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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Pedro Almodóvar: "I do wake up and feel that the world is coming to an end"

Mark Lawson talks to the director about hope, despair and why he wants to make a sequel to Deadpool.

When Pedro Almodóvar’s characters are in crisis, grief or even comas, they tend towards an optimistic view of the human condition. The Spanish film-maker confesses that this reflects his temperament but reports that he is cur­rently struggling to maintain his enthusiastic world-view off-screen.

“I have to be optimistic, because it’s the only way to survive,” he says, on a trip to London to launch his 20th feature film, Julieta. “I want to think that next month or next year will be better than now. But . . .”
He switches at this point from his near-fluent English to Spanish for translation by Maria Delgado, the Anglo-Spanish academic who is present at his request to act as his interpreter. Modest and wry, suggesting a rare combination of genius and sweetie, Almodóvar uses his home vocabulary for complex issues: in this case, the xenophobic politics, fuelled by fears of terrorism and immigration, that have engulfed European cities, including Madrid, where he lives on the exclusive west side, close to the home of his partner, the actor Fernando Iglesias.

“In Spain, the situation is awful,” he says, backcombing his trademark frizz of now grey hair with one hand. “We are on the edge of the third general election in a year and this is very bad for the country. The country doesn’t actually recognise itself in its institutions: the monarchy [and] the parliament have lost their identity.”

If Spain were to have an EU referendum, would it result in (as it were) Spexit?

“I think we would vote to stay. Brexit has served as an example – I’m sorry to say this – of what shouldn’t happen. And I say that with full respect for the decision taken.”

It’s not just Spanish politics that is challenging his usual equilibrium. “I do wake up and feel that the world is coming to an end. I pray each and every night that Donald Trump does not become US president. And my prayers are actually more significant in this respect because I’m a non-believer, so imagine how heartfelt they are!”

Although Julieta was completed before the Spanish elections, Britain’s EU referendum and the Republican presidential nomination, it is prophetically attuned to the serious mood of the news. Such is the shift in gravity from Almodóvar’s last film, I’m So Excited! – a musical farce set on a jet – that it is as if the Zucker brothers had followed the success of Airplane! with an adaptation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler.

“I did set out to approach Julieta with as much sombreness as possible,” he says. “So it really was a matter of rejecting the habitual characteristics of my own cinema, the way I’m identified. I have made 20 movies now and so if there is a possibility to change in the 20th, then it is very welcome . . . There aren’t that many opportunities to change, because one carries on being oneself!”

He became himself 66 years ago in ­Calzada de Calatrava, a Castilian village of a few thousand souls. From his parents – a winemaker father and a mother who wrote and read for uneducated local people – it is tempting to see an inheritance of the sensual pleasure and literary intelligence that mark his films. His early efforts to make cinema were frustrated by the closure of the Spanish national film school in Madrid by Francisco Franco, but the constitutional monarchy that followed the fascist dictator’s death allowed him to start producing work – reflecting his liberal, gay, atheist, male-feminist sensibilities – that would have been unthinkable under the military regime.

Even after more than three decades of creative freedom, Almodóvar feels he needed to have made so many films and accumulated so much life experience before being able to deal with the depth of emotion in Julieta, the story of a character who is unable to communicate with her mother, because of Alzheimer’s disease, or her daughter, from whom she is estranged. Although it tones down the comic warmth of his signature films and eschews their fantastical sequences, Julieta is recognisably the work of a great original. For instance, a potentially crucial meeting between two characters, which in a Hollywood version might last half of the film, simply does not appear here.

What Almodóvar also does is fill each film with images that could hang in the Prado. Even by his standards of painterly cinema, the tableau in which Julieta dresses her bedridden mother and brings her outdoors is extraordinary: the carefully chosen tones of the wall, the clothes and the food on a table would have thrilled Velázquez. “In dresses, in colours, in wallpaper, there is a dramatic intention, even if it is not necessarily obvious to the viewer,” he says. “Colour is one of the best instruments to convey emotion.”

As a writer-director, he doesn’t consider the “look” of his films until he has finished the first draft of the script, and does not visualise characters when he is writing – though there have been exceptions when he was working with Carmen Maura, Antonio Banderas and his long-time muse Penélope Cruz. With Julieta, he could see no role for any of his “family of actors” and so threw the casting net wider, dividing the old and young parts of the title role between Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte, both newcomers to his movies.

Linguistically, he is less adaptive. Hispanic directors such as Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón have taken on anglophone projects in Hollywood, but Almodóvar has refused numerous offers.

Directors are usually wary of revealing the successful films they might have made, but he does say that he was “very close” to doing Brokeback Mountain (it was eventually directed by Ang Lee). “They were very patient waiting for me,” he tells me. “But, in the end, I thought that my way of shooting wasn’t right for it. I’m accustomed to a freedom, an independence that I don’t think the production system of Hollywood would ever allow me.”

Yet he unexpectedly reveals an ambition to direct a Deadpool movie, following Tim Miller’s recent blockbuster about a superhero with healing powers. “I’d love to do that, but the script would have to be by Quentin Tarantino, who would be prefect for this movie. I’d like to co-direct that script with him. That would be a real possibility, if he wanted to do it.”

Even the big franchises are reaching out to unexpected directors – Sam Mendes for Bond, Paul Greengrass for the Bourne movies – so would Almodóvar take a call from the producers of either?
“These sorts of films, they are really in the hands of second-, third- and fourth-unit directors and post-production – but in my films, everything you see, I have had contact with,” he says. “Many of the elements in the film are actually mine: I buy things and then use them in a movie, or bring them to the set from my own home. And I couldn’t give up that control.” 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser