Culturing flavour

The world of ‘elite food’ raises certain questions. It would be easy to write off entirely, from a social justice point of view: good food is domestic food, and everyone should have access to it. Even in a world of perfect economic equality, there would be no way that we could afford to eat Michelin star food every day, in the way that the wealthy elite can—to invest so much skill and time in every meal would clearly be impractical. But what about a socialist paradise in which everyone got to eat such a meal once a year, or twice a year, or once a month? Should we still have such food? Is there a point to it?

Well, doubtless the majority of such meals eaten today are eaten for reasons of demonstrating wealth and status, probably by people who may well enjoy good food, but who basically have no fucking clue what they’re putting in their mouths. But the meals they are eating are usually made by people whose central motivation is an obsessive devotion to the cause of quality food, and who have no other place in which they could possibly learn and practise their craft to the standard that satisfies them. So the question becomes, is there value to such craft (beyond its market value as a token of cultural capital) which makes it important to ensure it continues and develops?

I would argue that there is, just as there is value to having people make excellent music or photographs. The big sticking point is access. I’ve never eaten in a Michelin starred establishment (although I probably will, because I’m definitely at a stage where I’d sooner have one really amazing meal than two weeks somewhere sunny). Most of us have never eaten in one. But most of the people who make that food are (to judge by their public statements) sincerely interested in sharing the benefits of their skill and knowledge with everyone. As many of them come from working-class backgrounds, they’re likely to see the value in exposing young, unprivileged palates to technically sophisticated food, and many elite chefs espouse a commitment to improving our culinary culture more generally. While I’m not aware of any means-tested subsidy schemes to give people on low incomes access to elite dining experiences, one thing that chefs like to do is to write books.

A book like Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, although its primary readership will probably be middle-class and already interested in food, makes certain professional insights available to domestic chefs, which can completely transform their cooking (as they have mine). Similarly, René Redzepi and David Zilber of Noma (a Danish gaff reckoned to be one of the world’s very best restaurants) have written a book with the express aim of enabling the grass-roots deployment of one of the most important processes behind their food—The Noma Guide to Fermentation.

I’ve never practised fermentation myself, other than baking bread, and some dabbling in home-brewing which is now in my distant past, but I’ve eaten a great many fermentation products. In fact, I’ve consumed many fermentation products without even realising it, and this book has drawn my attention to some of the ways in which fermentation is important to the food I eat every day. Brine pickles are an example (and I know I’m exposing an alarming degree of ignorance here), in which the salinity of the pickling medium kills most microbial life, leaving lactic-acid bacteria to do their anaerobic work beneath the surface of the liquid, converting sugars into lactate. This is a category of fermentation which includes many vegetable pickling traditions, including gherkins (often), sauerkraut, and kimchi. Rather than going straight in with the acetic acid in vinegar, these approaches sour their vegetables by enlisting friendly micro-organisms to metabolise their sugars. I have to admit that it never really occurred to me that the dill pickles I enjoy with cheese and cured meat have been fermented, but they have.

Other fermentation practices covered in the book are more outlandish. I had never heard of koji, a sporulating mould that grows on cooked grain, such as rice or barley. Given that rice is a powerful incubator of botulism (as I discovered one afternoon while hanging an exhibition in a building with poorly soundproofed toilets) the idea of eating it when it’s gone mouldy is rather off-putting, but it turns out that this is the core process used to produce miso, tamari (which is the liquid portion of miso), shoyu, and even sake and Japanese beer, which use koji rather than malting to free up the sugars in the rice. I know miso and shoyu to be fantastically rich sources of umami, and this is apparently true of the whole range of koji derivatives.

The book also covers kombucha, vinegar, garum, and black fruits and vegetables (not a fermentation product, but closely related). Garum is an interesting one, since they’ve basically resurrected the name from ancient Rome, although products of this type are in use in various parts of the world. A garum (as they use the term) is a sauce made by breaking down meat (or more usually fish) through autolysis—which is to say allowing its own enzymes to digest it. Clearly, if you just leave some meat to break down like that it will become a revolting and toxic microbiological soup, but if you add a huge enough amount of salt you will kill off more or less every micro-organism that gets into it (including salt-loving bacteria), allowing the enzymes that are present in the meat already to do their work. Traditionally this is done with anchovies, which are chopped up guts and all, and their own digestive juices do the work of breaking down the flesh, but there are enough enzymes in any piece of meat to digest it eventually. The people at Noma use the aforementioned koji to supply enzymes in circumstances where they’d sooner not use fish-guts, but the effect is the same.

