Fermentation workshop @ Silo, Brighton: Monday 25th May / 6.30PM.

On Monday, May 25th @ 6.30pm, Silo and Octopus Alchemy are teaming up to deliver a food-fermentation workshop. Come along and seize your chance to gain loads of great practical knowledge on fermentation and the incredible healing properties of live food, and also learn some about the history and context behind the demise of traditional foods and practices like fermentation in the industrialised world.

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Fermentation in action @ Foodshed, Brighton.

You’ll get the opportunity to do some creative hands-on fermenting at the restaurant, with ingredients sourced by us depending on their season and availability. You get to take home a batch of whatever is made too, with the rest being served up at Silo once it’s fizzing suitably some weeks later.

Alongside some other wild ferments (sauerkraut / saueruben) and beverages (sweet potatoe fly), specifically this week we’ll be looking at an authentic recipe for kimchi: the potent Korean staple that has become a global fascination (check out an amazing introduction to kimchi, here). True to the principles of localism and sustainability, we’ll also look at adapting the recipe to fit what ingredients are in season and more readily available to us. Further, Nick Godshwa from the Old Tree Coop will be providing a short introduction and demonstration of the fermented beverages, kombucha and kefir. 

Kimchi ingredients.

Kimchi ingredients.

The event runs for approximately two hours and is priced at £15 which should be paid in advance. There are some concessions available. The workshop is limited to twenty people, so please remember to book.

To book, please email octopusalchemy@gmail.com

If you have any spare jars knocking around at home, bring them in and make sure you get to take some of your creation home with you! Otherwise, any spare jars knocking around at home will be very welcome by the restaurant.

What to expect:

  • 40min introduction to the politics of fermented foods and their health benefits.
  • A short introduction and demonstration of the fermented beverages, kombucha and kefir by our friend Nick Godshwa at The Old Tree Coop.
  • Demonstration of four different ferments.
  • A chance to experiment with different versions of sauerkraut and kimchi in a practical exercise.
  • Take a portion home with you!
  • A chance to taste and buy some pre-made kimchi.
  • A bloody good time.
Explaining digestive tonics @ Silo, Brighton.

Explaining digestive tonics @ Silo, Brighton.

A little bit about your host: Octopus Alchemy is a social venture in Brighton that talks food-politics and traditional foods. It is run by Darren Ollerton: a food-activist, blogger and bodyworker living in Brighton. You can see testimonials about OA workshops here.

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Wild Fermentation – why it’s healthy and how to do it.

This blog post on fermentation is an excerpt from the Octopus Alchemy handbook on fermentation – you can access the full text here.

Fermentation:
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Traditional sauerkraut – salt n’ cabbage.

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.

The health benefits of fermented foods:
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Wonderful attendees of our workshops!

Ultimately, fermenting foods makes them more nutritious. In some cases, there arise entirely new and unique nutrients during the fermentation process. Fermentation is essentially a form of pre-digestion, it breaks food down into simpler, safer and more manageable forms that the body can handle. Long protein chains, fats and carbohydrates difficult for the body to absorb are broken down by the resident lactic acid bacteria: carbohydrates are converted into lactic acid and proteins are broken down into amino acids. Minerals are thus better absorbed. Eating fermented foods also encourages healthy acid production in the stomach, which in turn encourages better performance of the pancreas and liver and therefore secretion of essential digestive enzymes and bile. Further, most of the lactic acid ferments are acidic, but have a significant alkalizing effect in the body.

Fermentation also degrades toxic or undesirable substances in food – two prominent examples are cyanide in cassava and phytic acid, a particularly insidious anti-nutrient found in most grains (inhibiting the uptake of various essential minerals such as calcium, zinc, magnesium and iron). Oxalic acid, prevalent in leafy green vegetables also hinders the absorption of nutrients and is rendered partly innocuous through fermentation.

The Vitamin C content is also preserved in fermented vegetables, not to mention creating a whole http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/121-a276/host of B vitamins (folic acid, niacin, thiamin, riboflavin and biotin). The process of fermentation also brings forth an abundance of unique micronutrients: Sauerkraut for example contains micronutrients suspected to fight cancer, including isothiocyanates and sulforaphane. Not to mention the master detoxifying glutathione found in the liver. Slimy, strong smelly Natto for instance, a ferment of soy-beans from Japan, produces a unique beneficial enzyme called nattokinase of which the medical applications abound. But even more! Superoxide Dismutase, GTF chromium, phospholipids, digestive enzymes and beta 1,3 glucans – in short, fermented foods are small powerhouses of nutrition which promote a cascade of healing effects in the body that we’re just beginning to chart out and understand.

Wild Fermentation:
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Carrot, chilli, horesradish and garlic.

“Wild fermentation” is the technique of using and manipulating the bacteria already present in foods, to preserve and transform food into more readily digestible and therapeutic forms. Most fermentation processes rely on the complementary relationship and interaction between different forms of bacteria, yeasts and sometimes molds to bring about the desired effect / product. The most important and desirable bacteria in our ferments are the lactobacillaceae, which have the ability to produce lactic acid from carbohydrates. Other important bacteria, especially in the fermentation of fruits and vegetables, are the acetic acid producing acetobacter species[1].

Away from wild fermentation, other forms of fermentation may use a started culture, such as from whey, a product of raw milk. The practice of fermentation is widespread, and exists in every culture. It is one of the most important methods to process food. Today, no less than a third of what is eaten in the world is made via a process of fermentation. Many of these foods and beverages are extremely popular, although few people will consciously realize that fermentation processes are involved. But coffee, chocolate, vanilla, bread, cheese, wine, mean and beer, yoghurt, ketchup and most other condiments; vinegar, soy sauce, miso, certain teas, corned beef and pastrami, ham and salami are all dependent on fermentation.

Here are some examples of different fermented foods:

Products of lactic acid fermentation include: Sauerkraut, olives, pickled vegetables, kimchi, Russian kefir, Indian dahi, yoghurt, spice from the Middle East, Western cheeses and sausages, Egyptian laban and kishk, Greek and Turkish trahana, Mexican pozole, sourdough bread, Indian idle, dohkla and Khaman, Ethiopian teffinjera and Thai fish sauce.

Products of alkaline fermentation are less known. In alkaline-fermented foods, “the protein of the raw materials is broken down into amino acids and peptides; ammonia is released during the fermentation, raising the pH of the final products and giving the food a strong ammoniacal smell.

Most alkaline fermentations are achieved spontaneously by mixed bacteria cultures, principally dominated by Bacillus subtilis. Although in some cases, pure cultures can be used.

Products of alkaline fermentation include: African iru and ogiri, dawadawa, pidan and kenima; Japanese natto, Thai thua nao and pidan.

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Lovely, simple book on fermentation – buy it!

Wild fermentation is a very simple technique. Using good quality vegetables (preferably organic), salt and water, it doesn’t take an expert to produce the incredibly tasty and healing foods discussed above. By submerging the chopped vegetables in salty brine, you create an environment in which fungi and other oxygen-dependent organisms cannot survive. The saline environment also ensures that the lactic acid bacteria are given priority and develop. The bacteria that spur on the fermentation process are already present in the vegetables, lying dormant until the conditions are appropriate: moist, oxygen-free, saline and with easy access to nutrients in the plant material that have been sufficiently prepared and bruised.

Leuconostoc-mesenteroides-

L. Mesenteroides

The bacteria responsible for fermentation are wild strains of lactic acid bacteria that are already present on raw vegetables, including Leuconostoc mesenteroides, Lactobacillus brevis and Lactobacillus plantarum. These are halophilic (salt loving) anaerobic organisms, so they thrive in the oxygen-free saline environment that the fermenter has created. They immediately begin to feed on the sugars in the vegetables or fruit, and multiply. Emitting large amounts of lactic acid, which poisons and inhibits the growth of their competitors. L. mesenteroides flourish under all kinds of circumstances, such as salty, sweet, partly aerobic, low acidic conditions typical of the environment at the beginning of a fermentation. Like most other lactobacilli, L. mesenteroides convert these types of sugars into lactic acid, acetic acid and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide dispels any remaining oxygen from the ecosystem, so that the conditions are appropriate for the strict anaerobes, which prevent the plant material from loosing its color and decaying.

The ecosystem inside your fermentation vessel is where one type of bacteria succeeds another, and each species adapts to the environment in such a way that appropriate conditions are prepared for the next. Each successive species has a better resistance to the acid environment, until L. Plantarum eventually comes to dominate. The sheer amount of lactic acid in the resulting ferment gives the product a sharp sour taste. Essentially, L. Plantarum creates a very stable bacteriological regime, which has a very low pH and which means few other bacteria or pathogens can survive, therefore preventing spoilage and creating a very durable product.

Process and supplies.
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Basi earthenware fermentation jars.

Hygiene:

Some advanced ferments require sterilization of utensils to remove any probability of contamination or failure. But generally, don’t sweat it! Just make sure your work surfaces and utensils are cleaned with a mild (preferably natural) disinfectant. Remember, fermentation is an ages old technique, carried out in less than sterile conditions. The lactobacilli are a hardy bunch that will overcome many a bit of grime.

Water:

Most fermentation methods ask for water and salt. Modern day, urban water supplies are often contaminated with chlorine, which can inhibit the fermentation process. If you do not have a modern filtering system, or want to use bottled water, you can purify the water by bringing it to the boil so that the chlorine evaporates and then letting it cool.

Himalayan Pink Salt

Himalayan Pink Salt

 

Salt and brine:

Salt is a key ingredient in fermentation and care should be taken to acquire a good, wholesome product. Refined salt contains artificially elevated levels of iodine and may be stripped of its natural and abundant mineral content. Use a good salt like Himalayan pink rock salt for optimum effect, but any unrefined sea salt will do.

Leafy vegetables like cabbage, due to their high water content, can ferment in their own juice. However it is sometimes more appropriate to ferment other, tougher vegetables in a pre-made brine.

Below is a useful guide for salting quantities and ratios:

Dry-salt method (as used in Sauerkraut for example): 1.5-2% weight of veggies, or roughly 1.5 – 2 teaspoons per pound (15-20Grams per 1KG of vegetables).

Brine method – 5% to weight of water, or roughly 3 tablespoons per quarter of a gallon (1.13ltrs). (5% = 50 grams of salt in 1 liter of water).

Grains – 1.5-2% weight of dry grains, or roughly 1.5-2 teaspoons/pound.

As you progress in fermentation, you will learn that many recipes just require salt to taste. But the above is a good guideline to get you started. Although, after a few mistakes of our own, Octopus Alchemy advises that you weigh out the salt quantities to avoid disappointment! Of course some ferments take place without salt, however salt helps the process enormously (Some Indian ferments for example rely on oil to inhibit unfriendly bacteria), providing additional preservation, flavor and texture. To encourage a slower fermentation process, always use more salt, compared for instance, to a ferment you want to be ready in a short time. A brine can also be flavored with spices, with some having their own anti-fungal properties and bringing their own beneficial strains of bacteria to the mix.

Some salty facts:

  • By means of osmosis, salt extracts water from the vegetables. This helps create the watery environment for anaerobic bacteria to flourish.
  • Salt makes the vegetables crisper because it strengthens pectin (a structural polysaccharide in plants) and pectin-degrading enzymes are inhibited.
  • Salt reduces the environment in which different bacteria can survive and give salt-tolerant lactic acid bacteria an advantage.

Measures:

1 teaspoon = 5 ml = 5 grams of salt

1 tablespoon = 15 ml = 15 grams of salt

 A simple fermentation process.
  1. Cut, scrape or grate the vegetables.
  2. Choose appropriate salting method: either salt to taste, dry-salt or brine the vegetables.
  3. Place vegetables in your chosen fermentation vessel (buckets, jars and crocks are widely used – but get creative!) and compress firmly until they are submerged beneath the brine and ensure that all oxygen bubbles are removed. Tap the vessel lightly on the table a few times to facilitate this process, or use a few chopsticks to enable bubbles to escape. If there is not enough brine in the vessel, top up with a brine solution at the appropriate ratio (see brine method above). In smaller vessels, like jars, you can use folded up vegetable leaves to act as a plug to keep the ferment underneath the brine. You can also use a boiled stone or glass weights to hold the vegetables down. In bigger vessels, you can use a wooden plug or plate. For anyone lucky enough to have their own traditional fermenting crock, these come with their own fittings to keep the ferment safe under the brine. Check that there is in each vessel a 2 and 4 cm gap between the juice and the rim (fermentation needs space).
  4. Place in an appropriate place at ambient room temperature, out of direct sunlight.
  5. Wait, test, observe and enjoy!
Lacto-fermented mayonnaise.

Lacto-fermented mayonnaise.

*Bruising and cutting the vegetables for more salting will ensure that the plant nutrients are rapidly available for resident bacteria to begin fermentation. Of course, brining methods sometimes involve merely submerging whole vegetables and then leaving them to their own devices – this is fine too! But may take a longer time to ferment.

*There will be a significant build up of CO2 in the fermentation vessel and it is wise to “burp” your vessel to release built up gas for the first few days at least. Take care when eventually opening your ferment to eat for this very reason.

 

Duration.

Fermentation is a cultural practice that developed fundamentally to preserve foods and ensure adequate nutrition for communities the year round. To that end, ferments can be left to fuse and bubble for the length of a season or more. However, most vegetable ferments can be eaten at 7-9 days and are wonderful at 20 days. Taste your evolving ferment with regularity to monitor its progress.

The process of fermentation is dependent on temperature. To warm an environment and the process will occur to quickly – and the ferment will have an inferior quality to one where the temperature is managed properly. Eventually, fermentation vessels will need to be moved to cool storage to slow down the process completely, and to preserve your vegetables for long periods. Knowing when it’s time to do that is all about investigation.

Leave your vessel in a place with an even temperature between 18 and 22° C for up to three of four days. After three of four days, consider moving the vessel to a cooler environment at around 15 – 18°C.

Purple kraut: cabbage, horseradish, ginger and carrot.

Purple kraut: cabbage, horseradish, ginger and carrot.

The fermenting vegetables will become lively and gaseous with CO2 bubbles easy to see in a vessel like a jar, or exploding onto the surface in a crock or container. The smell of the vegetables will also become pleasingly sour. After around 10 – 14 days, check the ferment for activity and smell – at this stage you might consider moving it into a cooler environment still, to slow down the process (under 15°C).

After three to four weeks – chances are the ferment will be reaching optimum acidity, and can be moved into cold storage (a refrigerator or larder below 10°C).

Alternatively, ferments can just be left to bubble for around 20 days at a stable room temperature, and will have reached a good acidity by 20 days and be either ready for consumption, or to be put in the fridge to keep for long periods. Whilst fermented vegetables can be eaten and enjoyed a week and even 20 days into the process, after 5 – 6 and even 12 weeks you will be left with a delicious product.

See what works for you!

Some people want to know when best to eat their ferments depending on when the bacteria content is at it’s highest. Lactic acid bacteria in fermented vegetables tend to follow a bell curve: “populations grow after vegetables are submerged, build to a peak, then decline at high levels of acidity”. The dominant species of bacteria also shifts as time goes on. The best approach in terms of consumption might be to tuck in to your ferment at different intervals to “diversify your bacterial exposure”.

Some basic guidelines and requirements for a lactic acid fermentation:

– A salt concentration of 0.8-2.5%

– A sealable fermentation vessel to restrict oxygen.

– A uniform starting temperature of 20-22 ° C for about 2 days for small glass jars and bottles and up to 10 days for large earthenware jars.

– A cooler temperature (15-18 ° C) for 10-14 days

– A storage temperature preferably below 10 ° C (frost)

Fungi and yeasts

Oxygen is counter-productive to the process of fermentation. To much oxygen in the fermentation vessel may mean that fungi appears on the surface of your ferment – this happens especially along the edges of open bowls or where vegetables come to the surface. Surface growth of fungi is common and normal – it is normally just fine to scoop the layer of fungi or mold from the surface to reveal a perfectly fine ferment underneath. Removing the layer of fungi will prevent it’s tentacles extending deep into the vegetables, and releasing it’s pectin and cellulose destroying enzymes, which may cause the ferment to perish. Preventing this from happening is all about being attentive to your ferments, using your senses and your common sense.

What can be fermented?

Fermenting vegetables does not end with Sauerkraut! Practically anything can be fermented, but of course there is some variation in taste and some things withstand the process better than others. The underlying principle to fermenting all vegetables is to create an appropriate environment for the process, which has already been discussed. Away from that, there is an incredible amount of variation. As Sandor Katz explains: “Some traditions wilt vegetables, either in saltwater brine or in the sun; others pound or bruise fresh vegetables. Some people ferment a single vegetable, while others mix a dozen different vegetables together, perhaps along with spices, fruit, fish, rice, mashed potatoes, or other additions”. This variation is not just limited to process but also to combination: a fascinating array of interpretations on taste and flavor stem from different cultural cuisines. The “Art of Fermentation” is a revival of different recipes from around the world, and an essential book for the kitchen – go get it! Incidentally, Wikipedia also do a fantastic list of fermented foods from around the world.

Mass Kimchi making!

Mass Kimchi making!

Ultimately, there really isn’t a vegetable that cannot be fermented but all will have different results. Cucumbers for example can go soft and soggy, as can summer squash – so it’s important to ferment them in small quantities / make them a minor addition to a combination of other vegetables. Chlorophyll rich plants (kale, collards etc) develop a strong characteristic taste, which will suit some people and not others. The most popular vegetables for fermentation are the tough and hardy kind harvested in the autumn.

Fermentation vegetable index.

Maybe try some of the vegetables below in your ferments and concoctions! And don’t limit yourself to what is available in the supermarket, or what is a product of agriculture. Get creative and forage some wild ingredients, which will bring great flavor and of course their own ecologies of wild bacteria to the mix. Even seaweed may be considered! But please be respectful when Foodforaging, don’t decimate the crop and tread gently on the land. Fermentation is also a great strategy for gleaners, dumpster divers, freegans and the like – pick over vegetables that have been cast out, cut out any mold and process them. Be careful with vegetables that come from establishments known for questionable food ethics, the pesticide / preservative content of vegetables may not bode well for a good ferment.

 Vegetables you can experiment with:

  • Root vegetables: sweet potato, daikon, celeriac, parsnips, radishes, turnips, beetroot, salsify, Jerusalem artichoke (The inulin content of artichokes, which can cause a lot of wind, is broken down very well by fermentation), carrot, parsley root, burdock root.

* Note that beetroot being so sugary can encourage a very yeasty ferment, and therefore quite a syrupy brine.

  • Flower-fruit vegetables: aubergine (fermentation gets rid of the bitterness), pickles, artichoke hearts, cauliflower, broccoli, cucumber, okra, sweet and crisp peppers / chillies, pumpkin, green and red tomatoes (tomatoes fermented can become very acidic and are considered a Jewish delicacy), cut and green beans.
  • Leaf-stalk vegetables: Kohlrabi, bamboo shoots, prickly pear, onion, cauliflower, chard, leeks, ramsons, fennel, chard steal.
  • Fungi ferment well too! Shiitake or any other mushroom can be added to a ferment with other vegetables for an interesting texture.

+ Fruits can be added to vegetable ferments too. Try adding applies, raisins, cranberries, wild berries, plums, quinces or dried fruit to sauerkraut for example. Even watermelon rind can be used.

For an extra crunch – throw some nuts in!

  • Condiments and spices: garlic, ginger and various spices such as juniper inlay, coriander, dill (fresh leaves and flowers, flower heads, dried seed), mustard and caraway seeds, star anise (with beets!), turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom (with cauliflower and carrots!), black pepper and sea salt; lemongrass and lime leaves.

* Some spices have an antifungal effect, and have their own healing properties. Get creative with your brining.

*Garlic is a popular seasoning; often it turns blue during fermentation, which is a reaction of the anthocyanin’s present, which reacts with the traces of copper in drinking water. Garlic is known not to preserve very well under oil because it may contain spores of the botulism bacterium. However, when garlic is under brine, there is no danger of botulism.

  • Fresh vegetables can be combined with bean sprouts or other sprouted legumes or with cooked products such as rice, other cereals, boiled or baked potatoes and purees, and even hard-boiled eggs.

Get creative, get excited and get fermenting!

 

To access this booklet in full click here – or just to see the next section of recipes, click here.

Glysophates and the microbiome – a recipe for disaster.

Monsanto Bully

Organic food is shrugged off by many people as the new ‘in thing’, amounting to some kind of fad for the health crazies.

It’s not – it’s just real food, produced without lot’s of chemical inputs and / or genetic modification. As close as possible to the way it should be.

‘Organic’ is not a perfect system by any means but it tends to produce a cleaner and better quality product. The fact that all of us don’t have access to safe, nutritious food in abundance is entirely political – it has nothing to do with scarcity, lack of resources or population and everything to do with the way our economy and society is managed.

Tinkering at any level of the food chain seems to have a cascade of detrimental effects for all involved. Talk of Monsanto and pesticides can feel like a far away threat to us in the UK – but there isn’t an environment, or individual for that matter that isn’t effected by glysophates: a major compound in Monsanto’s ’roundup’.

New research is emerging that shows how glysophate’s are impacting negatively on the human microbiome (the ecology of bacteria that resides in your gut) – with untold effects on the immune system, on cognition and on digestion in general.

You can’t stop this stuff getting inside you anymore, because it’s everywhere. But you can limit it by making better food choices. And where people can’t make those choices because of barriers like poverty, racism etc – well then, it’s time for us to get angry, and organize.

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.