Growing awareness that good nutrition is the basis for good health is creating a market for simple, traditional foods that haven’t been factory processed or dosed with man-made chemicals.
At the same time there is an interest in rediscovering ancient methods of cooking and preserving foods. How did mankind cope before the invention of fridge freezers and sell-by-dates?
An ideal method of preserving vegetables is by lactic-acid fermentation. Fermented vegetables have always been important sources of nourishment. One of the most well-known is salted, fermented cabbage, known as sauerkraut, which is particularly popular in Germany served with sausages and potato salad.
Archaeologists have discovered that fermented plant foods were first consumed by prehistoric hunter gatherers. The Chinese have been fermenting cabbage since 200 BC, and traditionally used sauerkraut juice as a cure for many common ailments. The Romans carried barrels of sauerkraut to prevent intestinal infections on long excursions, and Genghis Khan is said to have transported pickled cabbage to Europe in the 13th Century.
Apart from its deliciously tangy flavour, sauerkraut offers remarkable health benefits. The fibre and lactic acid bacteria improve digestion and promote the growth healthy bowel flora, protecting against many diseases of the digestive tract. It’s low in calories, enzyme-rich and high in vitamin C. Many sailors died from scurvy caused by a lack of vitamin C in their diets until, in the 18th century, the explorer Captain James Cook discovered sauerkraut was an effective remedy for the disease. On his voyages around the world he insisted that his crew ate sauerkraut, no doubt saving many lives.
More recently, Finnish researchers reported in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, that the fermentation of cabbage produces compounds called isothiocyanates which appear protective against cancer.
Sauerkraut is easily made at home by sprinkling sea salt between layers of finely shredded, raw organic cabbage in a glass jar or stoneware crock. Packing a bit into the jar at a time and pressing down hard, helps force water out of the cabbage. The salt draws juice out of the cabbage and the resulting ‘brine’ allows the cabbage to ferment gently, creating beneficial lactobacilli. For fermentation to take place, the cabbage needs to be stored in airtight conditions. To learn how to do this and to experiment with different ferments read the excellent book “Wild Fermentation” by Sandor Katz (published by Chelsea Green, ISBN 1-931498-23-7).
Be aware that commercially available fermented products are usually pasteurized and lack friendly bacterial cultures. Some even contain vinegar to make the sauerkraut appear fermented. To experience the delicious taste and health benefits of real sauerkraut, you may have to resort to making it yourself, just like our hardy ancestors did!
© 2011 Martina Watts MSc Nut Med, First Published Brighton Argus August 2005