There are occasions when you need a particular lens, and this was one of them because I wanted to capture as much as I could of the colour, texture and activity of the batch of sauerkraut that’s sitting in the kitchen fermenting like crazy in the warm atmosphere.
So the only lens I could use was the macro lens I bought in New York a few years ago. I’m not a ‘proper’ photographer and no doubt with a good deal of faffing around with lights I could have produced something a bit more aesthetically pleasing but this will have to do because it shows how after only a few days the ferment has burst into life with asolutely no technical help from me. All I did was to wash and shred the cabbage, add a little salt – not a lot – and put it into a fermentation jar. It’s a small miracle, once again, and aside from the faint whiff of dead sheep bubbling up from the depths it’s no trouble at all. If you look closely you’ll see the bubbles rising through the cabbage (a mixture of Savoy and red cabbages). The proof of the pudding is in the eating, of course, and it’s easy to get very squeamish about the prospect of eating ‘rotting’ things, but really there’s no reason. This stuff is good for you and stuffed full of benign micro-organisms that your gut will just love.
I was once confronted with a cup of fermented hooch when I was out on a soup run one Christmas. One of our regular stops was a tiny concrete hut on the docks, and the resident was a generally safe guy who really appreciated a sandwich and a couple of cigarettes on a bitterly cold night. I stopped by and gave him something extra for Christmas, I can’t remember what it was – it was very small – and he was so grateful he offered me an ashtray he’d found and a taste of his drink. He’d been scouring the bins at the back of the local greengrocers for discarded fruit, and blagged a bit of yeast off someone so he could make wine. Everything in my whole body was revolted at the prospect of drinking this stuff but I knew that my credibility rested on reciprocating his generosity – those are the rules. So I took a sip from the shared mug, made appreciative noises and went on my way waiting to be struck down by at least a dozen fatal disorders which, thankfully, I wasn’t. So, to end this writerly oxbow, I’ve always had at least a taste of local delicacies wherever we’ve been.
And if the idea of eating sauerkraut scares you, perhaps it’s best to start with a tin from the local deli or Pollsh shop where you know you’ll be perfectly safe. Even that’s tasty but it’s a bit of a Johnny one-note flavour. Then when you try the real stuff you’ll get the full Brahms symphony, and if you’re a gardener staring down the barrel of the “Hungry Gap” that’s just about to begin, preserves, pickles, dried foods, stored beans and fermented foods will really brighten up the plate until the late spring flush of new vegetables begins.
Oh and what I forgot to say was that the sauerkraut tasted pretty good even after a few days. Crunchy, lightly acidic and fizzy with real sweetness from the cabbage and not the tiniest hint of anything unpleasant.
It’s frosty and there’s a lingering mist over the city that suggests it’s going to be one of those bone-chilling days out there, so we’re not racing to get up to the allotment. As ever the post-Christmas fridge is stuffed with leftovers demanding attention and bits of overbuying are ticking away dangerously like timebombs. And that’s not all, because there are things – nameless things – in the storecupboard that should be thrown away. Old and failed lactofermenting experiments like two of the three ways of preserving cucumbers should probably be given a respectful burial. Experiment number three, which was the least – shall we say – purist, is the most successful by far and even gained the approval of our son’s Polish girlfriend, and so we’ll mark that recipe in Diana Hendry’s book on preserving. Sadly – much as I love Sandor Katz – the first version failed mainly on texture. Cucumbers are prone to get rather slimy and soft in pickles, and when you add tough skin to the list of properties you can see that the poor unloved jar was going to linger in the cupboard to the end of time! The second version was so salty you’d probably have to tell your doctor if you ate more than two. But then the upside of the clearout is that there are more 2 litre Kilner jars for sauerkraut and other experiments, and we’re trialing a new variety of pickling cucumber next season. We’ve yet to try the salted beans which were inspired by a remark in her biography by by Patience Gray’s son who said he actually preferred them to the fresh ones. I can hardly believe that’s possible but we’ve done a small batch anyway.
There’s one thing we’ve been waiting for January to make, and that’s marmalade. We ran out in the spring because I mistakenly thought we’d got loads in a box in the garage. It turned out to be ten jars of rather aged plum chutney. January is when the new crop of Seville oranges comes into the shops and I can hardly wait. We did buy a jar of commercial marmalade but in the end we chucked it out after a few tries because it lacked bite. Far too much sugar and low on fruit it was precisely what you get when you favour price over value.
The other thing that comes in January may not appear at all this year because cod stocks are always a bit fragile and the only kind to get is certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. But since I was a child I’ve always loved fresh cod roe. Most of it goes for smoking to make taramasalata As you see, the fresh stuff’s a bit in your face and it’s a faff to prepare because it needs poaching before you can do anything with it. But I love it – possibly all the more because it only appears for a brief season and often not at all so there’s no prospect of ever getting bored with it. But I’m probably among a dwindling number of people who will buy it. It’s almost certainly one of those dishes like feijoada that can only be fully loved by those who’ve eaten it from childhood. But next Saturday I shall go to the farmers’ market where I know there’s a fishmonger who will have it if there’s any about. Poached and then sliced, dipped in egg and flour and fried, it’s really lovely with the cheapest white bread you can get and some tomato ketchup. It’s like being six again.