Itsu: Food oasis or dangerous mirage?

Itsu

Eat, beautiful.

Some months ago, Itsu opened in Brighton. Apparently, the opening was a red carpet affair, inviting food writers and local businesses from around town to gorge upon their novel food stuffs and to mingle, network and whatnot. Of most reviews of Itsu I can find, they are mostly reproductions of the menu on offer (which for a fast food store, is undoubtedly impressive) – but other substantive reflections on the venture are noticeably omitted. In fact, the trend of reporting on Itsu borders on the sensational – whether celebrating the entrepreneurship of Julian Metcalfe, CEO and co-founder of the ubiquitous ‘Pret’’ or applauding the array and craft of exotic treats on offer. Itsu has fast become a veritable takeaway Eden in a nexus of otherwise stale, dull and redundant alternatives.

I nipped in to Itsu quite unconsciously a few months back. Not really taking the experience in I ordered a ‘detox miso’ and slurped it whilst jogging on to the next event. I mean, I definitely wasn’t expecting anything too robust, with any kind of live ecology or anything – but I do remember a kind of treasure-hunt glee, digging past my fragrant soggy dumplings into its misty depths to reveal a sparkling wormery of glass noodles and seaweed entrails. Obviously, I didn’t touch the soybeans – that’s like dropping marbles into the gut. But nevertheless, much like Will Self’s first time – I felt soothed and satisfied. Like I’d stumbled on a little food oasis in the middle of dessert-storm.

Afterward, I was determined to do a little reading around Itsu. Despite the mirage of rhetoric around health and complete overkill of the phrase ‘eat beautiful’, I resisted its manicure and allure to remember some politics. Health in the context of chain stores is a complete misnomer after all: whether that’s about individual health, health of the producers that support it, the staff that work it, the animals that stock it or the environment that sustains it.

Armed with a litany of reasons why Itsu was just another corporate monster, set to gobble up the planet, I ventured out once again to sample its Asiatic delights. Doing so, in full knowledge that my resolve could crumble at any moment, faced with what equates to my soul-food: Sushi.

The day had been a testing one by all accounts, so wondering into Itsu off the damp and raucous North Street was disarming – you’re suddenly propelled into a sharp, glassy, neon cube; ‘world music’ spinning in the background and hanging bamboo-style lamps down-light smooth wooden islands, topped with familiar Asian-eatery condiments. Looking around at the clientele, young hipsters with over-sized specs and pale complexions, I felt suddenly transported into a kind of sci-fi sushi shop – living out the strange feeling of reading my own experience in a copy of ‘all tomorrows parties’.

After cruising the brightly lit cooler spanning the left hand wall of the shop, and the array of uniform and very deliberately looking nutritious treats, I went for an ‘Itsu Best’. I approached the counter and the beleaguered looking serving person with my prize, and almost automatically, splurted out: ‘oh, and a detox miso too’. I asked the person on the counter about pasteurization; whether the miso had its proper ecology of bacteria live and present (the sachets of powdered miso on sale at the counter suggested otherwise). They didn’t know – neither did the ‘expert’ chef behind the McDonald’s style servery.

I tried hard to maintain a critical gaze when sat down, eyes scanning suspiciously: an inner snort at Itsu’s ‘raw smoothie’ machine cashing in on the middle class obsession with ‘toxin busting’. But I began to soften. I cracked open the dead(?) ‘miso’ which was a basic clone of my one before it – nothing astray, nothing different. My plate of sushi too, was tasty: surprisingly so. Not a grain of rice out of place: a white and fleshy rainbow manufactured with precision. At under a tenner, the toasted sesame infusion on that rice just shouldn’t be so good. Neither should the tastes be so clean and present, the experience so ready and fresh. The salmon of course was a translucent pink perhaps too feeble to pass Itsu’s own panetone colour test – but dipped in the salty single serving of soy and sharp wasabi, it can be easy not to care.

