It’s early December in Southern Ontario and despite unseasonably warm weather, my thoughts are slowly turning towards the comfort foods of winter. Even though I am still regularly harvesting carrots, broccoli, turnips, spinach, kale and chard from my garden, a deep longing for roasted root vegetables, soups, and stews made with hearty ingredients and speckled with the still vibrant colours of the season is causing me to flip through old recipe books. With the holidays around the corner, I look forward to celebrating with candied walnuts and roasted , butternut squash ravioli, Brussels sprouts glazed with maple and bacon, and potatoes au gratin made with a nice, sharp Ontario cheddar and layered with caramelized leeks.
One thing you may not realize is that most of those dishes can be made exclusively with local Ontario products. Yes, even the walnuts can be foraged locally, although this is quite the process and will involve almost permanently stained hands. We may live in the frozen north, but the bounty of the harvest, the fresh flavours of the farmers market can be had well into the winter. It is a lot easier then you think to celebrate a locavore Christmas, and many farms offer seasonal winter CSAs that let you buy directly from the farmer. Many vegetables are actually improved by frost; the plants protect themselves by turning starches into sugars, which acts as a kind of natural antifreeze and contributes to a fresher, sweeter taste.
For many of us in Canada, the seasonality of food has been lost in the bounty of globalized food production. Walk into your typical grocery store chain, and you will see a cornucopia of fresh fruit and veggies. Perhaps never before in history, abundance is the norm for many people and we take for granted the availability of produce at all times of the year. What used to ebb and flow with the changing seasons, can be shipped from all corners of the earth. That strawberry airlifted from Chile may not taste the same as the one picked at the height of summer down the road, but beneath the florescent hum of the supermarket lights, an endless, artificial, seasonless bounty tempts us with allure of choice.
There are many reasons to eat seasonally, but what I want to focus on here, is the joy of creativity that comes with limitation. Don’t get me wrong, I love my chocolate, coffee, and imported spices, but something happens along the way when the meals you make are broken from the natural cycle of seasons. You lose something that our ancestors had to contend with: how to preserve the bounty of summer for winter. I know what you’re thinking: why look towards the past, when people often starved because of food shortages and had to subsist on meagre rations of potatoes and turnips? Surely our modern food system has come a long way to providing healthy choices? And yes, in many ways this is true. But some things have been lost along the way, and the flavours that emerge from those limitations, from the natural cycle of the seasons and the ancient and venerable arts of fermentation, are perhaps one of the biggest casualties of the global, industrial food system.
With limitation comes creativity and innovation, and without a doubt, the discovery of fermentation is perhaps one of the greatest moments of civilization. Think of some of your favour foods: bread, wine, cheese, coffee, chocolate, beer, yogurt, tempeh, miso and cured meats. None of these would be possible without the limitations imposed by the seasons. All of these emerged out of the necessity to preserve food without the benefit of refrigeration. With food waste such a major problem around the world, fermentation can help preserve the harvest while revealing a whole new world of flavour and health.
To the modern pallet, fermentation has a certain ick factor, and yet it is very much part of a healthy food system. Many of us have heard of the numerous benefits of probiotics in the form of yogurt. They can aid digestive health and provide access to nutrients that are otherwise inaccessible. Fermentation, at its most basic, is a process of encouraging the development of certain bacterial strains and microorganisms (such as fungi) that aid in the preservation of food through the creation of alkaline environments not suitable for organisms that are harmful to humans. Fermentation organisms produce alcohol, lactic acid, and acetic acid, all of which act as bio-preservatives that were historically prized for their ability to extend the shelf life of foods. Milk, for example, will spoil incredibly quickly without refrigeration. But add the right kind of bacteria, keep them somewhat cool in a cave or cellar, and voila, not only do you have something that can keep for years, a whole new culinary milestone is revealed.
As with many foods, the process of fermentation also releases the nutritional power of food. Fermenting milk can make it much easier to digest. Lactobacilli transforms the lactose in milk into lactic acid, and in the process makes it much easier to digest. In a sense, fermentation is a form of pre-digestion, and in the case of many starches, grains, and vegetables, the availability of nutrients is significantly increased through the process of fermentation. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, traditionally fermented foods offer many benefits in terms of health, improving social and cultural wellbeing, and improving food security.
The Korean national dish, Kimchi, is perhaps the poster child of the benefits of fermentation. This pungent combination of cabbage, radish, garlic, ginger and peppers is eaten with every meal in Korea, and research is showing it to have major effects including: “anticancer, antiobesity, anticonstipation, colorectal health promotion, probiotic properties, cholesterol reduction, fibrolytic effect, antioxidative and antiaging properties, brain health promotion, immune promotion, and skin health promotion.” Many point towards Kimchi as a superfood and below you will learn how to make your own.
Many foods, like pickles, are now produced with standardized strains of bacteria or utilize vinegars and pasteurization to increase shelf-life. This process destroys many of the bacteria responsible for providing the very health benefits you may be seeking in the food. Once practiced by households as a normal part of getting ready for winter, the skills associated with home fermentation are being rapidly lost. The good news is that these skills are fairly easy to learn and can help transform your relationship to food in so many positive ways.
At the Halton Food Council, we believe that learning how to grow, cook, and transform your food can have positive effects on your self, the community and the environment, and so we regularly hold workshops that focus on gardening, canning, and fermentation. Follow this link for a detail step by step process for making sauerkraut and kimchi and consider joining us at a future event.