At Noma they make garum from beef, shrimps, squid and various other forms of meat. In ancient Rome they made it from anchovies, and although there is no evidence of any cultural interchange, that’s also how garums are made in East Asia, in countries like Vietnam and Thailand. In fact, I’ve already recently taken to incorporating Thai fish sauce into my cooking in many places that you wouldn’t expect it, like burgers and pasta sauces. It brings salt, unfeasible quantities of umami (as autolysis breaks a lot of protein down into glutamate), and a complex, funky bouquet that stinks of ill-maintained feet at first, but which makes friends with all the aromas around it, bringing depth and subtlety to the finished dish. Although I arrived at this by following my own nose and knowledge, I’m clearly on the same page as the Noma kitchen, who apparently make use of their in-house beef garum as a near universal seasoning.

I’m probably not going to make use of many of the recipes in this book—and I don’t have room to build a fermentation chamber, for which they provide detailed, practical instructions. At some point I’ll have a go at lactic-acid fermentation and vinegar, as these are both pretty straightforward home pickling procedures, but the book has proven its worth to me more as a theoretical discussion. I should point out that its a very practical book, and very well-designed as a guide to the various procedures it describes, with clear photos included throughout, including images to show what the various stages of fermentation should look like, and anyone who wants to get into any of the more esoteric stuff will find all the information they need. But the authors’ account of the flavour profiles that fermentation makes available tallies with my own experience, and the book offers a way to think about that as a coherent culinary strand rather than piecemeal—‘I like fish sauce; I like dill pickles; I like vinegar’ can be recast as ‘I like fermentation products’. Redzepi and Zilber are very clear on the science of fermentation, on the ways that it changes the flavours of its subject ingredients, and on the ways that the resulting flavour profiles interact with other ingredients. I’ll be keeping it close to hand as I seek out fermented flavours to do good work in the kitchen—like splashing a little cider vinegar into a pan of braised vegetables.

There are three specialist areas of fermentation that the authors rule out of scope, as they are all specialist areas of culinary work. These are baking leavened bread, brewing alcohol, and dairy fermentation. However, the discussion in the book is extremely illuminating of all three areas, and gives food for thought with regard to the ways that those things taste and interact with other ingredients. These three respectable professions are all, as with the other methods that Redzepi and Zilber do describe, questions of letting stuff go off, and I have to say that this is a fascinating topic from a cultural perspective, as well as a culinary one.

In their discussion of miso they say ‘[i]t’s difficult to fathom the stroke of creative genius—and luck—that inspired some brave soul to combine moldy rice with cooked soybeans, let it sit for months, and then taste it’. That’s a question you can ask about almost any fermentation product, especially garum! I suspect the answer lies in desperation—starving people through history probably ate many things that killed them, and a very few that turned out to be born of a process that eliminates pathogens while it enhances flavour. Different cultures around the world produce different fermentation products, and surround them with traditions, like the North Caucasian practice of pretending to steal kefir grains from your neighbours, so that the spirits won’t get angry with them for giving them away. All of the microbiological cultures described in the book have been grown by happenstance in human cultures, and transmitted in effective ignorance of the underlying mechanisms that make them both safe and delicious.

The Noma Guide To Fermentation is a beautifully designed book, wonderfully illustrated, and printed on fairly coarse, lightweight paper, rather than the heavy, gloss photo paper common in cookbooks today. This makes it a lot easier to handle than most food books, and also, along with its rigorously limited, orange-centred colour palette, makes it redolent of 1970s cook books, which in my opinion constitute a mini-golden-age of book design. The text is technically precise, scientifically informed, and intellectually astute—for example, they deploy Edward Lorenz, chaos theory, and the butterfly effect to elucidate the importance of varied starting conditions in shoyu production. It is also well-written, with a kind of relaxed, self-effacing prose which never distracts the reader with awkward constructions or a lack of fluidity. All in all, looking back on the nearly two-thousand words I’ve been moved to write about it (and it feels like I’ve skimmed over a lot), it’s clear enough that this book has had a major impact on me. If you’re less obsessive about food, it might not hit as hard for you, but I expect to be incorporating its insights into my cooking for years to come.

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