A Q&A with Jo Webster; The Umbel
From London commercial property lawyer to fermenter, medical herbalist and nutritionist – why? Jo Webster, with whom we are delighted to have collaborated to produce our latest ferment, Jerusalem Artichoke & Horseradish, tells the story of her change in career direction.
From lawyer to fermenter, medical herbalist and nutritionist – why?
As a London commercial property lawyer, my connection to the land and the natural world was tenuous. The work was intellectually stimulating, but the long hours ensured time in nature was rare. And I love nature with a passion. The eye-opening experiences of my mother dying of a brain tumour and my first child developing an autoimmune illness aged 5 forced me as one sort of professional to engage with medical professionals. I realised, quite quickly, that just as my thinking as a lawyer was subjective and flawed, so, too, was the thinking of medical professionals. This is not to say that they weren’t excellent, but excellent does not mean infallible. What I learnt caused me to consciously take back responsibility for the health decisions affecting my growing family. After all, it is us that has to live with these decisions isn’t it? As a result, I fell down a rabbit hole of research and study on health, nutrition and medicinal herbs, leading to various qualifications and a Guinness World Record for fermenting the largest dish of sauerkraut.
A Guinness World Record for a dish of sauerkraut?
Yes! At some point early on in my avid reading, I came across the book Gut by Giulia Enders. It is a fabulously informative, yet accessible book about how our gut works and the role of microbes in gut function and health. In one deft move, my understanding of microbes completed the circle between my devotion to the natural world and my keen interest in human health and nutrition. Gut microbes naturally segued into fermenting, which led to me and my colleague, Katie Venner, running a huge educational event on fermenting and gut health at Wells Food Festival in 2018. We had various speakers attend, including Tim Spector, the fermenters, Naomi Devlin and Dearbhla Reynolds and scientists from University College Cork (an important scientific centre for research on gut microbiota and fermented foods). We taught over 150 people to ferment and in so doing, also set a Guinness World Record!
What three things do you love most about fermenting and fermented foods?
Firstly, fermented foods taste amazing. They are delicious, complex, unique and surprising. Our palates are designed to taste and detect a range of flavours and the digestive hormone and enzyme cascades that result can vary depending on those tastes. The thing I love most about ferments is how good they taste.
Secondly, I love that this process is ancient and complex and straightforward all at the same time. There are just a few rules to adhere to in order to make your own ferments, but once you understand those, you can ferment what you want, when you want, with the seasonings you want and leave it for as long as you want. It honestly feels to me like a super power - a super power available to ALL of us.
Thirdly, not only are we finding out through scientific enquiry just how many health benefits these complex foods might have, but incorporating some fermenting practice into our lives (even if this is simply consuming bought products) will increase our understanding of and respect for microbes. This is important, since we are dependent on them for our survival as a species.
Give us your no. 1 reason why someone might want to try these foods for the first time?
Because they taste incredible. Because you will never, ever tire of the extent to which different foods can be utterly transformed by microbial action.
What is your current favourite ferment
For a long time, it was Dearbhla Reynolds’ tomato salsa. Then for a while, it was “mouldy steak” (this requires another blog piece to explain!), but I admit that my Jerusalem artichoke and horseradish recipe is my current obsession. At the rate we are consuming it, it is not going to last through to the next Jerusalem artichoke harvest in Autumn 2022. The microbes do something special to all of the ingredients, particularly the horseradish. And as it continues to age, the taste continues to shift. This breaks all the rules of modern food, which we expect to taste precisely the same every time we eat it. I love that about ferments.
Your biggest fermenting accident?
One of the most liberating things about fermenting is that failures are very much part of the learning experience. The process is live. It is run by living microbes and that means results can be unexpected. No two batches are precisely the same; the weather, the temperature and other (sometimes frustratingly nebulous factors) influence this living process and therefore the outcomes. I very much appreciate this aspect of fermentation. My biggest error so far though, has been failing to “burp” water kefir stored in glass bottles. Carbon dioxide builds up as a part of the fermenting process and this can put vessels under huge pressure. I woke in the middle of the night some years ago, thinking someone had thrown a grenade into the house. I went downstairs to find the tiny shards of two bottles of kefir and all the red berry water kefir they had previously contained, decorated throughout my kitchen (including the ceiling). I was immensely glad this hadn’t happened whilst we were in the room.
Which of your fermenting practices gives you most pleasure?
Oh it ALL does in different ways; from vegetable ferments to kefir and kombucha, from herb vinegars and oxymels to koji and miso. But in terms of thrills, I still get the biggest rush of joy when I open the oven and see a beautifully raised loaf of sourdough sitting there demanding to be eaten.