I’ve always loved the sour taste of my mum’s pickled cucumber, my Auntie May’s pickled onions (which packed one hell of a punch) and her mouth-puckering piccalilli. I’m hard pressed to find one which is such a vivid yellow or quite so tongue-tingling! While I grew up with these traditional British flavours, these days my palette has migrated its sour-taste loyalties to Korean kimchi, Chinese kombucha and creamy kefir, which originated in the Caucasus mountains. Earlier this year, I visited Ireland’s famous Ballymaloe Cookery School with Nourish chef, Andreas. One of the highlights of our trip was being shown around the fermentation room, which was packed with jars of fermenting vegetables and plants, from wild garlic to all sorts of cabbages, which were incredible to sample.
Fortunately, fermented foods like these are now widely available in supermarkets and delis, or you can make your own – see our recipes for Nourish Kimchi and Sauerkraut. It’s not just their flavour that has made them increasingly fashionable; it’s their ability to improve our gut health now and potentially prevent disease in the future. Fermented foods are rich in antioxidants and nutrients. Additionally, hugely exciting research suggests that by helping to balance and increase the ‘friendly’ bacteria in our gut, fermented foods can increase the diversity of our microbiome (the bacteria and other microbes that live in our body and outnumber our own cells 10 to one). The microbiome helps us to digest our food, protect against disease-causing bacteria, produce vitamins essential for our body to function and regulate our immune system. Imbalances in the microbiome have been linked to conditions including diabetes, heart disease, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, obesity and depression. So, a side of sauerkraut with roast lamb, a spoon of kimchi with avocado on sourdough toast, or a small glass of kefir a few days a week, can be a great addition to your diet.
If you haven’t eaten many fermented foods before, beware of overdoing it. As they affect the bacteria in the gut, you may find they cause gurgling and even cramping at first, so it can be wise to introduce them gradually. The high-fibre content of fermented vegetables, such as cabbage and cauliflower, can also trigger bloating. If you’re undergoing treatment that makes your gut feel sensitive or sore, you may need to wait until your recovery to tolerate and enjoy these fermented flavours. And if your immune system is compromised in any way – for example, if you have a low neutrophil count due to chemotherapy – then you’ll need to avoid fermented foods as they contain live bacteria that may cause you problems.
Otherwise, enjoy that sour, tangy, tongue-tickling flavour! Your taste buds – and your gut – will thank you.
A sauerkraut 'shelfie' in the fermentation room at Ballymaloe Cookery School