“Fermented tea?!” cried the journalist on a recent radio programme. “Are you mad?!”
I imagined his nose wrinkling in disgust – not a difficult thing to picture, as I’ve seen this reaction to kombucha on more occasions than I can count. It always strikes me as an odd state of affairs. Maybe it’s because I’m used to it, but ‘fermented tea’ sounds pretty good to me. It’s about as off-putting as ‘fermented grapes’ (wine) or ‘fermented barley’ (beer). It’s just that we’re more used to hearing the ‘street name’ than the lab reality.
It seems that getting used to the idea of ‘fermented tea’ is as much a process of etymology as anything else. I remember being fascinated by the way in which words like sheep, cow, calf and pig – all of which are old English words to describe specific animals – only became mutton, beef, veal and pork once the Norman conquest had taken place and the new French overlords introduced their linguistic variations as descriptors of the food the animals gave us. As a result, we ended up with two sets of words for what are essentially the same things: one set used by the people who handled the animals, and one for those who could afford to eat them. Over time, any friction that might’ve occurred in using both sets of words must’ve eroded. Now we use them both without a second thought.
I wonder if the same thing is taking place with fermented tea and other fermented foods. As our tastes in this country change, we’re quite happy to get stuck into a bowl of kimchi, although – perhaps understandably – the second you refer to it by its constituent parts (let’s say, for argument’s sake, cabbage left to rot in a clay pot in the ground) it becomes ever so slightly less attractive. The open-minded and inquisitive amongst us will be keen to investigate beyond its name (which literally translates as ‘soaked vegetables’), but for many more, ‘kimchi’ is a comfortable gateway word to a delicious food that happens to be pretty healthy. No need to probe any further.
That said, the foodie world is becoming a much more transparent place. People are much more keen to understand what exactly they’re putting in their mouths, and I get the sense that younger foodies are far less likely to turn their noses up at something that they can’t instantly comprehend – even more so when it has positive dietary implications. During a recent trip to Eat By Chloe, the brand new restaurant for hip young things in Covent Garden, I was impressed to see Real Kombucha being repeatedly whipped out of the fridge and served on nearly every table – not a wrinkled snout in sight. Fermentation seems to have been accepted here without question, and fermented tea couldn’t be more fashionable. Maybe the way that Instagram fetishises sourdough bread (which presumably sounds far less moreish when you describe it as bread made from the fermentation of dough using lactobacilli) has helped matters.
Being ever so slightly older than your average Eat By Chloe customer, I can certainly understand why the more mature foodie might be put off by the descriptions behind the names, but I still find it a tad peculiar. My most common response to the horrified cry of ‘fermented tea!’, followed by a rapidly wrinkled proboscis, is to point out that a huge amount of foods that we eat on a daily basis are fermented. Let us count the ways. Both yoghurt and Marmite are common features of the British breakfast table. A banana left to go slightly brown, or a glass of orange juice that has sat on the counter for a little while, have both begun the fermentation process (and even contain traces of alcohol because of it, but that’s another story).
Adults and children across the country take cheese and pickle sandwiches in their lunchboxes everyday. Yep – those pickles have been fermented, and very few people ever stop to crease their features over a cheese board (let’s break that down: a board covered in chunks of curdled and fermented milk, left to ‘mature’). In the evenings we coat our fish and chips with Sarsons vinegar (fermented barley again, this time introduced to something called ‘wood wool‘), and then, just before bed, many people of a certain age will drink (or at least remember drinking) Bovril (fermented beef extract, to the uninitiated). Some would even argue that doing so is about as English as it gets.
We clearly have a long tradition of fermenting food and guzzling it down in vast quantities. Presented in that context, perhaps it’s simply time to unwrinkle our noses and grab a bottle of the finest fermented tea. You might even find that it make a great alternative to fermented grapes or fermented barley, for those evenings that you don’t really fancy either.