My first venture into the world of fermentation was at age 14 in boarding school. I combined aniseed essence, sugar and warm water in 2 litre coke bottles and stashed them under my bed. Low and behold, several weeks later, I ended up with a face cringingly potent, long lost relative of sambuca. It was vile yet legitimate tender in boarding school and was used to influence and barter for all manner of things (both legal and otherwise). Of course, I eventually got caught, intoxicated on my own brew, and would have been expelled had I technically not done anything illegal – all ingredients were acquired from the supermarket and how was I to know what would happen by mixing them together?
Much later in life, whilst running tricycle café in Hobart, I became legitimately fascinated by the alchemy of fermentation. How with a little salt and time you can literally transform an ingredient into something completely amazing. I was mainly dabbling in quite simple lacto-ferments; pickles, hot sauces, sauerkrauts and kimchis, yet as a cook, the flavour profiles created were so so delicious.
From there hobby became obsession and rough rice was born in 2014. I started investing any spare money I had into large ceramic crocks and set up my own fermentary. I would read anything I could get my hands on and all of my spare time was put into research and experimentation. I also travelled as much as I could (mainly around Asia – including an annual pilgrimage to Japan) to expand my knowledge. I started delving more into the world of cultured ferments making koji, misos, doubanjiang, gochujang and so forth.
In 2017 I was fortunate to land a Churchill Fellowship and went on a ‘fermentation world tour’ that took me to Denmark, Italy, France, Georgia, China, Korea and Japan to study age old (and new) fermentation techniques. Whilst I was away, the café sold and now fermentation (and making fermented condiments) is my primary focus. I’m now getting more experimental, playing with traditional techniques and methodology and adapting them to local ingredients. Like a good wine every vintage is unique, and no two condiments will ever be the same – a real pain in the arse for marketing purposes.
The practice of fermentation can be traced to the very beginnings of civilisation where early humans discovered an alchemy that allowed them to store food over the winter. Almost every culture on earth practices fermentation in some way, whether it’s making beer or wine – the first deliberately fermented products – or bread, cheese, yoghurt, chocolate, vinegar, soy sauce, tempeh, kimchi, miso and so forth. While the first fermentations were likely accidental – countries like China, India, Egypt, Iraq, Mexico and Sudan have evidence of fermented foods dating back at least 4000 years.
By fermenting vegetables, you are unlocking the stored nutrients trapped in indigestible starches, increasing their bioavailability. The process of lacto-fermentation produces a rich content of probiotics and food acids that stimulate the gut immune system that in turn will have an adaptogenic impact on many physiological processes throughout the body. Lactobacilli are a species of bacteria, with scientists now having named 150 different strains. The process of fermentation in an anaerobic environment allows the lactobacilli to breakdown the sugar and starches in food into different forms of lactic acid bacteria becoming specific probiotic interactions within the body.
The lactic acid creates a low ph. environment that results in a very safe healthy way to preserve food. The lactic acid directly competes with forms of unhealthy bacteria such as E coli that not only spoil food but can make us very sick. For lactic acid bacteria to become a host within our gastro- intestinal tract and other mucosal cells they need fibre as a prebiotic so they can continue to thrive. Vegetable fermentation is the perfect way to provide this fibre.
Vegetables are extremely rich in polyphenols and phytonutrients however many are bound in the cellulose structure of the vegetables. Fermentation unbinds these structures and an array of nutrients with anti-carcinogenic, anti-inflammatory and immune properties are unleashed to be absorbed and assimilated into our cells.
In the simplest terms – fermented foods are delicious and good for us.
Layered complexity. Celebrate the sour.
Pickling is the process of preserving or extending the shelf life of food by either anaerobic fermentation in brine or immersion in vinegar. The pickling procedure typically affects the food's texture, taste and flavour. The resulting food is called a pickle, or, to prevent ambiguity, prefaced with pickled. A distinguishing characteristic is a pH of less than 4.5, which is sufficient to kill most bacteria (at least all of the nasties aka pathogens).
Pickles appear in just about every cuisine around the world. Many are made by simply dousing fruit, vegetables or proteins in vinegar with %’s of salt and/or sugar at varying concentrations and therefore preserving them to be eaten at a later time. These can be absolutely delicious and will most definitely do the trick in terms of preserving said vegetable, fruit or protein but what I’m going to focus on here are fermented pickles.
