Ahead of his inaugural demo, food writer Thom Eagle talks about the fascinating world of fermentation and all it offers for the adventurous cook
Image: Sophie Davidson
Much of the ongoing revival of fermented foods and drinks focuses on their health benefits, but what I find really interesting about the various processes is the range of flavours they can produce, from deep and richly savoury to clean and highly sour. Every cuisine across the world features fermented foods of one form or another and in most cases, their flavours are fundamental; staples around which everything else revolves. Think about soy and fish sauces, soured cream and dill pickles, parmesan cheese. Remove these ingredients from their respective cuisines and the whole thing would come tumbling down.
While the fermentation revival tends to focus on ferments as finished products in themselves—snacks like kimchi or kombucha to drink—I like to explore the different ways they are incorporated into the cooking process, flavouring or seasoning or used as a medium for further fermentation, each part just a little step upon the way.
Japanese food perhaps provides the clearest example of this, with its salted pickles, soy and miso and aged eggs all coming from different types of fermentation. Even sushi, which seems so dependent on freshness, is the descendant of a method of fermenting fish in a bed of rice. While much of these take a long time to produce and can seem difficult to achieve at home, once they are made their effects are immediate, lending otherwise plain recipes the complexity of age. A bowl of plain white rice or even just a mug of hot water, seasoned with a couple of ferments, becomes a meal. Miso especially interests me, the roundness and depth of flavour created by aged pulses; I have made a few different kinds from different British beans from Hodmedod’s and like to let them express themselves in very simple preparations which let their flavours sing through.
Clean lines, abundant freshness
Although olives, cheese, salted anchovies, salame, bread and wine are all the products of fermentation, we might not otherwise associate Italy with fermented foods in general. The clean lines of its cooking and the abundant freshness of its markets might seem to leave little room for the sourer and funkier flavours of aged vegetables. Italian cuisine however is by no means homogenous, varying incredibly from region to region, and especially in the edges of the country often bears no resemblance to any stereotypes we may have about the country’s food. In the north and east it turns distinctly sour, taking on the fermented vegetables of its Balkan neighbours, while fishing villages across the south have far more varied methods of preserving their catch than salting and drying, pressing and extracting their juices or packing them with hot peppers to ferment in the sun.
These are just a few examples from very different countries, but the same can be found everywhere, the abundance of each season kept, salted and aged and woven into the fabric of cooking; it is something I find endlessly fascinating. As autumn begins to tip over into winter, I’ll be exploring these and other examples at the Demo Kitchen, taking the beautiful produce of the Market and allowing it to transform into endless flavour.
Join Thom for free, tips, tastings and recipes Friday 1st November in the Market Hall, 1-2:30pm