A wonderful café has just opened up around the corner in Petersham. It’s called Brighton the Corner and it’s vying for current favourite café status. We’re spoiled for choice in Petersham, so it’s a tough call, although I think my vote stays with The Pig and Pastry for the moment, if only for their Patricia Wells–worthy tarte Tatin. Anyway, back to the boys in Brighton Street … they’re those cheerful, bearded types who seem to be behind every café that opens in Sydney’s inner west these days. And while they make a cracker coffee, they also seem to know what they’re doing on the food front. Pickled radishes that ping in a salmony salad, bubbly, home-made crumpets that make the industrialised variety seem so gluey and bland. It’s food that feels cared for, thoughtful, the very opposite of processed.
And it’s food that reflects the growing global gastronomic passion - evident not just in the funky cafés of the inner west but all the way up the food chain to such hallowed culinary temples as René Redzepi’s Noma and Magnus Nilsson’s Fäviken - for all things pickled, preserved, cured, for all things fermented.
Which brings me to the most fascinating book I have just discovered by Marie-Claire Frédéric, Ni Cru Ni Cuit, published this year in Paris by Alma Editeur. As its sub-heading describes, it is the story of the history and civilisation of the fermentation process … the story of how “fermentation defines us as human” just as much, in fact more so, than the process of cooking itself. The title, in English,
, is a nod to French anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss’s 1964 work, The Raw and The Cooked (Le Cru et le cuit). And while it’s clearly the product of serious, scholarly investigation, Marie-Claire Frédéric’s immensely readable work also rings with passion and belief … a belief in the fundamental importance of the fermentation process, historically, culturally, gastronomically and, if you’ll excuse the pun, its role in preserving our health, our identity, our very humanity.
The French have a word, terroir, that’s one of those words that almost needs a paragraph in English to convey the scope of its meaning, its emotion. Look it up in the dictionary, and you’ll see it means land, but it really means so much more. Use it, and you can almost feel the soil running through the local farmer’s hands. Yes, it refers to the land, but it almost conveys a sense of belonging, of identity associated with whatever person or product derives from that terroir. And I think it was Marie-Claire Frédéric’s exploration of the truly local nature of fermented products that I found most fascinating, because it resonated so strongly with the current global trend of preparing and eating the local products of local growers, of insisting on the significance of terroir … of understanding that it does matter not only where the food was produced, but who produced it.
Fermented products – and don’t just think kimchi, rotten herring, fish sauce, think of a fresh loaf of sourdough bread, your favourite wine, the cheese to go with it, perhaps some cured sausage - are, the author describes, “an emblem of community”. Delocalise their production, and they will lose their essential characteristics, their inherent taste. They belong to their terroir. And its this inherent diversity, this individuality, that is worth protecting, not simply from a cultural point of view, but also from the point of view preserving the extraordinary health benefits to be had from so many fermented products. Frédéric laments the point in our post-pasteurised world when fermentation came to mean rotten, poisonous, contaminated … a curious selective blindness, she comments, when the vast majority of food poisoning cases are caused by defects in the process of industrialisation of our food production.
Instead of demonising the microbes, we should be celebrating this process of fermentation. In Marie-Claire Frédéric’s words:
We are human because we cook our food, certainly, but also, and more importantly, because we ferment it, and have been doing so for longer still. Fermented food is not like other food: fermentation gives it a symbolic value. It gives it a sense of verticality which takes us into another domain: food no longer serves simply to sustain our bodies, rather it takes on another significance, it forms part of the web of human relations, of individual and collective memory, of history, of the identity of social groups, of the sacred even, the spiritual. Between the raw and the cooked, the fermented product has accompanied humans from the beginning of their existence, and probably will not disappear so long as there are humans on this earth.
I do hope this book will make it into English. It deserves an English audience! But until then, it’s your local Left Bank bookshop or www.amazon.fr for the rest of you francophones. Or you could visit Marie-Claire’s wonderful blog at www.dumieletdusel.com.
Which brings me to lunch, and the boys up at the café, and more specifically, their delicious, tangy, home-made pickles which frankly, are better than the burger itself.