encounters in history

A certain chef burnt some pine nuts the other day, as occasionally happens when the one timer you have in the kitchen is temperamental at best. Not wanting to waste them, I put the nuts in a jug and covered them with water with the intention of making a pine nut milk – I’ve been experimenting with making nut sorbets. The jug went on a shelf and I went home, forgetting to put it in the fridge before I did so, and when I came into work the next day, I found that the contents had begun to ferment; I did what anyone would do in the circumstances – left it to see what happened.

The folklore of food is full of happy accidents. The Chinese, for example, have an improbable tale of a swineherd who, setting his hut ablaze, accidentally discovered roast pork and crackling; this story runs counter to the popular belief that folklore is the repository of ancient truths by being clearly false in every particular. Our view of the origins of cooking is murky at best, but we can, I think, safely say that houses do not pre-date cooking and that the keeping of pigs did not come before their eating. Other stories are perhaps a little more probable, especially when they deal with fermentation, the slow works of enzyme, bacterium and yeast.

Most foodstuffs, after all, have a certain inbuilt tendency or what we might call an intent to ferment, a process which is after all only one leg of the journey towards rot; ripe grapes, for example, crushed under their own weight, will begin to bubble and change in a matter of hours. The story of cheese being discovered when milk was carried inside a pouch made of rennet-rich stomach is distinctly probable, at least next to the tale of the swineherd; rennet intends to coagulate milk, it is what that enzyme is for. Still, we can draw a distinction between simply leaving things to themselves and leaving them to see what happens. Piles of cabbage will rot, but if you salt them and leave them to see what happens, you get sauerkraut.

When I tasted the bubbling pine nut water and found it had a distinct umami, reminiscent of soy sauce, the obvious thing to do was to blitz it, add 2% of its weight in salt, and put it in a jar; I had, now, some idea of what the result might be, but I was still just leaving it to see what happened, which is often what I do in the kitchen. There are, really, two ways of going about cooking. You can start with a clear idea, gleaned perhaps from a recipe, a memory, or simply your imagination, of what you want your food to look and taste like, in which case you may well have to go shopping; on the other hand, you can see what you have, combine it in some way, and see what happens. As the process continues and your food begins to take shape, you might seem to act with a little more purpose, but really you are just doing what your ingredients want you to do.

I never intended to become a maker of non-pork charcuterie, for example; I certainly don’t do so from a dislike of pork. It’s just, you see, that someone sold me a couple of sheep; at the time I wasn’t aware of the Scandinavian tradition of cured ovine meats, so I just decided to salt up the legs, and see what happened. That I now have four legs of hogget ham hanging in the breeze and two more boned legs of mutton salting quietly in the dark is something of a shock, when I stop and think about it. Come to mention it, I never really intended to become a chef, and the fact that I am one, an apparently adult one living in Suffolk, and not, for example, an academic, an astronaut, an archaeologist or an Ostrogoth, is still a source of surprise and delight to me.

Noble Rot

It’s a little strange that Britain, for all its love of tracklements and preserves, has no particular tradition of lactofermentation, the preferred method of pickling vegetable matter from Korea to High Germany, and indeed further afield. In the United States, it is understood that the word “pickle”, unmodified, means a sour dill pickle; that is to say, a small cucumber, lactofermented in the Continental tradition mostly associated here with polski skleps and salt-beef bagels, though very similar to the pickles of Lebanon, Turkey, and Egypt, where they fill the same role as a foil to rich, smoky meats and sour dairy. Here, I suppose, “pickle” (“cheese & pickle”) means something anonymous, mixed and brown in the Branston mode, malty with vinegar and brown sugar – although if you were offered “pickles” you might reasonably expect onions, perhaps some beetroot or sweet, sliced cucumber; even, if you’re lucky, an inky Opies walnut. If we pickle cabbage, it will, most likely, be red and, once again, vinegared; the bacterial tang of sauerkraut is alien to the national palate. (Was, anyway; the Reuben has joined pulled pork on the supermarket shelves, and kimchi, we are told, is ubiquitous. As so often happens, these things have gone straight from out-there trend to mass-produced commodity.)

Lactofermentation is a chemistry experiment, or if you like, an artistic exploration into decay. Fruit or vegetables (generally) are placed into salted and perhaps sweetened water – or in the case of sauerkraut, dry-salted, the cabbage itself providing the required liquid – and left for some time, the exact recipe varying with ingredient, temperature, season. The amount of salt is important – you need enough to kill off any rogue yeasts, and the majority of bacteria, but not so much as to see off the lactobacilli, which will, given time, eat their way through natural and added sugars, creating lactic acid – after the manner of acids, a preservative – in return. This is one of those extremely useful processes, symbiotic between humanity and microscopic life, which form the foundations of our culinary history – and one of the more baffling ones. You can see how some sour grape juice was sampled, liked, and polished off; how old dough was found to swell fuller in the oven’s heat. To leave cucumbers entirely immersed in salt water for a period of time takes a certain amount of idle curiosity. However. To get back to those pickles, perhaps it’s the decay that puts us off; we don’t like to watch the cloudy, mysterious bubbling as the bacteria do their work. As I’ve mentioned before, we’ve never had much truck, historically speaking, with sourdough bread either, or, our noble cheese aside, soured milk products.

It’s a shame, anyway, as fermentation is an excellent method of pickling, preserving (haha!) as it does a lot of characteristics normally masked by heavy, sweet vinegars. I fermented some tomatoes recently, to an (I think) Ukrainian recipe via Olia Hercules, and they were delicious. Sour almost to the point of fizziness, they nonetheless taste of tomato – and of different varieties of tomato – in a way which chutneys and ketchups, however tasty, do not. It’s odd, when British cooking has such a reputation for plainness (simply boiled or roast meat, potatoes, vegetables) that in pickling we frequently pile on so much ornamentation, to the point where it overpowers the content – we don’t eat piccalilli for the beans and cauliflower, or Branston pickle for the whatever-they-put-in-Branston-pickle – although the same could be said of our charcuterie tradition. All across Europe, people dry-cure whole or boned pork legs in masses of salt, trusting in the quality of the animal, fed on acorns or herbs or common swill, to shine through; we, on the other hand, immerse the same in treacle, beer, sugar, cloves, marmalade, vinegar, saltpetre, peppercorns, herbs and hay, roast it, and still serve it with nose-tickling mustard, pickles, pickle, and piccalilli. We have a thousand sausages, but no salami – salt beef but no cecina. You could blame the climate, but I’m not convinced. I stuck a salted sheep’s leg up a chimney all through summer and it came out fine. I think it’s that same fear of rot, of seeing the white bloom of mould creep across the skin; deep in a Puritan part of our souls we are scared of decay – although that doesn’t account for Stilton or, for that matter, Stichelton.