An evening of culture & gut instinct

Frome (a small town in Somerset, once famous for its silk mills), has blossomed over the last 15 years. Then a boarded-up collection of gloomy shops and run down pubs, with a bit of a reputation for a dodgy nightlife, it has transformed itself into a magnet for artists, craftsmen, foodies, independent shops and music lovers. I say ‘transformed itself’, but actually it has been the doing of several groups and unsung individuals who collectively worked hard to make things happen. And once a month, its market showcases the transformation.

Frome Independent has become one of the best markets in the South West, an event where the town’s centre is closed to traffic and over 200 stalls line the streets selling all sorts of scrumptious, crafted, local and vintage things. It is very well curated; the organisers select the stall holders on merit for their passion for their business and for local individuality (there were over 900 applications for the 200 pitches last month!). Music, kids’ activities, and a ‘park&ride’ are laid on, and people travel from near and far to enjoy the experience as much as the produce.

The organisers have recently started a new project called Night School, a series of 3-hour evening classes, introducing the skills of local craftspeople to anyone inspired to have a dabble themselves. Screen printing, blacksmithing, linocut prints, leather working and, the hipster craft de rigueur, spoon whittling, are on this season’s list of temptations.

But the course title that caught my eye was “Preservation Society: Discover the centuries-old art of lactic acid fermentation“. There has been a lot of new interest in fermented foods of late, and yet, despite being predicted for several years to be the next food-fad to sweep into every kitchen in the country, it hasn’t. Why is the uptake so slow? Is it the pre-perception of taste and smell? Is it the fear of complicated methods and food poisoning? Is it the less than appetising sound of the vocabulary? … lacto, ferment, bacteria, sauerkraut… Or could it be ‘why fiddle with fresh vegetables more than you have to?’, especially when we can grow/buy them in the UK all year round. Not knowing anything at all about it myself, this seemed the perfect opportunity to learn the hands-on, tongue-out truth about fermented vegetables!

The evening was hosted by Katie Venner, of Tracebridge Fermenteria. She and her husband started a sourdough bakery business 10 years ago, and, growing their own produce,  the interest in fermenting vegetables naturally spun off of that. (Their cabin in the woods recently featured on Michel Roux Junior’s Chanel 4 series: Hidden Restaurants).

She split the evening into three sections; history and nutrition; a ‘guess what’s in it’ tasting session of a dozen very different recipes; and hands-on chopping, slicing, kneading and squeezing our very own ferments.

Many hands make light work…

Nearly all ferment recipes are based around firm cabbage. If you grow white or red cabbages you probably find you have too much to deal with at some point. Use this as a base and add other vegetables (again, preferably firm veg that will stay crisp, rather than green or limp veg, that can turn slimy). Then add extra layers of complex flavour with herbs and spices, even certain fruits, and together with different preparation you can make a surprisingly different range of flavours, textures and colours. It’s amazing how much vegetable can be squeezed into a jar (after it’s been cut up and pummelled to give as much broken down surface as possible for the preserving bacteria to take hold), so even a glut of cabbages soon becomes a reasonable to manage jar or two of tasty ‘fickle’ (for want of a better word).

My ‘fickle’ = white & red cabbage, leek, cauliflower, coriander and fennel seed, salt!

They can be a bit of an acquired taste… some I took to immediately, others made my tongue curl. Try and remember  what it was like eating a mushroom or an olive for the first time (I can actually remember both!). It’s a bit like that. You know they are delicious but you want to start with just a little at first. To start, I think a table-spoon will go particularly well with cold meats, hot sausages, cheeses… and a little tossed into green salads. But they are so quick to make, and you can start eating them after just a few weeks, so you really can afford to experiment and go with your instinct. I have no doubt I will be slapping my thighs with Bavarian gusto as I pile my plate high with the stuff by the end of the summer.

Oh, something else new for me… I was really taken with the almost meaty flavour that Nigella seed added to one of Katie’s own ferments (tasted like sausages!) and I’ll be collecting some seeds from my garden this year.

So what about the health benefits of ‘fickles’? Unlike boiled pickles and chutneys, vitamin C is preserved, and vitamin Bs actually multiply during the fermenting process, with everything peaking at about 5 weeks. And of course, all that bacteria is meant to do wonders for your gut (which, in turn, does wonders for the rest of you). There is, however, a lot of salt added to ensure the preserves stay crisp and do not break down into a slurry. I didn’t think at the time to ask about the health impact of so much salt… it is something I’ll try to find out more about.

There are several new British books recently published on the art of fermenting. Although it is surprisingly easy, I would highly recommend a short hands-on course to get started. There’s nothing quite like the knowledge of a good instructor, and coming away with a pot of good stuff you made yourself to start you, and your guts, on your happy way.

Courses on fermenting are bubbling up all over the place and there’s sure to be one near you… here’s a few up-coming courses I’ve found online:

Tracebridge Fermenteria (Somerset)

Demuth’s (Bath)

The Fermenterium (Walthamstow)

Ballymaloe Cookery School (Ireland)

Newton & Pott (London)

Have you had any fun with fermenting? Any favourite combinations? 

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