I would like to introduce you to some of the most amazing and unseen critters on earth. They are the natural yeast and bacteria who are responsible for fermentation. I call them critters because they are tiny organisms and they are very friendly and helpful. You can see them only under a microscope, but they do a lot of special work for us.
One of the fascinating things about fermentation is how universal it is. Beneficial yeast and bacteria help us digest food and fight off illness. They break down our beautiful, rich compost and turn it into gardening gold. They transform the layers of fallen leaves in the forest into more food for the forest. And they are responsible for helping us to make some of our very favorite foods and beverages.It can be surprising to learn that black tea leaves and coffee beans are fermented before being dried and packaged. Chocolate comes from cacao beans that have been fermented in vats then roasted. The plain beans alone have almost no flavor. Then we have bread, bacon and cured meats, cheese, pickles, sauerkraut, kim chi, wine, beer, spirits and kombucha, all of which are fermented. That’s a lot of flavor and nutrition.
Condiments are a special group of foods that today are not usually fermented. But maybe they should be. One of my favorite fermented condiments is Worcestershire Sauce. This sauce and its international variations are some of the oldest and most popular condiments in the world. Even if it is not sitting on the table at your favorite diner, there is usually a bottle behind the counter.In 1837, at their apothecary in Worcester England, John Lea and William Perrins formulated their first batch of Worcestershire Sauce. It was made from vinegar, molasses, sugar, salt, anchovies, tamarind, garlic, onions and spices. It was based on spicy fish sauces from all over the British Empire. Fish sauce itself dates back to the Roman Empire. It is made by putting shellfish or anchovies and salt into a vat where natural yeast and bacteria digest and ferment the fish into a tasty sauce. The story with Lea and Perrins is that the first recipe for their sauce tasted awful and they just forgot about it in storage. But sometime later they tried it and through the magic of fermentation, it was transformed into the popular sauce that we know today.
Many people are surprised to know that Worcestershire Sauce has fish in it at all. The secret is that the fermentation turns fishy flavor into what we know today as “umami.” Umami is the “fifth flavor” in addition to sweet, sour, bitter and salty. It is the rich, savory flavor found in the roasting, caramelizing, and fermentation of vegetables, fish, meat, and dairy. MSG, the common kitchen flavor enhancer is made to mimic this savory flavor.
I started making my own Worcestershire Sauce many years ago when my beloved Lea and Perrins began to taste watery and less rich. Over the years, I have developed a few tricks of my own. My Fermented Condiments class will be scheduled soon. We will make traditional Worcestershire sauce or a vegan alternative and several other products including the now legendary Fire Cider.
Karen Palcho is a Berks County artist, educator, gardener and fermenter whose interests are rooted in transforming earth based raw materials and plants into things that are beautiful, tasty and useful. She teaches classes in fermentation, botanicals, and art. For more information, visit www.palchosproducts.com.