Jo Webster & Cultjar Collaboration
The practice of humans fermenting foods likely developed from inadvertently leaving foods in an unpreserved state and still finding them palatable, if somewhat altered, some considerable time later. Fermentation is, after all, a form of controlled decomposition. It involves the microbial breakdown of carbohydrates resulting in organic by-products including carbon dioxide and ethanol. The practice became deliberate many millennia ago, partly as a means of preserving a glut and enabling its consumption through the lean months. It represents an exceedingly environmentally friendly way of NOT eating seasonally - I am currently augmenting my salads with wild garlic buds that I foraged last Spring and they taste excellent.
Most vegetables are fermentable, and the more you explore the practice and the process, the more you will find yourself combining different vegetables and herbs in ways that are pleasing to you. Some like the fresh, gently tangy taste and crunchy texture that exists in young ferments. Some crave the softer texture and eye-widening sharpness that comes with a longer ferment timeframe. Whatever your predilection, once the important, but straightforward safety parameters have been understood, you can venture into a whole world of experimentation and enjoyment.
It has been exciting to witness Cultjar fermentary and Worminster Farm develop just a few miles down the road from me. Their emphasis is on growing their own superb quality ingredients through “no dig” and regenerative agriculture principles. They are growing specialist vegetables, fruits and herbs as well as the majority of their staples. This guarantees that the taste combinations used in their ferments are never run of the mill. The time and distance from soil to salting is short too, ensuring maximum vitality in their products. If making your own ferments is not realistic, Cultjar epitomises the very best of home ferments without actually being made by you.
In my fermenting practice, and in Cultjar’s, it is not simply what is burgeoning in the vegetable patch that drives our recipes. It is also about the art of combining flavours and textures to produce delicious and sometimes surprising results. Fermentation, a dynamic process driven by living microbes necessarily involves subtle variations. This untameability is what I love about it. It is a beacon of authenticity in a sea of foods that are uniform and predictable. In a world where almost every food or drink item we purchase tastes identical to the last time and the time before that, fermented foods rewrite the rules. And they do so in a way that is not only delicious, enlivening and refreshing, but also in ways that can benefit health. When Peter Prescott, the founder of Cultjar suggested we collaborate to produce a ferment together, it made perfect sense to do so.
Fermenting, for me is also about considering the nutrient profile and the medicinal qualities of the vegetables and herbs I am combining. Jerusalem artichokes are known for their high inulin content. Inulin is a complex carbohydrate and we lack the enzyme needed to digest it ourselves. For this reason, it survives through the stomach and small intestine, reaching our large intestine relatively unchanged. Here, the plethora of microbes living there digest it for us with gusto; Jerusalem artichokes are a fantastic substrate for our resident microbes. These tubers also have a unique delicate, nutty, sweet and earthy tang. By fermenting them, microbial action to digest the inulin begins in the ferment vessel. This enables us to enjoy their flavour and benefit from their inulin content without the unwanted gassy side effects for which they are maligned. As a nutritionist and a fermenter, it comes as no surprise that the ferment I wanted Cultjar to produce was a Jerusalem artichoke one.
The recipe also contains fennel bulb, because its subtle aniseed flavour goes so well with the Jerusalem artichokes. Fennel is also rich in fibre that feeds microbes and supports healthy gut function. Like Jerusalem artichokes, fennel contains a range of vitamins and minerals we need from food for health. Fennel also contains volatile oils, including anethole and fenchone (although the seeds contain much higher levels of these). Apart from tasting delicious, fennel can help to reduce gut spasm and reduce bloating and wind.
Chillies bring with them that warming flush towards the end of the mouthful. They are packed with carotenoids and capsaicinoids. We can’t make carotenoids ourselves and they perform a diverse array of biological functions for us, including acting as powerful antioxidants. The capsaicinoids give chillies their heating pungency and are effective circulatory stimulants with potential to improve blood circulation both in the gut and to our peripheries.
Last, but not least, we have horseradish. Horseradish is part of the brassica family. It is packed with glucosinolates which, once digested by enzymes (that both the horseradish, itself and our microbes produce) form volatile sulphur compounds known to impact liver function, supporting antioxidant and detoxifying processes. Horseradish, like chilli is also a circulatory stimulant. And the flavour it adds to this ferment varies from the potent horseradish tang to a sweeter, richer version of this as the ferment ages.
Through microbial action, this combination is transformed into something quite miraculously indescribable, both in taste terms and in health terms. It is also a potent reminder that fermented vegetables don’t have to involve cabbage.
Jo Webster, Medical Herbalist, Nutritionist, gut microbiota and fermenting specialist.