So-called ‘superfood’ fads tend to pass me by. I’m not all that into quinoa (kwin-oh-a? Keen-oh-a? Cue-noi-way?), chia seeds I can take or leave, blueberries – well, they’re actually pretty good, but I’m fairly sure that they can’t cure cancer or mend a broken heart, and what even is a goji berry? As I see it, ‘superfoods’ are largely consumed by two key demographics: the wealthy (it doesn’t matter if your £600 packet of bee pollen doesn’t cleanse your Bollinger-soaked liver – you’ll just have transplant at some exclusive Swiss bikram-yoga-cum-organ-transplant-clinic), and the gullible. If you’re thinking, ‘hey, but I’m not wealthy, and I enjoy a diet full of superfoods,’ then I’m afraid you fall into the latter camp.
However, if you’ve been following the blog or my Insta recently, you could hardly have failed to notice my newfound, but sustained, interest in fermentation. Lactofermentation is the preservation of fresh ingredients through nourishing good bacteria (yep, I’m aware that I sound like a Yakult advert – and am in danger of losing the sceptics) to produce lactic acid, and the outcome of this process is not only delicious, but incredibly good for you. Say the word ‘fermented’ to people, and they often turn their nose up – imagining, I guess, the revolting fermented shark of Iceland, or processes of decay and mould. That’s fair enough, but a lot of the things we enjoy every day undergo some form of fermentation. There are the obvious ones, like alcohols and vinegars, but the process is central to all sorts of delicious everyday foods: soy sauce, salami, yoghurt, and chocolate, to name but four.
Lactofermentation – salted or brined ingredients, in its simplest form – has been something of a gateway drug for me, and in recent months, I have moved on to the harder, weirder side of fermenting. Kombucha is a fermented drink, which starts off as super-sweet tea, and is magically transformed into a tart sparkling wonder-pop. The transformative work is carried out by bacteria and yeast, and this is where kombucha tends to spook the uninitiated. The bacteria and yeast grow – they are living – in a white jelloid mass called a SCOBY, or a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. It is the SCOBY that does all the work, and these little gelatinous hockey pucks make great pets (they show you more love than a cat, anyway).
Kombucha has taken over the world (not literally, though Attack of the SCOBYs would make a pretty good horror B movie), and the wealthy and the gullible have flocked to the altar of good bacteria, to prostrate themselves in return for healthier guts, joint care, and even control of HIV/AIDS. I was initially drawn to it because of the process, and the geekery it allowed me engage in, but I have continued to make batch after batch because of the taste and, if I’m honest, the health benefits. I’ve ramped up production in line with demand, and now have a 5 litre brew continuously going, and a SCOBY hotel (that’s what it’s called, honest) to keep the extra SCOBYs alive. I’m not sure I’ve noticed a great deal of difference in my joints, but a glass of ice cold booch (that’s what the cool kids call it) in the morning has been really good for my stomach. I’ve even managed to convince Cat to drink it, and we’ve been having great fun messing about with flavours.
The first fermentation takes about 6-7 days (thought it is very dependent on all sorts of factors, not least temperature), and then I bottle the booch with fruits, honey, sugar, herbs, and/or spices to ferment again for up to a week. It’s this secondary ferment that really gets the bubbles going as the yeast eats the sugars and produces carbon dioxide, which is trapped in the bottle. The best flavours so far have been orange & rosemary, and blueberry – both of which gave a really bubbly booch, with a fruity sweetness to complement the tang.
I guess I might be gullible – in fact, I know I am – but I am really enjoying brewing kombucha. It’s fun to see the new SCOBY form each time a brew matures, and it’s very satisfying to taste the tea getting sharper and fizzier as the brew progresses. It’s a bit like tending to plants, I suppose, in that you are caring for a wee living thing, and the gratification is delayed. The jury is out on the health benefits, and I’m likely to believe any evidence-based study that tells me it is a panacea or total nonsense. For now, though, it’s doing me good in more ways than one.
p.s. if you fancy a go, I can probably spare you a SCOBY!
p.p.s. for lots more booch info check out Kombucha Kamp