I am not wholly human. In fact less than half of my body’s cells are human.
I am a symbiote. And so are you.
Now, I’m not talking about the likes of Venom, a dark, oppressive, controlling relationship between you and that thing that you share your body with.
It’s more like those god awful Star Wars prequels with the midichlorian things.
You see, human cells only make up about 43% of the total cells in our bodies. What we think of as ‘Me’ is actually ‘Us’.
‘So what the hell makes up the other 57%?’ I hear you ask in slightly nervous tones.
Well, think of your body like a microcosm. It’s like the planet Earth in miniature. You, the ‘human’ part of you, are like the Earth’s rocks and oceans. The rest is made up of all other life on the planet.
In the case of you, this includes bacteria, viruses, fungi and archaea. This is known as your microbiome.
And before you start scratching and contemplating washing in bleach (DO NOT WASH IN BLEACH!), this is normal, nay, vital for your health.
You see, a well rounded healthy microbiome is what keeps you ticking along in fine fettle. To go back to the Earth analogy, our microbiome are the insects, the earth worms, the beavers, the lions, the plankton, the forests, all the living things. In a healthy, functioning ecosystem we need it all to maintain the endless cycle of death and rebirth.
James Earl Jones explains is well:
When we take away one vital element, for example trees during deforestation, we see this circle broken. The system can no longer function as it should, and the system falls out of balance – poorer air quality, flash floods, soil erosion, habitat loss, extinction.
And these ‘other than human’ inhabitants aren’t just freeloaders hitching a free ride like hobos on a railroad. They are the crew that are manning the gargantuan vessel that is you.
It’s a true symbiotic relationship. They need us and we need them.
Microbiology is constantly finding new ways these little buggers help us, from manufacturing vitamins, aiding digestion, preventing disease, regulating immune function and affecting our mental health and wellbeing in a major way.
Historically, our relationship to microbiota has been anything but nurturing. Antibiotics and vaccines have been used to great effect in the war on disease, indeed many lives have been saved as a result of these.
But like all wars, there are innocent casualties. In removing microbiota that shouldn’t be there we often remove those that should, further compromising our health. Now this may be the unfortunate compromise necessary to rid ourselves of certain diseases, but how can we help nurture our microbiome back to some form of balance.
Fermented foods may offer us a way.
Fermented foods and drinks are found in every food culture on every continent and are likely the oldest technique of preserving food. Fermented foods were not just considered food but also as medicine in many different cultures.
Vegetables, grains, fruits, fish and meats are all game; pretty much any food can be fermented.
From the buttermilk of the Irish hills, to the sauerkraut of Germany. From the kvass of Russia, to the kimchi of Korea. From the sourdough breads of Italy to the Kiviak of Greenland (this is the small bird, Auks fermented inside the body of a dead seal that’s then buried in the ground), fermented foods are everywhere.
Not only does the fermentation process preserve the food and deliver us a healthy dose of microbiota, it also helps reduce the anti-nutrients and phyto-toxins found in some plants and grains that disrupt our intestinal tract and stall good digestion.
But fermented foods have had a bap rap. Often seen as stinky and overpowering, our modern palette can struggle at times with some variants of it.
And it’s true. Some fermented food can be fairly stinky and strong-flavoured. I can only imagine what it’s like digging up that dead, bird-filled seal in time for lunch. But don’t let this stop you from exploring the delights of fermentation, there’s a type for most people.
But sadly fermented foods are not for everyone. Whilst they boast amazing gut health giving properties, for a small proportion of the population they may be off the menu.
For sufferers of SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) adding extra microbiota to the system may be detrimental. Equally, if you have been advised to follow a FODMAP diet for health reasons then fermented food (essentially the F in FODMAP) may need to be avoided.
This is our first blog post on fermentation and it will be one of many as we lead you tentatively on a journey of exploration on all things fermented.
You ready? Of course you are. Let’s go!
First up is Water Kefir, or Tibicos.
Our family is loving water kefir during these warm days. It’s a slightly sparkling, fermented, fruity drink, and it’s just so damn refreshing! What’s more, it is packed full of beneficial bacteria and enzymes for your gut which gives your immune system a caring nudge in the right direction.
It’s a perfect introduction to fermenting for even the most ferment-hesitant individual.
In fact, some people speculate that our love for fizzy pop may ultimately derive from our historic love of fermented drinks.
Many people are aware of milk kefir, particularly now that many variations have appeared in the chilled sections of our supermarkets. Water kefir is, so far less ‘trendy’ but believe us, it’s so worth getting familiar with it as we head towards warmers days. We tend to store our milk kefir grains during the really warm weeks of summer here in Ireland simply because it ferments quicker in the heat and we can’t get through it, but the water kefir is simply perfect for summer and you will find that a litre can disappear quickly.
While the water kefir grains look very similar to milk kefir, the two types are not interchangeable.
Where Tibicos grains originated is still a bit of a mystery. Some theories point to a particular type of cactus.
Thankfully, you won’t need to search your local cacti. Try happykombucha.co.uk or get some from a friend. The grains multiply over time, so people often have too many.
Water kefir is made by feeding sugar water to the kefir grains which begins the fermentation process and after a couple of days on the worktop, produces a slightly carbonated drink which can be flavoured with fruit or spices to create delicious, fizzy fun!
Measure the amount of grains you have in tablespoons and put into a clean 1 litre jar with a clip-top lid. A Kilner jar or similar is perfect.
In a jug or bowl, add 2 cups of water (filtered or cooled boiled water is ideal if you don’t have access to water from a spring).
Add 1tbsp of sugar for every tbsp of grain and stir well until the sugar has dissolved.
Pour the sugar water in the jar with the grains and top up with water leaving 2 inches from the top. This is to allow space for the gases produced during the fermentation process to escape.
Close the lid and leave on a worktop at room temperature (out of direct sunlight) for 48 hours.
Strain the liquid into a clean jar or bottle. I prefer a jar because I add fresh fruit but if you plan to drink it at this stage, or add juice, a bottle is grand.
Store it in the fridge to prevent the water kefir getting too fizzy and exploding! We have (read: Kelley has) covered our kitchen ceiling and other occupants with ferments before, so be warned.
Adding fruit or fruit juice to the strained liquid not only gives it a tasty zing, it also causes a process called Second Fermentation. The sugars in the fruit feed the probiotics in your water kefir, thus ‘turbo~charging’ your ferment with even more gut~restoring goodness.
Leave the fruit/juice in the liquid overnight out of the fridge with a tightly sealed lid.
You should hear a satisfying ‘pop’ in the morning when you open the jar which is a good sign that fermentation is happening and your drink will have that delectable fizz!
Strain the fruit from the liquid and store in a clean bottle.
Keep your bottle in the fridge for a month or so (if it lasts that long!) and enjoy on its own or in a cheeky cocktail.
Repeat each step ad infinitum for a lifetime of bubbly joy.
We’ll have more fermented food and drink tips for you in the future so watch this space.
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