Gluten, gluten, gluten

Buckwheat bread
Buckwheat bread

It seems everywhere you turn someone’s talking about gluten. You shouldn’t eat it, you should eat it, wheat is evil, it’s not wheat’s fault, gluten intolerance is real, gluten intolerance is all a big health scare… what’s a soul to think?

Whatever you think, and whatever your position on gluten, here’s a buckwheat bread recipe if you want to try a gluten-free alternative that doesn’t involve complicated flour mixtures and starter cultures. It was recommended by Sandor Katz during his talk at the fermentation workshop I’ve blogged previously.

I’m not sure it’s going to win any competitions (beauty or otherwise) against a goodBuckwheat Bread2 sourdough wheat bread, and it does of course taste quite buckwheaty (being only buckwheat & water). BUT: its texture is good, it’s moist and firm, and makes very good toast. Best of all, it’s very simple to make. You just soak the groats (not kasha, which is toasted) overnight, drain, blend and let sit to ferment for 24 hours, then bake.

Fermented bevvies

HoneyWe all know and often love too much some fermented liquids or other. Unsurprisingly, Sandor Katz is a fan and producer of many and various home-made fermented beverages.

Mead is shockingly easy to make – to a point. Sandor cited Claude Lévi-Strauss who claimed it as the original cultural act, and humanity’s oldest intentional fermented product.

Easy it may be but it does require vigilance and frequent agitation until it reaches a point of drinkability, 10 days to 2 weeks after you dilute the honey with water (and add optional fruit: on this occasion, a handful of goji berries). It’s a low tech affair, requiring at its most basic a jar, some honey and some water. And, as Sandor suggests, a few friends around the jar at the end of the process to enjoy some probiotics with a mildly alcoholic kick. But if you want to take it further, to a dry wine-like alcohol, you’ll need to take things into a more sophisticated realm and lay your hands on some winemaking equipment: an airlock and carboy.

Salt Spring KombuchaKombucha is becoming more well known and is fairly widely available in Victoria, but much cheaper and better to make yourself. It’s typically a somewhat sweet, fizzy beverage, rich in probiotics, made by fermenting tea and then flavoured and sparkled in a secondary ferment. You’ll need to get a kombucha SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast) – in appearance a big jelly-like pancake – and brew up and cool some tea (black, white or green). Sandor said he’d heard of non-caffeinated versions – hibiscus for example – that worked fine, but he went with the conventional method.

He put a pot of cooled black tea into the jar, poured in some of the mature kombucha liquid, topped it up with water, and flopped in the SCOBY. Will be finished fermenting in a couple of weeks, at which point you can add flavourings like fruits, ginger etc. which will carry on with a secondary fermentation in a strong glass bottle.

The amount of CO2 generated can make this stage very dangerous. Sandor warned about the notorious “kombucha bomb” which you can avoid by bottling one of your batch in a plastic pop bottle. By checking the give in the plastic you can judge the stage of its fermentation. When the bottle is firm to the touch, get those glass bottles smartly into the fridge or drink before they explode. He suggested as well that plain tea should be used: Earl Grey or other flavoured teas contain oils which may affect the fermentation in unexpected ways.

Adding Kombucha LiquidKombucha+WaterAdding the Kombucha Mother




Beet kvass is less well known, but super easy to make. Sandor chopped some scrubbed beets into a jar and poured in about 3x purified water, leaving lots of headroom, added a pinch of salt and with an occasional shake to keep sediment from hanging out on the surface, that would be that for anywhere from 3 to 14 days, depending on how sour you like it. Unless you are following the Nourishing Traditions recipe and/or like the milky undernotes Beet Kvassthat whey will give to the finished product. It’s basically a fermented infusion. You leave it until the water takes on the dark, beet-red colour and the flavour is to your liking. You can add flavourings too, like grated ginger. And you can add fruit etc. for a secondary ferment to add flavour and fizz if you like. (This orange-ginger golden beet number sounds good to me!)