And that’s the alarming significance of eating at Itsu – the ease at which the entrancing charm of a well styled brand, the infallible (violent?) uniformity and the call to health can fuse to create an impenetrable mirage. Eat now, ask no questions later. But there are questions to be asked of Itsu’s model – it’s cheap (too cheap) and fast paced, but still keeps up an appearance of grace, beauty and the extraordinary. Essentially it’s a metaphor for the food economy at large – bright, booming and plentiful on the surface, but without mention of the vast externalities it creates. Not a hint to the cascade of effects on workers, producers, our health and the environment at large.

To take just one example – Itsu’s salmon is farmed in Scotland. Scotland is the world’s second largest salmon producer, and exports have grown 500% in the past 20 years – making up 40% of Scottish food exports overall. The industry, set to serve the plates of an expanding middle class in China, is to expand 50% by 2020. Itsu imports 9 tonnes of salmon a week – determined in their literature that this makes more ecological sense than depleting wild fish stocks. However, the implications on wild fish stocks and the ocean ecology in general are astounding – wild Atlantic Salmon in particular are facing extinction because of diseases and parasites leached into the ocean from intensive farming operations. Farmed salmon themselves experience dire conditions: infectious diseases, sea lice infestation and mass mortality abound – conditions which are only set to worsen, with sea lice threatening to spiral out of control. It’s like the ocean equivalent of the plague of flesh eating zombies – but everyone would much sooner deny any problem exists. Itsu won’t even declare what these sea creatures eat. Apparently it’s legitimate and safe according to some bureaucrat. I’ve heard that before, haven’t you?

Intensive Salmon farming - destroying our oceans.

Intensive Salmon farming – destroying our oceans.

The nature of a business model like Itsu’s is both to expand, and buff up their bottom line – already they are set to conquer the American high-street. Their success will depend on a dictatorial line with producers and staff to ensure peak-performance and output at low-cost – totally out of touch with what human and animal resources, or the environment can afford. Indeed, for all its chiqué exterior and futuristic charm, it’s merely McDonald’s with a wasabi-coating – intent on fluffing the externalitiies of their trade and with a keen and predatory sense of their target audience.

Will Self, in typically acetone style, got the problem of Itsu in just a few lines: ‘that food should be subject to the most ruthless commoditisation under late capitalism is only to be expected, but that we should for one second allow ourselves to enjoy it is a miserable and gut-wrenching experience’ – And yes, I’m inclined to agree. But even critically loaded the mirage can be hard to deconstruct. This is about more than better informed consumer choices. Reducing the reliance on convenience means restoring our right to freedom and time – time to re-engage with our personal nourishment and its nuances, from plant to plate. In short, a new way of life for us all.

The question is, do Self’s ‘keyboard riflers’ and quick fix health connoisseurs, in fact any of us, have the appetite for this yet? My view is that it will take a collective interest in a menu for change much more subversive, one that offers potential beyond the lunch hour limits of ‘Itsu’s Best’ before we’re all ready to put our throwaway chopsticks down.

Helmston: A tiny tuck-shop packing a punch of taste.

Helmston is a small vegetarian eatery on the boundary of the North Laine in Brighton – an unassuming little place on the outside, you’ll miss it for some of the more superficially chique, but predictable cafes on Trafalgar Street if you’re not careful.

Tiny Tuck Shop Packing A Punch.

Tiny Tuck Shop Packing A Punch.

This bountiful little trove has been trading for around 7 months now – growing from its humble beginnings as a food stall on Gardner Street’s Saturday market, it’s now tightly packed into a decorative sandwich-bar-style venue, and doing what looks like a good business. The punters who drifted in off the street seemed to know Jazz, the lovely counter man by name – which is always reassuring. Good eats make good community. My mate was already sat munching in the corner – she’s Israeli, knows life and gets food. It was a good sign.

The charming but pokey little venue is dripping in beautiful little oddities: hanging faux-wall lamps made of kitchen utensils, a rolling pin fixed as the door handle and hyper-colour menus draping the limited wall space promote a multitude of vegan / vegetarian fare that seems almost impossibly diverse and plentiful in a space so small. A small shelf in the corner boasts a wonderful selection of raw honey – some sourced in and around Sussex. With spices on sale such as sumac from Palestine: a fizz of a herb, that is tart, zesty and invigorating – apparently good for chicken dishes. In the background ‘chef Andy’, the progenitor of this exotic little tuck shop whistles cheerfully along to the radio as he tends to each meal by order in what looks like an immaculately polished kitchen.

Fun food and novel window displays. Very Brighton.

Fun food and novel window displays. Very Brighton.

But what about the food and beverage? On recommendation as a first-timer, I went with the ‘gado-gado’ (yum-yum) described as ‘hot saute potatoes with spinach, beansprouts, peanut-sauce, broccoli, coriander, tamarind, lime, chilli and more’. And what a recommendation! Served in a quaint little wooden-bowl, it was an opulence of flavour, perfume, colour and texture. Every mouthful was a variation on the one before: a literal firework display of sweet banana and pomegranate, complimenting the more earthy accompaniments of sprouts, spinach, brocolli and peanut – all carried by a kind of dark and rusty undertone of tamarind and pepper and excited by a bite of lime and popping of sumac. It made me sweat pleasingly – not so much from the heat, but from the startling complexity of flavours and texture that made me think ‘how the bloody hell can I put words to this?’.

Indonesian Lushness. Taste Explosion. Legendary Eats.

Indonesian Lushness. Taste Explosion. Legendary Eats.

Then on to the cakes – Jazz on the counter gave me a brief run down of the cakes and pastries on offer before I chose (most of them dairy and gluten free and some savoury too!). I’d reiterate the options, but was so lost in the visuals that I’ve forgotten the body of what he put across. Eventually, I decided on a spelt tart of rhubarb and custard and a raspberry, coconut and chocolate ‘bon-bon’.

Now you know what to do with your redundant kitchen bits. Very Marwood-esque (insider observation).

Now you know what to do with your redundant kitchen bits. Very Marwood-esque (insider observation).

For me, a more traditional grain used in baking shows consciousness and artisanship that encourages my trust as a wary participant in sweet and baked goods (damn food sensitivities). So I was pleased to see spelt used for the tart pastry – and the result was a predictably light, gentle but texture-ful case boasting a buttery summer-glow. The spelt basket was filled with a light custard that to be any more potent would have suggested some artificiality, and topped with a few delicate slithers of pert and cheeky rhubarb that had me sucking my teeth. The little bon-bon was encrusted in a jewelled-pink coconut coat, which when crisped open revealed a sunny yellow center – taste wise: sweet coconut with a hint of rose, which the silk and bitterness of the chocolate tempered well.

Drinks? I had a wheatgrass shot with ginger to begin with – great combination which softened the harshness of the wheatgrass and made me feel super-green. And in the end I finished with a coffee, with hemp milk (God I love Brighton), which was a pleasing finish and sent me well on my way.

Only pink shards remain. We hope Helmston will let us show you some food photos soon - but visit their facebook page in the meantime, it's all there!

Only pink shards remain. We hope the Helmston will let us show you some food photos soon – but visit their facebook page in the meantime, it’s all there!

Overall, smashing little place, intoxicating food and priced well for its location (you can eat well for £5.50 and if you have a tenner, you’re living the dream). Chef Andy wishes to maintain an “air of mystery” around the delights flowing from his kitchen and was a bit sensitive about pictures. To feast your eyes, you’ll have to feast in person. And we reckon that all things considered, that’s not such a bloody bad thing 😉

I asked Jazz about their supply chain ethics and organic considerations before leaving – he gave me his email! I’ll report back.

Overall Octopus Alchemy rating: 9/10

Visit the Helmston’s facebook page here.

 

 

MissChu takes a tumble – Xin Chao saves face.

Today was a London day jumping through hoops for a planned trip to the food-paradise and land of spices, Kerala later in February. After the necessaries were completed, it felt time for a return to MissChu’s Vietnamese in Aldrich East for some signature sashimi rice-paper rolls and memorable Pho.

Upon landing at the venue I felt slightly disoriented, as in the place of MissChu a stripped-back little Vietnamese had taken it’s place. We sauntered in anyway in search of at least an echo of the simple freshness, tang and service that made MissChu a welcome taste-escape in the big smoke.

We loved the orange / murky green colour scheme.

We loved the orange / murky green colour scheme and interior – it will take a while to feel lived in again though.

