As the autumn well and truly sets in, we’re getting really excited about those rich, umami flavours that can flavour your broths, stews and warm soups so well. With fermentation such a key part to achieving those delicious notes, we’ve been out chatting to people in our fermenting community who love getting stuck into that process and really understand what a difference it can make to the chef’s palette.
Fermentation is a big part of the ethos at THE PIG Hotels (as you may have heard in our podcast with group Chef Director, James Golding; have a listen by clicking here), so this month we caught up with Ravid, the sous chef working at THE PIG at Combe. Ravid comes from Israel, where the fermentation of food was part of his upbringing. As you’ll read in this interview, it’s now part of his everyday life, whether he’s flavouring roast dishes or fermenting a specific kombucha for their hotel bar.
Hey Ravid. Can you start by telling us a bit about you and your role at THE PIG?
Sure. I am the sous chef at THE PIG at Combe. I was born and raised in Israel and grew up in a very food-orientated family. My mother is a chef and my Italian grandmother was one of the best cook’s I knew. The Israeli food culture is very heavily influenced by pickling, fermenting, and preserving. To be honest, I can’t think of many dishes that don’t involve something pickled, salted, brined or fermented.
At THE PIG, we love to get the most out of everything we grow. Pickling and fermenting is an amazing and efficient way to preserve almost anything, as well as adding an amazing acidity that’s desperately needed to most dishes. We also make our own kombuchas that can be found at The Folly at THE PIG at Combe, flavoured with foraged aromats and home-grown herbs, fruits and berries. Lacto fermentation has also become a big part of our weekly prep list.
How do you define fermentation, and how did you get into it?
Fermentation is essentially “controlled spoilage”. What we do is use mould, bacteria and yeast to convert sugars into other substances. The controlled part just means the control over oxygen as some fermentation process require oxygen (aerobic) fermentation, while other processes require the total absence of oxygen (anaerobic) such as lacto fermentation and the control of the PH level as well as salinity.
The results are incredible, due to the fact that starchy, sugary and high-protein foods are made up of long, micro stands of starch or proteins, through various methods. The fermentation process breaks down the long chains into smaller amino acids which are easier for our complex palette to recognise. Fermenting different produce can even enhance some of the flavours – a real bonus! One of the most important amino acids that is produced during fermentation is called glutamic acid, which registers to us as umami, the savouriness, moreish flavour we get from a really good cheese or soy sauce.
Although I learned a lot from my mum, books like The Noma Guide to Fermentation and the work of Harold McGee have introduced me to the ins and outs of how fermentation works, and how it could be improved. I have taken all of this knowledge and learnt even more about fermenting since working at THE PIG at Combe.
Could you explain the basic steps in your fermenting process?
Lacto fermentation is a pretty good place to start, simply because it is one of the easiest methods. All you’ll need is a clean, sterile jar, a lunch bag, a starchy sugary ingredient (this could be anything from berries to chillies) and at least 2% of salt (for example 100g of chillies would require 2g of salt).
Make sure you mix all of the ingredients in with the salt, and then place the mixture in the sterile jar. Use the lunch bag filled with water to press down and get all of the air out. Then shut the lid tight and the products can be fermented from up to five days or even a couple of months at a time.
You will find the end result is a mixture that can add an amazing acidity to a venison dish, or the liquid will make a fantastic salad dressing – an unforgettable luxury that can’t be mimicked in any other way.
Why do you think fermented drinks and foods are rising in popularity?
At THE PIG at Combe we make kombucha as well as having REAL Kombucha on our drinks menus. It is something I struggle to live without at home. I like to start every morning with a glass of kombucha, and since doing so I have felt the best I have in a long time. Fermented drinks such as kombucha and kefir milks are thought to be packed with amazing probiotics that are vital for a healthy gut. So not only do they add a ton of flavour and acidity to the food, a lot of fermented foods and drinks are really good for us. I think that with many of us taking care of ourselves and wanting to ensure we are as healthy can be, the rise in fermented food and drinks comes down to this.
“Every gherkin lover knows it’s all about the crunch”
How do you decide what to ferment and when you have ‘hit the spot’?
I try to ferment things that are high in starch and sugars. As well as kickstarting a good fermentation, starchy foods tend to hold their integrity a bit better. Every gherkin lover knows it’s all about the crunch. I also think the best way to find out if something ferments well is to just go for it! Make a small batch, and either way you will be in for a surprise. That’s part of the fun: trying new things because you might just stumble across a real gem. One of my favourite discoveries is lacto fermented wild ceps. The salty, ever so slightly sour liquid I was left with made the best mushroom and Wiltshire truffle risotto I’ve ever tasted.
THE PIG locations are often imbued with history. Does that history come into it when you’re fermenting? Do you take inspiration from it for your flavours, or perhaps even use old fermentation recipes that are related to the time period of the building?
Fermentation has been used throughout human history. In ancient Rome they would famously ferment grapes to make wine, and less famously make the most popular condiment of the time: Garum (a salty, funky condiment made from the fermented liquid of salted fish). By fermenting at THE PIGS, we are engaging with a very old method of preserving. It is also an amazing way to preserve some of our amazing garden produce, so that we can use it during wetter, less yielding months of the year.
For more on THE PIG HOTELS, head to their website: thepighotel.com