A beginners stumble down the path of fermentation...
My obsession with fermentation first took hold properly around six-months ago.
I started making kefir, a traditional Russian fermented milk drink, when I moved back to the UK in December 2017. It was a cold and long winter, and I arrived in time for the magical, sparkling, frost dusted chaos that is the lead up to British Christmas, with all of the parties, drinking and mince pies. I felt I had stepped off the plane and onto a manic merry-go-round of indulgence which my body reacted to like a cat in a puddle. Tired, cold and perpetually hung-over, I lacked vitality and energy and felt generally flat. I had been following my friend Lauren’s cancer journey on her award-winning wellness blog and she speaks fervently of the miracle power of fermentation and the research into the gut microbiome (two kilograms of intestinal bacteria which acts as a tiny inner ecosystem, working as the building blocks that sustain you) and all of its wonders, from her position as a doctor and yoga teacher. She can explain it far more deftly, but I found that the kefir, drunk first thing in the morning, really eased my cramping stomach and cleared my skin. I second ferment mine in lemon peel in the fridge, which thickens the mixture and gives it a creaminess, but I love the bubble and fizz of the slightly sour beverage. Others (such as my boyfriend) turn green at the thought – but I believe if you love it, want it, and can then feel the difference, you are meant to be drinking it. Use your body as a compass for she is our north star – tools like yoga, meditation and fermentation can help us to tune back into our bodies. However, I am not a health professional and can in no way speak from a scientific point of view - I can only speak from my own experience and my reading of other's research.
Scientists are just scraping the surface of what the gut microbiome truly does within our body, but the good bacteria in our gut has been linked to every single facet of our health – and when the bacteria are floundering under the pressures of a modern worlds - such as sugar-riddled food, antibiotics, toxins from everyday products and stress - we start to flounder too. Depression, anxiety, gut issues such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, skin problems like acne, eczema and psoriasis; the list goes on with health conditions linked to a depleted and exhausted microbiome. Research has show a diverse gut microbiome is a happy one. Alongside a nutritional balanced and varied diet, fermented products can be a wonderful supplement. Powerful probiotic and prebiotic foods can be created using happy live cultures like the grains used in kefir, or the ‘Mother’ scobys in kombucha. I obtained some grains from my mother-in-law, who has owned her beauties for 30-odd years. They grow and multiply, and she gives them to friends along the way. When I went home to Australia for a visit this year, I paid a visit to my wonderful neighbour Sal who milks her own goats and makes all of her own delicious and organic products – from kefir and kombucha, to sauerkraut, cheese, yoghurt and face creams. I thought I would document her journey as a little reminder to myself and also because, if I find this so interesting, surely others will too.
Sal looks like the picture of good health; with clear skin and eyes and an enthusiasm that nods to her passion for her work. She has been milking goats for nine years after her youngest daughter Georgie developed an aversion to the milk produced by their cows. Gentler on the stomach, when fresh goats milk doesn’t taste too different to cows – maybe a little sweeter. Sal started to make yoghurt with the milk, but after still feeling bloated and uncomfortable (she had been drinking apple cider vinegar for years, had dabbled with vegetarianism and didn’t drink alcohol) she did some research and stumbled across kefir. Three years ago, Sal started making her own, ordering the kefir grains from South Australia and six months later, her kombucha scoby from Brisbane.
“All I do is listen to my body and the more you do it, the more in tune you become,” Sal says. “I milk my goats every day, and make kefir every day. I never miss kefir – out of all the fermented products it has the most bacteria, especially when done on raw goat’s milk. It has billions of good bugs. They don’t know exactly in kombucha, but it has the yeasts which is resistant to antibiotics. It is the only strain of bacteria that antibiotics can’t kill. It’s hard to test, but that strain is in the ‘buch.”
I go along with Sal and Georgie on their morning milking run, and fall in love with their golden eyed does Chili and Lily. They’re Saanen goats, specially bred dairy goats originating from the Saanen valley in Switzerland. “They are the Friesian of the cow world. They produce a lot of milk but not as heavy,” Sal says. “We’re thinking about getting a Toggenburg, which is like the Jersey cow, with a very creamy milk, as I’d like to play around with different styles.” They are astute creatures, sussing me out from afar before deigning to nibble some feed from my hand. But they love Sal, rubbing against her legs affectionately like milky cats. Surprisingly they adore Weetbix, and can be coaxed to do almost anything for tidbit. Lily springs up onto the stand to be milked, eating her breakfast as Sal deftly milks her with firm practised strokes.
