It tells the story of how cooking has shaped the evolution of man from the very beginning. Was it the discovery of cooking by our early ancestors, and not making tools, or language or meat eating that set us apart from apes and made us human? According to some of the hypothesis ‘cooked’ food altered the course of human evolution as it provided our forebears with an energy rich, easy to digest diet that allowed our brains to grow bigger and our guts to shrink. It seems that raw food takes much more time and energy to chew and digest, which is why primates similar to us have large, heavy digestive tracts and spend up to six hours a day chewing... Cooking allowed humans to devote their time, and metabolic resources to other purposes, like creating a culture.
Cooking also brought about occasion; of eating together at a certain time. Prior to this it was a hunter gathering affair, likely enjoyed alone as you searched for food. This new meal time occasion served to civilise us.
The chapter that was most fascinating to me was the one about fermentation, and its benefits. Before tins, fridges or freezers, fermentation was the main way that people preserved food. With the earliest methods being pits dug into the ground, lined with leaves and filled with vegetables, meat, fish, etc. The earth kept the temperature low and contributed microbes; lactofermentation would begin within days and eventually produce enough lactic acid to preserve the food for months, sometimes years.
Lactic acid ferments that you would know today include sauerkraut, olives, pickled vegetables, kimchi, live yoghurt, cheeses and sourdough bread. Fermenting food not only extends their shelf life; it can also create entirely new nutrients and intensify flavours
The theory goes that our diet has changed so much that we are missing out on these live bacteria and nutrients that historically kept us healthy, under a regime of ‘good sanitation’ they are now washed off, boiled out of, or removed entirely from our food. Nine out of ten of the cells in our bodies are not human but microbial; and they need living food. Your gut needs these cells to stay healthy, they can be credited for all kinds of things from better digestion, reducing inflammation and therefore depression, boosting your immune system and preventing cancers of the digestive tract.
Historically your milk wasn’t pasteurised, neither was your cheese, your beer and wine were home brewed and contained live wild yeasts, you pickled, preserved and fermented food, all filling your immune system with lovely healthy live bacteria, keeping you fit and strong. It just seems to make a lot of sense to me; I might become a live food bore!
On my fermentation ‘to do’ list I have homemade yoghurt and saukraut to try, but I started with Middle Eastern Fermented Turnip and Beetroot, and a Lacto Fermented Butternut Squash. I realise these don’t sound the most glamorous of recipes, but they are delicious; with potted meats, cured meats, pates, diced into salads or as a crunchy snack.
Middle Eastern Turnip and Beetroot
In a pan, heat about 250ml of water, then add 70g salt and bay leaf, stirring until the salt is dissolved. Remove from heat and let it cool to room temperature. Then once cool, add 250ml of white wine vinegar and 500ml more water.
Cut 1kg of turnip and a small beetroot into batons, about the size of skinny fries. Put the turnips, beets, and 3 cloves of sliced garlic into a large, clean jar, then pour the salted brine over them in the jar, including the bay leaf. Cover and let sit at room temperature, in a relatively cool place, for one week. They are then ready to serve.
They keep for several weeks, turning a lovely bright pink colour with a good crunch. Serve them with cold meats, cheese, pates and terrines or chopped into salads.
Lacto fermented Butternut Squash
Peel the raw butternut squash. You need about 700g to fill a large mason jar. Leave a small section of squash unpeeled so that you can include it at the top of your ferment. Make a brine by dissolving 1 tablespoon of salt into 500ml of room temperature water.
Cut the peeled squash into batons. Place the peeled and chopped squash into a large jar. Add the unpeeled pieces of squash to the top and pour brine over the whole thing.
After five days of fermentation, your squash will be ready. Keep in the fridge.