He has a global cult following — so what exactly is all that all about? Well, I met and heard him speak recently at the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) conference in San Francisco and I have to say it was an inspirational experience.
I’ve been following his trail and becoming more and more intrigued and fascinated since I bought the Art of Fermentation in a book shop in Skibbereen a couple of years ago.
I have felt for some time that our Western diet is seriously deficient in fermented foods and the paranoia around food hygiene and food safety has led to a lowering of immune systems. A growing body of research seems to indicate that children who are totally protected from bacteria seem to have higher rates of allergies and asthma.
Sanitising the world can be counterproductive. The overuse of antibiotics has produced resilient bacteria more lethal than those we’ve managed to kill.
How arrogant and naïve are we who imagine that we can win the war against bacteria — over and over they out-evolve us, the battle is futile and in many cases counterproductive.
We need to learn to work with bacteria and nature to re-establish healthy gut flora and guess what, they really like fermented foods like sauerkraut.
For the majority of us making fermented foods is an unknown or forgotten skill, unfamiliar names like sauerkraut and kimchi sound scary — we have no idea where to start.
Nowadays most people are convinced that bacteria are all bad, not realising that the majority of bacteria are beneficial and benign.
Bacteria are everywhere, we are all made up of different types of bacteria and there are some pathogenic bacteria, but the healthier we are the most resistant we are to dangerous bacteria. Ironically the more sterile our environment and more processed our diet the lower our resistance, so challenge your system with lots of live food, organic produce, natural cheeses and fermented foods.
So where do we start? Whatever about bacteria the population at large is totally terrified of moulds — again people are convinced they are all scary and bad. Apparently the growing ignorance and paranoia about moulds is adversely affecting the growth of the cheeses, so people are missing out on that brilliant penicillium roqueforti.
In the past decade or two as food has become more and more processed, we’ve lost faith in our own judgement and become increasingly deskilled and put our faith in food manufacturers and sell-by dates.
We need to take back power over our own diet and re-learn forgotten skills, shake off our fear and learn to trust our instincts once again. As soon as I read the Art of Fermenting I googled Sandor Katz for his contact and invited him to speak at the inaugural Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine next month — May 3-6.
My pantry larder is now full of bottles, crocks and jars full of experiments and ferments, I’ve been empowered by Sandor Katz who spoke so eloquently of his fascination with fermentation — and told us that there have been no recorded instances of food poisoning from fermented foods in the US so just scrape off that mould and enjoy the sauerkraut underneath.
Fermentation is the hottest new interest for many top chefs particularly in the US. I visited several during my visit to the West Coast.
Apart from sauerkraut they are also making pickles of all kinds. Kefir is now widely sold in supermarkets, so soon you’ll see fermented foods coming mainstream. At present Environmental Health Officers and food inspectors in the US are having difficulty coming to terms with this revolution. This new development, though time honoured, is unfamiliar and can be scary territory.
Sandor Katz is leading the way in our rediscovery of the ancient art of fermentation. His book is the most definitive do-it-yourself guide to homemade fermentation ever published.
There are two opportunities to meet Sandor at the Ballymaloe Lit Fest of Food and Wine — he and Ben Reade of the Nordic Food Lab will speak about The Art of Fermentation on Saturday, May 4, at 11.30am in the Grainstore and at a Practical Fermentation Demonstration at 9am on Sunday, May 5; www.litfest.ie
Ceramic crock or food-grade plastic bucket, one-gallon capacity or greater
Plate that fits inside crock or bucket
One-gallon jug filled with water (or a scrubbed and boiled rock)
Cloth cover (like a pillowcase or towel)
Ingredients (for 3¾ litres):
2.2kg (5 lbs) cabbage
3 tbsp sea salt
Chop or grate cabbage, finely or coarsely, with or without hearts, however you like it.
I love to mix green and red cabbage to end up with bright pink kraut. Place cabbage in a large bowl as you chop it.
Sprinkle salt on the cabbage as you go. The salt pulls water out of the cabbage (through osmosis), and this creates the brine in which the cabbage can ferment and sour without rotting. The salt also has the effect of keeping the cabbage crunchy, by inhibiting organisms and enzymes that soften it. Three tablespoons of salt is a rough guideline for 2.2kgs (5lbs) of cabbage.
I never measure the salt; I just shake some on after I chop up each cabbage. I use more salt in summer, less in winter.
Add other vegetables. Grate carrots for a coleslaw-like kraut.
Other vegetables I’ve added include onions, garlic, seaweed, greens, Brussels sprouts, small whole heads of cabbage, turnips, beets, and burdock roots.
You can also add fruits (apples, whole or sliced, are classic), and herbs and spices (caraway seeds, dill seeds, celery seeds, and juniper berries are classic, but anything you like will work). Experiment.
Mix ingredients together and pack into crock.
