Having talked in length about this topic with Scott Pittman (permaculture.org), he revealed that during his extended travels with Bill Mollison through Russia and Eastern Europe and continued friendship, Bill explicitly said he considers his greatest work, not the Designers Manual, but rather his Ferment and Human Nutrition Book. The link between traditional culture and fermentation is very intimate, stemming from a low carbon preservation tool and an alchemy of health and nutrient availability. I love the practice of fermentation, to me it’s like a good compost pile, no matter how many times you do it, it changes, never one is the same, and almost always the outcome is delightful.
The Case For Fermentation
Besides being a direct contact with nature and making your zone 0 more multifunctional, ferments have true value in permaculture systems. And no I am not talking about the yucky sauerkraut from the supermarket that we all despise nor the yogurt that is tasty because its pasteurization has been hidden by copious amounts of sugar. Rather I am referring to one of the arts that is poised to further the local foods revolution. To back this up with more than just knowing your daily eating habits will be zinged with flavor, the following are the five main reasons why we ferment:
- low carbon preservation (no use of refrigeration or high heat)
- unlocks minerals and vitamins
- reduces toxicity
Moreover, lots of common foods such as chocolate, tea, coffee are all fermented without us necessarily knowing. Of course beer, wine and cheese we recognize with our
common diets but there is such variety of ferments that it warrants exploring the topic deeper and beginning to further incorporate them into our diets. The reasons are undeniable and I present them below as to pitch the case for ferments. I am sold completely and know how my body feels with and without them because of my travel lifestyle. From funky brews of kamboucha to flavor enhancers such as Tamari, I delight in trying to incorporate these foods daily. Sandor Katz, of Wild Fermentation, and many others have been great inspirations for me and I hope to pass this wild fermenting bug onto you! And it’s a great thing to do socially, voila, meeting another basic human need thus fermentation becoming even more multifunctional!
Low Carbon Preservation:
To preserve food you have to create conditions that remove the chance of spoiling to occur. Some do it through salting foods (most preservative are synthetic salts and fertilizers), some through smoking it, some through adding sugar and heat, cooling or freezing, some through drying either with the sun energy or with grid power, or through fermentation. Fermentation offers a great option for this as its preservation comes through microbes doing their work and the attitudinal principle Everything Gardens applies to this context for sure. Microbes set up conditions for their proliferation and it is our task to aid in that process. So like Sauerkraut we cut the ingredients finely, add salt and a massaging action to draw the water out, and we simply keep everything under the water to let the fermentation occur. This anaerobic digestion is facilitated by lactobacillus and its tangy by products preserve the food all the while alchemy reigns. There is no need to refrigerate or use huge amounts of heat to preserve the cabbage in this context which is a carbon saver for sure. The salt is our main input but with this fermentation process we can make the salt go much further than just simply salting cooked food in front of us.
Additionally local harvests are able to be processed and stored. In cold climates eating vegetables in the winter locally can be a challenge. Thankfully fermentation done by yourself or great companies, like in my hometown Fab Ferments, which facilitates a true local winter diet. This also helps with our carbon footprint and reduces waste as the fab fermenters buy food off of local farmers that they are unable to move. I actually got into all of this through an ex-girlfriend who was a dumpster diver and after making every cabbage recipe she knew a web search unlocked a pathway of abundance. Funny how the universe works.
Analogous to a cow and its ruminant system, human ingenuity allows us to ferment foods as to be a form of pre-digestion. In fermentation, creation of the correct microbe niche sparks a process that essentially gives edge to the food all the while accelerating the evolution of the food to a new living food/ecosystem. Living foods are a big topic these days and ferments go beyond simple raw food and
its somewhat static status. These foods transcend that and bring a whole new level of nutrition and subsequent meaning to living foods. Furthermore, naturally occurring microbes in our stomachs can be given the correct habitat in say a glass jar, wooden barrel, or ceramic crock to “chew” on foods for a while before it ever goes into our digestive system. This action helps to balance foods and when it does interact with our systems the health giving properties are elevated because of this outside contact time. Then pH balances are in order and beneficial microbes thrive and give our digestive systems relief and enhancement. This food is potentialized and leads to the other factors below which furthers the case for fermentation.
