Fermentation: A Framework for Culinary Discovery Reconstructed at Noma
Chef Barry explores the reconnection to preservation, pioneered by Noma, that's unearthed endless flavor possibilities for food professionals.
Within the culinary community, questions are always raised regarding the “next big thing,” the upcoming trend which will inescapably filter down through the industry and bubble up among restaurants. I hesitate to provide a one-word answer. The one I want to use is “fermentation.” It is not that the answer is inadequate, rather that fermentation deserves a bigger stage when evaluating its impact on the culinary world and in society at large. It is a piece of a larger puzzle when discussing our habits in food production, agriculture, waste, sustainability, health and flavor.
Fermentation is something that has been around us for thousands of years. It has been at the epicenter of human survival and has had a marked effect on the success story that has been human progress.
Stories of accidental preservation seem to have shaped the foods that we see in culinary history. From wine, vinegar and beer, to cheese, yogurt and garum. The term “fermentation” is derived from the Latin word for “fever” or “to boil,” after grapes were witnessed bubbling in vats, left out in the sun, not in fact boiling at all, but releasing carbon dioxide as sugar converted to alcohol.
Accidents like this proved extremely useful in the development of agriculture and human settlement as seasonal ingredients were utilized throughout the year, the art of preservation was captured. Not only can we harness the seasons and make use of nature’s bounty for nourishment, we are continually exposed to a realm of flavor that is unlocked, along with a wealth of nutritional and health advantages for the microbiome.
However, darker days followed early preservation practices as mass agriculture and industrialization took over. Although fermentation is a way to safely preserve foods for use, industrial-scale manufacturing made food safety a concern. The easiest way for companies to ensure large-scale production with minimal quality assurance procedures is to negate any and all types of bacteria present in products, whether good or bad. High-temperature pasteurization processes ultimately lead to the disappearance of live bacteria in our foods allowing companies to produce at scale and streamline production.
With reliance on mass production, we lost the art of live foodstuffs that were bringing us unique flavor and health benefits. The shift in food production techniques is thought to be a global contributor to a huge incline in respiratory diseases and allergies and also a factor in the increase of major illnesses, such as heart disease and cancer, globally.
We also lost connectivity through food — the privilege of watching nature work in wonderful ways, to unlock a universe of flavor, texture and nutrients. Fermentation was once at the core of everything we did. It was a result of humans harnessing the nature around us, exploring terroir, using natural wizardry to change and improve our resources. There is good news, however.
At Noma in Copenhagen, Rene Redzepi helped redefine the way we think about food and fermentation. More than 15 years ago, Chef Rene had a vision for his restaurant to capture the essence of terroir. Using local farmers and artisan producers along with expert foragers in his region, Rene tapped into the heart of his community and challenged the way we think about locality, seasonality and the flavors that support terroir.
In their quest to capture the seasons, the team at Noma began experimenting with traditional Nordic preservation techniques. Again, mistakes were made, an incorrect calculation of salt in a preserving liquid had earmarked a particular batch of preserved gooseberries for tasting and an “aha!” moment: Lacto-fermentation transformed the gooseberries into another flavor dimension and ultimately unlocked a new way of thinking.
With some scientific research into “what went wrong,” soon Noma was on a path to unlocking a pandora’s box of flavor, one which would redefine the restaurant as the world’s most exciting in the industry.
An onsite fermentation lab, test kitchen and bestselling book followed. Initially staged in three shipping containers, the not so “white coat” laboratory would act as a unit for a plethora of culinary explorations. Years on, Noma has embodied the all-encompassing impact of fermentation at the core of everything the restaurant does, running a state-of-the-art research lab, continuously pushing culinary boundaries in the search for new and unexplored flavor dimensions and sharing the process on social media.
Noma is the industry authority in the art of fermentation and the work forged with over a decade of research and development in fermentation, led by head of fermentation David Zilber, had emerged among the rest of the culinary world.
Documented in the bestselling book “The Noma Guide to Fermentation,” co-authored by Chef Rene and David, the trailblazing research resulted in recipes and a structure for the science behind fermentation that anyone can explore.
The impact of this is unfolding as we see an ever-rising number of cooks explore this once forgotten art. Farmers, foragers, chefs and fermenters are now sharing knowledge, success stories and a passion for this curious craft.
If we look at the heart of what we do as cooks, it is simple: We take ingredients and ask ourselves how to improve the flavor. The answer for so many years was in application of heat and a fusion of other ingredients to develop and harness new flavors. Now, we are once again open to a new mindset, one that allows us to respect nature’s work and to bring this full circle in our desire to be agriculturally responsible, sustainable and reduce our impact on the environment.
I like to think of fermentation not as a trend but as a reconnection to our past and to nature. Although embedded in science, fermentation is relatively simple to do when following safe practices and is something that requires no real recipe. When fermenting, you are simply following a framework for nature’s magic and on the other side, given patience, is a whole world of culinary opportunities ready to be explored.