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.


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:

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:

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.


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.


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.

Basi earthenware fermentation jars.


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.


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.


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.



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.

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.


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.