Wild Ferment


Although I’m still learning and experimenting, I’ve done enough fermentation now, I think, to consider myself reasonably experienced, at least when it comes to solid, savoury foods; in the field of fermented drinks, I’m still a complete beginner, at least in my adult life. The first ferment I made, in fact, was Binger Geer fromĀ The Weird And Wonderful Cookbook, a comically fizzy and powerfully gingered concoction made first with the help of, and then, as I got bored with the lengthy, repetitive process and realised I didn’t much like the stuff, almost entirely by my dad, himself a keen home brewer. He makes a fine dark ale, and a number of more or less experimental and palatable country wines; the blackberry has, in years past, made an excellent mull for Christmas Eve.

Brewing beer has always seemed like a complex and arcane process to me, requiring large investments of time, skill and equipment, and so, in fact, it is; you can buy one of those can kits and make yourself a batch of indifferent bitter with relative ease, but as you can easily buy indifferent bitter at any supermarket, cornershop or pub, it seems a little pointless. Making anything decent or interesting is hard, and best left to professionals or dedicated hobbyists; making country wines is much easier. This is obvious, when you think about it. With beer, you take a sweet-smelling but fairly unpalatable mash and coax it gently into a complex deliciousness; wine-making lets you start with something delicious and basically leave it alone, your only input being to not cock it up. Moreover, light, gluggable wines are something I generally want to drink, and they’re quite hard to come by in this country. So.

With this in mind, and with the help of Sandor Katz, I thought I’d try making honey wine. Given that honey is basically the tastiest natural thing, this is very easy. You just mix honey with water (1:4) in a bucket and leave it to do its thing; once it’s done that, you put it in a sequence of bottles until you want to drink it. There’s a little more to it than that, but those are the basics. Deciding when you want to drink it – that is, when it is at its best – is the hard part, but since it’s your wine you can sort of decide what its supposed to taste like anyway. There, that was easy, wasn’t it? Even if it goes really wrong, you’ll probably end up with vinegar, and fresh, unpasteurised vinegar is a lovely thing. You can, if you want, use it to makeĀ more drinkables, in the form of shrubs or sipping vinegars; or you can pickle things in it, taking the all-my-own-work glow of preserving up a notch. Or you can just use it as vinegar, in dressings and sauces and marinades. Honey wine vinegar is bloody lovely. Next time you find yourself with a lot of something sweet, I urge you – stick in a bucket and wait. You might not be disappointed.

Sour Soup

The thing about being a chef is never having any free time. A normal working day is at least 13 hours long, not including the necessary wind down into drunkenness after a busy service; days off are spent either catching up on normal life (shopping, laundry, friendships) or else in full recovery mode. This is tolerated because of the mix of monomania and bloody-minded machismo that fuels most kitchens. The majority of chefs are either totally obsessed with food, to the exclusion of all other interests, or else in love with the camaraderie that comes from working long hours in close proximity, masochistically driven to work harder, longer, better. Or both.

 

The problem, for me, was that working full time in a kitchen didn’t give me the chance to indulge my love of food. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it – I contributed to the menu, and had carte blanche when it came to specials, so it’s not like I was ‘creatively stifled’- but the pace and demands of a busy kitchen meant I had no time to try longer projects. I was getting more interested in older, slower processes, in pickling and fermentation and salting and curing, and there was no way I could do that. I couldn’t start making something that would be ready in 5 days, a week, 2 months – it was busy now!

 

Unsurprisingly, then, when I quit to concentrate on freelance catering and popups, I got into preserving straight away. I’ve written before about pickling, and I’ve done a fair bit of smoking and salting, but the most satisfying thing for me has been cultivating a sourdough mother. I’ve always wanted to do this since reading about the psychotic baker Adam in Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential,(“Feed the bitch! Feed the bitch or she’ll die!”) and even more since reading the St John and Justin Gellatly cookbooks, but it always seemed too complicated and time-consuming. Well, I’ve got loads of time now, and it turns out to be not that complicated at all. You just have to treat it like a little pet.

 

I’m not going to go through the actual process of creating the mother – I just followed Gellatly’s recipe, swapping grapes for the rhubarb and adding a little live yoghurt – nor give any recipes for bread, as I can’t pretend to be anything other than an enthusiastic amateur. I will, however, give you an answer to the question “what else can I do with this weird pet bacterial culture?” It’s a good question. It takes quite a lot of motivation and time to make sourdough every day. You can leave your mother in the fridge to go dormant, but that seems a little dull. Luckily, a Pole of my acquaintance pointed me in the direction of this rather odd soup.

 

ZUREK (SOUR RYE SOUP)

This is weird, and needs judicious seasoning. If you like the tangy taste of rye bread, though, this is delicious, warm and filling. Serves four.

You’ll need to feed your starter some rye flour the day before.

VEGETABLE BROTH

2 onions, diced

2 sticks of celery, sliced

2 carrots, quartered

2 cloves of garlic, peeled

a few juniper berries

a few peppercorns

a few bay leaves

Put everything in a pan, and cover with water (a litre or thereabouts). Bring to the boil, and simmer for about an hour. Strain and discard the vegetables, which have done their job.

SOUP

About 150g sourdough starter

the broth

2 tbpsn of chopped fresh marjoram or oregano, or 1 of dried

A big dollop of sour cream

extras

Just whisk the starter into the broth while heating gently, until it comes to a nice simmer. Leave it for about 5 minutes, then add the herbs and your extras. This being Polish food, these should definitely include some sausage – raw smoked sausage, sliced and then boiled in the soup, ideally, although I used Mattessons smoked sausage (sorry, all Poles) – and maybe some bacon too. Any sort of cured pig, in fact, would be good, a savoury hit to counteract the sourness. Hard-boiled eggs and diced boiled potatoes are usual, I think, although the soup is already quite heavy. Greens, cabbage, some parsley, whatever. When you’re done, stir in the sour cream, heat, but DON’T BOIL AGAIN. It’ll split. Season well with salt and plenty of pepper. Serve with beer, pickles, and rye bread.