Wild Fermentation


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Last weekend the fridge at work was left ajar, which was overall a complete disaster. But I did notice that a jug of apple cider was bulging. Aha! A sign of fermentation. I poured it into a glass. It was fizzy and smelled kind of alcoholic. I took a swig. It was fairly tasty, though later I realized I didn't need the alcohol at 11 AM. 

A few years ago I would have been aghast at eating "spoiled" food like that, but since becoming intimate with fermentation, I am much more daring. The fridge is a recent invention and our ancestors might not have had the luxury to turn up their noses at food that's a little...um...off? But "off" sort of implies the food is bad, when  actually in many cases it's good. 

The status of fermentation in the paleo diet is controversial. Many paleo books do not mention it and Cordain's Paleo Diet newsletter recently knocked kombucha for containing acetic acid and yeast (they also said it causes metabolic acidosis...of which there is one case in the medical literature and the person in question also had other serious problems).  

That's nonsense. Our our bodies are full of yeast and acetic-acid producing bacteria and our natural environment would have also been rich in these. Think about the life of a hunter-gatherer. From birth to death they are surrounded by dirt. Of course this is bad when you have a wound that gets infected, but this immersion in dirty nature probably means their bodies are more biodiverse than ours. 

Contrast that with my birth, which was a C-section done in a clean environment. Science shows that C-sections alter gut bacteria, which is bad news, because largely the species established when you are young are the ones that stay with you for the rest of your life. There is plenty of science supporting the Hygiene Hypothesis, which posits that children growing up in clean environments have higher incidences of allergies, asthma, and other diseases of civilization. There is emerging evidence that gut bacteria plays a role in metabolic syndrome as well.

There is no question in my mind that our modern gut biodiversity caused by our divorce from dirt is a bad thing. 

Having a history of stomach problems, managing my gut bacteria is important to me. I do it two ways: not eating foods that seem to encourage the proliferation of misery-causing bacteria and then balancing my bacteria with probiotic foods. "Cleansing" is a bad idea because it gets rid of both bad and good bacteria and irritates the gut...and an irritated gut can't be a good habitat. 

A few times since starting the paleo diet I've gone off the band wagon. My IBS soon returns with a vengeance. I can tell the wrong bacteria are having a feast at my expense. My strategy for getting it under control borrows a lot from the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, which treats colitis by reducing such fermentation. Last time this problem happened, after a week of staying up late to plan a food event and then eating lots of carby sugary food at the event, I calmed things down by eating zero carb for a week. I particularly enjoyed a tonic of egg yolks cooked in bone broth. 

Soon my stomach was feeling much better, but I don't think zero carb completely solves the situation. I think fermented foods are the missing link, providing valuable bacteria and truly digestible nutrients. 

While the scientific studies show that it's very hard and perhaps impossible to add new species to your gut, probiotics can still have an effect, though it will go away if you discontinue them. Furthermore, fermented foods often are simply easier for your body to digest and contain many beneficial bioavilable nutrients. 

That brings me to Wild Fermentation, which was really a groundbreaking book for me. It taught me to embrace and take advantage of wild crazy bacteria.

 This book is of the post-vegan canon. Sandor was a vegan, but a serious health problem propelled him to become omnivorous. In his case, it was AIDS. 

But Wild Fermentation contains a wide variety of ferments suitable for all diets. The exception is meat ferments, which he does himself, but does not include instructions for in his book. He refers readers to The Indigenous Fermented Food of the Sudan, which apparently tells of how the Sudanese ferment meat nose to tail. Unfortunately that book seems to be unaffordable. 

That's OK with me actually...I'm not sure meat fermentation is something I want to dabble in right now.  The main ferment I consume is lacto-fermented vegetables. It's quite funny because just a few years ago I wouldn't have eaten pickles or sauerkraut if you paid me. I think my tastebuds were to put it lightly, shallow from years of consuming industrial food lacking in complexity. I admittedly had to force myself to eat my first batches of pickled vegetables, but at this point I LOVE them. They are tangy and delicious. The best part is that I now crave sour foods rather than sweet foods.

Pickled ginger carrots vs. Snickers? I'll take the former. The variety of flavors, the spicy and sour ginger with the tart carrots, is just superior. 

An important thing I learned from this book was the distinction between vinegar preservation and lacto-fermentation. You can make pickles by just putting some cucumbers in vinegar, but they will not have the same health-giving or flavor properties as vegetables that have been fermented. 

Sandor particularly praises sauerkraut: he talks about a study that shows that it is much richer in cancer-fighting compounds than plain old cabbage. I personally find that the best sauerkraut is made in a heavy crock with a water seal that allows the cabbage to breath, but doesn't allow mold to get in. Luckily, I have access to one, but if I didn't I would make kimchi, which is just as tasty and more resistant to mold. However, Sandor says not to worry too much about mold, as it seems to be a surface phenomonon that doesn't affect the overall welfare of the cabbage buried beneath the brine. 

One of the joys I experienced when I first ate Korean food was all the delicious pickled vegetables they bring you. I realized after my first Korean meal that you really can pickle almost any robust vegetable. Vegetable fermentation has become trendy in NYC and the local farmer's markets are full of pickled beets, radishes, onions, carrots, peppers, and silky wonderful mushrooms. The most surprising pickle I had recently was pickled beet stems, which is a revelation since I usually throw those away. The pickling process had muted the bitterness, but preserved the crunchiness and added a rhubarb-like tartness. 

Some of the other ferments Sandor addresses are less relevant to the paleo diet, but great if you eat grains to get the full nutrition out of them. Kefir is relevant to everybody since you can make it from ruminant milk, nut milk, and anything that has fermentable sugars like coconut water. 

Overall, my digestion feels better when I consume fermented foods and I have noticed that my seasonal allergies are much better. But of course, the main reason to eat them is that they are delicious and nourishing.