Pack just a bit into the crock at a time and tamp it down hard using your fists or any (other) sturdy kitchen implement. The tamping packs the kraut tight in the crock and helps force water out of the cabbage.
Cover kraut with a plate or some other lid that fits snugly inside the crock. Place a clean weight (a glass jug filled with water) on the cover.
This weight is to force water out of the cabbage and then keep the cabbage submerged under the brine. Cover the whole thing with a cloth to keep dust and flies out.
Press down on the weight to add pressure to the cabbage and help force water out of it.
Continue doing this periodically (as often as you think of it, every few hours), until the brine rises above the cover.
This can take up to about 24 hours, as the salt draws water out of the cabbage slowly. Some cabbage, particularly if it is old, simply contains less water. If the brine does not rise above the plate level by the next day, add enough salt water to bring the brine level above the plate.
Add about a teaspoon of salt to a cup of water and stir until it’s completely dissolved.
Leave the crock to ferment. I generally store the crock in an unobtrusive corner of the kitchen where I won’t forget about it, but where it won’t be in anybody’s way. You could also store it in a cool basement if you want a slower fermentation that will preserve for longer.
Check the kraut every day or two. The volume reduces as the fermentation proceeds.
Sometimes mould appears on the surface. Many books refer to this mould as “scum”, but I prefer to think of it as a bloom. Skim what you can off of the surface; it will break up and you will probably not be able to remove all of it. Don’t worry about this. It’s just a surface phenomenon, a result of contact with the air.
The kraut itself is under the anaerobic protection of the brine. Rinse off the plate and the weight. Taste the kraut. Generally it starts to be tangy after a few days, and the taste gets stronger as time passes.
In the cool temperatures of a cellar in winter, kraut can keep improving for months and months. In the summer or in a heated room, its life cycle is more rapid. Eventually it becomes soft and the flavour turns less pleasant.
Enjoy. I generally scoop out a bowl — or jarful at a time and keep it in the fridge.
I start when the kraut is young and enjoy its evolving flavour over the course of a few weeks. Try the sauerkraut juice that will be left in the bowl after the kraut is eaten. Sauerkraut juice is a rare delicacy and unparalleled digestive tonic. Each time you scoop some kraut out of the crock, you have to repack it carefully.
Make sure the kraut is packed tight in the crock, the surface is level, and the cover and weight are clean. Sometimes brine evaporates, so if the kraut is not submerged below brine just add salted water as necessary. Some people preserve kraut by canning and heat-processing it. This can be done; but so much of the power of sauerkraut is its aliveness that I wonder: Why kill it?
Develop a rhythm. I try to start a new batch before the previous batch runs out.
I remove the remaining kraut from the crock, repack it with fresh salted cabbage, then pour the old kraut and its juices over the new kraut. This gives the new batch a boost with an active culture starter.
Poached monkfish, scallops or squid also work well with this recipe.
500g (18oz) – peeled, freshly cooked Dublin Bay or organic prawns
1 tbsp nam pla fish sauce
1 tsp caster sugar
juice of one lime
2 – 5 Thai green chillies finely sliced
1 stalk lemon grass finely sliced
2 kaffir lime leaves finely shredded
2 red shallots or 1 small red onion finely sliced and refreshed
1 scallion or spring onion cut at an angle
Lots of fresh mint leaves or fresh coriander
½ — 1 cucumber cut in half and then in diagonal chunks
Whisk the fish sauce, freshly squeezed lime juice and sugar (you may need more) together.
Add the other ingredients, toss gently, taste and correct seasoning and serve immediately with lots of coriander sprigs and a wedge or two of cucumber.
The Burren Slow Food Festival in Lisdoonvarna takes place on May 17-19 and showcases the best elements of food culture in County Clare.
Visit the largest indoor and outdoor market in County Clare.
Attend a food symposium, gala dinner, cookery demonstrations from local and celebrity chefs, and food and nutrition talks.
There is also a range of events and demonstrations for children to enjoy. www.slowfoodclare.com/festival/
Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine, May 3-6. In addition to the main programme, there will be a Fringe festival in “The Big Shed” with a host of other food and wine related activities for young and old alike.
Gardeners will rub shoulders with cooks, foragers with food historians, critics with musicians, artisan producers with bloggers — a melting pot — of eating, drinking, speaking and thinking. A place to be quiet or to make noise.
A place for new ideas, words old and new, inspiration, learning and fun. This is a unique event being staged in a special place — a gathering for all who love food and wine — www.litfest.com
Check out the new Fish Bar at the Electric on the banks of the River Lee, 41 South Mall, Cork City.
It takes its inspiration from the simple Portuguese fish shacks and San Sebastian’s taverns.
They serve the freshest fish, simply cooked — half a dozen oysters, grilled sardines, crab and crayfish salad — how delicious does that sound! 021-4222990.