Fermentation! It’s responsible for beer, for pickles, for kimchi and sauerkraut and relish. It’s all down to micro-organisms, present on the surface of the fruit and vegetables and in the surrounding environment, which enact what is essentially a controlled decomposition. (If this sounds a little gross, remember that many if not most of the marks of a sophisticated palate are a result of some form of fermentation – consider the cheese board and the wine cabinet, and possibly also Pickled Onion Monster Munch.)
The upshot is that kimchi made in one part of London will taste a little different from kimchi made across town; the specific microbes you get in one place versus another will have an influence on the flavour. There’s a strain of bacteria called Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis found in San Francisco sourdough, and I’m willing to bet that every London postcode has a slightly different microbial mash-up. I suppose I really started out in search of Lactobacillus peckhamryeis and Gluconacetobacter romanroadus, but of course there’s more to it than that. Fermentation is also about tradition, culture and creativity. Sophie, a journalist in Islington Green, makes preserved lemons thanks to an Israeli mother-in-law. They´re sour, salty and simple to make, and work like a dream in tagines.
Terry Glover, manager of the London Review Cake Shop in Bloomsbury, makes a truly ferocious kimchi packed with garlic, ginger, spring onions and fish sauce, which she uses liberally in her seasonal menus. Lee, who works in a community garden in Brick Lane, uses the medicinal herbs he grows in krauts and fermented drinks to boost the immune system and ward off colds. And Nick Vadasz, London’s original ‘Picklesman’, experiments with all kinds of seasonal vegetables, bringing new compounds to his South London market stalls every week. Pickled pears with fennel, rhubarb kimchi, and – my personal favourite, sadly no longer in season – tender local apples brined with blow-your-headoff scotch bonnet peppers.
It’s all well and good listing what’s in the mix, but the final flavour is much more than the sum of its parts. Nick puts it this way: ‘You start with what’s essentially a salad; all these fresh ingredients jumbled together. In the first few days of fermentation the flavours are bright and dissonant and distinct. Then after a week or so, the tones come together – the whole thing harmonises. It’s funny how the words for music come to mind here.’
Find Nick at Borough and Brockley markets (@VadaszDeli) and find Terry at the London Review Cake Shop (@LRBCakeshop), where she runs an annual Pickle Competition.