Fermentation and Daily Life

There is a moment in the life of fruits and vegetables that has always puzzled and fascinated me. Put out a dish of strawberries, and in days some darker spots will appear. Maybe a thin tendril of mold sprouts out from the strawberry’s body. At this point, you can still eat it, simply by cutting off the moldy bit. But all of a sudden, the strawberry has clearly died. It’s inedible, sour. It has passed over in to the world of bacteria, mold, and minerals—it is no longer a self-regulating organism. It has stopped being an individual, but has become multitudes.

How does this happen? When is an organism living, and when is it dead? Where does death come from, and why does this change of state happen so quickly? Amazingly, we’ve developed some techniques to play with this boundary between life and death, stretch it, and blur it. I’m not talking about cryogenic freezing, blood transfusion, lab-grown meat, or any other modern technology. I’m talking about fermentation, the process of controlled decay of living organisms.

From coffee to ketchup, bread to sausage, wine to cheese, fermented foods are all around us. These types of fermentation tend to happen in far-off factories. Coffee berries are fermented before they’re roasted. To make ketchup, tomatoes are puréed en masse, left to rot, then heated to kill the bacteria. We usually don’t get the chance to see for ourselves the transformation of life—into other forms of life.

But you can. In this essay, I talk about fermentation: what makes it so magical, why people are so afraid of it. I talk about some strategies people use to make fermentation part of their daily life, and why modern life makes it so hard to do so. And finally, I speak to the ethics of fermentation—what we can learn from it and how it can help us think differently. [Read more…]

Historical Storage Cellars in Budapest

The Kőbánya district of Budapest is situated on the eastern margins of the Hungarian capital city. Beneath Kőbánya there is an extensive limestone layer, in which tunnels and passages have been made, some of which appear to date from the 13th century. In the 19th century, the limestone caverns of the Hungarian capital city Budapest were used for the refrigeration of perishable goods in large quantities.

This article analyses the architectural development of these evidently low-tech facilities, while also exploring their significant role in the city’s urbanisation. The technical functions and structure of the system of caverns may be useful as a resource for society in the future when the supply of fossil fuels runs out.

The effectiveness of the caverns as place for refrigeration can be demonstrated through climatic calculations. The cavern system has significant energy capabilities, given that there is a constant air temperature throughout the year.

Read more: Pilsitz, Martin, and Zsuzsanna Nádasi-Antal. “Historical storage cellars in Budapest: The architectural history and functional operation of an industrial building in 19th-century Hungary.” Építés-Építészettudomány (2018): 1-20.

Roman Refrigerators

Archaeologists are trying to definitively establish if mysterious shafts discovered at Switzerland’s extensive Augusta Raurica site in 2013 could have been ancient “refrigerators”. It is likely that the Romans used shafts like the four-metre deep examples at Augusta Raurica – some 20 kilometres from Basel – as cool stores during summer. [Read more…]

Preserving Food by Fermentation

kimchi“Extracting nutrition via the bacteria and yeasts that live on the surfaces of food sources has traditionally enabled people all over the world to make use of seasonal abundance for leaner times. In a climate-constrained future, when the use of fossil fuels (and thus refrigeration) will need to be greatly reduced, fermentation could play a key role in preserving both our food and our cultural diversity.

Before refrigeration came into our houses and global supply chains, most of our winter stores were salted, pickled, and dried. Many of the strong compelling flavors found in European delicatessens come via fermentation: cheese, salami, gherkins, vinegar, olives. Likewise the mainstays of Oriental cuisine—soy, miso, and tempeh—and the whole of the world’s drinks cabinet, including everyday luxuries such as coffee and chocolate.

If you were wary of venturing into this unknown territory alone, you could not hope for a more enthralling guide than Sandor Ellix Katz: “My advice is to reject the cult of expertise. Do not be afraid. You can do it yourself.” There is no recorded case, he assures us, of poisoning from fermented vegetables.”

Read more: Fermenting Change. Thanks to Aaron Vansintjan. More low-tech food preservation.

Bog Butter: Storing Food in Soil

Bog Butter Storing Food in Soil

“Bog butter is butter that has been buried in a peat bog. Over 430 instances of bog butter have been recorded. Of these, 274 have been found in Scotland and Ireland since 1817. The earliest discoveries are thought to come from the Middle Iron Age (400-350 BC), though this does not exclude the possibility of much more ancient roots. More recently one firsthand account tells of butter being buried for preservation in Co. Donegal 1850-60. In 1892, Rev. James O’Laverty, an advocate of the argument that the butter was buried for gastronomic reasons, dug some butter into a ‘bog bank’ and left it for eight months. His experiment was carried out in much the same spirit as ours – for analytical purposes and not for a cultural or preserving motive.”

“Peat bogs are, by their nature, cold, wet places; almost no oxygen circulates in the millennia-old build-up of plant material, which creates highly acidic conditions (our site had a pH of 3.5). Sphagnum moss bogs have remarkable preservation properties, the mechanisms of which are poorly understood. Early food preservation methods have been researched extensively by Daniel C. Fisher, in relation to the preservation of meat. In an attempt to recreate techniques used by paleoamericans in North America, Fisher sunk various meats into a frozen pond and a peat bog.

“A key finding from his research is that after one year, bacterial counts on the submerged meats were comparable to control samples which had been left in a freezer for the same amount of time. In fact, suitable foods can probably be aged in many types of soil: salt-rich that will provide dehydration, very cold/freezing that will freeze foods or slow degradation, or, as in our case, anaerobic and acidic conditions to prevent microbial action and oxidation. To our canny ancestors, this preserving characteristic provided an ideal place to bury foods.”

Read more: Bog Butter: a gastronomic perspective. Via The Year of Mud. More low-tech food preservation.

Update: Root Simple links to an interesting video about this primitive food storage technique. Thanks to Ruben Anderson.

The Poor Man’s Refrigerator

poor mans refrigerator“A fridge for the common man that does not require electricity and keeps food fresh too. With this basic parameter in mind Mansukhbhai came up with Mitticool, a fridge made of clay.

It works on the principle of evaporation.  Water from the upper chambers drips down the side, and gets evaporated taking away heat from the inside , leaving the chambers cool.

The top upper chamber is used to store water. A small lid made from clay is provided on top. A small faucet tap is also provided at the front lower end of chamber to tap out the water for drinking use.

In the lower chamber, two shelves are provided to store the food material. The first shelf can be used for storing vegetables, fruits etc. and the second shelf can be used for storing milk etc.  Cool and affordable, this clay refrigerator is a very good option to keep food, vegetables and even milk naturally fresh for days.”

MittiCool Refrigerator. Thanks for the tip, Joseph. See also: