I contain multitudes 

The kitchen is alive at the moment. Better than alive; it is thriving. Under the sinks, in a space just high enough for the airlocks, there are two demijohns of bubbling honey-water; on the warm shelf on top of the pass are jars of carrots, asparagus and turnips, each brined with its particular citrus and spice, and murkier pots of peel and trim, ageing into edibility. A bowl of plain water and strong flour teems with fungus and bacteria. Today it smells good and sour, reminiscent of rye and pickle and milk – tomorrow it will smell of yeast, of warmth and buns and baking. In the hot dark, squid entrails slowly change.

We chop and pound dead matter, sow it with salt and starve it of oxygen – and life springs up from these airlocked graves. It’s like bloody Dracula. Maybe the whole coffin-full-of-native-earth thing was to keep him stocked up on the bacteria and fungi which supported his particular microbiome; perhaps a vampire is merely a highly advanced form of pickle. There is certainly something (as they say) of the night about the whole process – if you want to look at it that way. I prefer to see it as a creation myth. Various cultures have given us worlds birthed from the brains of giants, the testicles of elder gods, raven shit and living clay; we create a squawling life from compost and salt – our breath moving over the cabbagey waters.

Chop stalks of kale, broccoli, or kohlrabi; mix in 100g of salt and 50 of sugar to every kilo of vegetable. Squeeze and crush it in, and leave overnight.

Tomorrow, make a paste of green chillies, garlic, spring onion, mint, and fish sauce or seaweed; mix and pound that in, too. Pack into jars, seal tight, and leave for a week. It lives!

Tears and Memory


Fermenting sprouts, it turns out, smell exactly as you might expect them to smell; they will convince no-one of that brassica’s deliciousness. The chopped stalks of cavolo nero, on the other hand, fermented kimchi-style with green chilli and garlic, after an initial period of cabbagey pungence, enter a sort of late imperial phase during which they smell strongly of truffles (or at least of truffle oil), which, as everyone knows, in turn smell strongly of pig testicles.

 

Smell (and therefore flavour) is, like poetry, composed of a set of seemingly abstract and subjective connexions which turn out, on closer inspection, to be absolutely concrete and precise. Truffles do not just happen to smell like pig testicles; they have evolved that way to attract the rooting attention which, buried underground, allows their spores to spread. Nor, really, do they just smell like pig testicles; they smell of them, evolution having precisely replicated the chemical component of that heady musk. Remember that when some gourmand invites you to sniff his knobbly fungus.

 

It is a common piece of inverted snobbery to laugh at the descriptors on wine labels, with their vanillas and leathers and fruits; “it smells of red grapes to me!” is, to be sure, a fine and time-honoured dad joke, and if it keeps him out of the good stuff then all the better, but it ignores the chemical complexity of fermentation and aging, the interplay between grape, yeast, bacteria and wood which makes wine smell, in fact, almost nothing like grape juice. The reason, for example, that this particular red has a strong taste of vanilla is because it contains quantities of vanillin, the same ingredient found in the bean and synthesised for the flavouring, which is thrown up by the wine-making process.

 

More readily understood is the fact that similar-tasting plants often contain amounts of the same chemical flavourants; the mustardiness of cabbage comes from the same source as that of mustard; anise, aniseed, fennel, dill, tarragon and chervil all have a similar make-up. This might seem obvious, but it is only recently being understood. It’s what leads Heston to things like salmon in liquorice; at a less exalted level, it’s behind the current-ish fad for herbs in desserts, as well as the precise amplification of flavours which marks a lot of good modern cooking.

 

So what, you may well ask; well, I thought it was interesting, but what I’d really like to know is –

a) what made that kimchi smell of truffles?

b) will the smell ever come out of the jar?

c) can I use it to attract pigs, like the Pied Piper of Hamlyn?

 

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.

Kimchi?

I’m hesitant about posting this recipe, as it is really something I should disapprove of. I’ve written before about my dislike of ill-considered fusion food, the lack of respect for ingredient or tradition that it implies, but that is exactly what this is – a gleeful mishmash of the technique of one culture (Korean) with the ingredients of another (Turkish), the end result unrecognisable as being from either. I’d like to think this is partly justified by the Turkish love of pickles, if not exactly in this form, or at least by the deliciousness of the end result. Maybe I’m just a hypocrite, though.

This is a little more involved than the basic pickle recipe I posted before, though not by much, and although the hands-on process is spread over two days, both stages are quick and simple. It also lasts a while once it’s been made, and continues to improve up to a point – although traditionally kept for months or years, you should probably eat it within 2 or 3 weeks to be on the safe side. As with anything like this, sterilise your equipment, which is easier than it sounds – wash utensils and bowls really well, and either boil your jars on the hob, wash well and then dry in a low oven, or just stick them through the dishwasher.

TURKISH CELERY PICKLE
Apologies for the specialist ingredients. If you don’t have a Turkish grocer’s nearby, some large Tescos sell them.

makes 1 litre jar

DAY 1
600g of celery (1 large head), sliced
2 bulbs of fennel, sliced
3 tbsp sea salt
2 tbsp caster sugar
4 small dried chillies

Put the vegetables in a plastic or glass bowl with the chillies, sprinkle over the sugar and salt, then massage it in to the veg, making sure it all gets a coating. Weigh it down with something like a plate and a can, and leave at room temperature overnight.

DAY 2
PASTE –
6 cloves of garlic
10 brown anchovies
2 tbsp Turkish pepper flakes
3 tbsp Turkish pepper paste
1 tbsp caster sugar

1/2 a white onion, sliced in fine half moons
1 carrot, grated

Fish the chillies out of your veg and blitz them with the rest of the paste ingredients until smooth. You might need a little (up to 50ml, say) water to get it all going.

Drain the celery and fennel, rinse thoroughly and drain again. Mix with the onion, carrot, and paste, and pack into a sterilised jar. How long you leave it is up to you – mine is lovely now at 6 days, though it was pretty good after a couple. When you’re happy, stick it in the fridge, where it will continue to mature, but much more slowly.

Try with buns and wraps, or stirred through rice or grains; eat, shamefully, out of the jar, using cheese as a spoon; David Chang recommends (proper) kimchi on oysters, but I can’t confirm this.