Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz


“This book is my song of praise and devotion to fermentation. For me fermentation is a health regimen, a gourmet art, a multicultural adventure, a form of activism, and a spiritual path, all rolled into one.” (Sandor Katz, Wild Fermentation, p.1)

In Wild Fermentation Sandor Katz, or Sandorkraut as he is nicknamed, brings fermentation out from the mouldering cupboards of pungent Northern Eastern European cuisine to present it as the edgiest of today’s food thinking. As to whether the “wild” in the title designates the binding’s whacky fluorescents, assimilates the thinking to that of wild food, acknowledges the unconventional, even anti-conventional mindset from which the book is written or searches to highlight the experimental methods and DIY aspect of fermentation… I don’t know. We could assume it is a sort of all-encompassing wildness, or perhaps merely wild as opposed to straight.

For Katz, a self-proclaimed “fermentation fetishist”, fermentation is an integral part of a movement, a lifestyle, a sort of ecosystem even. He lives in a queer community, a “rural homestead” built from wood salvaged from a coca-cola bottling factory, rearing goats and chickens, powered on solar energy.

Bound within this thinking Katz does not let his vision remain in specific potted form but always draws it out to explore larger issues such as community, harmonious living, sustainability, mortality. Drawing widely from scientific sources, in the first chapter Sandor Katz outlines the health benefits of fermented foods. Although he flirts with complex formulae and equations he lets the facts surface to show that: fermentation preserves food, breaks down nutrients into more digestible forms and removes toxins from foods… on a primary level, the living cultures contained in fermented foods ease digestion and facilitate the assimilation of nutrients (7). And this is it: the consumption of live foods offers a spiritual and practical interaction, interdependence with what we eat.

We can move then from the near passive consuming of long dead food, to a creative, transformative action. An invitation to commune, to communicate with our living entourage – his is a (brave) positive reading of contagion (contact, Latin : con-tagere, touch with) as a form of life-giving communion as opposed to the foreboding it evokes in this double-glazed anti-bacterial fear era. Katz calls for co-existence with bacteria and creating what he calls microbiodiversity. His thinking encourages a shift in the mindset, on one level dispelling the contemporary hygiene frenzy myths, pointing out that certain bacteria are very important for the functioning of the immune system and also provide competition for heavier more potent bacteria, and on another proclaiming a possible and positive interconnection with the surrounding life forces. From decomposition and decay to life, reproduction and transformation…

“Your environment becomes you, as you invite the microbial populations you share the Earth with to enter your environment and your intestinal ecology”(12).

In the following chapter Katz sketches out an anthropology of fermented foods, recalling the meads that wizened the oracles’ tongues, remarking on the sacred qualities pertaining to these foods and dating fermentation to pre-arable farming times, even questioning as to whether it were not the discovery of fermented grains itself that caused nomadic peoples to settle, in order to enjoy the elixirs of the harvested crops.(16) He then looks at fermentation as a means of revolt amidst a mainstream culture of mass produced, plastic packaged foods. With sections entitled : Cultural homogenization; Fermented stimulants and the rise of globalization; Resisting the commodification of culture, he outlines how “we can merge appetite with activism and choose to involve ourselves in food as cocreators”(27).

I say all this…. and yet this is far from being very mental post-modern theorising, it is, believe it or not, a highly practical guide to home fermentation. The following chapters and the bulk of the book is made up of recipes. Recipes, yes steeped in anecdote and dilemma – the raw cheese question for example, but very clear, accessible, easy to follow recipes. Some of the foods we know well: yogurts and cheeses, sauerkraut, sourdoughs, miso, beers, wines and meads, and then many others exotic, unheard of and to experiment with. The concoctions are wicked. And, for Katz, fermentation is not a science confined to a laboratory, the methods are simple, the apparatus readily available. Water, sea-salt, a vessel and off you go! He will suggest alternatives for any hard to find equipment, such as a balloon in place of an airlock stopper, and let you know where you can pick up crocks and other items. He has tried all the recipes himself, so abounds in tips for taste, ideas for what to do with the foods when they are ready, (he even gives his email address for fermentation troubleshooting!) and his documentation of his own outrageous experimenting permits us too to experiment (outrageously). This year we have made batches of ginger beer, and have bubbling pots of lacto-fermenting cucumbers and green beans sitting on a shelf on the kitchen. Today, forced to pull our carrots early because of the fly, we have attempted a sort of carrot kimchi and we look forward to soon starting on sauerkraut, borsht and perhaps some miso pickles.

Unlike freezing, dehydrating, jam making and sterilising, fermentation conserves food at no energy cost, it is therefore a highly efficient manner of preserving. Out in the wild west of Ireland where the winter garden production is sparse we hope to somewhat sustain ourselves on this suddenly seemingly (wow!) fastfood, as after weeks, months of fermenting, transforming, ageing, renewing, our pots and crocks can be pulled out of the cupboard and placed on the table ready to eat… In Wild Fermentation we enter into a lucid food process, a recipe book which is less about quantities and ingredients, but about concepts, methods and practice. Encouraging a slight deviation in one’s mindset one can begin to observe, to learn by trial and error, to test according to our singular tastes, to experiment with what is growing around us, our climate and living conditions.

In a system so keen to dis-able, to render ignorant and dependent, Katz opens the other door: enabling, empowering, giving knowledge. Is this not the first true step of revolution?

“Come participate in a cultural revolution! Wild fermentation is a way of incorporating the wild into your body, becoming one with the natural world. Wild foods possess a great, unmediated life force which can help us adapt to shifting conditions and lower our susceptibility to disease. These microorganisms are everywhere and the techniques for fermenting with them are simple and flexible.”

The numbers in brackets are page numbers. For online information you can see Sandor Ellix Katz’s wild fermentation website: http://www.wildfermentation.com/

See also The Art of Lacto-Fermentation

Wild Fermentation is published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2003 ISBN: 9781931498234


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