Unlocks Minerals and Vitamins
Along side of pre-digestion, the food in fermentation processes literally goes through alchemy to unlock minerals and vitamins. Sauerkraut, being a great example of a cabbage ferment, transforms this brassica family vegetable from an ordinary food and a tough vegetable for my body to
process to a super food after just a couple of weeks of fermentation. Vitamin C is leaping out of the food and with my low fruit diet I need a good source of this to help my immune system stay robust. The microbes produce this in their pre-digesting of the food and release easily available minerals and vitamins. Vitamin C literally brings strength to the body and it most be incorporated in the diet. Furthermore, the same is true for soy beans which are toxic in some ways but through fermentation proteins and amino acids become available in an available form.
So if you find yourself saying oh I can’t afford to buy those ferments or don’t have the time, well…… How much does it cost to go to a doctor? So budget into your heath budget this and find the time, hire someone, or buy great local ferments.
Soy again is a perfect example of this as much of its potency as a protein source is masked behind a string of naturally occurring organic chemistry which helps
to preserve the seed and protect it from predation and spoilage. This ensures its genes will make it to the next round through keeping it in a static state so that the seed will eventually germinate. Its evolution dictated this process so that its species can proliferate; again Everything Gardens. It’s analogous to Stinging Nettle, a plant so nutritious, that it developed the fine stinging hairs to keep predation at bay since it was so highly sought after. So with soy, traditional cultures recognized this need for pre-digestion and due to intimate contact and observation of the natural world, they were able to harness wild microbes for this transformation process. Sandor Katz also details that certain types of cassava, which are a staple in tropical countries, in Africa are quite toxic unless fermented properly. Once they are fermented, then the food again becomes an important dietary supplement and energy sustainer.
In an age where antibiotic this and that rule, it is paramount that we begin to incorporate fermented foods more heavily in our diets so that the probiotic nature of them is harnessed. Sure you can buy pills from lab grown microbes, freeze dried and packaged accordingly. Alternatively, prepare or purchase true living foods, non pasteurized, abounding in the microbes we need in our stomachs for proper digestion. Think about it another analogy, the soil food web. If plants are growing where soil fertility is not being unlocked by a healthy, diverse and abundant soil food web, then they suffer as their metabolism is mediocre. They are more susceptible to diseases and insect attack and these symptoms are indicators that the soil food web is not functioning in its full capacity. The analogy is that if we are suffering from disease or parasites and things like chronic pain, there is good chance that our stomachs don’t have the flora and fauna that is properly needed. Imbalances like Candida can have significant health risks and ferments aid in this balancing act.
One thing that helped me with this imbalance was to drink a bit of fruit moonshine to press reset on the stomach. In Bulgaria, where I spent some time two years in a row on a permaculture site (2010, 2011), it is tradition to drink a bit of Rakia, or fruit moonshine, while
eating anything raw. With the tradition of fertilizing gardens with animal manures this is not so strange after all after the initial reaction. Thus I picked up the habit even though it was a time in my life when drinking was out of the question. Combined with all of the local yogurt and cheeses and ferments I prepared myself, my stomach got back in order very quickly. I was totally shocked how quick the turn around was. But Bulgaria being the origin of yogurt with Lactobacillus bulgaricus native to there, this wild fermentation process was able to reestablish a conducive environment for digestion in my own system.
Give it a try!
Fermentation is a traditional practice and is another example of the environmental literacy that we must build. It’s no different from learning species to plant in a food forest or how to utilize medicinal herbs. It is up to us to interact creatively with our environment and using wild microbes in this journey is a delightful endeavor. So try it out, its like a worm bin, you may fail the first time but persistence is demanded. With worm bins it is common to overload with too much food while the bin is evolving. This causes the bin to spoil and all of your worms may even perish. But is this a reason to stop forever? No, and like a sauerkraut gone bad, try again! How will you know its bad, trust your nose, its part of our evolution to have this sense to notice when foods are good and bad. It’s really obvious when a ferment has gone off and overtime you will build this repertoire of observation just as getting to know characteristics of plants can help you to evaluate the stage of succession that soils may be in. So enjoy the process, share with friends and family, and harness the power of wild microbes and the cascading benefits of fermentation.
Katz, S.E. (2003) Wild fermentation. Vermont, USA. Chelsea Green.
Mollison, B. & Slay, R.M. (1991) Introdcution to permaculture. 2nd Edition. Sisters Creek, Tasmania, Australia. Tagari.