids off pots to catch any wild yeast that drifts by, discusses the cultivation of bacterial cultures in sauerkrauts with love and tenderness, and you can just imagine the gusto with which he eats the same bacteria. It's not a book for people who get queasy at the thought of anything that's not pasteurised, homogenised, or sterilised beyond recognition, that's for sure.

Not that I want to use it to encourage you all to cultivate bacterias or microflora as pets, mind. And not that I'm saying I'll do the same. But at the moment I have cheese culture in the freezer, a lager beer fermenting away in the cupboard that I call 'Barry', and four other beers in the study that get tenderly wrapped up in a blankie every night. So, maybe if you are the sort to read a book like this, then....


Steve said...

I assume that a guy like that would mention the "chew, spit, brew" method for making alcoholic drinks?

Interesting discussion in the context of sake here:

TimT said...

He has a list of fermentation techniques ('Pit fermentation.... I have not tried this') so "chew, spit, brew" is probably mentioned. I probably should have looked that up to see if it *is* mentioned.

Today's fermentation experiment here at Lalor: making mead with wild yeast from fruit, and making Bappir cakes, for use in brewing a Sumerian ale. I'll let you know how it all goes :)

Email: timhtrain - at -

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