Unfortunately, it looks like MissChu has fell upon hard times down-under in Sydney, where the company has gone into voluntary administration and had to lay off quite a few staff. Determined entrepreneur Nahji Chu set up MissChu in 2007 and expanded pretty successfully to Melbourne and London. Her inspiring back-story of a stay in a Thai refugee camp, after fleeing the communist Pathet Laos Regime in 1975, to her ascent to “Queen of rice paper rolls” in Australia with a busy little empire in Sydney, and her satellite operations in Melbourne and London, made her a popular hit with the press. Whom in turn are treating the demise of her Sydney based operations with an unrelenting scrutiny. Defiantly though, Chu insists she’ll make a comeback and is trading through voluntary administration – the new outfit in London seems to remain related to the Chu empire (at least that’s what the lovely serving bloke said) and retain it’s approach to the cuisine on offer.

On arrival, you could definitely feel a little of this anxiety in the air (pertaining perhaps to new management / pressure) – the staff looked a little flustered and there were a few things on the menu unavailable. Nevertheless, the guy at the counter was committed to the food and we purchased a vegan Hanoi curry, tiger prawn rice paper rolls and vegan Pho.

The rice paper rolls were unfortunately very disappointing: the freshness was lacking and the ingredients were dull and cumbersome. I did hear one of the staff mention someone had popped out to Tesco – this got my goat slightly, and probably explains some of the dullness in flavor and quality. My last experience of rolls at MissChu’s was great – they were alive, felt wholesome and packed a good combination of zest, body and crunch.

The Pho though met expectations. For a vegan stock it felt robust and reassuring – with a mushroom base, and great tones of cinnamon and after-bite of a maybe-tamarind. It had a wine-like quality and played host to a good blend of bok-choi, beansprouts, carrot and mushroom – with a few cheeky chilli’s littering the surface that kept a nice little glow at the back teeth for the length of the eat. The noodles felt silky, were slippy and were slurped appropriately. Good stock is hard to find and independents usually do it best: in the mainstream, Pho’s can be good. Wagamama’s, usually bland and empty.

If you want to know if care is taken around stock, ask staff about it – if their face lights up when they talk about it, (which was the case for the manager of Xin Chao) it’s probably good.

Vegan Pho - Wonderful broody stock, with a comforting cinnamon and tamarind aftertaste. Lime over lemon any day though.

Vegan Pho – Wonderful broody stock, with a comforting cinnamon and tamarind aftertaste. Lime over lemon any day though.

My better half had the Vegan Hanoi Curry – his recommendation: “One of the best currys I’ve had outside of south-east Asia – I enjoyed every mouthful”.

One of the best my other half has had, apparently.

One of the best my other half has had, apparently.

On the house we had green tea with toasted brown rice. Grounded us well it did, before heading off back into the city.

Grounding and welcome.

Grounding and welcome.

Overall, not bad. We were happy. But guys – lime next time please! Octopus Alchemy Score: 7/10

Next!

Next!

 

 

The ugly mirror of Foie-Gras. A ‘taste’ we can do without.

This morning I awoke to my notoriously difficult to shake habit of reaching for my phone and scrolling my facebook feed. By all accounts, my feed is full of interesting and challenging stuff in equal measure and this morning was no exception: Today I came across a posting by a friend about Foie-Gras with the caveat “This is to horrid not to share” – she wasn’t wrong.

The web-storm of commentary on Foie-Gras comes after a federal judge struck down the ban on serving it in California.

Foie-Gras is a grotesque industrialised form of animal farming, to produce a delicacy savoured in the West as a profound eating experience. So profoundly sensuous that the roundup of views from the outpourings of food critics resemble the kind of poetic testimony you’d expect of people having some transcendental experience. The taste of Foie-Gras is ‘soul-ful’; an ‘indisputably delicious’ taste that privileged Westerner’s just can’t do without. And won’t.

The manufacturing of Foie-Gras is essentially a process whereby duck or geese are subjected to gavage, or force feeding, which makes their liver expand some 600% and which after slaughter is distributed to the tables of over-privileged food consumers the world over, who quaff with distasteful charm and an alarming arrogance about the heavenly status of this hellish commodity.

