Health benefits and sensational flavours are two reasons to welcome the current gastronomic craze of fermentation. Myrna Robins gets the lowdown on updates of this ancient technique . This article first appeared in the Cape Argus on July 20 and in The Star the following day.
Less adventurous palates will no doubt shy away from an offering of fermented black garlic with a “tender, almost jelly-like texture with a consistency similar to a soft dried fruit…” Yet the same diners probably relish their breakfast yoghurt followed by crisp toast, and enjoy fine wine or a good artisanal beer when eating out. All of which have undergone fermentation, which is best defined as a metabolic process that converts sugar to acids, gases or alcohol. It occurs in yeast and bacteria, and also in oxygen-starved muscle cells, as in the case of lactic acid fermentation.
We humans have been busy fermenting our food and drink since the Neolithic age, both for preservation and good health. China, India, Egypt, Babylon (Iraq), Mexico and Sudan are countries where evidence of fermented fare and beverages have been uncovered, the earliest around 7 000 years ago.
Early this year culinary websites were announcing fermentation as one of the hottest trends of the year. And, predictably, South African chefs are not being left behind as they experiment with a range of ingredients that are adding zing to our tastebuds . I contacted a few of the Western Cape’s leading chefs to get their say on the subject.
First stop Franschhoek where executive chef Oliver Cattermole presides over the kitchens of Leeu House, a boutique hotel in the village and the five-star mountainside Leeu estate. At the launch of the latter last month, his luncheon menu included black garlic and smoked miso as accompaniment to braised heirloom carrot, an intriguing mix of bland root vegetable with tingling flavours. Miso, a traditional Japanese seasoning is produced by fermenting soybeans with salt, a particular fungus and other ingredients such as rice or barley.
With an enviable relaxed approach that belies carefully created, utterly delicious five-star cuisine, Cattermole is embracing the new trend comprehensively, as these comments from him prove:
“Jac [his baker] ferments all of his yeast for his breads and sour doughs – we have one that he feeds daily that is nearly three years old. All the chocolate that we use is fermented. We are currently fermenting red onions, slowly turning them translucent, which we use in our butternut lunch dish. We have just started a ferment with walnuts, which should be ready by Christmas. And we are fermenting garlic, both wild and elephant ,which has been ongoing since October last year… about three weeks ago it started to turn black which is the desired effect, and it makes the kitchen smell lekker.”
Down the R45 to the Drakenstein valley and Boschendal estate where chef Christian Campbell has spent months researching and experimenting with fermenting produce traditionally popular in international cuisines. Along with the mammoth task of overseeing all the restaurant menus on this large estate, he sources his produce from the huge organic vegetable and herb garden, which enables him to present seasonal menus which change daily. Fermented lemons feature right now, while Campbell embraces the popular oriental traditions of kimchi, kombucha and kefir on his his signature shared meal platters in the Werf restaurant. He describes these classics for us:
“Kimchi is a national Korean dish consisting of fermented chilli peppers and vegetables, usually… Chinese cabbage, radish, garlic, red pepper, spring onion, ginger, salt and sugar… fermented with red pepper, garlic, ginger and salty fish sauce. …It is rich in vitamins, aids digestionsand may even prevent cancer…. The best tasting kimchi is stored at room temperature for an average of six months to reach its full flavour.
“Kefir is high in nutrients and probiotics and is incredibly beneficial for digestion and gut health… a fermented drink, traditionally made using cow’s or goat’s milk. It is made by adding kefir “grains”– cultures of yeast and lactic acid bacteria… to milk. These multiply and ferment the sugars in the milk, turning it into kefir. All the rage with health addicts, this is considered to be a healthier, more powerful version of yoghurt.”
Readers who shop at pharmacy chains and health shops will have seen bottles of kombucha on the shelves, a fermented drink made with tea, sugar, bacteria and yeast. Kombuch ais a colony of bacteria and yeast which is added to sugar and tea, and left to ferment. The result is rich in vinegar, B vitamins and other compounds.
Campbell also uses fermented black garlic, which he describes as “sweet meets savoury, a perfect mix of molasses-like richness and tangy garlic undertones” and has turned to honey mead, which he describes as “fermented honey and water mixed with herbs and spices.” As one of the original alcoholic drinks of Africa, this is a good choice indeed.
We continue our culinary journey from bountiful Boschendal to the equally aristocratic Delaire Graff estate, off Helshoogte pass. Here pampered guests can choose to go oriental when dining in the Indochine restaurant where chef Virgil Kahn is introducing fermented ingredients with their rich probiotic profile to several dishes on his exotic menu. He had this to say about the hot topic of fermentation:
“On the whole consumers are still nervous to experiment with fermented foods, however they add a wonderful flavour profile to a dish, a natural refreshing zing which I love to experience in a dish. From kimchi to our salt- fermented black garlic, fermented foods are transforming not only the balance of flavours on a plate, but our overall health.”
So there you have it. Back to Chef Campbell for the following list of benefits that probiotics and a good balance of healthy bacteria, found in ferments, afford us: Boost our immune system and lower cholesterol. Reduce allergic reactions to both food and environment. Help reduce intestinal inflammation, prevent constipation, and suppress growth of harmful micro-organisms. And finally they apparently help manufacture K and and B-group vitamins, along with digestive enzymes and essential fatty acids.
Wow! no wonder fermented ingredients and drinks have long been red-hot hot favourites in the East, both with chefs and home cooks. Now that the West has cottoned on, are South Africans making their own versions of kimchi at home, or are our Occidental palates staying with sauerkraut and pickled cucumbers?
Fermentation festivals are taking place, I hear, across the United States in Portland, Oregon, in Massachusetts and in California at Santa Barbara. Perhaps we can look forward to our first South African celebration soon? An event where both the health-conscious and trendoid diner will mingle, palates a-tingle…