A very cultured evening by Lucy Weir

A very cultured evening in Bray

Lucy Weir, PhD

Zygonomy is the science behind the art of employing a culture. A culture, in this sense, is a specific mix of fungal and bacterial strains, often 20 or more species that exist in symbiosis. The yeasts produce alcohol, and the bacteria consume them, which means the yeasts can survive, which means the bacteria continue to have a source of nutrition. These cultures have been a part of our diet since the beginning of human history, being used to bake bread, preserve food, create drinks, brew beer or ferment wine. And therefore, of course, they have been essential in the development of our culture, the way we eat and drink being central to how we relate and celebrate.

I was provoked into learning more about the process of fermentation after last Thursday’s wonderful workshop given by Courtney Tyler in Common Ground’s ground-floor room. The building itself is beautifully atmospheric, an old storehouse, down a winding lane. There is a sense of hope about the whole place, combined with a feeling of “make do and mend”, a determination to preserve aspects of Irish culture, but a welcoming openness to useful elements from other traditions. It resonates with both old-world charm and a thirst for learning. All in all, it’s a great place to attend a workshop.

We sat round a scrubbed wooden table and watched as Courtney took us, first, through the art of sauerkraut making. She had already chopped, into a large stainless steel bowl (“some people say you shouldn’t use stainless steel- “I think its fine, along with glass or ceramic””) a huge red cabbage (she held her hands before her like a fisherwoman to depict its original size), beetroot, turnip (which surprised me), raisins she’d made herself from grapes (she told us how she’d come across an abandoned polytunnel heaving with grapes – about as unlikely a tale as you’re going to hear, but evidently true!), and salt. How much salt? A lot. She took a large pinch of salt from a jamjar, large crystals of sea salt with what looked like seaweed flecks attached, and said, “I think I’ve put about four of these in already”. She added another two. She peeled a couple of garlic cloves and there was a discussion about whether or not garlic ferments (it has anti-fungal properties, so tends not to pickle as readily as cabbage, but she maintains that a little can add good flavour) and turmeric (“if I’ve brought it”). But no water. sauerkraut, she told us, is “cooked” in its own juice. She added some ginger, rubbing it against the grater without peeling or cleaning it: the process itself will kill off harmful bacteria: in fact the skin contains the lactobacilli the ‘good’ bacteria – this is the beauty of preserving through fermentation.

You could, of course, just stick with cabbage, but half the fun is in experimentation with flavours, and adding such variety keeps things interesting, just as weaving anecdotes through the recipes kept us listening. You can also add juniper berries. This is the essence of culture: to take what’s fresh and, using tradition, extend by trying something different. Courtney encourages us to play around and taste frequently.

It takes just two or three days for the vegetables to begin to “sour”, but they’re better after up to six weeks. You can keep them for a year or more: this is a preservation technique, after all, but Courtney warns that they lose their crunchiness and she, for one, finds this less interesting. By massaging the mixture, the brine is released. Use a wooden masher if you have one to crush the juices out of the vegetables – it’s astonishing how much liquid they hold – and when that’s done, put everything into a large preserving jar. It needs to not be airtight – it could explode – but muslin’s useful as a barrier to keep the culture you want in the jar, and what you don’t want out of it. Parchment paper also works. Waste nothing. Use the outer leaves of the cabbage to press the chopped vegetables down and use a weight to keep them from floating to the surface, above the liquid, where they’ll be exposed to moulds you didn’t invite. Use the juice from a previous batch to start the next one, and so on. The microbial content will alter with time, and that will in turn alter the flavour.

Kefir is the most powerful source of probiotics (bacteria and yeast that support the digestive process) in terms of quantity of flora per weight. The process of keffiring breaks down the lactose and caisein, particularly in cow’s milk, making it much more likely that those who are lactose intolerant – one of the attendees fell into this category- would be able to drink kefir than pasteurized cow’s milk.

Courtney shared her own experience that her allergies disappeared after regularly drinking kefir, which can be made from either cow’s or goat’s milk. Courtney has two goats herself and she enthused on their affectionate natures (“they’re just like dogs! They’ve got such unique personalities!”. She grazes them with a couple of horses in a field behind her house, and the uses two shipping containers, one for housing them, one for milking and storage (the effort of milking is borne out in the taut muscles of her forearms which are as muscular as a sailor’s. She also squats while milking which, she assures us, is excellent for her glutes!).

Between talking, grating, mashing and gesticulating, Courtney passed round bottles of kefir, kombucha, ginger, and fruit soda. We poured a small amount to taste of each in turn into our emptied cups (we’d been given little cups of Chai to begin, with the sort of elegance usually reserved for a Japanese Zen tea ceremony). We discussed the difference between intolerance and allergy, and the importance of starting slowly. During our discussion, a clearer picture of Courtney’s lifestyle emerged: her house is evidently a veritable fermentation factory, armies of bottles marshalled on every available surface not already occupied by the rows of jars squatting or stacked on shelves, eliciting a single, eloquent, “Seriously, Courtney?” from her partner.

