The joy of fermentation

written by Noortje Giesbers based on her MSc thesis

Fermentation is a practice that has been around for ages, with the earliest archaeological finds dating back to 13.000 BC (Liu et al., 2018). It is a natural process provided by the microorganisms present on the food, they ferment the food through their metabolism (Katz, 2012). In the past, but also in the present does fermentation of food contribute to food security all over the world by enabling people to preserve food (Hesseltine & Wang, 1980; Quave & Pieroni, 2014). Many well-known and daily products incorporate a fermentation process, such as bread and beer. But also coffee, yoghurt, chocolate, wine, cheese and soy sauce, to name a few.

In the recent years, I got interested in fermentation, in the process and making my own foods. I shared this interest with a growing number of people. It got me my thesis topic: Motivations for home-fermentation in the Netherlands. From January till August 2021 and with the help of five experts and ten home-fermenters, I conducted this study. My fermentation knowledge and food technology background, as well as Satters’ hierarchy of food needs and the social practice theory helped me to understand the workings at play in the fermentation trend.

Fermentation might seem old-fashioned, but is more intertwined with modern day life than one would expect: it draws attention to craft food-making, taste, identity, and to traditional ecological knowledge put into practice to sustain microbiological ecologies (Flachs & Orkin, 2019). As Tamang et al. (2020) note: “The nutritional and cultural importance of these ancient foods continue in the present era.”. Lee & Kim (2013) state that fermented food is deeply rooted in the ways of life, the local environment, eating habits and deeply related to the produce, in different regions. So, when studying fermented foods, one is studying the close relationships between people, organisms, and food, since the practice of fermentation involves both biological and cultural phenomena, which simultaneously progress (Steinkraus, 1996). This can be showcased by kimchi, which is a part of culture and identity for Koreans, or fermenting fish is for the islanders of the Faroe Islands (Jang, Chung, Yang, Kim, & Kwon, 2015; Svanberg, 2015; Tamang et al., 2020). Yet, by some Dutch consumers, it has also become a part of their food identity, creating ways to lower their food waste, increasing flavour profiles, increasing their gut health.

Fermentation fits well with a more sustainable way of living, with a hedonistic approach to food and a healthy lifestyle, all often reasons to ferment for Dutch consumers. One of the experts noticed three groups of fermenters: those who ferment for the experimentation and flavour; for the health benefits; or to relieve health problems. A fourth group was mentioned by another expert: those who ferment to be self-sufficient. This motivation can stem from the distrust in the global food system and/or the lower ecological impact of growing your own foods. Each home-fermenter included in this study could be linked to one or more groups, following their personal reasons for home-fermenting.

The main motivations for home-fermentations are established, but how is this practice recreated in society? The social practice theory states that for a social practice to be reproduced, one needs three things (Hargreaves, 2011; Reckwitz, 2002; Shove, Pantzar, & Watson, 2012; Vermeer, 2018):

  1. The actual “Things” that compose social practices;
  2. Meanings, that provide the practice with direction; and
  3. Competence, to carry out the practices.

I propose the idea that by making ferments, sharing them, sharing knowledge (competence), starters (“things”) and ideas (meanings), one socially reproduces the practice of home-fermentation, spreading the home-fermentation practice and inspiring more people to home-ferment. By fermenting home-fermenters have enjoyable foods, but also encounter a lot of joy. Statements included enjoying working with foods and sharing the outcomes, as well as the practice. The feeling of accomplishment and being proud of making something yourself, like with other hobbies, is true for home-fermentation as well, as seen by this and other studies (Click & Ridberg, 2010; Murray & O’Neill, 2015; Sofo, Galluzzi, & Zito, 2021; Yarbrough, 2017). Home-fermenters are proud of their ferments and proudly share them too. Which also brings joy to those that they share it with, as acknowledged by an expert.

This liking of sharing ferments, how it can positively influence relationships was also noticed by one of the experts. It was found that fermentation can (re-)connect people, just like foods and other hobbies can do. By having a hobby to talk about and ferments and starter cultures to share, home-fermenters made new friends, reconnected to old ones, or strengthened their current friendships.

It is not uncommon, as sharing food with others has been observed not only to be enjoyed, but can also express creativity and care (Clair, Hocking, Bunrayong, Vittayakorn, & Rattakorn, 2005). Similarly, home-fermenters would prepare a certain ferment for guests later that week. Others share their starters, recipes, and tips & tricks; teach others and make it a fun activity. You could say that next to sharing the actual product of their practices, home-fermenters also share some of the “things” and competence.

