Living soul

Categories: Behind the stalls, Features

The power of fermentation to alter the flavour, texture and longevity of food has been harnessed by producers since the dawn of civilisation, but, as the duo behind Borough Market stall Eaten Alive attest, the transformative nature of bacteria still offers scope for invention. Market Life pays them a visit

Words: Clare Finney
Images: Orlando Gili

“At least one of us has facial hair!” Pat Bingley grins as his business partner, Glyn Gordon, puts a self-conscious hand to his face. “I was at a moustache party last weekend,” he explains, “and I still have the vestiges.” Beyond that, Pat continues, there is very little in either their appearance or respective backgrounds to fit the stereotypes associated with what they do.

Pat and Glyn make pickles: kimchi, sauerkraut, chilli sauces, pickled cucumber and carrots, handmade and hand packaged in their small unit in southwest London. Pat is a Fat Duck alumnus and the son of a Master of Wine, while Glyn cut his culinary teeth as a pastry chef at Claridge’s. They are talented—intimidatingly so—but they are not the pair you might expect to find behind Borough Market’s snazzily-branded fermented vegetable stall. “Our hipster friends give us a lot of stick: we don’t have tattoos or mad facial hair, and we’re not in Shoreditch,” Pat says, grinning. “But two years ago, when we told our friends we were making kimchi and sauerkraut, they were either like ‘Wow, that’s niche,’ or ‘It smells of bin juice.’ Now they say, ‘Oh my god, I LOVE kimchi.’ Attitudes and awareness have definitely changed.”

Though classic spicy kimchi—spiked with chilli, ginger and soy sauce—is Pat and Glyn’s best-selling product, Eaten Alive is far more than a kimchi company. Their cold stores, tucked Tardis-like alongside their kitchen inside a railway arch, are stacked with sealed barrels and boxes, all bubbling with fermented treats. Their latest addition sits on the office table in front of me: ripe Kentish cherries lightly fermented in salt and water, in the style of Japanese umeboshi. It’s the perfect example of what they describe as food “inspired by tradition, made in London”.

Bottles of Eaten Alive scotch bonnet fermented hot sauce

Orthodox and heretical worshippers
“We could have found someone to import ume from Japan for us—but these are seasonal, and there’s a glut here at this time of year,” says Glyn. Many of their best ideas start like this: Glyn goes to the market, identifies seasonal produce that’s at its best (and selling cheaply because there’s so much of it) and takes it back to experiment. “The other day we did 160 kilos of damsons—I really can’t wait to see how they turn out,” he tells me. “They’re quite unpleasant raw, but through fermentation we hope to achieve that winey flavour they have when they are cooked.”

Fermentation is a broad and ancient culinary church, home to orthodox and heretical worshippers alike. Eaten Alive sits somewhere in the middle, with sauerkraut and pickled cucumbers rubbing shoulders with fermented chocolate barbecue sauce—a potent reminder of Glyn and Pat’s chef training. “We like to be guided by tradition but not beholden to it. There are certain elements you can’t overlook, like using salt to get the lactic bacteria we’re trying to encourage—but the fun of food is in creating and developing products.” This doesn’t always make commercial sense, Pat smiles. “The things that sell best are the classics—and we’ve definitely had some failed experiments. But there are also times when you come up with gold, and that’s worth it.”

Their smoked siracha is a case in point—and indeed a case of it is worth buying. The scarlet, smoky, sensational result of the pair experimenting with red pepper, chilli and onion and their new smoker, it won three stars at this year’s Great Taste Awards, and customers “eat it by the spoonful”, grins Glyn. The smell of smoking chillies pervades their office, situated as it is above the smoker. Later on, we get a peek inside the smoker and catch a glimpse of blackening chillies and onion beyond the billowing plumes. As a kitchen, what Eaten Alive lacks in size is compensated for by the quality of the equipment: machines we are asked not to name (and couldn’t even if we wanted to, it having taken the pair several months of highly specialised research to find the best ones for the job) slice, dice and mix carrots, daikon and white cabbage—this being the day for their kimchi made with white cabbage rather than Chinese leaf.

A living, mutable entity
There’s still plenty of manual labour, however, and Pat and Glyn can’t help but wince as they describe the tedium of peeling ginger. “I’m vetoing that before it gets anywhere,” says Glyn, when Pat floats the idea of pickled jerusalem artichokes. They could buy vegetables ready-peeled and shredded, as many kraut and kimchi makers do, but they’d be sacrificing their ability to maintain standards of ethics (by introducing an extra process such as shredding, you introduce the possibility of workers being exploited somewhere along the line) and quality: vegetables deteriorate pretty quickly once they’ve been cut or peeled. Thus, all produce arrives whole, ready to be manually prepped to the point where it can enter the machines. “We go to the market ourselves to select the best quality produce, and use British wherever possible,” says Pat. Then there’s the logistical issue of maintaining consistency in a product that by definition is a living, mutable entity.

They’ve managed to stabilise the temperature as best they can in their storage/fermentation room, but “it’s not like clockwork. The timings are more predictable, but we still have to taste and sample regularly to manage potential changes.” These are subtle, and usually seasonal in occurrence. “We think it’s the microbial load,” adds Pat. “There will likely be seasonal variations in the microbiome of vegetables because bacteria will propagate less when it’s cold.” In principle, fermentation is straightforward: “It’s a bit like wine. What’s actually happening is really simple,” he continues. The skill—especially when you’re producing at scale, as they are at Eaten Alive—“is getting a consistent result within an inconsistent environment.”

The thrill, for Glyn as well as for Pat, is in not really knowing what happens after the lid goes on. “It’s the same reason I’m interested in pastry: there’s science behind it, and I have some knowledge and a feel for what’s right—but we aren’t the ones transforming our food into something delicious. We’re just creating the right conditions for the right bacteria to thrive in.” There’s something humbling about the uncertainty, “especially when you consider just how many foods are fermented,” he continues. “Even when you take away alcohol, fermented foods are a huge, pan-global food group,” Pat points out. “We just don’t really tend to think about it.”

Chopped veg at Eaten Alive

Myriad complex flavours
The fact Eaten Alive started life as a restaurant concept gives you some idea of how many fermented foods there are out there, from cheese and charcuterie to chocolate. “We looked to do something that covered every aspect of fermentation: we’re fanatical about using moulds, yeast, bacteria and so on.” They’d cracked kimchi, Glyn having learned the ropes in San Francisco’s Koreatown, and their sourdough game was strong, honed by years in the kitchen. “Those myriad complex flavours that capture us all when we drink coffee, eat cheese or chocolate—they are all roughly the same process, of bacteria metabolising the starches and breaking them into smaller chains of hydrocarbons. These are the compounds that produce the new flavours we taste after fermentation,” Pat continues. “That’s what we find so exciting.” The restaurant got put on the backburner after a friend asked them to make vegan kimchi for her restaurant and their production took off, but they’re still hopeful it will come to pass.

I am, too. The way the pair speak about the “freshness, balanced acidity and depth” of the fermented lemons in their preserved lemon hot sauce, or the “tropical fruit of the scotch bonnet, its heat tempered with sweet peppers” in their scotch bonnet sauce would convince me of their talent even if I hadn’t tasted their products. I have. They’re alive with flavour. Pat and Glyn might not look like your archetypal picklers—if such a thing even exists—but given the choice between a bearded, tattooed hipster without the fermentation skills and a less hairy chef with an excess of skill and experience, I know whose pickles I’d rather have.

Read Clare’s article on how fermentation works its magic elsewhere at Borough Market