We discussed the need to develop the hoarder’s habit when it comes to suitable containers. Grolsch bottles with the rubber gasket are good: you’ll hear a buzzing, hissing sound as the the gasket lets excess gas escape. Sugar, lots of sugar, is an essential ingredient to feed the culture. Images of slave ships struggling to feed the ravenous but increasingly refined tastes of northern Europe and the Americas spring to mind. Fair trade is best!

As Courtney tackled opening a particularly lively grape soda, the discussion moved to safety tactics for dealing with potentially explosive bottles (exploding bottles are an occupational hazard for the inexperienced fermenter). Put the suspect bottle in a large jug or bowl, and open it under the umbrella of another jug (you need fierce dexterity for this), preferably not glass. And no, the fizz doesn’t fill you up with wind: there’s even evidence that kefir reduces flatulence in those who are lactose intolerant.

While we tasted the various concoctions, all good, fresh, interesting (alternately sharp, sour, sparkly, sweet and fruity on the tongue), Courtney began to describe making the next concoction, “ginger bug”. Start small, with non-chlorinated water, one teaspoon of sugar, one of ginger, and stirring the mix as often as possible for the next couple of days. Watch. After three or four days, carbonation builds up, you’ll see little bubbles appearing at the edges. When it’s “lively”, it’s ready to use as a starter for your homemade sodas: just add it to a sweetened juice or syrup. Cover with a muslin cloth (or, if you’re really strapped, a clean pillowcase, cut up). Beneficial yeasts from the air can then get through.

When making kombucha, you need tea and sugar and a starter. All the while, Courtney pounded with her “sauerkraut stamper”, the only object (rejecting her alternative inheritance of an enormous collection of dolls) from her grand-aunt in Michigan who had herself inherited the stamper from the first immigrant ancestor of the family who had brought it from Germany in the eighteenth century. It was dark wood, stained purple with all the pounding of cabbage, but only marginally rounded at the edges.

Pickles were discussed. Cider apple vinegar. The air sharpened with memories. Water kefir. Something similar was made, one of the participants remarked, by her grandparents. She took some to her parents to taste and her father closed his eyes and said, “You know, you’ve brought me back fifty years!” In barrels in the corners of kitchens all over Scotland, the north of England and the northern half of the island of Ireland, people tended their “ale plant”. Some fed it molasses. It tasted of ginger, and sparkled slightly.

As she pounded, Courtney talked briefly about other things that could or could not successfully be incorporated into sauerkraut. Broccoli and kale can give off a pungent, unpleasant odour, unless used sparingly. Nettles do. Cucumbers need lots of salt. Caraway seeds work in white cabbage sauerkraut. Eastern European and French traditions were discussed. including different uses for fennel, and fennel seeds, and how every society has traditional remedies to increase the production of breastmilk…

The conversation flowed as Courtney moved the discussion back and forth between cultures, coming back to the sauerkraut, pouring it into a huge jar, tamping it down and covering it with a cabbage leaf, at least two inches of liquid covering the vegetables. She talked a little more about developing the “ginger bug”, tending each topic like the cultures themselves – a moment of attention here, a tweak there. Culture, like conversation, needs nurturing until it gets active.

Finally, fruit soda, a brew made by boiling up a large pot of water with fruit – Courtney had redcurrants and grapes (how much? Again, she held her hands as though holding a small rugby ball to indicate the sort of quantity of fruit required), and sugar (two cups, but like all Courtney’s advice, this was tempered with the suggestion that we taste as we go to see what works for us). Mash the fruit, squeeze everything through a muslin cloth (or the nearest equivalent). Wait for it to cool to body temperature or about 80 degrees F which is when the starter is happiest, and stir it all together in a demijohn or preserving vessel. Primary fermentation is when you add your biotic to the sweet liquid. To add fizz – that’s secondary fermentation – store it in an airtight bottle and if needed, add another spoonful or two of sugar.

There were sixteen of us there, from France, Eastern Europe, various parts of Ireland, England, Scotland, and the US. She held us rapt. Play, she said. See what works. Don’t worry about quantity. Respect tradition and learn as much as you can but the main thing is experimentation. The art of fermentation is a willingness to fail, and try again, and fail better. Like the evolution of societies themselves, the very roots of our cultural history were in symbiosis with bacteria and yeast. Bread and beer and wine are famously revered. Reviving an interest in their lesser known cousins – kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, natural soda – marks a welcome and important revival.


Courtney’s website is www.hipsandhaws.com

Another useful website is the American website www.culturesforhealth.com. It has endless recipes and instructions for all types of cultured foods. Particularly helpful are the free ebooks that you can download on signing up to their mailing list.


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