I don’t think I need to reiterate the specifics of the actual physiological harm brought about by a force feeding process, or the torturous reality of it either (enough of us have seen it’s application in humans to serve a violent and oppressive politics – that the production of Foie-Gras maps into the same matrix of oppression should be no peculiar thing). For those that need more convincing though, there are some further resources here and here.

But needless to say, the last 25 days fattening period of the birds sees the poor animals languishing in panic, in wire cages. The human reaction surely on looking at any industrialised process of animal agriculture is to feel instinctively the horror of that reality. With Foie-Gras, one empathises on such a base level with those creatures that the whole gut shifts uneasily, and the glove of our skin seems to shrink back from the heat of human-shame manifest by this abominable process.

 

In the short video above, one duck in particular, suffering what might be a ruptured oesophagus and broken beak, is rinsed down the front of its chest with blood and filth. I’ve tried a variety of words to impress the horror of this scene, but none of them seem to fit. But in that one trembling bird, who echoes the horror of every bird mercy to this grotesque fate before and after, there is a terrible mirror. Staring at that one duck, collapses the concepts deployed in our culture that keep us emotionally and spiritually detached from the living world around us; bringing our embodied experience as sentient beings, our biological and conscious commonality, to well up as a devastating realisation behind the eyes.

For a second, there is a glimpse of and opening to the violence that pervades our culture. Foie-Gras is a matter of taste. Taste as distinction maps onto the oppressive class structure of our society – between those who can distinguish and those who can’t, and those who have the means too and those who don’t. Quaffing about Foie-Gras has little to do with its culinary worth and everything to do with prestige and status. And it’s inexcusable that these animals are caught up in that vacuous dynamic.

The value of Foie-Gras and the sensibility to consume it only makes sense in a system profoundly ruptured from an embodied understanding of the symbiotic-reality of all life in our vast and intricate ecology. So ruptured, that all other life can be recognised only for it’s utility, and in the case of Foie-Gras – as some murky badge of honour to accompany a self-serving, unapologetic and narcissistic worldview.

This heavy delicacy of congested liver is a most profound metaphor for a perpetual ecology of anger in our society.

And it all comes at a cost I’d say, that is just to high to pay.

The human microbiome, Western medical ideology and the ‘end of food’.

This article is an excerpt from the full text of the Octopus Alchemy guide to fermentation.

Industrial farming in spain.In nature, biodiversity means vibrant and resilient ecosystems that flourish and evolve. The same principle extends to the human microbiome. Bacteria are one of the fundamental building blocks of all life on earth, indeed from where all life sprang forth. Our planet is a vast swarm of bacteria, all fulfilling vital metabolic functions and perpetuating the great cycle of life. As a human, you do not exist apart from this vast ecology – you are an essential part of it; a product of it, woven into its very fabric. Your every breath and interaction with the world around you is an incredibly complex exchange of cellular and bacterial information. To put things into perspective, the human body consists of about ten trillion cells, but harbors a hundred trillion bacteria and a vast array of different species, the majority of them found in the gut. Indeed, the genetic material of bacteria in the body outweighs human genetic bacteria at around 2 – 20 million genes to 20,000. This should surely give us pause for thought when we consider what it means to be human. What we know about the microbiome according to current and existing research:

  • We have a mutualistic relationship with the bacteria in our gut, a product of co-evolution.
  • The bacteria in our gut compete for territory and advantage, concerned with their own survival.
  • The presence of particular species affects the choices of foods that we eat.
  • They are also vulnerable to the kind of choices we make: some foods support particular strains, whilst being harmful to others.
  • The presence of some bacteria works to support the proper functioning of our metabolism and overall body-system – others inhibit it.
  • Bacteria even influence our brain functioning, altering neurochemicals that influence our behavior.[1]

Whilst the dynamics of these interactions are still being explored, one thing is clear: we owe a great deal to our symbiotic microbes. Maintaining / contributing to the diversity of your biome is an integral component to vibrant physical and cognitive health. Unfortunately, it seems as though life in the modern world is geared as a fully-fledged assault on this precious resource. A number of factors drive this assault, but the prominent themes seem to be:

  • The dominance of the Western medical approach to illness and disease.
  • The wholesale commodification of food.

