Did you know that pure honey is antibacterial and antifungal but once mixed with water it becomes the perfect home for wild yeasts to turn the sugars into alcohol and transform the honey into wine? About 12,000 years ago, presumably when our Paleolithic ancestors stumbled upon honey wine and enjoyed its intoxicating buzz, fermentation was something magical and mysterious. Hungry for more, humans experimented with fermentation but didn’t fully understand it until the advent of microbiology in the 19th century. Unfortunately, the more we discovered about the microscopic world, the more inclined we became to disinfect or pasteurize our food regardless of whether the bacteria were friends or foes. We forgot how to prepare and process our own food and lost some of the magic along the way.
But over the past decade or so we’ve seen a revival, a renaissance of eating and drinking living foods containing good bacteria, or probiotics that help our health. More people are puckering up to the tart taste of sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha thanks to Sandor Ellix Katz, author of Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation who has helped bring the magic back into our lifeless food. In the introduction of Wild Fermentation, Katz describes several benefits to preparing and eating cultured foods. The process of fermentation
- creates natural preservatives such as alcohol, acetic acid and lactic acid
- makes food more digestible and increases the absorption of nutrients
- creates new nutrients (especially B vitamins)
- improves immunity and digestive health with probiotics and enzymes
- promotes a Do-it-Yourself culture that empowers people to learn how to make their own food
- removes or neutralizes toxins such as arsenic and phytic acid
Our food supplies are increasingly vulnerable to environmental contaminants in the air, soil and water, and food processing renders our food devoid of life and occasionally prone to pathogenic bacteria. The process of fermentation protects you and your food by adding a microbial suit of armor with almost magical capabilities. The fact that fermentation can make food safer for consumption has historically helped humans adapt to harsh environments. Vikings survived excursions to inhospitable lands by eating toxic Greenland shark that they fermented underground. In the tropics, where there are many varieties of cassava, people learned to ferment the starchy root since some varieties contain high levels of arsenic.
These days, if you’re hungry, you probably won’t ever need to resort to eating poison shark, or guess which starchy root contains the least amount of arsenic. You can generally trust your grocery store or farmers market to supply you with edible food. But wouldn’t it be empowering to know that you could safely eat Greenland shark or cassava root if you ever found yourself stranded on a desert island? And if there happened to be a beehive on that desert island? Well, with a bit of fermentation, that desert island could magically transform into an island paradise.