Pickles changed the world as we know it argues Marah Koberle, as she looks into the history of preserving vegetables and how its discovery diverted the course of mankind.
What do Korean Kimchi, Swahili Acharia ya Maembe, German Sauerkraut, Ethiopian Njera or British Gherkins have in common? They are all different ways in which cultures across the world have over the centuries learned to preserve fresh fruits, grains and vegetables. The two most common ways to preserve fruits and vegetables before the advent of fridges and industrial packaging have always been pickling and fermenting. Foods that are pickled are preserved through acidity, for example vinegar, while products that are fermented are done so by inducing a chemical reaction between the natural sugars of the food and bacteria.
Both systems are at their core a form of allowing food break down and/or rot in a controlled way, in order to extend its shelf-life. It may sound borderline disgusting but the truth is that it is both delicious and nutritious. It is not hyperbole to state that pickles changed the world as we know it.
Between the 15th and the 18th century, sailors started to explore new trade routes, crossing the oceans in search of new territories to “discover”. Those journeys meant ships and their crew were travelling on water for months in a row, living on a diet that lacked in fresh fruit and vegetables. At times, whole ship crews fell severely sick: weakness, ulcers, spontaneous bleeding, swelling and pain in the limbs and even loss of teeth were common. A disease we today know as scurvy, which if untreated is fatal, could wipe out entire crews. Historians state that on some sea journeys which started with a crew of 2000 men, saw less than half that number survive the journey. Today we know that a lack of Vitamin C causes scurvy. Vitamin C helps the body to produce certain proteins and acts as antioxidant, helping to prevent cell damage in the body.
After experimenting with various remedies, it was found out in the 1750s that dietary changes are the key to prevent the disease and that was how sauerkraut, a simple German technique for fermenting cabbage with salt, found its way on the ships. It is said that when Captain James Cook left England for the South Pacific in 1768, he had reportedly had 7860 pounds of sauerkraut on board. Sauerkraut is both incredibly durable and very rich in Vitamin C. Through the fermentation process sauerkraut has more vitamin C than normal cabbage. By consuming sauerkraut regularly, the sailors could travel vast distances without falling sick, opening avenues for global trade and thereby changing the world as we know it.
Interested to find out more? The Permaculture Institute of Kenya occasionally runs fermentation courses. Visit their website on pri-kenya.org to find out about the exciting courses on this and more that they run.
Simple Sauerkraut Recipe:
You Will Need:
- 1 large glass jar
- 1 head of fresh white cabbage (alternatively go half white, half red)
- ¼ cup of caraway seeds
- 2 tbsp Salt
- Wash! It is important to clean all your utensils first so wash them well in hot soapy water and allow them to drain (do not dry them with a tea towel as you will be introducing a whole new bunch of bacteria to the mix).
- Chop! Finely chop or grate the cabbage and place it into a large (clean) bowl.
- Knead! Now comes the fun part: knead the cabbage with your (clean) hands. At first it might seem nothing is happening but after about ten minutes the cabbage will begin to wilt and a water will begin to leach out to the bottom of the bowl. Mix in the caraway seeds.
- Pack! Once the cabbage is nice and soft pack it tightly into the jar and pour over the juice from the bottom of the bowl. It is very important that the cabbage be covered in liquid so if there is not enough (although if your cabbage was fresh there should be) then mix up a little brine and top it up. Weigh Down! Use a whole cabbage leaf to weigh down the mixture and ensure it stays covered in the liquid (this will avoid it going moldy which is not your desired outcome).
- Ferment! Put your cabbage in a cool place out of direct sunlight and let the fermentation begin! Within a couple of days it should begin to ferment properly (bubbles are a good sign as it means things are getting active) and, depending on how tart you like it, it should be ready anything between ten day to two weeks.
- Refrigerate! Once the required tartness has been achieved (the longer you leave it the softer and more sour it becomes) then transfer it to the fridge where it will last for weeks on end.