Sal was so taken with the effects of the kefir and kombucha she was making that she started applying it elsewhere. She now soaks the goats’ barley in ‘buch, and has notice a stark change. While she has always put copper in their feeds, something was evidently missing from their diets. “Goats are very sensitive to what they eat and what’s around them, and at certain times of the year they’d go off their food and just wouldn’t eat, no matter what I put in there,” she says. “Now they never not eat their dinner, in the year and a half since I’ve been soaking their feed in komboucha. Their eyes are bright and they’ve never been so soft and full in the coat. They look the best they’ve ever been.” Kombucha has shown to have extraordinary anti-inflammatory properties. One of the greatest differences was seen by Sal psychologically. “For us, it has been enormous. Matt (Sal’s husband) was so bad before. He’s so much more relaxed. Even when things are bad with the drought.” The family eat a mixture of 12 different seeds and nuts for breakfast every morning, that Sal researched for their properties, soaking them in kombucha for 48-hours before tucking in. “Four teaspoons in the morning keeps us going until lunchtime,” she says. “It has seeds and nuts like sunflower, pumpkin, black and white sesame, chai, linseed, coconut, almonds, cacoa nibs and buckwheat wholes. I just ferment them and leave them out for 48 hours. A lot of seeds have coatings on the seed to help protect then. Unless you ferment them and take that coating off, it’s actually toxic to your body and much harder for your body to break it down and utilise the nutrients. But when you ferment them, or even soak them in water, it breaks the coating down so that when you take it in you are able to utilise it.”
Back in the house Sal shows me her fermentation room; a warm, dark tall walk in pantry that smells dry and sweet. Jars of home picked olives nestling in brine stand between glass bottles of amber-coloured kombucha, second fermenting with grated ginger and turmeric, or shredded kaffir lime leaves. Two large 10 litre ceramic pots stand side by side, holding their precious contents of the ‘Mother’ scoby, quietly fermenting away. The room is heated to 22 degrees Celsius and there’s a calmness to the room, an undercurrent of energy running like a river underground. “You have to feel your way, it’s not hard but it’s all about timing,” Sal says. “The temperature makes a big difference; the more constant it is, the better it will be. My first ferment is between three to five days; the second ferment up to nine days with whatever flavouring I’m using. You don’t have to second ferment it, you can drink it straight away, but I don’t like the sugar. So, I’m trying to let the sugar come down as much as possible. It’s all in the taste; I don’t even time it I just taste it.” In summer fermentation happens very quickly with the warmer weather – while in winter it can be helped along with specially designed heat pads (you can buy them online) that the jars sit on, or are wrapped with. Sal’s kefir grains are smooth and round like river stones; its drink is fizzy and delightfully tart when first made, or if left to second ferment for another 24-hours in the fridge with lemon peel, it’s smooth and creamy. The cultures come in all different shapes and sizes – at home mine look more like cauliflowers, or tiny pale brains.
The kombucha scoby startled me – she looked alien and weird; a fleshy brown dense circle with ‘lids’ that grow underneath her and can be pulled off. They grow to whatever space is allocated to them – Sal has heard of them growing to the circumference of water tanks, or bathtubs. She’s also read of scobys being dried and made into shoes – they really are miraculous! Sal believes they can pick up on your energy and words – so make sure you honour the ‘Mother’ by chatting to her calmly and gently.
You can make these products without fancy materials to begin with – just ensure that everything you use is sterilised, glass or ceramic jars are best, avoid metal (if using metal lids, a piece of baking paper between the lid and jar helps) and keep it in a darkened place away from direct sunlight. Kefir can’t go ‘off’ as it is a live product – but as it matures and ferments the product will thicken to a cottage cheese like consistency or separate into curds and whey. Simply stir back together or blend into a smoothie (without the grains in it!) to drink. Kombucha will over-ferment into vinegar – some people have their uses for it but others find it undrinkable. Trial and error is key, and using your own intuition. The cultures are robust, amazing living creatures that are very forgiving; after all, they’ve survived thousands of years of putting up with us humans.
Place your grains in glass jar with either fresh raw goats milk, or un-homogenised cows milk. Allow to ferment in a warm room for 24-48 hours, or until thickened. Sieve (using a plastic sieve if possible) to separate the grains and give them a little wash in water, before starting the process again. You can drink the fermented milk straight away, or pop into another jar/bottle and second ferment in the fridge with a slice of flavouring (I like lemon peel) for 24 hours to make thick and creamy. Enjoy!
1 litre of water
70 grams organic raw sugar
7 grams organic tea – half black and half green.
It helps to have 20 per cent of your container filled with previously fermented kombucha – this will massively aid your fermentation. Boil the water and combine with the sugar, stirring gently to help it dissolve. Add the tea (I use tea bags) and leave for up to four hours – the bugs love the tannin, but not too much. Finally place into container with the 20 per cent ‘buch and place the scoby on top. Cover the jar with cloth – primary fermentation of kombucha is aerobic, requiring oxygen – and leave in dark place at a constant temperature of around 22 degrees. Some ferments take up to a week, others leave it for up to 30 days depending on the size of your brew. Sal recommends to start tasting the brew from three days in, and determine what is your perfect taste. Once spot on (for me, not too sweet. It just tastes good) transfer 80 per cent of the liquid into glass bottles and flavour (grated turmeric and ginger is popular, things like strawberries will up the alcohol content) and leave to ferment in the same dark warm place for up to nine days. Use the 20 per cent left over for the next brew and start again. Remember to handle the bottles carefully – these are a living product and liable to explode like champagne! Once transferred to the fridge the fermentation will slow right down and keep the carbonation a little under control. Just be careful when opening. Enjoy! And tread your own path.
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