The human body contains over 100 trillion bacterial colonists. With bacterial cells outnumbering human cells by a ratio of 10 to 1, it may be more fitting to call that human body of ours, "an elaborate vessel optimised for the growth and spread of our microbial inhabitants," according to Justin Sonnenburg, a microbiologist at Stanford.
What is clear from an increasing array of research is that maintaining a varied and thriving bacterial biome is fundamental to human health. The ‘letter A’ diseases, which afflict so many in the westernised world: allergies, asthma and autoimmune problems, are virtually unknown in many other societies.
Increasingly, many scientists are saying that our processed food, irresponsible use of antibiotics in health and agriculture, ultra-sanitised lifestyle and reduced exposure to bacteria has led to much lower biodiversity than traditional cultures.
Consequently we are more susceptible to asthma, allergies as well as numerous other problems such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. The issue of maintaining a healthy biome of bacteria should be paramount to everyone if we want to stop the spread of such illnesses.
It is with this in mind that we turn to Sandor Katz, a self-described ‘fermentation fetishist’ and author of a number of books on fermentation, such as Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation.
Fermentation, or lacto-fermenting as it is often known, is one of the best methods for creating products which support the microbiome co-existing in, on and around you. Sandor has spent years creating delicious dips, drinks and snacks which help to condition and sustain our micro-organisms. Sandor has had AIDS since the 1980s and considers fermented foods to be an important part of his healing, in conjunction with the antiretroviral medicines he uses.
He started out making sauerkraut in an old crock-pot he found out in his barn, and never looked back. From ginger champagne and Russian kvass (an alcoholic bread drink famous from Anna Karenina) to Indian raita and Lebanese kishk, the geographical range and variety of fermented goods is extraordinary and his books cover the subject in comprehensive detail.
What puts off many about wild fermenting is the idea of deliberately encouraging bacteria to grow throughout the food or drink. But use of bacteria has always been the cornerstone in the production of so many of our favourite foods: chocolate, tea, coffee, cheese, yoghurt, chorizo and countless others. The sheer number of both basic staples and luxury foods using fermentation in manufacture, across all cultures and continents, is a testament to its lasting appeal, but much of the public is still unaware of its importance.
As Sandor puts it in a recent interview, “Most of our favourite delicacies are products of fermentation and most of the foods we put in our mouths are not raw agricultural product but ferments. For the last couple of generations, people have been thrilled to have as little to do with their food as possible. But now, we are waking up to the downsides of convenience food - the environmental destruction, nutritional deficiency - all the problems associated with being less involved and less interactive with what we eat.”
Perhaps this is the most important lesson to take - our dependence on the quickest, easiest and most standardised way of living, whether it is routine antibiotics or ready-meals, is encouraging a narrow biome of microbes, making us susceptible to a range of ailments.
It is striking how the bacterial cultures of non-Western societies are simultaneously more diverse than ours and more similar to each other’s. As Michael Pollan (foreword in The Art of Fermentation) puts it in a recent New York Times article, “the gut community of rural people in West Africa more closely resembles that of Amerindians than it does Americans or Europeans”. By creating the products from Wild Fermentation and Sandor’s other books, the gut-poor Westerner can help to replicate the microbial diversity and resilience of other traditional societies.
Sandor is going to be starting a European speaking tour beginning on the 5th of May which will include the Ballymaloe Festival, River Cottage Food Fair and a 5-day course at Schumacher College in Devon from 26th-30th May. Sandor is particularly enthused about the Schumacher course, “The five day course at Schumacher College will be an extraordinary opportunity to start some projects with students and watch progress. That’s how you learn about fermentation - seeing how things progress as time passes.” Even after all these years talking to crowds around the world about fermentation, his zeal bubbles like the concoctions back home in his Tennessee kitchen.
For more information about the course at Schumacher College, visit www.schumachercollege.org.uk/courses/exploring-the-microcosmos-new-paradigms-from-microbial-communities or to reserve a place for 5 days email us your contact details and the name of the course to email@example.com or telephone: +44 (0)1803 865934. Or please complete the booking online.
Wild fermenter Sandor Katz coming to Europe - tour information
Fermenting: cabbage, carrot and cumin pickle - read this wonderful recipe - it's easy!
Michael Pollan: ‘Say Hello to the 100 Trillion Bacteria That Make Up Your Biome’- via New York Times
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