I’ve always been fascinated by fermenting foods, ever since I witnessed Mum brewing Elderflower champagne in demi-john bottles in the room under the stairs. It was our tradition every summer to gather the main ingredient from the wild bushes that lined the Welsh country roads behind our house. My most vivid memory is climbing into our cornflower blue 1974 Saab 96 with my brother and trying not to get noticed by the neighbours. She was just plain old ugly and we nicknamed her ‘Battleaxe’.
“It has an impeccable safety record,” said Dad with satisfaction as we lurched forward from the house. My brother and I clutched the scratchy whicker baskets on our knees and held onto our stomachs as she rolled around each bend. Mum had primed us to shout ‘Stop!’ if we spotted the delicate white flowers on the roadside or to throw up, which ever came first.
We gathered with excitement as Mum, balanced on the ladder, reached up and passed us the fermenting equipment down from the attic. Tubes, taps and buckets came down and dusty bottles ready for the process of steeping the flowers with sugar, lemons, rind and all with cider vinegar and water. Once that process was done they would be siphoned into bottles and room was made in the dark cupboard under the stairs. Next we waited for the explosions to happen in regular succession that would soak the coats, shoes and pantry items with the sticky sweet smell of summer. At the first signs of Winter she started on her next passion wine brewing and then the demijohns would gurgle happily in the airing cupboard, warmed by the huge copper water heater sitting snuggly in its red insulated jacket. It was part of our childhood rituals, expected and comforting each year.
As a young adult I didn’t much think about fermenting foods until many years later when we moved to The Netherlands. Weekly deliveries became the lifesaver with three children under two but we started to notice that there was always a bag of sauerkraut hiding in the bottom of the delivery bag. Grappling with the consistent challenge of trying to do our order in Dutch we could never agree whether it was an accident or a weekly gift from the largest supermarket chain Albert Heijn that had it arriving on our doorstep each week. Inevitably it went into the fridge unopened and, stockpiled in the corner as no one wanted to eat it or had the foggiest idea what to do with it.
Five years later we moved to Perth, Australia, leaving a trail of unopened sauerkraut behind us but having gained a deep respect for seasonal eating and a love for the simple life. On leaving The Netherlands I developed an acute mourning for the freedom of biking along the pretty streets of Wassenaar, where the wobble of my bike had increased with my purchases and balance had been challenged, depending on the number of bags I had managed to strap onto the child seat behind. We had left behind an old-fashioned world and where time seemed to have slowed down.
Perth was a different world entirely. Fermented foods, coconut yoghurt, kefir and kombucha was now making its appearance in the shops and on café menus and I grew accustomed to the sour and tangy flavor and the vitality it gave me. My energy and zest for life increased with every addition of fermented foods and the depression and tiredness that had followed me since the birth of three children in quick succession disappeared. I became a foodie and I started reading anything I could get my hands on which related the power of food for healing.
Another five years later and we moved to Singapore and suddenly I was back to eating food that all came from somewhere else and I got sick, really sick from the culture shock of moving somewhere so vastly different. I think this was the period when I discovered the link between my gut and the brain. I was sick because of how I thought and felt, the shock on my head of all the changes manifested in my gut, which went crazy. You know what they say about ‘our thoughts make us sick’ well I was walking evidence of it. After tubes were inserted in strange places and I was subjected to every test under the sun, the gastroenterologist told me there was nothing wrong with me that I was one of the healthiest patients she had ever examined. The next day my sickness went away and never came back and all I had had was the reassurance that I was doing okay which changed my thoughts. I literally went from living in the bathroom to full recovery. It was a moment of belief that we are what we think and I began to want to explore the possibility that I could make things happen, the good and the bad.
Eighteen months later we craved greenery and space and moved over the border to Malaysia to a new house and a tropical garden alive with living things. The absence of decent supermarkets meant my diet simplified to what I could find locally; green coconuts picked from a stall by the roadside and given a quick thwack by the stallholder’s machete; their clean non-sweet energy reviving me in the sapping heat and I discovered that they stayed wedged in the coffee holder in my car.
While I was there I brought whatever vegetables he had and then tried to figure out what to do with them when I got home. I stopped all takeaways, not trusting what their ingredients were and rumours made me wary of the local shops with their insecticide sprayed vegetables from China and I avoided the fish sourced from the polluted waters nearby which stared up at me from their icy grave. It meant I had to refine and adapt our family’s diet completely, eating sugar became a thing of the past and I started to cook everything from scratch. I found the heat reduced my appetite and I naturally avoided eating in the mornings. The brain fog I didn’t even know I had disappeared and was replaced by clarity and energy like I had never known before. With resting my body from food I had reaped the benefits published today on intermittent fasting.
Six years later we are now back in Australia and it is well known that fermenting foods has the power to heal our gut. There isn’t a supermarket without a full range of fermented products and the cafés and restaurants have included them on their menus. It’s definitely a case of hello gut hello mind and despite the initial revulsion to the taste, as let’s be honest here it doesn’t smell that good when foods have been allowed to sit and fizz for a while, and it’s better not to let your mind dwell on the fact that some excited microbes have already digested your food once before you get to it. But of course you can get past that and wake up to what these fermented foods do for your body and just how much natural and powerful healing potential they have. Your gut is the most important organ and it is where all disease starts. If you care for a bit of proof then check out the latest research on what they know now about the blood/brain barrier and the things they thought couldn’t get through it can. It’s certainly an alarming thought with the cocktail of chemicals that most of us ingest or put on our skin. Feeling a bit fuzzy headed this morning? Then maybe it’s time to think about what you may have eaten last night. Those millions of microbes in your gut can only do their job if the garden they live in is flourishing and its fed and watered properly.
Eat more fermented foods your body will love you for it!