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On the growing popularity of fermenting in Britain, seasonal eating, working with gluts and waste, and a new approach to Piccalilli using a technique learned from making kimchi…

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Here in the UK, as has been for a while now in the USA, interest in fermenting is reaching a kind of tipping point. This is such a good thing. My friend with her chronic inflammatory bowel problems might just stop thinking me just a weird and lovable hippy ranting on about the healing effects of good bacteria.

Yesterday I listened to the BBC Food Programme “Ferment” featuring important voices in this movement.  For all the workshops and events I and others have taught at these past five years or so, there’s an amplification that happens when professional publishing cooks and chefs come on board. I like the work very much in particular of Olia Hercules for her deep immersion in particular traditions and yet broad outlook, and Tom Hunt for his creativity, ability to present fermenting as easy and accessible, as well as stylish and cheffy.  And of course both of them focus on seasonality, which should be obvious as fermenting techniques historically are all about preserving the glut. This fact is sometimes oddly overlooked in the context of our global supermarkets offering everything always.

This year, because of the “unseasonably” warm autumn –Climate Change, I speak thy fearful name — there was an early and extreme glut of cauliflowers which meant the fear many would just rot, unwanted, in the field, while shop shelves would be barer later in the season.  Because supermarkets (rightly) ensured a buyer’s price to the farmers, this meant that per head cauliflower wasn’t actually cheaper for the consumer despite the glut (which is something that might have stimulated a market for them.) (It’s a crazy system and it does guarantee waste, much having to do with the dominance of the very large players who’ve crushed much of the smaller, independent competition.)

In a situation of excess, fermentation is a useful and important technique. I’ve been enjoying teaching sessions to food waste activists (and am actively seeking more work like this). Thus last autumn as we were being called to eat more cauliflower,  I took it upon myself to continue to play with the traditional British “accompaniment” Piccalilli, a bright yellowpreserve with vegetables of the garden and spices of the globe.

I’ve made fermented Piccalilli for many years– even discovering its alter-ego as a base for vegan chicken soup -but these concoctions have never truly scratched the real Piccalilli itch.  The sugary-vinegary traditional version, though less healthy and living, has a sour-sweet syrupy quality that is quite wonderful, sticky and thick, mustardy and really like nothing else.  My fermenting efforts were actually more like a fermented version of a Giardiniera Pickle with flavours of India, wonderful in itself but quite a different thing.

A NEW TECHNIQUE:

The initial brainwave this time was to borrow the paste technique from kimchi making, in which the strong herbs and spices, and in this case the onions, are pureed first, then massaged into the pre-salted vegetables, almost like a marinade.  My first attempt was so much more boldly piccalilli-like than in years before– and I even added a little sugar (as one can in both both Piccalilli and Kimchi…. This I called Piccalillichi, following the wonderful moniker Sandor Katz gave to various kimchi-sauerkraut love-children, “Krautchi.”  The cauliflower, however, fermented nicely and was delicious but didn’t stay crunchy for much longer than two weeks, and though tasty, became mushy before we finished the batch.

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Often the advice is to begin each vegetable ferment anew, so that the bacterial stages follow a course of development that yields consistent results.  But I decided with the mushy cauliflower ferment to try to recycle this again as its own paste, on shredded cabbage.  Hence was born Piccallili-krautchi, a fabulously flavourful go-with for ham and cheeses and savoury pies and of course, living in Britain, hummus.  And all that turmeric is of course so anti-inflammatory. Maybe that’s what Trump needs to eat.

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Fermented Piccalilli, adapted very loosely on Gary Rhode’s vinegar Piccalilli in New British Classics (a great book).

The Veg

  • 1 cauliflower, 1 courgette, 1 onion, 1 carrot, all chopped small bitesize
  • 1 tablespoon seasalt

The Spice Paste

  • 4 oz sugar (he says 12!)
  • 2oz mustard powder
  • 1 oz turmeric
  • black pepper
  • fennel seeds
  • chillis/ chilli flakes
  • onion seeds
  • coriander seeds

Finely mix the spices, and massage the paste over the salted vegetable.  Push the ferment down it in an appropriate size jar.  (I now use jars with rubber gaskets which I burp and which seem to prevent the Kahm Yeast I was dogged with.)  If brine develops, keep all the solid veg under that layer of liquid.  Wait a week or two as savoury sour flavours develop. Delicious!

Variations: Of course you could puree onion into the paste.  You could choose to not use any sugar, or a little honey (to offset the bitter mustard and turmeric flavours. You could also add lots of ginger, lemon zest, garlic, chilis, even soya or fish sauce.  Play is always the name of the game.

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