Book review: Wild Fermentation

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Not a baking book, per se, but one which I’ve found interesting and thought-provoking enough to want to see it included here, and to encourage you to look at and hopefully buy.

The chapters most immediately relevant to a baker are those on breads & pancakes, and on fermented grain “porridges”. In the former, the basic sourdough starter recipe suggests using potato or pasta cooking water and possibly some organic grapes or berries to kick start the process, and asks us to cover the open bowl with something porous like cheesecloth, and the following bread recipe encourages experimentation, with its use of leftover grains and a variety of liquids, including stock, beer or sour milk, and we are urged to allow as long as it takes for the dough to rise.

There are also recipes for an onion-caraway rye bread, an Afghan flatbread and the sprouted-grain Essene bread, amongst others, but the book is primarily a call for us to be more aware of the ubiquity of fermented foods in all their forms, and most of all, it is its author’s personal story of a love affair with fermentation and its perceived health benefits.

Given that you can’t spend an evening in front of the television in the UK without being bombarded with adverts extolling the benefits of “good” micro-organisms in commercially-available yoghurts, it’s perhaps surprising that “artisanal” fermentation is still in its infancy here; and surely any reaction against the bland flavours of processed foods should wholeheartedly embrace the stinky-zingy-tangy palate of fermented flavours, so many of which we could cultivate in our own homes.

I’d never assert that any one book contained all the answers, but at least this book isn’t afraid to ask us questions, about how we eat and how we react to now-unfamiliar food tastes and smells, which our ancestors would almost certainly have been familiar with. So much more than a bread book, this paperback will also guide you through fermenting vegetables and beans, dairy products and more; the section on “country” wines, made from fruits and vegetables, reminded me of the knockout potions my grandfather used to brew from his Buckinghamshire garden, drinks so strong that my Aunt Joan called them “idiot’s brew”.

This book clearly grew from the author confronting a health crisis in his own life, and from his need to acquire a new focus and meaning, and along the way he has clearly created a happy synthesis of where he came from, where he is now and where he is heading. It’s an unusual book, a kind book, and an affirming book. For anyone who ever looks inward, and contemplates their own place in the bigger scheme of things, it’s a rewarding book.

Wild Fermentation, by Sandor Ellix Katz; £17.99 amazon.co.uk

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