If I had to pick a favourite food it would be a pickle. Wild (or lacto) fermenting is not only a way to preserve an in season ingredient, so that it can be used year round, but a way to add deep complex layers of flavour (acidity, salt, funk) and texture to anything from a sandwich to a soup to a bowl or rice. Nearly every savoury dish can benefit from a good pickle or two. Fermented pickles are also teeming with lactobacillus (LAB) and as such are incredibly good for you – your gut and in turn your brain - and are full of probiotics and antioxidants.
They're called wild because we’re relying on wild bacteria and yeasts to do the work. There are no introduced cultures per se but in saying that - I do often add a splash of a previous pickle brine in order to get things moving in the right direction.
So first things first – if you have a water dense vegetable (cabbage or cucumber are perfect examples) – then you won’t need a brine. Simply chop them up, sprinkle with salt and massage it into the vegetables. The salt essentially has a double role here; it will preserve the vegetable against undesirable bacterias but it will also break down the cell walls and the ‘juice’ of the vegetables will be released. What we are aiming for is enough liquid to be released to make the ferment anaerobic (without access to oxygen) once it is squeezed into its vessel (crock/jar).
If we have a more dense vegetable – let’s say a carrot or a turnip – we need a brine and it couldn’t be simpler. Disclaimer…. I actually never measure salt or anything really – I do it to taste. For those of you just starting out – a 2 – 2.5% is a great all-round solution. This means dissolving between 20 - 35 grams of salt into 1 litre of water. If going for a quick pickle, to be eaten within a couple weeks I’d drop this to closer to 2%, similarly if I wanted to age, I’d bump it to 3 or even 3.5% for a ‘mother’.
Make sure your water is chlorine and fluoride free. Both can kill microbes which is obviously not conducive to a healthy ferment. I get my water straight from a spring on the magnificent Kunanyi (the mountain overlooking Hobart) - but any good filtered water is fine.
Use good quality fruit/vegetables (organic, seasonal and spray free – for the same reasons as above). Sprays will kill the wild bacteria and yeasts we want. If a vegetable isn’t good enough to eat raw then it’s not going to improve by fermenting it.
Salt - I use a local non-iodised sea salt. Occasionally I make my own using sea water off Bruny Island but this is pretty labour intensive. Table salt (with high levels on iodine) is a no go as the iodine can hinder the LAB.
Vessels - ceramic or glass is preferable. Avoid stainless steel and plastic.
PH - a sure way to ensure ‘safe’ pickles is to test the ph. You can get ph testers from home brew shops or online. If your pickle is less than 4.5 then you're in the safe zone where pathogens cannot survive.
Storage - in a perfect world you would have a temperature controlled room sitting around the low 20’s. I certainly don't have this - and many of the pickle makers I’ve met along the way don't either. I keep my bigger crocks outside so they are at the mercy of the elements. They get active over summer and dormant over winter. This means they take their time to truly develop and are all the more delicious as a result.
‘I've been looking forward to today for sometime. Making shibazuke - my all time favourite pickle… ever. And to do it in the birthplace of this tsukemono with all organic ingredients grown on site. wow. Tami and Yuto have a beautiful organic farm in Ōhara, nestled in the mountains north of Kyoto. They sell their vegetables at the local farmers market and ferment the significant excess of eggplant, cucumber and shiso the authentic way. This pickle bears little resemblance to the preservative rich, msg laden, luminous purple product readily available throughout Kyoto’. 28/08/2017
So 'shiba' means firewood, and the story goes that back in the day (Edo period) the women of Ōhara used to walk 15km each way, sometimes twice a day, with loads of firewood loaded on their heads to sell in Kyoto. They would also fill their pockets with their distinctive pickle to sell or trade to supplement their income. I can only hope the men were being useful.
These days shibazuke is commonly acidified with rice vinegar and/or umesu (umeboshi vinegar). This following version is a lactic/wild ferment and has been modified somewhat from the pickle I made with Tami. Many also don't include cucumber but I love the contrast of textures - and they do grow side by side.
Shiso is key to this pickle; for its distinctive fresh flavour but also for its incredible purple hue which penetrates the eggplant and cucumber. Myoga can be substituted for young ginger. Tami used to age hers for 3+ months and up to a full year. I like to do the same - hence the slightly higher salt percentage. This is the perfect solution to preserving the glut of summer.
Ingredients – Makes 1 kg
450 g eggplant (ideally the thin Japanese variety but really any will do)
450 g cucumber (as above)
40 g myoga or young ginger (bashed into a paste with a mortar and pestle)
60 g fresh shiso leaves
25 g salt
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