Before leaving for a long trip, I make arrangements for the care of a sole dependent. Healthy, wild and full of life, my dependent is not as needy as a dog and more mobile than a houseplant. It stays with friends, where it is fed once a week and kept happy behind a closed door, shielding its unlovely exterior from view. Yes, I take care of my sourdough starter, and it takes care of me.
Yesterday, my starter and I were reunited after a two-month break and a 30-hour journey. "Come to mama," I cooed, cradling the container of goo in my hands. Technically, the starter is the only real mama of the two of us. Traditionally made with a knob of old dough saved from a previous batch, the sourdough "mother" answers to nobody's clock but her own, eventually producing - in that ineffable way that mothers sometimes can - something that was worth the wait: bread with a complex tang, caused by the lactic acid produced by the lactobacilli. Trying to compare it with yeast-leavened breads is like comparing apples and oranges; comparing it with chemically leavened breads (think baking powder) is like comparing apples and outer space.
The distinctive sourness of sourdough is a taste I know well and love hard. My fridge is packed with fermented foods, such as cultured cottage cheese and sour cream, which are much tarter than the garden variety, store-bought versions; also, European-style cultured butter, which is "ripened" or "lactic" and made with sour cream full of live cultures.
Natural, gradual fermentation intensifies flavour profiles and develops the subtleties.
In the few hundred years before the industrialisation of butter-making, cream was always cultured before it was churned by being left in a cool room while the natural bacteria from the milk worked to culture it. In his Gallic Wars, Julius Caesar describes invading Britain to discover inhabitants who had mastered the art of churning butter, but who had not yet figured out cheese and had to be shown how to make it by their invaders.
Sadly, fermented foods, and especially homemade ones, have faded significantly from our diets and dinner tables. Cheeses are being pasteurised to death - literally - by being desiccated of the good bacteria we need for our health. Commercial fermented products, such as pickles, often contain vinegar instead of the tasty byproducts of lacto-fermentation using salt. Instead of being naturally leavened using wild yeast, bread is made with the mass-produced commercial grade stuff.
In the Middle East, fermented foods are everywhere: preserved lemons, kishk (a fermented and dried bulghur and yogurt mixture that's pounded to a fine white powder), its cousin jameed, which is the salted, dried and preserved yogurt used to make Jordan's national dish, mansaf.
Now out of print, Handbook of Indigenous Fermented Foods by Keith Steinkraus is a comprehensive record of the world's indigenous fermented foods. Current literature is equipped with plenty of solid facts and fascinating theories about how fermented foods do a body good: they aid in digestion, bolster the bioavailability of nutrients in food and help us assimilate nutrients. They are an enzymatic powerhouse, they restore the ideal balance of bacteria in the gut, shortages of which have been implicated in everything from lactose and gluten intolerance to allergies and asthma.
On a more hedonistic note, fermenting food makes it last (yogurt lasts longer than milk), makes it delicious (imagine a world with no kefir, kimchi or stinky cheeses) and makes ends meet (it's cost-effective). Finally, it's fun.
"We are so happy to have another bundle of joy this holiday season," writes my friend Liz, a fermentation-obsessed friend. "Our kombucha had a baby!" Kombucha, a popular and effervescent tea-base enjoyed for its purported health benefits, can be made at home by fermenting tea using a Frankensteinian mass of live cultures, which forms the kombucha culture, also referred to as a "mother".
Not all of my home fermentation experiences have been successful, but nowadays the internet makes it incredibly easy to share my plight - and any related photographs - with fellow enthusiasts when I am in need of praise or advice.
After two batches of mushy pickles, a helpful blogger suggested I try adding grape leaves. The tannins in the leaves keep the vegetables snappy and crisp. In the absence of our industrious foremothers, most of whom toiled over their cans in total solitude, we can participate in one another's crazy legacies of fermentation and share the fruits of those labours.