Wednesday, March 9, 2011

6 Degrees of "Fermentation"

6 Degrees of Separation is a term is often used as a synonym for the idea of the "small world" phenomenon. It refers to the idea that everyone is on average approximately six steps away from any other person on Earth, so that a chain of, "a friend of a friend" statements can be made, on average, to connect any two people in six steps or fewer.

In my case, it's the small world of fermenting... and all ferments are connected within 6 steps or fewer, so to speak.

I hadn't given much thought to the connectedness of the food things I do (other than eat them) until I started learn to make charcuterie and cheese. Then it finally sunk in...  fermenting is the connection! I started to ferment breads (sourdough) 2-3 years ago, and over the last 2 summers I spent a lot of time learning and making lacto-fermented vegetables. Last fall, I started to re-learn fermenting wines and cider. Over the winter I have been learning to ferment sausages and salume with the hopes of eventually fermenting (curing) a ham.

Now, I'm also learning to ferment cheese. It seems to me that each new thing is a little easier because it builds on the related experience which is also connectedness, gained from the things I learned previously. The more I learn in each of these connected areas, the more I am beginning to understand some of the nuances of fermenting, with hopes of eventually mastering a few of them. Lactobacillus, common to ferments, is a very interesting bacteria and enriches my world by the fermentation of foods from chocolate and sauerkraut to merlot and Brie.

To make things interesting, Lactobacillus is like any other living thing (including us!)... it depends on what it eats, and what it eats affects what it does. Maybe that cow ate a few more blades of grass with higher Omega-3, so that one gallon of milk had a miniscule amount more butterfat and lactose than the other gallon I used. No two cheese wheels will turn out the same, nor will any 2 loaves of sourdough, or batches of beer... The bacteria and yeast in the air we breathe, on our walls and on our skin, are all working in addition to (or sometimes against) the bacteria and yeast we add from little packets into whatever we are making. 

Perhaps a slight puff of air from an open window flows over my pot just as I am adding the culture, bringing a tad more of my resident lactobacillus along with it... or maybe there were a few more grains of salt in one measured teaspoonful compared to another...or today the humidity is 2% higher than yesterday. SO many variables that all affect every outcome.

I actually find it very refreshing (although a little frustrating) to know that everything I make will NOT turn out exactly the same every time, even after I learn the basics and move into some proficiency. There will always be an element of surprise and discovery waiting in the wings, keeping Life interesting!

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