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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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I assumed the elephant orchestra was a gimmick. But those pachyderms can play

Training an animal, Pavlov-style, to do human-designed tricks is one thing, but to have it come, voluntarily, to music practice is quite another.

When I first heard about it, I assumed it was a gimmick; which says much about human prejudice, I suppose. Still, I like to think that my initial scepticism was founded, not on some anthropocentric impulse, but upon its precise opposite.

Of course, I know that animals make music, but an elephant orchestra, complete with drums, gongs and harmonicas? Playing pieces that humans would consider pleasing to the ear? That proposition took me back to the early nature programmes, where the animals had distinctly human personalities. The grumpy pelican. The shy hedgehog. The mischievous chimpanzee. When humans argue about whether, or to what extent, animals have feelings, what they usually mean is: do animals have human feelings? To which I think the answer is: no – and why should they?

No surprise, then, that when a friend offered to play me a CD recorded by the Elephant Orchestra of Thailand, I was as wary as I was curious.

The orchestra began as a side project of the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in 1999, after Richard Lair, a zoologist and artist (who had already begun teaching elephants to paint) met the experimental composer Dave Soldier and they decided that, if elephants could enjoy making pictures, perhaps they might also enjoy making music.

That word, enjoy, makes all the difference, of course: training an animal, Pavlov-style, to do human-designed tricks is one thing, but to have it come, voluntarily, to music practice on a damp Wednesday afternoon is quite another. Still, as the music began, I was aware that I had no way of knowing whether these majestic animals were being manipulated, merely to entertain humans – though as Lair has remarked, it isn’t that easy to manipulate an orchestra of around 12 players who, together, weigh three times as much as the entire Berlin Philharmonic.

Knowing that sales of the CD would benefit the Elephant Conservation Center itself didn’t altogether dispel my suspicions. Yet, listening to the various recorded performances, I began to feel that the elephant musicians really did get a kick out of banging drums and gongs, playing a thunder sheet, or wailing on a harmonica (a sound that is beautifully wistful to the human ear, though we can only speculate as to what it expresses for an elephant). There was an energy to the playing that I like to think betokened more than just a desire to satisfy a taskmaster.

The Thai Elephant Orchestra was started to raise funds to keep the animals in decent conditions after logging was restricted in Thailand in the early 1990s – and what better story than that of a community that learns how to survive by making art? As for the music, it seemed to fall into two categories: one where it was clear that the players had been directed to approximate existing orchestral works (there is a wild performance of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, for example) and these performances I could take or leave. Yet where the music arose more spontaneously, where it was allowed to be just elephant music, I was enthralled.

Dave Soldier has said that, “When you hear the elephant music you’re hearing what they mean to make” – and I find that idea infinitely intriguing. How does he know this? How can I know, just by listening? The fact is that I can’t, and yet, for long moments, I felt it in the marrow of my bones, like the resonance of a gong, or the eerie call of an elephant harmonica.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game