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In the ferment

Fermented foods have become a buzzword in recent times, but what exactly are they and how can they help the body?

“Since around 6000BC every civilisation has included fermented foods in their culinary heritage, including of course alcohol such as poitín. Think vinegar (sour wine), cheeses, chutneys, pickles, chorizo, olives, sourdough bread, natto, tempeh, soy sauce, miso, kombucha, kefir, kimchi, and the ubiquitous sauerkraut, a staple of the German diet,” says Jill Bell of health store Well and Good in Midleton, Co Cork. “Most fermented foods originated in the east and their modern popularity began with the appearance of yogurt on our tables in the late 1950s. Fermentation is a process of preserving foods by the introduction of bacteria or yeasts, and yogurt probably originated in Mesopotamia when goats’ milk carried in animal skins picked up animal bacteria, which thickened it and acted as a preservative. In Ireland for centuries we made buttermilk, the liquid left over after churning butter, which turned into a thick tangy cream when left to ferment.”

“Once you start to look into fermented foods, the sky’s the limit,” says Sian Eustace of Healing Harvest in Kinvara, Co Galway. “There are so many foods that can be fermented and turned into a huge range of offerings. However, the most commonly recognised would probably be things such as yogurt, tempeh, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut and kimchi.”

The benefits of fermented food

“Due to the fermentation process, fermented foods contain large amounts of good bacteria and digestive enzymes,” says Sian Eustace. “This means that they are easier to break down as well as providing a healthy boost for the gut, and the immune system.”

“Although fermentation was originally used primarily as a method of preservation, we now know that the transformation of starches and sugars into alcohols or acids produces natural ‘friendly’ bacteria,” says Jill Bell. “Research increasingly underlines the key role that these bacteria, our microbiome, play in our overall health, including our ability to absorb and assimilate nutrients, to develop effective immune systems and to nourish our mental health. The APC Microbiome Faculty attached University College Cork is a world leader in this research.”

Buy or make?

“The most popular fermented foods available in health stores include Irish-produced sauerkraut in a variety of flavours, as well as spicy kimchi,” says Jill Bell. “There are also a number of excellent and delicious brands of Irish-brewed kombucha, and a good variety of misos and kefir. Lots of people now make their own kefir, and most shops can tell their customers where they can source kefir grains and kombucha scobies to experiment with their own recipes at home. In addition there are courses run by experts around the country to teach fermentation of vegetables and fruit as well as drinks.”

“There are a growing number of fermented foods available in health stores, including yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, kefir and even products such as fermented tofu and you may also find offerings at your local farmer’s market,” says Sian Eustace. “However, once you start to make fermented foods yourself, the possibilities are endless and you can be sure that the cultures remain live. There are a number of great books on the market, such as Dearbhla Reynolds’s The Cultured Club, as well as workshops countrywide where you may be given cultures to bring home with you. You might have bread, condiments, ice-cream, drinks or soups such as beetroot kvass. Once you start fermenting, the kitchen will be bubbling away with jars full of a variety of ferments and the question will be which will you serve, rather than how to serve it!”

Choosing the best kefir

Not all kefirs are the same, and when choosing one you should consider the following:

  • What water is used to make the kefir?
  • What is it brewed in? Oak, for example, is considered beneficial for good bacteria formation.
  • Are there any local botanicals with medicinal properties, such as elderflower, rose, hawthorn and meadowsweet, used in the fermentation process?
  • Is the kefir stored in dark bottles? Probiotics are light sensitive.

Water Kefir

Water kefir is like kombucha’s less powerful sibling, with a lighter flavour. When made right, water kefir is similar to a soft drink and is really refreshing. You’ll need 2 x 1-litre Kilner jars for this.

Makes 1 litre

  • 50g caster sugar, plus 1tsp if doing a second ferment
  • 1 litre filtered boiled water, cooled to room temperature, plus extra to dissolve the sugar
  • 2 dried unsulphured figs
  • 1 organic unwaxed lemon, scrubbed and cut in half (if your lemon isn’t organic or unwaxed, cut off the peel)
  • 4tbsp water kefir grains

Dissolve the 50g of sugar in a small cup of just-boiled water and allow to cool. Pour into a sterilised 1-litre Kilner jar and top up with the litre of cooled boiled water. Add the figs, lemon and kefir grains.

Cover the jar with a clean muslin cloth secured with an elastic band and leave to ferment for two or three days in a warm place away from draughts. Strain it through a non-reactive fine-mesh strainer into a clean 1-litre bottle. Discard the spent lemon and figs, but reserve the water kefir grains, which can be immediately reused or stored in the fridge for up to a week in a jar of filtered water in which you’ve dissolved tbsp organic sugar.

You can drink the kefir now and store it in the fridge for up to two months, but to do a second ferment, add 1tsp sugar to the jar, then top up with the kefir, leaving 2.5cm of head room clear at the top of the jar. I usually leave it to ferment again for one or two days. You need to ‘burp’ the jar every morning by opening it to allow some of the pressure from the carbonation to escape, otherwise your jar might explode!

At this point, transfer the water kefir to the fridge and don’t open it for three days to allow the bubbles to set. Open carefully over a sink, as the liquid in the bottle is under pressure from the carbonation, and when you release the bottle’s seal the water kefir may fizz and foam.

Drink this on its own or use it in smoothies for an immediate probiotic boost.

Recipe courtesy of Vegan-ish by Holly White, published by Gill

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