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

BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.