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Fermentation; cultured meets culture

For many years now we have been taught to fear bacteria and other microorganisms. Projecting that fear onto our food and drink is the natural progression. We spend a good deal of our time ensuring our food preparation and storage areas are beyond clean, disinfecting every inch of space and every utensil we use, at all costs we must destroy the germs! The fact that we are utterly dependent on bacteria and other microorganisms to live, (we have never lived without them) is often conveniently forgotten. Humans, animals, soil, plants all host trillions of microbes. We have for millennia lived in symbiosis with these microbes. We cannot survive without them.

Because we commonly associate microorganisms with disease, it is often thought that fermentation is dangerous, only for those with expertise and of a “hippy” disposition. The truth of course is that fermentation is our oldest form of food safety. The process of preserving food is as old as humanity itself. From the ancestral methods of throwing cassava root into a hole in the ground to allow it to soften and break down the cyanide making it safe, nutritious, and sweet to the practice of allowing whole fish to rot and become liquefied (garum anyone?). Every culture has found ways to preserve food to enable them to survive barren seasons and times of hardship. Fermentation was necessity.

Fermented Foods

Our modern forms of preservation are sophisticated and allow us to mitigate or destroy the growth of pathogenic microbes. All foods have the potential to cause harm, mitigation is the name of the game either through modern technology or ancestral practices. In its simplest form the risks in fermentation and other preserves are minimised through the control of time, temperature, pH, and available water. We may not throw food into the ground to allow it to ferment anymore, at least not in a commercial sense but we do replicate the conditions in our modern technologies.

The science of microbiology is relatively new. We are only beginning to understand the complexities and functions of our microbial companions in life and their potential to affect adversely or positively everything from brain function to gene expression and how our immune system reacts. Studies of our ‘microbiome’ are exploding throughout the scientific world. The effects of an almost sterile living environment alongside the worrying repercussions of antibiotic misuse and overuse are under scrutiny. Although science and research are welcome and necessary, fermentation in and of itself is for many, a flavour driven process.

Health through a flavour first approach is a concept widely used among the food community. Harnessing the potential of the enzymatic dance of koji to make miso, soy, amazake and an ever-growing array of amine sauces, foraging for wild herbs and plants, harvesting wild yeasts to make natural soda, using and storing a variant of starter cultures (SCOBY: symbiotic communities of bacteria and yeasts), all of this is much more than making food. Showcasing the benefits of encapsulating flavour, with health promoting naturally occurring vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and polyphenols plays well to today’s never ending nutrition noise. But fermentation is more than that, its history, culture, art, metaphor, skill, passion, and flavour. Fermentation in the traditional sense can be a hard sell to an EHO, but not impossible.

HACCP and fermentation

And here is where it can all go pear shaped! Fear once again taking the lead. Producers, particularly small artisans, not fully understanding the legislative requirements, some EHOs not understanding the processes, lack of substantial robust guidelines often leading to hidden crocks of bubbling fevres, chefs growing koji mould at home under beds! (rumour has it).

Like most things HACCP related, showing your processes and having a strong risk analysis procedure in place, alongside good research will help to fight your corner and keep your EHO happy. You are the expert in your field, communicate this and back it up. Deep dive your product and process, study the most recent research and show how these products and processes have been produced safely across the globe for millennia. Food safety professionals can also guide and advice, helping to bridge the gap.

Fermentation needs to be embraced, understood, tasted, and experimented with. It needs to be used as a tool to fight food waste and encourage biodiversity. It needs to be mainstream. Hippies welcome!

Remember we need microbes; they do not need us.

By Theresa Keane  August 2023

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