Thursday, September 10, 2020

Fermentation - Rachel de Thample

 This is the 18th River Cottage handbook, number 19, coming April 2021 and also be Racheel de Thample will cover Bees and Honey. I love this series which I've been following for more years than I can easily remember now (a quick check suggests that they first started coming out around 2007). These are the books that helped me work out how o make decent jam, definitely taught me how to make a good loaf of bread, sent me foraging into hedgerows, hanker after a firepit of some sort (not easy in a flat without a garden), and so on.

With a complete set I reckon I'd be well on the way to the good life if I lived somewhere near the Dorset coast and had a small holding. They're certainly as good a place as any to start if that's your dream, or alternatively if you just want a better understanding of what it takes to raise pigs and chickens - or indeed keep bees. All of them work well as recipe books because all of them go beyond the obvious and show you more things that you can do with whatever it is that you're looking at. A whole, or even half a pig represents a serious amount of meat, it needs a bit of ingenuity and know how to deal with it all. 

'Fermentation' falls into the 'Bread', 'Baking' and 'Preserving' part of the series - these are fairly traditional cookbooks for accessible home use, and  more or less beginners guides. The 'Baking' book is nice, but I have it to complete the series, it was never going to teach me much. The 'Bread' book on the other hand is still my favourite on the subject; it's easy to follow, full of sound advice, and the sort of thing you can read in bed or carry around with you.

Fermenting is having a moment again in Britain (which makes me wonder - could we have a great British Ferment along the lines of Bake Off - it's seems like the sort of thing that might be appropriate post Brexit), and is something I keep skirting around. I'm happy with sourdough, although I don't currently have a starter. It's an easy and satisfying place to start experimenting from, but that's as far as I've got. I want to expand on that and I'm hoping this will be my gateway book, but in all honesty fermentation is a bit daunting for the woman who lives alone.

Will it be like the pickled quinces that I made last year (and loved) but 3/4rs of a jar are still sitting at the back of the fridge and I have no idea what they'll be like now - vinegary beyond belief, mushy, or otherwise unappealing? I haven't currently the courage to investigate. Sauerkraut looks like a good place to start, but I'm not convinced I like it enough to eat my way through a whole jar in a timely way. And then there are the slightly daunting warnings about carefully introducing fermented food to your diet in small quantities to start with. That seems at odds with eating all the sauerkraut before it ferments beyond my idea of a good thing to eat.

I know exactly what those warnings mean after an old work colleague made kimchi for the first time, overindulged on it, and told me in graphic detail about the results. 

I'm also deeply skeptical about kombucha - possibly because I've read too many plant based horror stories over the years, but that's my problem and something I need to get over. The upside is that the actual equipment that you need to start fermenting is minimal (jars), there isn't the same pressure around sterilization as there is with jam making, and as this book starts you with vegetables and works up there's plenty of experimenting to be done at the cheap end before you need to think about investing in more expensive ingredients. Fermented honey and fruit jams are intriguing me, but it's probably sensible to start with a cabbage...

The overall tone of the book is really encouraging with plenty of places for the novice fermenter to start, and to build confidence from. It's a mark of how much more everyday sourdough is in our lives that there are several recipes for things to do with a starter beyond making a loaf of bread. Pancakes, doughnuts, and rhubarb sourdough buns all look good. The last two are probably not ideal if you've got to eat them all yourself, but they still sound great and they're bookmarked for a post Covid world. 

The one thing I'd really have liked is a bit more information about mold and yeasts. It's touched upon, specifically Kahm yeast which is harmless but can look look like mold (or at least I'd always assumed it was mold), but my last sourdough developed something which smelt appalling. I have no idea what it was, why it struck when it did (after months of having a happy starter), or how to avoid it happening again. It's one of the single most off putting things that's ever happened in my kitchen, and seems like something worth addressing at greater length. 

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