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Kraut in the Act

An impassioned plea for the new dawn of fermented foods

By Steve Billings

I want to ferment a rebellion. I want to start a massive, digestion-aiding rebellion led by the forgotten lacto-bacterian regime, whose new aim should be to dash the empty-calorie, gut-busting grip of processed food purveyors and sugarmongers everywhere.

We can call it "No Carb Left Behind" or "Every Carb Left Behind" or who knows, because I cannot remember anymore what I am supposed to think about a carb--its goodness, its badness, its alliance with the Axis of Evil. Carbs of Mass Destruction are everywhere, even in Iraq, and certainly in your John Birch beer.

What I do know is that I love fermented foods of all kinds. They are flavorful, they have ancient origins and sometimes they even get you in trouble with your girlfriend, if you choose the right one in the wrong amount.

When I think of fermented products, I immediately rush toward the legion of liquids, including beer, wine and spirits. I'm simple--I like a buzz. But that's not the whole story. Indeed, much of the world still regularly eats an amazing range of digestion-assisting, fermented solids whose sugars and starches have been converted by the lacto-bacterian regime.

Let's take a brief world tour. In Japan you would be hard-pressed to have a meal without the presence of miso, soy sauce and some kind of pickled vegetable. Not far away, Koreans eat a pickled cabbage called kimchi. If you go to India you will frequently see people downing soured milk or yogurt-based drinks. Across the African continent, one will encounter porridges made from fermented millet or other grains. And if we traveled to France with the directive not to eat any fermented foods whatsoever, we'd be bummed, pissed and out of luck--there goes wine, cheese, bread, sausage and those awesome little cucumbers known as cornichons.

Currently though, my absolute favorite is the German-style fermented product of a head of shredded cabbage--sauerkraut. But before the Germans and the rest of Europe got wind of how to preserve cabbage, the Chinese were doing so around 2,000 years ago by preserving the vegetable in rice wine. Many accounts suggest that, in the 13th century, Genghis Khan brought this hearty fare along with him from China to feed his hordes as he plundered Europe. Eventually, Europeans adapted the process by excluding the wine and fermenting the vegetables by using salt instead.

The reason I love sauerkraut even more today than I did when it set up a swampy pool next to German sausages or pork chops plated for me in my youth is that I can buy it locally the way it was traditionally produced before the advent of refrigeration and the pasteurization process; raw, uncooked, unpasteurized and full of bright fresh flavors that are absent from its limp, cooked and pasteurized counterpart.

Raw fermented cabbage is packed full of beneficial vitamins, enzymes and lactobacillus, a naturally occurring bacteria which is good for your gut and the length of your intestine.

In fact, lactobacilli are the ubiquitous, microscopic minions of the fermenting revolution that have made vegetable preservation possible among humans for more than 2,000 years. In her book, Nourishing Traditions, author Sally Fallon tells us that "lactic acid is a natural preservative that inhibits putrefying bacteria. Starches and sugars in fruits and vegetables are converted into lactic acid by the many species of lactic-acid-producing bacteria." Lactic acid not only perfectly preserves vegetables but the "proliferation of lactobacilli in fermented vegetables enhances their digestibility and increases vitamin levels. These beneficial organisms produce numerous helpful enzymes as antibiotic and anti-carcinogenic substances."

The bottom line: your gut gets good flora from raw, fermented food, which it would not receive from the more industrial methods of production which include overly acidic vinegar and heat sterilization.

Among traditionally fermented veggies, cabbage appears to have the most illustrious history and widespread usage. It just really works. In her book Des Crudités Toute L'Année, Annelies Schoneck informs us that the Chinese fermented cabbage possibly as long ago as 6,000 years ago, and that in ancient Rome, sauerkraut had a reputation as a food that was easy to digest.

Author Claude Aubert relates a seafaring story that should solidify the soundness of such simple, effective food preparation: "For his second round-the-world voyage, Capt. Cook loaded 60 barrels of sauerkraut onto his ship. After 27 months at sea, 15 days before returning to England, he opened the last barrel and offered some sauerkraut to some Portuguese noblemen who had come on board. ... they carried off the rest of the barrel to give some to their friends. This last barrel was perfectly preserved after 27 months, in spite of changes in climate and the incessant rocking of the ship. The sauerkraut had also preserved sufficient quantities of Vitamin C to protect the entire crew from scurvy. Not one case occurred during the long voyage even though this disease usually decimated crews of voyages of this length."

Can one go wrong with a food that is still fresh and edible after two years with no added preservatives or refrigeration? What's good to know is that you don't need to harass a dead Capt. Cook if you want to treat your mouth and belly to a healthy dose of organic raw sauerkraut. One need to look no further than the refrigerator cases of Santa Cruz's New Leaf Markets. As of now I know that all the area stores carry numerous flavors of Cultured Organic Raw Sauerkraut, produced out of Berkeley. I've even bought the same kind at our downtown Farmers Market. Word has it too that the Felton New Leaf Market sells an organic raw sauerkraut bulk-packaged in plastic bags.

Remember, too, that you can very easily set up your own guerrilla-boutique, lacto-fermenting kraut operation from home with a very minimal arsenal--try a book like Sally Fallon's Nourishing Traditions. That is how you ferment a revolution.

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From the September 15-22, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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