Preserved food is not a new concept, it’s not something that is reserved only for chefs and it’s certainly not complicated.
The joy of making a preserve is that once that short spurt of activity is over you are going to have something to enjoy at your leisure, in your own time and for as long as you want. Preservation has a glorious way of capturing the moment and collecting some of the best bits nature has to offer throughout the year, resulting in a library of goods that can bring you back to whatever season you took it from all-year-round.
The ability to capture seasons at that very moment you make something is for me the ultimate idea of seasonality.
Taking something in its prime and being able to bring that flavour back whenever you want to relive it, is a great sense of wonderment. A firm favourite is elderflower, the first time you smell elderflower in the hedgerow is usually the first signs of warmer months. New life is forming all around with a sweet floral aroma filling the air, it can’t not bring a smile to your face. So bottling that moment for me is magic; I make vinegar for dressings and mayonnaise, cordial for easy-drinking and ice lollies, and I fold the flowers through strawberry jam.
Foraging in hedgerows became the reason for focusing on preserving for me, I fell in love with flavours that grew wild and free of human intervention. Everything just seemed to taste better wild.
However, I found that often seasons were short and actually making the time for going out and collecting a bounty was difficult. So when I did, I would make it count. I started out very simply making jams and jellies which couldn’t be easier, fruit and sugar; bramble, damson, crab apple, quince, rosehip, damson. They’re far better tasting than anything mass produced in the shops. I would also be making vinegars from flowers and herbs. These would then become bases for pickled vegetables, usually from things we had left over in the fridge. Things like beer and yarrow-pickled onions and meadowsweet-pickled carrots.
Whilst working as a chef it became clear that pickling brought an extra element to a dish. You could pair flavours within a pickle that would add extra layers, you could hide them amongst fresh ingredients and create explosions of contrasting flavour profiles. It’s pretty addictive. Whilst working at Fera for Simon Rogan, I was introduced to the world of fermentation. Although I knew that thousands of products around me were created through the fermentation process, I had never thought to explore it myself. I saw it as something for controlled, clinical environments and for someone with deep scientific knowledge. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Yes, there is a lot of science behind the process and there are certain steps that must be followed, (for example respecting the need for vigilant cleanliness to avoid unwanted bacteria), but by respecting the steps and guidelines fermenting can be done by entry level cooks.
There are millions of microbes – bacteria, yeasts, moulds in our surroundings that enhance and aid the fermentation process. Your aim is to create an environment for the good ones to thrive rather than eliminating them all together.
Trial and error has been a real journey of discovery and I urge anyone to go on a voyage of their own.
A simple place to start is lactic fermentation. We’re all familiar with sauerkraut, this is where bacteria consumes sugar and generates lactic acid, souring vegetables and the brine in which they sit, whilst preserving them at the same time. A brine is simply made up of a small percentage of salt to water. That’s it! Salt, water and time are the key ingredients. The salt prevents harmful bacteria from developing whilst the good bacteria thrive. Make your brine and submerge the cabbage or whatever else you may fancy within it. Temperature plays a key role; it doesn’t need to be exact but somewhere in your home that is always the
same consistent, ambient temperature will suffice. Next to a stove, fire or other heating source is not ideal. The higher the temperature, the faster your ferments will be. In warmer months your ferments will be quicker, in cooler months they’ll slow right down. Check them everyday to see how they’re changing. Use all of your senses – especially common sense, your gut feeling will tell you whether you’re on the right track. After all, your gut is the one that is going to benefit from this wealth of bacteria when it is ready so is the best place to tell you whether it’s good or not! I have had a lot of ferments turn rancid, simply because I haven’t meticulously cleaned a bucket beforehand. Clean everything you use with some spirit vinegar and water before you start and when you taste during the process.
Noma’s release of ‘The Noma Guide to Fermentation’ has been a great resource personally and I know for many others on this topic. The collaboration between Rene Redzepi and David Zilber has made the scientific nature of formation accessible to everybody. Kombuchas, miso, garum and soy sauce are now the flavour of the month. Adding to a repertoire of deeper flavour. Whilst at Cub in Hoxton, I was able to see the use of these techniques transform wasted produce into star ingredients.
Within nature there is no waste, it is a man-made construct.
We need to find ways of making “secondary” products that are seen as undesirable more desirable. Fermentation is key to this. These ideas are not new, they’re deep rooted in culture and traditions all over the world. We should learn from the past. In order for society to continue to thrive we must reestablish the idea of being producers and not just consumers.
Finally, turning my attention to the art of growing produce that is nutrient-dense and better for the environment. I have realised the benefits fermentation has to society. Global food shortages are very much a real thing, the UN has predicted our last harvest will be within 60 years if we continue on our path of soil degradation. Fermentation can be a key resource in utilising every crop and minimising our waste.
With the ability to extend shelf life without adding harmful additives and man-made chemicals to foods. We can be healthier and more sustainable.
White Kimchi with horseradish, pear, walnut and fennel
Kimchi doesn’t have to be spicy. This is a refreshing and mild alternative to it’s more familiar red counterpart. This will make enough for a 2 litre Kilner jar.
2 napa cabbages
Salt flakes (3% of the weight of the cabbages)
1 fennel bulb
4 garlic cloves
100g spring onions
100g fresh horseradish
80g sweet glutinous rice flour
50g fish sauce
Start by cutting your cabbages into 8ths, lightly trim the excess core of each piece whilst still keeping all the leaves attached. Place into a deep bowl. Weigh the cabbage, add 3% of its weight in salt and sprinkle it over the cabbages, mix well so all the pieces are coated, apply a weight on top to press the cabbages down. Nothing too heavy, a plate will suffice. Leave this for 3-4 hours. Over this time the pieces will tenderise, becoming paler and limp. There will also be a noticeable amount of liquid drawn out which now sits in the base of your bowl. Discard this excess liquid.
Whilst the cabbages are softening, using a mandolin, (if you have one), finely slice the pears and fennel. Chop the garlic, spring onion and walnuts and then grate the horseradish, radish and ginger.
Next make a paste with the water and the rice flour by heating them in a small pan. Whisk until the mixture thickens. Remove from the heat, and allow to cool.
Add all of the ingredients to the cabbage, mix well and taste. Adding a few pinches of salt if necessary. Now gently massage everything into the layers of your cabbage.
Transfer to a clean Kilner jar, (boiling water and a little soap is ideal, followed by wiping it out with some spirit vinegar before carefully drying with a clean cloth). Push the kimchi down, packing it tightly. Add a small weight and seal the lid. Leave in a consistent temperate place for 5-7 days, you can burp the jar every other day to release any build-up of gas produced by the fermentation. This gives you a chance to smell your kimchi and check its progress. You are looking for a sweet souring smell. Once you’re happy with it, pop it in the fridge and enjoy at your leisure.