The dominance of Western medicine, or “Biomedicine”.

The dominant Western medical perspective, or biomedicine, is based on a kind of biological determinism. Disease causation is understood as some biological pathology at the cellular level and interventions are usually crudely staged at that level, via pharmaceutical treatment. Whilst this approach is sometimes necessary, the indiscriminate use of pharmaceuticals, especially antibiotics, is having a very detrimental effect on health and wellbeing. Notwithstanding the overwhelming inhibitory effect pharmaceuticals have on metabolism in general, antibiotics in particular are intensely disruptive to our microbiota.

The biomedical approach.Consider that, after a dose of antibiotics “researchers have found that there are persistent, long term impacts on human intestinal micro-biota that remain for up to 2 years post-treatment”[2]. Albeit, the effect of antibiotics in humans varies: the composition and integrity of individual microbiota may ‘bounce back’ post treatment. Nevertheless, persistent use effects everyone sooner or later. Ultimately, bacteria and microbes, product of biomedicine’s monopoly and as a modern locus of illness and disease, have become viewed as something to be obliterated and exterminated. Our obsession with anti-bacterial creams and lotions, with disinfectants and sterilization emphasize this point. This assault on our microbial ecologies is having significant consequences; creating a competitive environment where strong strains of pathogenic bacteria, not kept in check by friendly microbes, flourish. The proliferation of killer bugs and antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria are a case in point.

Biomedicine and chronic disease.

The biomedical approach to illness and disease is not without consequence. For example, in the realm of chronic disease, which now account for over 60% of all deaths globally, the biomedical approach only seems to exacerbate problems. Whilst heart disease and cancer were rare at the turn of the century, they are today spiraling out of control. Despite efforts to control them via the typical interventions, they abound. Hypertension, IBS/IBD, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, heartburn/GERD, diabetes, osteoporosis and chronic fatigue have become a mainstay of the modern medical landscape[3]. Not to mention the increased frequency of all kinds of cognitive ailments such as anxiety, depression, dyslexia and autism etc. Illness and disease are clearly subjective, emotional, social, cultural, spiritual, political and environmental phenomena, requiring appropriate holistic interventions. A general sense of disillusionment with the reductive approach of biomedicine has grown since the 1980’s and there has been a concomitant surge of interest in alternative approaches that are more holistic in orientation and natural in their approach. For example, in 2005 between 10 and 23% of the adult population in Western European Countries and approximately 40% of a similar population in the US indulged in some form of alternative therapy[4]. This is not to say holistic approaches are always perfect in their approach. Indeed, whilst many holistic practitioners will treat individual conditions in a more patient-centered and natural way, they resist too critical a stance toward the social structure the client exists in. Health problems have significant social determinants – the corporate monopoly on food supply is one facet of that structure, to which we turn to shortly. That being said, nutrition and traditional food knowledge and preparation are not the panacea to health. But they are a solid foundation. Proper respect, practice and intrigue around wholesome food, traditional food knowledge and preparatory techniques serve as a gateway for real nourishment of the body, an awakening to the redundancy of current conceptions of health and disease and the unnecessary suffering perpetuated by the current system.

Capitalism and food.

In our increasingly globalized world, as communities and individuals, we are fundamentally losing touch with such basic sustaining principles in our lives. Food production and preparation once the essential hub of the community, is becoming increasingly alien to us in the West. We consume our food without any attachment to or knowledge of its production; we eat unprepared grains that are toxic to our system; we eat meats from animals farmed like objects in concentration camps, pumped full of steroids and antibiotics; consume dairy products stripped of their nutritional essence and gorge on confectionary loaded with refined sugars and an insidious host of immune inhibiting toxins. The stranglehold of massive food corporations concerned only with profit, demand the most hideous operations from their producers to keep production high and costs low. A toxic and de-natured food supply is the result. The dietary information you receive in the mainstream is completely at odds with the bodies base needs – The NHS in the UK for example promotes consumption of grains without proper preparation, advocates pasteurized dairy products which are robbed of vital enzymes and beneficial bacteria that make them tolerable to the human body and openly disputes the claims that GM (genetically modified) foods are linked to degenerative disease. Mainstream medical advice on nutrition increasingly reflects the interests of the corporations that have a monopoly on the global food supply.