To conclude, next to adding to health, sustainability and specific personal feelings, fermentation brings joy, above all else. So dear reader, if you would like to know more, find the full thesis via the link below. If you would like a starter or learn, I am happy to share and teach!

Cheers, Noortje

References

Clair, V. W.-S., Hocking, C., Bunrayong, W., Vittayakorn, S., & Rattakorn, P. (2005). Older New Zealand Women Doing the Work of Christmas: A Recipe for Identity Formation. The Sociological Review, 53(2), 332–350. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-954X.2005.00517.x

Click, M. A., & Ridberg, R. (2010). Saving food: Food preservation as alternative food activism. Environmental Communication, 4(3), 301–317. https://doi.org/10.1080/17524032.2010.500461

Flachs, A., & Orkin, J. D. (2019). Fermentation and the ethnobiology of microbial entanglement. Ethnobiology Letters, 10(1), 35–39. https://doi.org/10.14237/ebl.10.1.2019.1481

Hargreaves, T. (2011). Practice-ing behaviour change: Applying social practice theory to pro-environmental behaviour change. Journal of Consumer Culture, 11(1), 79–99. https://doi.org/10.1177/1469540510390500

Hesseltine, C. W., & Wang, H. L. (1980). The Importance of Traditional Fermented Foods. BioScience, 30(6), 402–404. https://doi.org/10.2307/1308003

Jang, D. J., Chung, K. R., Yang, H. J., Kim, K. S., & Kwon, D. Y. (2015). Discussion on the origin of kimchi, representative of Korean unique fermented vegetables. Journal of Ethnic Foods, 2(3), 126–136. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jef.2015.08.005

Katz, S. E. (2012). The Art Of Fermentation (M. Goodman & L. Jorstad, Eds.). White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Lee, J. O., & Kim, J. Y. (2013). Development of cultural context indicator of fermented food. International Journal of Bio-Science and Bio-Technology, 5(4), 45–52.

Liu, L., Wang, J., Rosenberg, D., Zhao, H., Lengyel, G., & Nadel, D. (2018). Fermented beverage and food storage in 13,000 y-old stone mortars at Raqefet Cave, Israel: Investigating Natufian ritual feasting. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 21(May), 783–793. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2018.08.008

Murray, D. W., & O’Neill, M. A. (2015). Home brewing and serious leisure: Exploring the motivation to engage and the resultant satisfaction derived through participation. World Leisure Journal, 57(4), 284–296. https://doi.org/10.1080/16078055.2015.1075899

Quave, C. L., & Pieroni, A. (2014). Fermented foods for food security and food sovereignty in the Balkans: A case study of the gorani people of Northeastern Albania. Journal of Ethnobiology, 34(1), 28–43. https://doi.org/10.2993/0278-0771-34.1.28

Reckwitz, A. (2002). Toward a Theory of Social Practices. European Journal of Social Theory, 5(2), 243–263. https://doi.org/10.1177/13684310222225432

Shove, E., Pantzar, M., & Watson, M. (2012). The dynamics of social practice: Everyday life and how it changes. SAGE Publications Ltd.

Sofo, A., Galluzzi, A., & Zito, F. (2021). A Modest Suggestion: Baking Using Sourdough – a Sustainable, Slow-Paced, Traditional and Beneficial Remedy against Stress during the Covid-19 Lockdown. Human Ecology, 49(1), 99–105. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10745-021-00219-y

Svanberg, I. (2015). Ræstur fiskur: Air-dried fermented fish the Faroese way. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 11(1), 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13002-015-0064-9

Tamang, J. P., Cotter, P. D., Endo, A., Han, N. S., Kort, R., Liu, S. Q., … Hutkins, R. (2020). Fermented foods in a global age: East meets West. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, 19(1), 184–217. https://doi.org/10.1111/1541-4337.12520

Vermeer, A. (2018). Enacting social practices of food: performing food and nutrition security (Wageningen University). Retrieved from https://edepot.wur.nl/450868

Yarbrough, E. (2017). Kombucha Culture: An ethnographic approach to understanding the practice of home-brew kombucha in San Marcos, Texas (Texs State University). Retrieved from https://digital.library.txstate.edu/bitstream/handle/10877/6756/YarbroughElizabeth.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y