Gut instincts

Categories: News and previews

Xanthe Clay gets the lowdown on fermentation from microbiologist Caroline Gilmartin, ahead of their joint demo

Why are foodies getting in a froth about fermentation? What with kimchi, kombucha and kefir popping up on menus all over town, unless you’ve been in hibernation for the last six months you can’t have missed the gathering obsession with natural fermentation.

On the surface, it flies in the face of the usual mantra, fresh fresh fresh. After all, fermenting food generally means taking those fresh foods and, well, letting them hang around a bit ‘till they start bubbling and fizzing—the kind of thing that would normally have you holding your nose and heading for the rubbish bin.

But, in fact, fermentation does make sense, as long as you take a bit of care—and you don’t need to just take my word for it. To get to grips with the science bit, I’ve enlisted the help of microbiologist and natural pickling enthusiast Dr Caroline Gilmartin to guide us through the real reasons to jump on board the fermentation band wagon.

Bacteria, fungi and viruses
“Within each of us, in our intestines, exists the microbiota—an enormous population of about two kilos of different microbes, including bacteria, fungi and viruses, which work together to play essential roles in almost all of our daily functions.” Yup, that’s right. Imagine carrying two big bags of flour. That’s how much they weigh.

“Our western diet and lifestyle can throw the careful equilibrium of the microbiota off balance, which can affect everything from your immune system, to your digestive transit, to your state of mind. Multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and irritable bowel syndrome have all been shown to be linked to what’s going on in our microbiota.”

Fine—but where do fermented foods come in here? “They are nutrient rich and packed full of probiotics, the healthy microbes that can have positive effects on your health and your microbiota. Many of these foods are also prebiotic, which means that they contain just the right sort of fibre to keep your gut microbes in prime condition.”

Bulgarian peasants
Interestingly, this is old news. “A link between a healthy gut and a healthy human was established over 100 years ago by the scientist Ilya Metchnikov, who noticed that Bulgarian peasants who drank fermented yoghurt rich in the bacteria lactobacillus seemed to enjoy great longevity. However, here in the west, we’ve ignored this information and have processed and pasteurised our way into the 21st century instead.”

All well and good, but how does it taste? Thankfully, delicious. There’s a gentle tang to some of the foods, but it’s nothing like the raw harshness of a vinegar pickle. And while good fermentation does have some simple rules, it’s nothing tricky, or that can’t be done safely at home.

Our demonstration is going to show you how—as well how you can use them to make some gorgeous (and not at all weird) dishes. There’s everything from a lime and sesame Asian coleslaw made with sauerkraut, to some delicious kefir ice cream—think frozen yoghurt for the soul. I’ve got a good gut feeling about this.

Join Xanthe and Caroline for tips, tastings and recipes Thursday 28th September in the Market Hall, 12:30-2pm