I'm fascinated by traditional methods of food preservation, from pre-freezer days. I grew up thinking* that winter food was all dried, or heavily salted, or both, and pretty grim in any case. As I've learnt more, I've come to appreciate that it probably wasn't grim at all, and in some cases preservation actually enhances food. Alcohol is an obvious, if debatable, example, and there's another kind of fermentation that's been marginal for many years, but may now be making a comeback.
In the same way that yeast converts sugars into alcohol, lactobacilli bacteria convert sugars into lactic acid, which then preserves the food. After an era of,
Kill all the microbes! we're now more familiar with the idea that some bacteria are
friendly and are increasingly eating foods such as live yoghurt and lacto-fermented live pickles. Indeed, many health claims are made for these foods. I can't be bothered to investigate these claims thoroughly, but even if these pickles are no better for us than vinegar-based pickles I still think they're worth making. After all, if I can get the acid from fermentation then I don't have to buy it!
In spite of my interest in this topic, I've never had much call to try it before now, as I've never managed to grow anything resembling a glut of vegetables. This year, though, I have my neighbour's courgettes at the same time as French beans and broad beans in my own garden. I don't think either courgettes or French beans are particularly good frozen, so I decided to try fermenting some of each of them, leaving the broad beans to eat fresh. This gave me the perfect excuse to buy a couple of Kilner jars that I happened to spot in the supermarket.
I won't go into detail - you can find plenty of information online if you look for it - but I found this article helpful. In particular, the information about using blackcurrant leaves as the inoculant - the way of introducing the right bacteria - was valuable. I have blackcurrant leaves! I kept my recipes simple, with fairly small quantities of salt - probably a heaped teaspoonful per half-litre jar - and minimal spices. For the courgettes I added hogweed seeds (recently discovered, and hence my current favourite spice) whilst the beans got just salt and blackcurrant leaves. I sprinkled salt and pressed the veg down in the jars as I filled them, which released almost enough liquid to cover the veg. There were still bits sticking out of the top, so I topped up with a little tap water (ignoring advice about avoiding chlorinated water. I've just dissolved sodium chloride in it, for goodness sake! I'm sure a little more chlorine won't hurt.)
I did the courgettes on one day and the beans on the next. As you can see in the photo, there were already bubbles rising in the courgette jar by the time I had the beans packed. Fermentation is happening! They'll sit in my kitchen for a few days with the lids on loosely (to let the gas escape) before going down to the cooler, darker store room. I'm not sure how long I'll need to leave the lids loose - I think I'll be monitoring closely for some time. I understand that these can be eaten in a few days, but that the flavour continues to develop for several months after that. I think I'll leave them a while - the point is, after all, to preserve veg while there's plenty available - and let you know when my patience (or fresh veg) runs out. In the meantime, aren't they pretty?
* That strikes me as a curious fact about my childhood. How many people grow up with notions about how food was preserved in the olden days?
Translations for Americans: Courgettes = Zucchini, Broad beans = Fava beans, Kilner jars = Mason jars. At least two of these are probably obvious from the photos.