When I mention “fermentatsiya” to my mother and aunties in Ukraine, they giggle: “What’s this hipster word you choose to call our ‘kvashennia’?” Their raised eyebrows say it all.
I explain that fermentation (I insist on using the scientific/hipster word) is on-trend for various reasons. “Clean eating” enthusiasts and nutritionists are bringing it to the masses. It is good for your health, they say; it helps maintain a healthy gut.
The mamushkas keep on laughing. I don’t blame them: It has been amusing to me as well. I don’t think we ever talked about fermentation being “healthy” when I was growing up. It was just our way of life, linked to seasonal eating, to growing our own vegetables and fruit, to having to preserve them for winter as rich soils and fierce sun made it possible for us to have serious gluts come September. The only fermented product that we called “healthy” was our homemade blackcurrant and raspberry wines. They were called “micro-nutrients” as a joke—as in, “Have another glass (or bottle). The fruit’s been fermented: It’s all micro-nutrients!”
Once the giggling subsides, I tell them about Faviken and Noma and numerous London restaurants, such as Raw Duck and Poco, that are bringing traditions, tested and developed by humanity for eons, to the modern table.
My family goes a little quieter again; they now seem less averse to my use of “fermentatsiya.” They know that, for the past few years, I've been obsessed with the techniques of traditional food preparation in modern settings. Fact is, whether it’s the “wellness” brigade or the genius Nordic locavorists or urban waste-fighting restaurateurs, fermentation has a place in this world still, and I hope it will not be a passing fad but that it will stick around, develop, and become more widely popular as part of a bigger movement.
The reason why people have always fermented vegetables was simple: They lived seasonally and they needed to preserve. Winter months bore very little in terms of vegetation, so it was an easy and, as we now know, nutritious way to eat. And a fun side effect of some particularly sugary items like fruit, grains, and potatoes was that we were also able to get warm and jolly. Wine, beer, and spirits are so ancient and so ingrained into our culture, after all, that most of us cannot imagine life without it.
It is a fascinating subject both in culinary and anthropological terms, and there are several books that go into detail. Fermented by Charlotte Pike is an incredible beginners’ offering, and Sandor Katz’s The Art of Fermentation is a thick tome for those who would like to go deeper into its history and science.
To me, fermented foods were an indispensable part of my childhood. The South of Ukraine has a very mild, almost Mediterranean climate, so from late April to late October there has always been an abundance of vegetables and fruit. The summers are so hot that we even had separate “summer kitchens”: small rooms built outside the main house close to the allotment and containing only kitchens. They were nothing fancy—just somewhere where women could escape from the stuffy houses during the scorchingly hot summer months. All meals in the summers were cooked and eaten there, and by September its window sills and shelves were filled with hundreds of jars.
The beginning of fall signaled that it was time to preserve and ferment. Buckets of the sweetest tomatoes, cucumbers, apples, plums, and apricots were brought in through the lacy curtained doorway of the summer kitchen, and us children sat on stumpy wooden stools and picked out the bruised and blemished; only the best, undamaged specimens were to make it into the preserving jars.
Cucumbers, in particular, had to be fermented at the very end of the season. The weather was still warm, but they no longer had to be watered as much. This meant that their taste was rounder and sweeter, almost like an unripe melon. The texture was firm and almost starchy (in a good way), rather than watery. The method was almost always the same: a weak brine and a little sugar, warmed up and infused with allspice and black peppercorns. The brine was then allowed to cool. The small prickly cucumbers were packed into a jar, along with some dill tops, whole garlic heads, horseradish, blackcurrant leaves, and sour cherry leaves, the latter’s tannins essential in preventing the cucumbers from going soft. The cucumbers would then be weighed down and left to ferment in the summer kitchen.
My father loves them just after three days, when they are mild and fresh, but I do not see any point in this flavor profile. The rest of the family prefers them when they go, as we call it, “nuclear.” A month-long fermentation makes them go dark and salty and a little fizzy. The earthiness of the blackcurrant, the garlic, and the intensity of dill blossom blow your head off.
We never wasted the fermented brine. It’s an excellent hangover cure as it is (yes: just down a shot of this and a shot of ice cold vodka when you feel tender, and you are immediately cured), and it also makes an excellent winter broth called rassolnyk (from ‘rassol’, brine).
A flavorsome but simple stock is made with some fine-quality pork ribs. Then you throw in a little pearl barley, caramelized grated carrots and shallots, grated fermented gherkins, and a good dash of the brine. The meaty bouillon and soft pieces of pulled pork, the sweet caramelized vegetables, the warmth of allspice, and the intensely sweet and sour gherkin brine come together to create one of the best, most complex combinations. Only five ingredients and minimum hassle and I have a dish that makes my British friends raise their eyebrows in disbelief.
Cucumbers are not the only thing that we ferment. Kherson steppes, where I am from, is notorious for its watermelons. Come August, precarious-looking piles of the stripy twenty-five kilo beasts is a familiar site by the side of the road. And of course, we ferment those as well. The smaller specimens are pierced, stuffed (whole!) into huge oak barrels, and covered in watermelon pulp mixed with salt. They are then left to go funky. Traditionally we just eat pieces of it as they are, alongside other fermented vegetables in winter. The texture may not be for everyone, so when I cater for the uninitiated, I blitz some of it up and use in a dressing in a winter pork salad. It is a flavor that baffles and excites.
In western parts of Ukraine, they also ferment whole apples, which again are used as a savory accompaniment to meat in the winter. I love to add raw honey, Himalayan salt, fresh tarragon, and mint to my fermentation brine, and it results in one of the brightest-tasting ferments known to man. For those who find the texture "challenging," I blend them into a purée. I am currently fermenting wild British crab apples in this way, and their chalky texture really lends itself well to the process.
I have experimented a lot in Britain, where I have been living for the past fifteen years. I always use my aunt’s brine recipe and it never fails me. I now have five kilos of Spanish raf tomatoes (a winter variety that tastes of sweet sea water) on the go. If you have never tried fermented tomatoes, you have not lived. Bring the fruit to your lips, put a little bit of pressure around it, and experience a sensory shock. it will explode into your mouth with intensely sweet, fizzy juices, tasting of celery, garlic, blackcurrant, and, of course, tomato—but tomato flavor that has been magnified by a thousand.
Once you start eating them, you may not be able to stop. I ferment the tomatoes when they are still a little green, so they remain firm, and to eat them, I mix with chicory leaves, candied walnuts, and a fermented brine and mustard vinaigrette.
I am also experimenting with wild leeks and British sea purslane. They are now bubbling away in a rather weak 2% brine; any stronger and they may become too soft. As soon as damson plums come into season, I will ferment those whole, too. And after my trip to Azerbaijan, I cannot wait to have a go at brining sour cherries. It was one of the most incredible accompaniments to a meaty pilau I have ever tasted.
My shed in my tiny London garden is slowly getting filled with jars. Yellow lemons, green tomatoes, chiles, apples, sauerkraut. They elate me, they trigger memories, and they inspire me to cook creatively. If they help me have a healthy gut too, it's only a bonus.
Let the mamushkas giggle—their legacy lives on.
- 2 beetroots, peeled and sliced into discs
- 1/2 small white cabbage, sliced into wedges
- 7 ounces (200 grams) mixed runner beans or French beans, tailed
- 4 spring onions
- 1 head of wet (new) garlic, left whole, outer layer peeled
- 2 ounces (50 grams) dill heads or stalks
- 2 horseradish leaves, or 50 grams (2 ounces) fresh horseradish, chopped
- 2 blackcurrant leaves
- 2 sour cherry leaves
- 1 3/4 pints (1 liter) water
- 3 tablespoons sea salt flakes
- 10 black peppercorns
Gherkin, Beef & Barley Broth (Рассольник | Rassol’nyk)
- 500 grams (1 pound) pork ribs or beef short ribs
- 2 1/2 liters (4 pints) cold water
- 1 onion, peeled but kept whole
- 1 bay leaf
- 5 black peppercorns
- 5 allspice berries
- 100 grams (3 1/2 ounces) pearl barley or rice
- 1 onion, diced
- 2 tablespoons sunflower oil
- 1 carrot, peeled and grated
- 20 grams (3/4 ounce) parsley root, peeled and finely chopped, or parsley stalks, finely chopped
- 100 grams (3 1/2 ounces) gherkins, peeled and grated
- 200 milliliters (7 fluid ounces) gherkin brine from the jar, divided and used as needed
- 2 spring onions, finely chopped, to serve
Fermented Tomatoes (Квашенi помiдори | Kvasheni Pomidory)
- 35 grams (1 1/4 ounce) fine sea salt
- 25 grams (1 ounce) superfine sugar
- 1/2 tablespoon allspice berries, bruised
- 1/2 tablespoon black peppercorns
- 1 liter (1 3/4 pints) water
- 500 grams (1 pound) Tumbling Tiger tomatoes or other medium-sized flavorful tomatoes
- 2 dill heads or dill stalks (fresh or dry)
- 1 bay leaf
- 50 grams (2 ounces) celery sticks and leaves, chopped