The rise of the global food economy is the biggest threat to our health and environment: In the modern food business, traditional methods of food preparation are not viable in the manufacturing process: foods are amended and tinkered with in ways that only serve to sustain their durability and longevity, but which make them more intolerable and corrosive to our bodies and health. Frankenstien pathogens born out of the incubators of intensive feeding operations and industrialized packing and processing facilities, elude us through the cascade of global supply chains that have become the reality of our food economy. Further entrenching our fear of and reactivity to bacteria and microbes. Food companies exploit the fact that we have less and less time in the kitchen: “around thirty minutes a day, down from an hour in 1970”. Indeed by 2030, they project that “the ideal cooking time is forecast to be between five and fifteen minutes”. To that end they serve up a vast array of convenience products to shore up our beleaguered lives, captive of a system that demands work over life and profit over wellbeing.

Indeed, Sandor Katz in the brilliant “Wild Fermentation” alludes to this insidious project when he talks about “cultural homogenization: the standardization, uniformity and mass production of food”. He explains: “Mass production demands uniformity. Local identity, culture and taste are subsumed by the ever-diminishing lowest common denominator, as Mcdonald’s, Coca Cola, and other corporate behemoths permeate minds on a global scale to create desire for their products”[5]. This process, notwithstanding its impact on the quirkiness and beauty of local cuisines, is also pumping out products inimical to life – genetically tinkered with, laden with pesticides and subjected to all kinds of immune inhibiting additives. The corporate stranglehold on food is ushering in quite literally, what Paul Roberts calls the “end of food”[6].

A crumbling paradigm.

food-inc-poster-page2341Nevertheless, opinion is slowly changing. Research and insights on the importance of nutrition, of preventative approaches to health and disease and to viewing the body as a holistic system with specific needs and nurturing are taking hold. Not to mention a gradually more enlightened public on the grim reality of the global food economy. In particular, the link between antibiotics and deteriorating health, and a compromised immune system is now gaining traction in the mainstream media.

Recent research for example illuminates the quandary of the staggering number of food allergies emerging in the West: Individuals in the West harbor far fewer strains of bacteria in the gut than those from indigenous cultures and tribes in developing countries. Food allergies amongst such populations are radically lower than in the West (a mere 1 in 1500 suffers from an allergy). As aforementioned, chronic diseases are reaching epic proportions in the West – many of them linked to gut dysbiosis, leaky gut syndrome, intestinal yeast infections (candida albicans) and overburdened, toxic and congested livers.

What is required to stymie this crisis is a fundamental recalibration of how the cause of health and disease is conceptualized, and an associated challenge to the global food economy and the capitalist system in general. A movement is needed, to empower individuals to take back some control over their health and their quality of life, through a re-connection with their food and an understanding that true health is about equilibrium and harmony with our wider environment. This involves a truly holistic perspective – one aspect of this perspective is an understanding of the gut as center; a miraculously complex interface with our wider ecology and literally, the root of vibrant health and longevity.

The gut as center.

Interestingly, the gut in eastern philosophy is the storehouse of power and potential. For example, If you ask “a Zen monk, “From where do you think?” he puts his hands on his belly. When Westerners came into contact with Japanese monks for the first time they could not understand. “What nonsense! How can you think from your belly?”. Is it any surprise when, commonly referred to as the second brain, the gut or the “enteric nervous system” boasts around 100 million neurons, uses more than 30 neurotransmitters (the same amount found in the brain), and harbors around 95% of the body’s serotonin (serotonin plays an important part in the regulation of learning, mood, sleep and other essential regulatory processes). It enjoys a unique communicative relationship with the brain and is a primary interface with our external environment. It is also home to the largest colony of microbes in our bodies: a healthy adult on average carries around 1.5-2kg of bacteria in the gut. It has been estimated that around 80-85% of our immunity is located in the gut wall. The mucosal layer of the gut wall is a vibrant ecology of bacteria, and may be described as the right hand of the immune system: “If the bacterial layer is damaged or, worse than that, abnormal, then the person’s immune system is trying to function with it’s right hand tied behind it’s back”[7].

Research on probiotic therapy to restore or repair an imbalance of bacteria in the gut, is yielding very encouraging results for a whole spectrum of conditions: “Probiotics have been most definitively linked to treating and preventing disease of the digestive tract, such as diarrhea (including that caused by antibiotics, rotavirus and HIV), inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, and even colon cancer. They have been shown efficacy in treating vaginal infections. Probiotics have been found to reduce incidence and duration of common colds and upper respiratory symptoms and to reduce absences from work. They have been shown to improve outcomes and prevent infections in critically ill intensive care patients and improve liver function in people with cirrhosis. Researchers have documented efficacy of probiotic treatments to lower high blood pressure and reduce cholesterol, reduce anxiety, and increase CD4 cell counts in HIV+ children. There is evidence that regular probiotic consumption can reduce dental caries in children. In many other areas of human health, researchers are exploring theoretical applications of probiotics, including allergies, urinary tract infections, and the prevention of kidney stones, periodontal disease, and various cancers, even where little hard data yet exists”[8]. Fundamentally: “Probiotics may prove to be one of our most effective tools against new and merging pathogens that continue to defy modern medicine in the 21st Century” so says a review in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases[9].

Rebuilding or improving the levels of bacteria in our gut, and the integrity of the gut in general, may also be key to improving mental health. Indeed, McBride in “Gut and Psychology Syndrome” meticulously details the dynamics of the human digestive system and its essential link with the brain. Her work came out of successfully treating her son’s autism through a specifically tailored diet, aimed at healing the gut and restoring a proper ecology of bacteria there. McBride’s work is a worthwhile read, and totally turns the mainstream approach to mental health problems, on its head[10]. For Octopus Alchemy, McBride’s prescription for healing doesn’t make ecological sense – but nevertheless, her analysis is sound.

A debate rages about whether commercially developed strains of bacteria outstrip fermented cultures in terms of a therapeutic effect. It is unsurprising that little research has been done on the therapeutic effects of fermented foods – essentially, no one can turn a profit from a practice freely carried out in the home! However, Sandor Katz in the Art of Fermentation suggests that it is perfectly viable that the bacteria grown in home ferments are as beneficial and resilient as commercially produced strains. Indeed, what is more important is “variety, diversity and incorporating the bacteria native to different raw ingredients”[11] and I would add, the local environment.

What should be clear by now is that the integrity of our microbiome and our gut are cornerstones of health. It follows that, whether you’re dealing with mental health problems or physical problems, the first place to start is your nutrition. No one likes to hear this, because they think cleaning up their diet is too laborious, and will impinge upon their social life and leisure time. Of course, re-educating yourself about how to properly nourish your body is difficult. The reading and the food prep is time consuming. But your nutrition should be a joyous experience – slowing down and taking time to heal and properly support your body is a radical act, a form of resistance on the margins. It’s about taking back your autonomy and health from a system that promotes and sells you food and medicine harmful to your health for a profit, and which cares only about what you produce and how fast you produce it.

Fermentation:

Here’s where fermentation comes in: Fermentation is the transformation of food by various bacteria, fungi and the enzymes and acids that they produce. The power of fermentation has been harnessed throughout the ages to preserve foods. The other amazing offshoot being that fermentation also creates vibrant, living food that can be used as a powerful healing modality too, whilst reconnecting us with the ecology at large. Before there were cans, refrigerators and freezers, fermentation was the main way people avoided spoiling food. The earliest forms of fermentation took place in pits, lined with leaves and packed full of all kinds of food: vegetables, meat, fish, grains, tubers and fruit. The practice of fermentation is pre-history. It is difficult to ascertain how and where it began. Louis Pasteur is given credit for identifying and pioneering the science of microbiology in 1857. Before that, early cultures were experimenting with and enjoying the benefits of different ferments, without the intricate knowledge we have today.

You can download the rest of the document, with oodles of information on the philosophy and process of wild fermentation here.