What Western medicine has historically merely seen as a digestive system that has to work, Eastern culture has seen as a central theme to their medical structure.

 

The Japanese refer to the gut as onaka, “honoured middle” and hara, “centre of the spiritual and physical strength”. However, the West is catching up, if only because of the explosion of gastrointestinal diseases throughout the West, and a high incidence of declining gut health, including obesity, allergic reactions, chronic inflammatory conditions and autoimmune disorders. More recently, it’s being increasingly suggested that psychological conditions, such as depression and anxiety, are linked to the health of our guts.

The decline of fermentation in Western countries through the 19th and 20th centuries came as agriculture became progressively industrialised and homogenised. At the same time, science developed increasing knowledge about the dangers of pathogens and Pasteur invented the simple method of heating milk to 60C for about 30 minutes, which kill the organisms that lead to spoilage and sickness. Pasteurisation has saved a vast number of lives, but Pasteur also failed to recognise the complexity of the microbial world, seeing all bacteria as germs to be eradicated, rather than potential life-enhancing allies.

Almost 150 years after the invention of pasteurisation, a 2010 study in Vermont compared bacteria levels in raw milk with the 1970s. Whereas microbe counts in the 1970s showed millions of bacteria in each millilitre, the 2010 study showed that 86% of milk samples destined to be turned into raw-milk cheese contained fewer than 10,000 bacteria per millilitre, and 42% contained fewer than 1,000 per millilitre. We are seeing a holocaust of the microbial world.

We now know that what we are seeing, and what our guts are feeling, is human-created, as a direct result of the obsessive human need for control over microbes at any cost, driven by Pasteur’s teachings to destroy pathogens across our world and create a blank slate from which we can control all outcomes. The consequences of this genocide are vast, and the solutions are complex and multiple, but for our guts to be healthy we need to eat a diet rich in as many varieties of microbes as we can access. And through the industrialisation of our food system, we rarely encounter the microbial life we need for good gut health.

Take the dairy industry as an example. They have used one breed of cow almost exclusively since the 1950s, the Holstein, and have bred them to produce staggering quantities of milk. In order to produce this milk, the cows can no longer source enough calories through their traditional diet of grass, which has resulted in the global industrialisation of their feed through a few, international companies. To put it simply; one type of cow now eats one type of food around the world – which, of course, means that they produce one type of milk, which is then pasteurised.

Industrial cheesemakers then add industrially produced starter cultures, made in only three global company’s labs. By losing the terroir of cheese, we are left with a microbial homogeneity. Obviously, if this process were only happening to cheese, it would be only a loss to our tastebuds – but this story is being repeated across the agricultural world, and our microbiome is telling the tale.

At the Fermentary, we approach things differently. We see microbes almost like companion species. We work with them to produce deliciously wild fermented produce that are filled with billions of bacteria, who then engage with your gut companions. We believe that fermentation connects us all to the wider universe. We are no longer solitary beings, trundling through life as islands. We are, each of us, universes for microbiome, that existed billions of years before we came on the scene and will be around for billions of years after we leave. Ferments made by different people differ from each other because of who made them, where they were made and what they were made from, where those were made, and a myriad of other reasons that all connect us to a greater sense of what the Buddhists called anatta, or non-selfhood. At The Fermentary we honour this tradition by never using heat, chemicals, additives, or force carbonation – we trust the microbes to do their job, with us guiding them to what we want.

We like to think that this attitude to fermentation is the global norm, rather than the exception. It is present through many traditional cuisines, including Japanese. Ingredients such as soy sauce, miso, mirin and sake are all fermented, reliant on the mould koji. A microbial powerhouse, koji was domesticated around 9,000 years ago, about the same time that herders in the Caucasus mountains were domesticating milk kefir grains to make yoghurt and cheese. Whereas milk kefir is now virtually unknown amongst the Western wider public; in Japan, koji holds celebrity status. Not only can you buy koji cell phone charms and read koji manga, there is a National Fungus Day on October 12, which celebrates the joys of this fermenting wunderkind. Although wild fermentation in Japan has suffered at the hands of the modern mentality of ‘faster, cheaper, more’, it has remained important within their culture and traditions, and their cuisine reflects this complexity.

At The Fermentary, we use one of the biproducts of koji’s role in making sake. The tofu-like product, full of live bacteria and a delicious umami flavour, is called sake kasu (sake lees) and we use it to make delicious sake-lees crackers. They are a wonderful example of someone else’s biproduct being another person’s very tasty cracker. We are incredibly proud of this, and all our products, and we stand firm in our belief that traditional, wild fermentation is one of the primary, and most delicious solutions to our gut health crisis.

by Sharon Flynn, The Fermentary

Be sure to check out sister event, BREAD & CIRCUS where we celebrate all things fermented and more!