Putting bacteria back into our food, one pickle at a time

For millennia, all pickles were living things, home to an invisible mass of microbes. Now they often only live in sterile vinegar - but we need to put the bacteria back, for the sake of our health.

I was recently asked to speak at a friend’s birthday celebrations. Tim being a poet, most of the other guests did a turn in verse. I, however, was asked to riff on the subject of pickles. Party catering came in the form of vinegary vegetables.
 
Tim, you see, is a pickle lover; before I began the research for my talk I might even have labelled him an obsessive. Then I read about America’s small but passionate “fermento” movement. Fermentos believe that pickles are the key to many modern health problems – not just any old gherkins, mind you, but proper pickles: the old-fashioned, traditionally fermented kind. The sort of pickle that’s still alive when you bite into it.
 
For millennia, all pickles were living things, home to an invisible mass of microbes. These microbes were responsible for transforming fresh food into something that would keep for months, even years, through fermentation.
 
The pickles achieved this by converting the sugars in the fresh foods to acids, creating an environment so acidic that no bacteria which were potentially more dangerous could survive. The food was thus preserved almost indefinitely. Three hundred-year-old pickled breadfruit has been found in Fiji in an edible, if not particularly attractive state. As Michael Pollan concedes in his book Cooked: a Natural History of Transformation, “the idea that the safety of a food is guaranteed by the bacteria still alive in it is a hard one for us Pasteurians to stomach”. But every culture has its own fermented speciality, often an acquired taste, because the process often produces very distinctive flavours.
 
It can be hard for the uninitiated to stomach Japanese natto, or fermented soybeans; the same is true of the vinegary Ethiopian injera bread. And Captain Cook fairly had to force his crew to eat sauerkraut to ward off scurvy during a 27-month voyage.
 
As well as the tangy cabbage they could see, Cook’s sailors would have been ingesting all manner of what is called, in probiotic food advertisements, “friendly bacteria”. Yet in the past century what is now a selling point in pricey yoghurt drinks has become the enemy in our diet as a whole.
 
Live yoghurt is the last refuge of the living foodstuff – most “pickles” today are in fact just soaked in sterile vinegar. Even those that are still fermented in the old way, such as kimchi and sauerkraut, are now routinely pasteurised before sale.
 
Fermentos (or “post- Pasteurians”) believe this fear of the microbial world is making us ill – and, though it is unlikely that yoghurt or sourdough holds the key to universal health, there is growing evidence to suggest that, mad as they sound, the fermentos may have a point.
 
Consider that 90 per cent of the cells in our bodies belong to microbes, many of them resident in our digestive system and most of them, if evolutionary theory is to be believed, living there for a very good reason. Though we still know relatively little about the function of the vast majority, studies suggest a diet rich in beneficial bacteria can have surprising benefits, from shortening the duration of children’s colds to relieving the symptoms of asthma and irritable bowel syndrome.
 
It seems that human beings need those microbes as much as they need us, yet we are still doing everything we can to kill them off. The routine use of antibiotics, and our obsession with sterilising everything in sight, from chopping boards to cheese, makes us fail to replenish the microbial crowd within, and neglect to nourish its existing residents.
 
Naturally, only the most deluded fermento would deny that Pasteur’s discovery saves millions of lives worldwide, but in a far more hygienic age it is no longer a universal panacea. We need to put the bacteria back, and if that means fermenting sauerkraut in the shed, then so be it. Perhaps Peter Piper was ahead of his time.
Snacking on traditionally preserved gherkins and olives can be a great thing for the gut. Image: Marcus Nilsson

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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Listening to recordings from the Antarctic, I felt I could hear the earth groan

The Science Hour on the BBC World Service.

A weekend of listening to the radio news ­revealed nothing but sounds of the sucker-punched going through their pockets in a panic and repeating, “I thought you had the keys.” So, never was talk of “a perfectly flat area of just whiteness” more alluring. The oldest Antarctic ice yet recorded was recently found. “For millions of years,” the presenter Roland Pease assured listeners  (25 June, 9am), “snow has been falling, snow on snow, all the while trapping bubbles of air and other chemical traces of climate . . . insights into the ice ages and warm periods of the past.” How was this ice located? “The finding part is pretty easy – you just go there and start shovelling, and ice comes up,” the lead geologist, Jaakko Putkonen, said.

There it was, buried under a layer of dirt “in barren wastelands” high in the middle of Antarctica. An “incredibly mountainous and remote and . . . quite hideous region, really”, Pease said, though it was sounding pretty good to me. The world dissolved into a single, depthless tone. Then Pease mentioned the surprising fizzing of this ancient ice – trapped air bubbles whooshing as they melt. Which is perhaps the thing you least expect about ice regions and ice caps and glaciers: the cacophony. Thuds and moans. Air that folds and refolds like the waving of gigantic flags. Iced water sleeping-dragonishly slurping and turning.

On Friday Greenpeace posted a video of the pianist Ludovico Einaudi giving a haunting performance on a floating platform to mark an imminent meeting of the OSPAR Commission, as it decided on a proposal to safeguard 10 per cent of the Arctic Ocean. Einaudi looked occasionally stunned by the groaning around him. A passing glacier popped and boomed like the armies of Mordor, ice calving from its side, causing mini-tsunamis. When last year I spent some time at the remote Eqi Glacier in Greenland, close to the ice cap, local people certainly spoke of the ice as if it were living: “It’s quiet today,” delivered as though gazing at the fractious contents of a Moses basket.

“This huge cake of ice, basically flat”, Putkonen said, perhaps longing for a moment of deep-space silence, for peaceful detachment. He wasn’t the only one being forced to reappraise a landscape very differently.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies