(An extended version of my regular Irish Examiner cookbook reviews.)
Despite being the cook in our house, a daily communicant at the stove, lockdown now has me whiling away hours in the kitchen at a rate not seen since I last wielded a skillet in a professional capacity, way back when God was just an apprentice and my knees were still visible to me without a mirror. Unsurprisingly, the cookbooks are taking quite a hammering and none more so than Dearbhla Reynolds’ The Cultured Club (Gill Books)
TCC is no venerable classic to be dusted down from the vaults—indeed, it is still basking in the glow of the very warm welcome that greeted its publication in 2016—but its central themes of preserving and even improving on the nutritional potency of fresh produce—ensuring fresh produce can continue to deliver nutrition long after any purported ‘use-by-date’—is especially appropriate for the times.
Equally, fermented food opens up a whole new world of flavours, tastes and textures, elevating familiar ingredients to a newly elevated plane. (Only last week, I turbo-charged some fresh, stir-fried cabbage by stirring through a couple of spoons of a sauerkraut I had made just a few weeks before, turning a fine, simple dish into something entirely more complex and delicious.
What’s more, the process of fermentation creates superfoods that truly realise the potential of food as medicine, with benefits including the reduction of inflammation and the creation of healthy gut bacteria, the latter now scientifically proven to have a profoundly positive effect on physical and mental health.
The fermentation of fresh plant-based produce is commonplace in many parts of the world and it is only an accident of geography that it is not more so on this island of Ireland, one of the most clement growing climates in the world, meaning there has never been the same imperative necessity to preserve food as it might be, say, in more northerly parts where the soil is frozen solid for months each year.
That’s not to say it wasn’t happening: if the notion of consuming ‘fermented’ food will have many more conservative eaters running for the hills, that soon changes when you point out that their toastie and pint of plain both result from fermentation, cheese and beer being fermented food staples since prehistoric times, and, during the Dark Ages, Irish monks were especial innovators in cheesemaking, dispersing their expertise around Europe.
If ever there was a book to guide novices into broadening their culinary horizons it is TCC as Reynolds exhibits her passion for her chosen metier with a friendly charm that leaps off the pages in clear, concise and easily comprehended prose.
She is equally adept as a teacher, starting each chapter with clear, concise explanation, delivering recipes that commence with the ‘ur-recipe’, then building on that foundation. The chapter on sauerkrauts, the usual jumping off point for most novices when commencing a deep dive into fermentation, starts with the classic recipe and then riffs on that: Golden Kraut, ‘preserving the sun’s warmth for colder days ahead’; Hola Curtido, a Central American kraut with chilli hit; Super Spicy Seaweed Kraut; Moroccan Kraut, with typical North African spices; and even a Four Thieves Kraut.
This intriguingly named recipe is apparently based on one given in exchange for lighter punishment when the aforementioned thieves were caught robbing those dead and dying victims of bubonic plague, without ever themselves falling prey to infection, thanks to the astonishing immunity boosting properties of the combination of herbs employed, which are known to stimulate circulatory, respiratory and immune systems. Not only does it seem an extraordinarily apposite recipe as we live through the era of Covid-19, it also happens to be especially delicious, one of my favourite recipes in the book.
TCC is so much more though than krauts: vegetable ferments covers seeds, root vegetables, tubers, bulbs, flowers, fruits and leaves. There are condiments, dips, and tapenades. There are dairy and nut milk ferments and grains too are covered in breads, crackers and soaked breakfasts.
The list goes on, providing an entirely fermented menu: breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks in between, and Reynolds’ beverage recipes are worth price of admission alone: from cracking kefirs to utterly simple, delightfully delicious, effervescent ginger bugs.
If you thought vinegar was just something to sprinkle on a fish supper, Reynolds’ comparatively brief chapter is a considered introduction to the ranging culinary potential of this most astonishing of liquids—food, medicine and all-round domestic workhorse in one—and might well inspire further immersion into vinegars and vinegar-making, a subject that has inspired an entire library.
TCC is far from the only book I’ve read on fermentation but the first to truly place it in an Irish context and, were I to compile a list of ten essential books for the Irish cook, professional or domestic, it would be one of my very first choices—I think that is pretty much the definition of a classic cookbook.
This is an extended version of a cookbook review published as part of The Menu, my weekly Irish Examiner food column