Jota; A recipe, by Thom Eagle
Fermentation is often described, not necessarily pejoratively, as a fad or a trend in the food world, and one perhaps more aligned to its health benefits than to any particular culinary application. In reality of course it is an ancient technique or rather set of techniques, as old as or older than humanity, and woven right through everything we do as cooks; even in Britain, which has traditionally an unusual dearth of fermented foods in comparison with most of the world, you can count bread, cheeses, tea, alcohol and vinegar among its products. The relatively recent popularity of lacto-fermented foods, though, along with the insistence on their probiotic qualities, means a lot of us often don’t know quite what to do with them – the most common thing I’m asked at workshops, I think, after ‘what if it explodes’, is ‘but what do I do with them?’
The answer of course is to look to the cuisines which already make use of ferments and to learn from them. If you look at your jar of kimchi or pickles not as a source of ‘good’ bacteria (which would be killed anyway in the cooking) but rather a little package of intense flavour, possibilities begin to open up. Fermented foods undergo another transformation in cooking, giving a powerful umami and a rich sourness to the blandest of carbohydrates, as they have done throughout human history, and all over the world. Here is a recipe perhaps surprisingly from Italy, a country not especially associated with the sour tang of fermentation – although not surprising when you consider it is from Trieste, between Slovenia and the sea.
200g piece of smoked bacon or ham ends
1 onion, roughly chopped
1 stick of celery, roughly chopped
1 bulb of garlic, halved across the middle
1 bay leaf
1 tin borlotti beans
2 or 3 potatoes, peeled and chopped into chunks
2 tbsp polenta
1 tsp dried oregano
Put the bacon, onion, celery, garlic and bay in a pan and cover with 2 litres of water. Bring to a simmer and cook, skimming, for about an hour. Strain into a clean pan or fish out the vegetables with a slotted spoon; in either case discard the veg but cut the bacon into chunks and return to the broth.
Add the rest of the ingredients, stirring the polenta through well, and bring back to a simmer. Cook for another half an hour or so, until the potatoes are tender and the polenta has thickened to a sort of congee consistency. Traditionally the soup would be finished with a pesto of pounded pork fat and raw garlic, but I normally just eat it with oil and bread.