Fermentations, yes or no? René Redzepi has no doubts: it’s the food of the future

At Noma in Copenhagen, discovering the totalising passion for cold fire. Summed up in a rich how-to guide

20-12-2019
Photos from Noma’s test kitchen. Almost every s

Photos from Noma’s test kitchen. Almost every single dish at the restaurant in Copenhagen (2 Michelin stars and number 2 in the World's 50Best) includes one or more fermented ingredients 

When speaking of fermentations, chefs have opposite reactions. For a larger portion of professionals, they’re the future of food; the others ignore it, considering them distant from their identity and culture. Those in the first group would ferment even their handkerchiefs; those in the second, keep them at a distance because, for instance in the case of Italian chefs, «our fresh products are so good and always available that there’s no need to ferment them».

These are two parties in a lively debate, which has been going on for some time, and is surely destined to stay alive in the next few years. The wisest point of view is that according to which, in general, a chef who believes in innovation should never limit himself. Prejudgement, disguised as a preservation of one’s identity, never wins: before saying no, it’s always best to try. Of course, it’s not a compulsory exercise and everyone is free to create the transformations he prefers, but one should consider some elements that are clearer after a recent visit to Noma.

“The Noma Guide to fermentation.” In Italy it’s published by Giunti (460 pages, 49 euros, you can buy it online)

“The Noma Guide to fermentation.” In Italy it’s published by Giunti (460 pages, 49 euros, you can buy it online)

Canadian David Zilber and Danish of Albanian/Macedonian origins Rene Redzepi, authors of the Guide. (photo Christopher Ho/KCRW)

Canadian David Zilber and Danish of Albanian/Macedonian origins Rene Redzepi, authors of the Guide. (photo Christopher Ho/KCRW)

Some of the cooking bases at Noma

Some of the cooking bases at Noma

To begin with, what is the definition of “fermentation”? David Zilbermaster fermenter at the restaurant in Copenhagen and brand-new co-author – with his boss René Redzepi – of “The Noma Guide to Fermentation”, a not to be missed guide for those vaguely interested in the topic, recently published in Italian by Giunti. «Fermentation», the Canadian chef defines the topic, «means transforming a food into another food through the action of micro-organisms». It’s a controlled process: «There’s always need for someone to monitor the transformation. This person is the fermentator, who decides what is included or not in a food. He has the same role of a bouncer at the entrance of a nightclub: he keeps the unwanted microbes out, and lets the ones that make the party explode in».

If this is the definition, the thesis of the sceptical Italian chef is immediately proven wrong: wine, beer, spirits, Grana Padano and Parmigiano, vinegar, yogurt, bread, pizza… are all fermented products. And they are all an emblem or commonly used in our diet. So why not ferment other food too? In the book, and their words live, Redzepi&Zilber show a deeply rooted enthusiasm: «Fermentation is the most ancient cooking method, it’s older than the discovery and use of fire. And they are the foundations of the diet of every civilization, with no exception». For example: «Rye bread, the most famous food in Denmark, is a fermentation, just like our herrings. And what would French cuisine be without wine, or Japanese cuisine without shoyu and miso, Korean without kimchi or soy sauce, German cuisine without sauerkraut». In other words, wherever you go, there’s «cold fire» (we took this nice definition from Cooked, an important book on the topic by American author Michael Pollan).

Koji, that is to say rice or spelt inoculated with Aspergillus oryzae

Koji, that is to say rice or spelt inoculated with Aspergillus oryzae

Koji in an advanced state of fermentation 

Koji in an advanced state of fermentation 

Mould sandwiches at Noma

Mould sandwiches at Noma

After clarifying the historical importance in our diet, for the guys at Noma fermentation is most of all a pillar in the cuisine of the future. «It’s a strong statement», Redzepi says assertively, «but so was the introduction of sea urchins in the menu at Noma 15 years ago: at the time, it was as bizarre as cooking zebra meat. And it also seemed strange to have waiters wait at the table, while this is now the rule in many restaurants. We’re sure that fermentation is the future of flavour. That bacteria, yeasts and moulds can transform food from analogic into digital, infinitely increasing the range of flavours. Multinationals already know this, and they’re creating fermentation kits so that people can experiment at home».

At Noma now there’s coherence between theory and practice: «While at first we had absolutely no idea of how fermentations would work, today in each dish in our menus there’s a fermented food. It all began casually, when we preserved some gooseberry in salt, in 2008, on the Test Kitchen boat anchored in front of the old location. Now fermentations are the real pillar of our restaurant, much more than foraging, by which people usually identify us».

If these arguments have made at least a small impression on the reader, the next step is buying the Noma Guide to Fermentation. The book is focused on 7 types of fermentations plus one: lactic acidkombuchavinegarkojimisoshoyugarum plus blackenedfruits and vegetables – which technically are not the result of the same fermentation process, but have much in common. There’s no mention of alcohol, cured meat, bread or cheese, products that are very common in the West: once again Rene Redzepi focuses mostly on the customs of other worlds, especially in the East – he did so already with seaweeds and ants – and applies these principles to his local raw materials. He looks elsewhere to define his microbe terroir, a fascinating concept with infinite potential.

Swan garum at Noma. Garum – the result of so-called secondary fermentations, a mix of koji and animal proteins – was already analysed inApicius’s

Swan garum at NomaGarum – the result of so-called secondary fermentations, a mix of koji and animal proteins – was already analysed inApicius’s "De re coquinaria" a book from 2 thousand years ago

Squirrel garum 

Squirrel garum 

The 460-page volume analyses every fermented product from a historic point of view, trying to define its scientific function and its features in terms of taste. It has advices, rather than indications, and simplifications rather than rules with obscure technical terms. It puts together dozens of preparations, from plums fermented in milk to black, waxed shallots; from gammel dansk vinegar to coffee shoyu. «Fermentation improves every flavour», the Danish chef promises. «When you’ll taste the result of your efforts, you won’t be able to do without».

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso

See also
Autumn at Noma, game on Mars


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