Wild and cultured: Musings from the GreenMan

An ode to fermentation and the healthful benefits of such

October in Sooke is dappled with a rusty palette of luminescent golds, reds, yellows and earthy browns. Autumn has arrived in its full glory, displaying the deep sleep of dying as a beautiful event. Fall is harvest time—Oktoberfest. Preparing and processing the bounty is a time-honoured ‘Thanksgiving’, and a season to imbibe the afterglow of the setting Summer sun. By celebrating the gifts of family, friends, food and drink we express our deepest yearning and appreciation of the good life. It is also the magical season of misty mushroom forays, the tawny rut, and full-on fermentations. It is to this latter art, both wild and cultured, that I pay my respects to in this article.

This alchemical process of fermentation is something we human beings have been enjoying the many benefits of since the pre-dawn of civilization. In the invisible worlds beneath our gaze, these miracles of transformation are taking place right within our bodies, the cultured foods we ingest and the effervescent beverages we drink.

Our bodies are host to billions of beneficial microbes that help keep us healthy and in a state of balance. Even the permeable cells within our fleshy skins are constantly undergoing microbial metamorphosis with the aid of fermentation. It has been estimated by scientists that the human body coexists with an excess of 100 trillion bacteria in a complex symbiotic relationship that we have barely begun to understand. This is why the ‘War on Bacteria’ is inherently wrong-headed and short-sighted. In his book, The Lost Language of Plants, Stephen Harrod Buhner writes, “Bacteria are not germs but the germinators—and fabric—of all life on Earth… In declaring war on them we declared war on the underlying living structure of the planet—on all life forms we can see—including ourselves.”

This recent scientific understanding of our biological symbiosis serves to cultivate a broader understanding of what human beings have known world wide when we began to ingest these bubbling beverages and foods eons ago:  that fermentation is very good for us.  Not only do ferments allow us to preserve the harvest, but they are incredibly healthy and have given rise to the creation of culture in our very own kitchens, garages and cellars. Fermentation allows us to forgo the energy-consuming, sparse real-estate of the refrigerator.They give us the gift of inebriation (moderation my friends!) and they are just plain delicious. Current favourites include:  stinging nettle-crabapple kraut, plum wine, crabapple-ginger cider, cinnamon apples with lemon-zest and sea-salt brine,  carrot wine and fennel beer with an rebooted champagne yeast. My pantry is an lively alchemical lab filled with experimental cultures which I greet every morning at sunrise and taste in the evening to see how far along they have come.

One genus of bacteria responsible for fermentation, Lactobacillus has given us the specialized term, ‘Lacto-fermentation’. This microscopic life form is found on the surface of all plants, humans and animals. It is this bacteria that alchemically transforms cabbage into sauerkraut and kimchi, and milk into yoghurt.  Lactobacillus converts sugars into lactic acid, which acts as a natural preservative without depleting nutrients and inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria such as E. coli. It promotes the growth of healthy bacteria in the intestinal tract, hence the term, “probiotics.”  This powerhouse bacteria is a powerful ally in the mission of eating healthy, sustainable, and locally cultured foods.

Cultures are adaptations and creative expressions that are firmly rooted in the living land and brining with salty seas. Every place gives rise to its own cultured ferments. Southern Vancouver Island spawns our own unique home-grown and wild cultivations.

Many ancient cultures mythologized the mysteries of fermentation, a kind of death and resurrection in its own right, through green vegetative deities, gods of wine, leavening spirits, and mystical meads of poets and bards.  The simple addition of water to honey invites the wild yeasts swarming all around us to “boil” into the original alcoholic beverage, mead, which has been the immortal gift of wordsmiths since time immemorial.

Barflies and fruit flies have something in common:  they both tend to be found hovering nearby ale and wine troughs. Yeasts, as opposed to bacteria, are responsible for the conversion of the sugars found in fruits, grains and vegetables into wines, meads, melomels, ales, metheglins and beers. Shamans would invoke the ‘spirits’ to enter into their magical brews, and these wild and cultured yeasts would be propagated and protected as members of a symbiotic community, as well as passed down as wedding gifts to the newlyweds.

When wine or beer ‘goes off’, we have the infiltration of vinegar-producing bacteria and yeast in an aerobic environment that give us acetic acid.  These feral ferments are no cause for ditching the batch of brew as the vinegar, from the French, ‘vineaigre’, or ‘sour wine’, can be used to preserve, clean, cook with and make delectable salad dressings.

This orange-glazed Indian Summer, raise a glass, toast to a culture of kombucha, brew a beer, kraut a head of cabbage in the laboratory of your own kitchens, gardens and fields. Read a book, join a fermentation group, or attend a workshop or two to get you started on the ancient practice of fermentation. In an age of fast food, junk food and monocultured uniformity, experimenting with the life force of fermenting microbes, foods and beverages is empowering, delicious and fun!

Workshops on fermenting foods will take place at Ahimsa Yoga on October 18, 12-2 and fermenting beverages October 25, 12-2.  For tickets information and cost go to Ahimsa Yoga Studio or check: GreenManAdventures.com

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