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Lucy Deedes from our food shop explains all about fermentation…
There’s nothing new about fermentation. Many hundreds of years ago humans discovered the metabolism in a fungus called yeast which could create beer and wine from fruit and grains, cheese from milk and bread from a simple mixture of flour and yeast. They took full advantage of this and now controlled temperature, pH and special ingredients may all play a part in fermentation, which entails encouraging the ‘good’ microorganisms in the food, whilst preventing the growth of those that would spoil it.
Fermentation lies at the very heart of the brewing process: the sugar-rich liquid extracted from the mashing process (the wort) is converted to beer by yeast. There are great local breweries in Sussex: Arundel Brewery make a rich Sussex Dark ale, the golden, citrusy Sussex Gold and Sussex IPA, a complex hoppy pale ale with roasted malt flavours. And Goodwood Home Farm produces award winning ale and lager, using their own organically grown malted barley and organic hops. Their Sussex Lager and Festival Lager combine these organic ingredients with a strain of Bavarian yeast which dates from the 15th century.
There are signs that wine-making existed in Iran, China and Turkey up to 5000 years ago. The book of Genesis tells us that Noah, reaching the safety of Mount Ararat, sensibly made planting a vineyard his priority. Ripe organic grapes are full of natural sugars, with wild yeasts living on their skin. Once the skin of the grape is broken, fermentation can begin. The yeasts indigenous to a particular area are a vital part of what gives its wines their character.
Remnants of sourdough bread from 3700 BC were excavated in Switzerland but it is probable that the use of sourdough to leaven bread dates from many centuries earlier. Genuine sourdough is made from flour, water and salt, which harness the naturally occurring micro-organisms in the air; this starter – made of rye, or wheat, or white flour – forms the basis of each batch of bread and can be kept alive for many years. The introduction of baker’s yeast came as recently as 150 years ago. Real sourdough bread will have an open crumb structure, a chewy crust and a pleasingly complex flavour; its other benefits are that the lactic acids help our bodies absorb the minerals and vitamins; they slow down the rate at which glucose is released into the bloodstream (lowering the bread’s glycaemic index) and they render the gluten in flour more digestible.
True sourdough bread will not contain any form of bakers’ or brewers’ yeast but even so the bread cannot be entirely yeast free, because the leaven will always contain at least one species of naturally-occurring wild yeast – although in lower concentrations and very different from commercially-modified yeast.
And so to cheese, where the original fermentation of milk, somewhere round 2800 BC, may well have been a happy accident: perhaps milk was stored in an animal’s stomach and went sour, thus separating the curds and whey and beginning the whole process. Tiny wind-born moulds and yeasts seize on a new batch of curd and work their magic on it; the temperature and humidity of the cheese room and the ingenuity of the cheesemaker will do the rest.
Cheese too will be affected by climate, landscape and local flora. Roquefort is made using milk from a hardy indigenous breed of sheep called the Lacaune: the famous green mould comes from the deep limestone caves of Cambalou in the Pyrenees. Try a piece of Cashel Blue, from Tipperary, with a ripe pear and a glass of St Emilion. Manchego, the aromatic sheep’s milk cheese from the scorching plain of La Mancha, goes well with a rough youngish wine. Eat the mushroomy, lemony goats’ cheese Ragstone, from Kent, with a piece of Levain au Noix bread. Revel in the endless possibilities of fermentation.
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