I puzzled for a long time about how to further my knowledge of fermentation. It wasn’t that the options weren’t out there, more that there were so many options. Should I make something, watch something, read something? I’d already watched every episode of It’s Alive which would have been my first choice. Are you ready to hear what I settled on?
I decided to read the Noma Guide to Fermentation from Rene Redzepi & David Zilber cover to cover. I had always wanted to read it and what better time? I learnt something in every chapter, either about myself or about gastronomy. So I’ll break it down in a list by book section.
I’ve always loved science, but I’ve never been much of a doer. Rather than dive into a physical experiment, I’d rather read about it. Exams littered with physical examples were lost on me but give me a formula and I’d be away. This chapter felt like that. Building a physical fermentation chamber from a speed rack? Humidifiers and heat mats and controllers? Undoubtedly Redzepi and Zilber know what they’re talking about however this is the side of fermentation that I think people find intimidating when starting out. For an ancient concept, the instructions for fermented goods often become very technical very quickly. For Noma, this is to ensure consistency and safety however there wasn’t much consideration to the home cook for which fermentation wasn’t the only hobby.
Lacto-Fermented Fruits & Vegetables
From section two, the chapters each step up in the levels of involvement required with lacto-fermentation being the entry level. This is the introduction to some concepts of fermentation whether it be LAB (lactic acid bacteria) who function best in the absence of oxygen or keeping outsiders out of your ferments by using an environment at a level of salinity they can’t stand. Coming out of section two, I’m not overwhelmed with the feeling of impossibility so that’s a good start, perhaps I’ll lacto-ferment something other than cucumbers now?
I’m fascinated by the range of kombuchas that the team at Noma make. I’ve though for a long time that only black tea could really do the job properly, and then the header recipe for this section was made with a lemon verbena infusion. Mind bending and inspiring, where can I get my hands on a scoby? How wonderful would a kawakawa kombucha be? It also made me consider the current world of kombucha, its presence ever expanding on our supermarket shelves. There are so many things left to try that I don’t see the trend slowing down anytime soon.
A couple of key things stood out in Vinegar. First, I really should invest in real balsamic vinegar. A friend brought some back from Italy for me once and I savoured every last drop but until reading this section I had no idea what the real difference was between that bottle of liquid love and an off the shelf version. Turns out a lot! Real aged balsamic, labelled as a denomination of origin product must be aged for 12 years. What we usually think of as balsamic isn’t aged at all, rather it’s a mixture of red wine vinegar, cooked grape must & caramel. Secondly I learnt that I’d never really even thought about what vinegar is – the fermentation of alcohol into acetic acid. This means in it’s simplest form, that you start with alcohol and end up with vinegar. It makes sense, there is a myriad of wine vinegars, I’d just never dug into why they were called that. As condiments or flavour additions go, I’d also never thought about how global even my small collection of vinegars is. Italian, Japanese, apple cider vinegar from Nelson. I’m not sure another single product in my pantry features so many countries.
Upfront I’ll say that before reading this chapter I don’t think I’d ever heard of Koji. Kogi the Korean BBQ food truck perhaps, but not Koji. I love that the processes being talked about developed around the world in slightly different ways but around the some time. Whilst the Chinese and Japanese were the first to harness Koji, the similar process of malting was being wielded by the Babylonians and Egyptians. This is one of the reasons that origins of cuisine are hard to nail down because in some cases we just don’t know who got their first.
Misos & Peasos
I love this passage in the Miso section and can’t sum up why fermented products are some of the best examples of global foods any more eloquently, so I won’t try…
How comforting it is to learn about an ingredient that is from where we think it is from. Not only that but I also now understand the difference between tamari and soy, having simply ignorantly thought that Tamari was a gluten free version of soy. Turns out, it’s timeline is actually reversed and demand for tamari drove the production of soy.
In contrast to Shoyu, finding out an ingredient is not from where you had pictured is quite the opposite, confronting but in a great way. A way that reminds you why we learn. To understand that Garum’s story, and more specifically fish sauce’s story, the garum which is most widely recognised actually began in North Africa, makes us think of cuisine as a continuum. Whilst most would find fish sauce to be a part of South East Asian flavour profiles what will or could North African cuisine taste like if it reintroduced Garums? What would our beloved Italian taste like if they had continued to use Garums too? This concept could be given a learning journal to itself so I won’t try to answer these questions now, nor the ones that Redzepi & Zilber posed about how Garums came to be in South East Asia and if there are direct lines between there and the Mediterranean but perhaps I’ll come back to it, or maybe I’m not the person who should.
Black Fruits & Vegetables
Not really fermentation, this section was included because like fermentation blackening is a magical transformation and the products can have similar roles to ferments in our pantries. In this section I mostly learnt about chemistry. It gave a whole new meaning to the Maillard reaction which we normally think of as caramelising our steak. And now I understand what black garlic is, because like vinegar, I’d never really understood. Just another reason I love to learn.
Redzepi, R., Zilber, D., Sung, E., & Troxler, P. (2018). The Noma guide to fermentation. New York: Artisan, a division of Workman Publishing Co., Inc.