The wonderful world of fermentation

Scotsman Ben Reade reveals his secrets and his experiments to us: the only limit is the imagination

If up to this point you thought that fermentation was something weird or merely the putative madre for kombucha, the fermented tea so dear to North Americans because of its countless beneficial properties, prepare to change your mind. 

This method of preparation is becoming more commonplace in world’s kitchens, from London to Copenhagen to Tokyo, with all kinds of health benefits: in addition to making food taste downright delicious, it enhances food’s organoleptic properties thanks to an abundance of “good bacteria” that vitalize our bodies. 

This suggests that fermentation is not a merely passing fad like many others but something destined to remain among our eating habits and, last but not least, absolutely delicious. The time has come to embrace it. Because fermentation wasn’t invented yesterday.  In fact, we humans have been practicing it for at least ten thousand years. A large portion of the world’s cooking, from Japan to India, is based on fermentation. It is also found in the cuisine of Europe, where it exists in multiple forms. In fact, we are surrounded by fermented food: you need only think of wine and beer, yeast, yogurt, cheese and cold meats. Fermentation is a natural process as old as mankind, and one that has been used for millennia to preserve food, with its extraordinary property of concentrating flavour. 

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So why are chefs now rediscovering this age-old practice? The answer is simple: they have come to realize that fermentation brings out the best in food -all its umami- in a totally natural way.  The result is food that is extremely healthy and flavoursome, filling the palate with its acidity and excellent flavour. This technique is undoubtedly opening up new possibilities for chefs, who can now play on food’s acidity. Fermentation of fruit and vegetables is now the new frontier of experimentation in starred kitchens not to mention an excellent home cooking practice.

How exactly does fermentation work? The process is really less complicated than you might think.  It’s almost magic, since microbiology does the heavy lifting: vegetables are immersed in salted water or, if feasible, in their juice. This is when the bacteria responsible for fermentation, commonly known as lactobacilli, start multiplying, converting sugars to lactic acid.  They are not only responsible for the classic tangy flavour of fermented food but they are the creators of all the related benefits. 

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Ben Reade & Sashana Souza Zanella

Ben Reade and Sashana Souza Zanella 

Ben Reade, a brilliant young Scottish chef and possibly one of the most active experimenters in the field among the new crop of European chefs, tells us that it all started when he got interested in wine-making: “This is how I discovered the world of microbiology and its connection to food and so I began to study the history of food, from the food people ate in the past to what they eat now.”  Doing further research, he discovered an entire world: “Fermentation is a huge field that lets you delve into Biology, Microbiology, nutrition and taste”, explains Ben, who, after a stint at the Nordic Food Lab of Copenhagen, went on with his companion Shoshana to open his own space, the Edinburgh Food Studio (http://www.edinburghfoodstudio.com/), halfway between a restaurant and a laboratory. Calling it a restaurant would be an oversimplification: in his space, Ben studies, teaches, and works with a diverse range of foods, most of which are wild and indigenous.

Fermentation brings out the best in food -its umami-, in a totally natural way: the result is food that is extremely healthy and flavoursome, filling the palate with its acidity and excellent flavour. 

“Fermentation is an integral part of the history of food. Without it, our society would have a foundation completely different from the one it has today”, emphasizes Ben, as it is an ancient method and therefore firmly rooted in the tradition of every country in the world, it can help us discover a host of dimensions and flavours linked to times gone by. Reade is a chef who is working to bring these flavours back to life: “For instance, right now I am studying the world of traditional Scottish baking and, in particular, traditional Scottish pastries and pies that have nothing to do with the products you see on the market today”; he’s exploring a wide range of experimental possibilities in the field, from the dough to the fruit filling. 

His most recent fermentation experiment? “So far I've only assembled the ingredients, but I’m about to start experimenting with making miso (editor’s note: a fermented paste derived from soybeans that is the cornerstone of Japanese cooking) using peasemeal, a flour produced from field peas unique to Golspie, Scotland”. And this is only one of many possibilities. Fermentation is another world and can be really brought into every aspect of cooking, to the delight of the body and the palate. The only limit is your imagination: the ways of fermenting are infinite.

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