Vegetables in Ferment

Sandor KatzLast Sunday I was lucky enough to score a place on a fermentation workshop with Sandor Katz. The event’s title was probably a misnomer – to me a workshop is hands-on, but with the number of people in the room that would not have been possible. So it was what I’ll call a practical lecture, with Sandor demonstrating many of his favourite ferments as he talked. It was inspiring enough to send me home to experiment, and I’ll show you the outcomes as we go.

I’ve heard him speak before and gratefully took my front row place to learn some nitty gritty. He asked how many people had done some fermentation in their own kitchens and was answered by a host of raised hands. In fact some of those present were already producing kimchi and sauerkraut commercially, and had generously brought samples, which we enjoyed along with the many other ferments we sipped and nibbled on as the day progressed.

He reviewed some of the purposes of fermentation: to improve digestibility by allowing enzymes to predigest some elements of the food (e.g. making soybeans digestible to humans); to detoxify elements of the food (e.g. to neutralize phytic acid); to preserve the harvest; to improve nutritional value (e.g. natto which contains a valuable enzyme, nattokinase found to contain vitamin K2 and have a role in dissolving fibrin, which clogs arteries); and to provide a source of live bacteria, to help our struggling microbiome.

Filling the sauerkraut jar
Packing the kraut
Beet+cabbage sauerkraut
My cabbage, beet & caraway kraut

We began with vegetables. Sandor spoke about techniques and ingredients while hand-crushing and massaging a bucket full of nascent sauerkraut: in this case made from sliced and salted cabbage, carrot and perhaps some other veg I didn’t take note of. Any sturdy vegetable is a good candidate for this treatment which results in a sloppy, dripping mass that can be stuffed firmly into glass jars. (I’ve found that one small/medium head of cabbage will fill a one litre mason jar.) Then squeeze a cabbage leaf on top of the mixture to keep it submerged in its brine, and cover the jar – with an awareness that carbon dioxide will build up during fermentation and need to be released – and the jar placed on a plate to catch the overflow. It’s then left to ferment for a few days to a couple of weeks. The duration depends on the sourness preferred and the ambient temperature of your fermenting space. The most important things to remember, said Sandor, are to ensure the vegetables are submerged, and to cover the jar with cloth secured to keep flies out. Some surface molds are inevitable, but they can be lifted out along with any discolored vegetable matter. Once fermented to preference, cover and put in the fridge where it will sit fermenting at a very slow rate for several months.

Adding the teabag
Sandor's dill pickles & radishes
Sandor’s dill pickles & radishes

Dill pickles came next. Here the trick is to ensure the blossom end of the cucumber is scraped off, as this is where softening can begin. Add any seasonings you like – garlic, dill and peppers are popular – and any combination of vegetables. Green beans are good; cauliflower, radishes and carrots too. Pack everything as tightly as possible to fill every nook and cranny and pour in the brine. Tannins help keep the vegetables crunchy: these are found in grape leaves (even preserved ones), oak leaves and – as in this example – a tea bag (take off the string if it has one). Watch until the colour of the cucumbers just turns from bright to dull green and then pop in the refrigerator. If this happens before the pickles are sour enough, then fermenting the next batch in a cooler spot will help the souring.

My First Kimchi
My kimchi

AnsweringQuestionsHe discussed one of my favourite things – kimchi – at some length before we broke for lunch. It’s a tricky topic for Western fermenters, being very much a culturally-identified food. It was, he said, the topic that he’s received the most mail and complaints about since he began spreading the fermentation gospel. Korean kimchi-makers all have their techniques and rules, but those are as different and inherently contradictory as any recipe handed down through the generations. Doubtless I have violated those rules myself with my partial attention to this recipe from David Lebovitz, and this video from charmingly enthusiastic Korean kimchi maker Maangchi (whaaa – she mixes with her bare hands!) and this thorough discussion of traditional kimchi. Like Lebovitz I didn’t have the Korean chili powder gochugaru so had to use the chili paste I had on hand, and added some chopped dried chilies from my garden – which is why it lacks the vivid red of the real thing. But I made the traditional rice paste and like Maangchi I whizzed together some of the seasonings – garlic, ginger and onion. We’ll see in a couple of days whether I’ve been successful.

I’ll carry on with this post in another installment. A day long workshop gives one a lot to – sorry – digest.