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How fermentation became the new word for food pseuds

Let it rot, and keep your little microbes happy.

An unfortunate side effect of Britain’s much-lauded culinary revolution is that it is becoming ever harder for us food pseuds to get much in the way of attention. There is nothing daring about raw fish in a world where even Boots sells sushi, so it was a rare treat for me to find myself repulsing my travelling companions practically every day while we were on holiday this summer.

My first victory came in the famed Pike Place Market in Seattle, where I was immediately drawn to the intriguingly sour scent of a “naturally fermented” pickle stall. Sensing that a jar of curry kraut wouldn’t be an entirely welcome passenger on our forthcoming road trip, I decided to take the picklers up on their kind offer of a “free brine shot” instead. When I looked round, my friends had vanished.

Apparently, fermented food just wasn’t their thing, which is a shame, because later, as they stocked up on blueberry muffins for a picnic breakfast, I happened upon some organic kefir in a small-town co-op. Kefir is a fermented milk drink from the Caucasus, and this one only came in litre cartons, so we were stuck with it in the back seat for days as Washington sweltered in an August heatwave. My attempts to make peace over a glass of kombucha fermented tea were not an unqualified success.

Their loss. As any pseud worth their fleur de sel knows, food made with the “mysterious action of microbes”, as Sheila Dillon put it in an edition of Radio 4’s Food Programme, is super-hip right now, whether it’s kefir or strawberry cheesecake frozen yoghurt.

And it’s not just sour milk: wine, beer, cured meat, chocolate, coffee, bread and cheese (“basically, all the really good stuff”, according to the American food writer Michael Pollan) owe a debt to the tiny organisms that break down their sugars into gases, acids and alcohols – and bags of funky flavour. They exist in what Sandor Katz, a self-styled “fermentation revivalist” and teacher, describes as the “creative space” between fresh and rotten food, “where most of human culture’s most prized delicacies and culinary achievements exist”.

Pollan claims rather loftily that the act of fermentation puts us “in touch with the ever-present tug, in life, of death”, though of course many fermented foods, such as yoghurt and traditional, unpasteurised sauerkraut, are in fact teeming with life.

You don’t have to be a cheese to teem: the human body hosts about 100 trillion microbes of its own. In his new book The Diet Myth, the epidemiologist Tim Spector argues that we can encourage the useful ones with a microbe-friendly diet based on fruit, vegetables, nuts, olive oils and pulses – and, as I pointed out post-Picklegate, live, fermented foods.

My friends’ cruel indifference to their own microbes puts them seriously behind the times – the home fermentation revival has been active in the US for over a decade under the evangelical leadership of Katz, who sees it as part of a wider “resistance movement that rejects dead, industrialised, homogenised, globalised food commodities in favour of real, wholesome, local, unadulterated food”.

He may have an appetite for “political and social ferment”, but when Michelle Obama tweeted her recipe for spicy Korean kimchi and Gwyneth Paltrow came out as a fan of “raw organic” kombucha, it was clear that a taste for fermentation was bubbling right at the heart of the American establishment.

Sadly, neither of these celebrity endorsements did much to endear my tepid kefir to its reluctant seat mates; one man’s freedom fighter has always been another’s smelly hitchhiker. But even as I sat alone with my breakfast, I felt a wave of love from my 100 trillion tiny house guests. Friends don’t get much closer than them.

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 10 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: the world order crumbles

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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear