Elaine Bruce writes on fermentation the world over and how we use it in the Living Foods Programme today

Fermentation has been used for thousands of years to preserve food, and for survival. In different parts of the world there are traditions of fermenting foods and liquids depending upon the climate, the plants which grow locally, and the culture and belief systems of the local people.

Not so long ago.

Imagine living in the mountain region of say Romania, in a small peasant village, only a few generations ago. It is before the building of a modern road network, and computer links, even telephones are not yet available. There is no local greengrocer. In such a community, as in vast regions of China today, you had to grow your own food, and use wild plants berries and roots as well. So how do you keep the family fed in the long snow bound winter months when the earth is frozen? Apart from salted and dried meat, dried fruits and roots, maybe honeycomb, the European answer to having a little fresh food was traditionally sauerkraut. Cabbage will keep in the ground until after the first frosts, and is then harvested in as large quantities as possible. A big batch is easier to make and keep successfully than a small one. When fermented in its own juices, with or without added salt, it would provide essential levels of vitamins and enzymes, to prevent scurvy, and keep the immune system active.

And today

We still use raw, saltless sauerkraut on a daily basis in the Living Foods Programme, along with rejuvelac and fermented seed and nut sauces, which were the inspirational recipes of Dr. Ann Wigmore. However her knowledge of sauerkraut came from her own family traditions of winter food.

In the middle ages in the UK, honey was used as the basis for the fermented drink called Mead, which was a powerful restorative. It could be considered their version of a multi-mineral and vitamin supplement, and it is still made as a speciality by one or two monasteries, and very delicious it is too.

Water or Beer?

It is fascinating to find out how wider living conditions influenced what people ate and drank. For example think for a moment that you are back in 18th century Britain. There has been bad weather and poor grain harvests for a couple of years and you and your family decide to seek employment in the new centres of industry. You get to London or Birmingham, walking, with all your possessions on a cart, with the babies and granny on top. There was certainly work, in dreadful conditions and for pitiful wages, but linig conditions were worse. The shoddy cheap back to back houses thrown up for the workers were overcrowded, airless, without running water or sanitation, and you did not have any land to produce fresh food. Many people died of malnutrition, and cholera. The water was contaminated by sewage so there sprang up small breweries, for the production of beers, which was the main drink for all social classes, in order to avoid disease.

European wines

In the grape producing countries of Europe, wine has been traditionally produced and drunk, and wine drinking is now widespread even in the cooler parts where the vines won’t grow. The controversial effects of red wine, is it good for you or not, are still debated. In spite of the enzymes and trace minerals, alcohol is so dehydrating that it is probably best avoided.

Ferments ancient and modern

From Japan, with their soy products of shoyu, miso and tofu, and the delicious drink kombucha, used as a tonic, to the Arctic, where the Inuit traditionally fermented fish in the warm season for use through the winter: from the Native American Indians of the recent past to the present day Indians of the Amazonian rain forest: from the desert nomads of the Middle East, making mares milk koumiss which they give to the elderly, young children and sick people: to Indonesia where they make tempeh from soy beans: to the plains of Africa, where the pounded roots of cassava are made not just into flour as the staple food, but also into a strong fermented drink used both for medicine and for ritual ceremonies: from the traditional yoghourt and soured milk of those parts of Europe where stock was raised, and the sourdough breads which preceded bakers yeast: right down to the present day use of nutritional yeast by Western vegetarians, there are countless examples of fermented food and drink.

Most of them are still found in places where people live by traditional small scale agriculture, and many of them are being revived and produced on a larger scale today as we realise the nutritional deficiencies of our soil and of our over-processed modern foods. Most of them you can make for yourself, in fact if you do, they will probably be of higher quality than mass produced large batch products.

Ferments boost your health

We will have a look at some of them, and what they can do for your general health.
All fermented foods and drinks provide more available vitamins and minerals than in their original state. As a bonus, the enzyme content makes them easily assimilated, and aids a weak digestion.
They introduce beneficial bacteria, to help to keep the balance of gut flora healthy; they have an alkalinising effect, and they boost the immune system. There is a fair amount of protein in some of them, also B vitamins, including B12, when made under certain conditions. Don’t get your hopes up though, those conditions do not obtain in Western methods of manufacture.

Too squeaky clean to be good for you?

Whether or not some fermented products, especially tofu, contain traces of B12, seems to depend on how and where they are made. To be blunt about it, if they are made in small batches, in the traditional way, in countries where food and hygiene regulations are minimal, there is a fair chance of contamination (bits of earth, fragments of insects etc). While these additives may well not cause harm to most of the people who eat them, because they are used to them, they are the source of the B12. When made in large commercial batches, the tofu may be free from contamination but loses nutritive value. It has been observed that children seem to be increasingly sensitive to foods: it may be that eating scrupulously washed produce and pasteurised foods is partly responsible. We don’t seem to fulfil the old saying “ we all eat a peck of dirt before we die” I’m not sure what a peck weighs, but I imagine it’s quite a lot!.

All these benefits add up to good reason to use something fermented every day, today as in the past.

Ferments and Candida
First what is all the debate about never using fermented foods if you have candida? Ann Wigmore used her rejuvelac to cure candida, nowadays some people say don’t use it at all if there is candida present.

What is Candida?
Candida albicans and other yeast-like fungi are often found in the human gut, and a small amount is manageable. However when there is overgrowth, it is described as candidiasis, or a proliferation of the fungi throughout the gut, and we then talk about “having candida”.

Why does it get out of hand?
For the yeasts to multiply there is usually a digestive problem, or some metabolic disturbance, but in a healthy digestive system there will be plenty of lactobacillus acidophilus and other microorganisms in the intestines, which are essential to absorb nutrients from the food.
Candida however inhibits the assimilation process, and if allowed to multiply unchecked, the whole organism becomes weakened. Candida overgrowth sometimes invades the whole body by going through weak areas in the gut lining. This is termed systemic candida, and is a very serious condition, even life threatening if neglected.

Candida weakens the immune system.
A long lasting effect of chronic untreated candida overgrowth is that the systemic candida produces toxic by products, which stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies. Sometimes this can overwhelm the immune system so that there is no spare capacity to deal with infections, repair wounds etc. Eventually the immune system breaks down and various auto immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis can take hold, even finally such conditions as AIDS and cancer. Along the way, even if a named disease does not result, candida overgrowth results in allergic responses to foods and chemicals, leading eventually to a multiple sensitivities which are hard to live with.

Causes of Candida overgrowth
Mucus producing foods, antibiotics, over eating, complicated meals, yeasted breads, all contribute to the condition. Some fermented foods should be avoided for a while, as should a lot of fruit. In fact all fruit may be avoided for a short time until the overgrowth subsides. It is important to combine fruits properly and it may not be necessary to cut them out completely.

Also unfortunately for those with ambitions to eat high raw or 100 percent raw, if there is digestive disturbance, it might be a good idea to cut back the proportion of raw food for a while until sound and thorough digestion is re established (solid, bulky stools, not loose or watery).

Ferments help to repopulate the gut
Some fermented foods, for example miso and yoghourts are well known to be helpful in rebalancing the gut flora, and Dr. Ann Wigmore taught that the daily use of rejuvelac, fermented seed sauces and sauerkraut, all help in the same way.

However as in all situations concerning your health it makes more sense to ask your own body than to follow a theory, so my advice is to test yourself with simple muscle testing, or get a friend or therapist to do it for you, or simply dowse for fruits and ferments. If you have to cut them out for a few weeks or months, it will be worth doing, and you will start to regain the lost energy, as well as losing some food sensitivities, and improving digestion.

As soon as you are sure that you can use a wide range of fermented foods, it is a good idea to have some every day. Remember they aid digestion and help to keep the intestinal flora balanced.

Basic sauerkraut
Use red cabbage or a mix of red and white cabbage. Sauerkraut works best in large quantities, so use at least two big cabbages. Remove the outer leaves of the cabbages, wash and set aside. Chop or grate all the cabbage in a food processor or put through a Champion juicer with the juicing screen removed. It helps the fermentation to start quickly if some of the cabbage is finely enough grated to become juicy. The traditional method is to pound it until juice is released, but you can get the same effect by grating some very finely.

Mix the two colours of cabbage thoroughly and layer in a big crock or pan. Scatter a couple of handfuls of juniper berries as you go, this gives a lovely flavour.
Press the cabbage down firmly, and cover the surface with the washed outer leaves, put a large plate on top, then a weight. Cover the whole thing with a cloth to keep out flies, but not an airtight lid. Don’t shut it in a cupboard.

Leave it somewhere the initial breakdown of the cabbage won’t bother you! Perhaps outside the back door! This phase only lasts a couple of days while the fermenting process takes hold. It will take a week or two to complete, depending on temperature. When you come to look, it should be a rich ruby red, evenly broken down, with some juice. There may be a few mouldy bits round the edge. Discard these, and bottle the rest in glass. It will keep a few weeks, but once opened needs to be kept in the fridge. It has a delicious sharp refreshing taste, and gives you a dark red fresh vegetable during the winter when it is hard to find the red foods we need. A spoonful with a salad means you don’t need a dressing, and if you stir it into a cupful of plain seed sauce it makes a great mayonnaise. In fact if you like to use it this way you could make the next batch with white or green cabbage only.

If you want to try kombucha, you can buy it bottled, but if you can find someone who has kombucha cultures, they will be only too happy to give you one, and show you how to feed it. It’s great fun looking after it as it grows, and a small amount of the strong wine-like liquid is a great pick-me-up. “Kombucha Tea for your health and healing” by Alick and Mari Bartholomew, published by Gateway is an in-depth guide. They also founded the Kombucha Tea Network

Seed Sauce and Rejuvelac recipes are in Living Foods for Radiant health by the author, and also in Ann Wigmore’s books.