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The Miracle of Fermentation

Posted by perle0 on 2007-01-23 12:55:07 (8708 views)

[The Pedestrian Wine Drinker]
In the early days of human existence, food was a daily challenge. When one meal ended, the search for the next was immediately underway. The most reliable form of food preservation, in those days, was eating as much as you could when food was available, in hopes of storing up a bit of fat for the lean times. (Sadly, our instincts remain the same even when the fat storage has become less of a benefit and more of a health hazard.) Food, especially animal products like milk or meat, could be kept for only the shortest period of time before spoiling. Under those circumstances, the constant daily struggle for nourishment kept people occupied pretty much 100% of the time. The few windows--for example, the few hours after gorging on a fresh kill--might be devoted to little luxuries like storytelling or dancing, but then again, they might be devoted to sharpening the spears for the next go-round.

The key to more leisure time--and all the things that leisure time allows, such as invention, culture, art, literature, settlement--rested in two vital developments. First, domestication of animals and cultivation of crops gave humans a more steady, reliable food source. But even that steady food source was subject to the need for long-term storage. If you harvest your grain once a year, you need a way to keep it edible during the rest of the year, or you’re pretty much right back where you started.

From this dawn of human civilization (you can’t have civilization without civis, the city or community), right up until the invention of canning around the beginning of the 19th century, finding ways to store or preserve food reliably was a top-level concern. The available methods were few: drying, smoking, salting, and fermentation. If you happened to live in a cold climate, add freezing, but of course this was seasonally and geographically limited before the invention of refrigeration.

And yet, given this tiny repertoire of food-preservation techniques, we came up with some doozies. Dried fruits and meats, smoked meats, fish, and even cheese, salted meat and fish, and various application of fermentation, often in combination with salting. On the eastern front, soy sauce and fish sauce paired fermentation and salting of soy and fish, respectively. On the western front, butter and cheese, both involving salting, the latter including a form of fermentation. Even bread invokes the help of that friendly yeast or a little bit of fermented (sour) dough. Expand the list of ferment-friendly foods to include yogurt, sauerkraut, and of course, those favorites the world over, wine and beer.

Unlike most forms of fermentation, wine and beer production didn’t include a need for salt. These delightful methods of food preservation created their own preservative: alcohol. This opened up a whole new vista for man’s eating (and drinking) habits: not only was food preserved, but water contaminated by all sorts of bacteria could be made safe by mixing it into wine or beer, even in small quantities. Sure, you could make raisins, but which would you rather have--wine or raisins? Or, more to the point, which would you rather have--raisins and water that could give you dysentery, or wine? That’s not exactly a tough choice.

Fermentation is truly an amazing technique. By sharing a bit of our food with naturally-occurring yeasts, we get food that can be kept long past the time when it would normally spoil. Instead of grapes that will last a few weeks at best, we get grapes that will last for years, plus the extra zing of a little alcohol. To help out those friendly yeasts, we capture and cultivate the best ones for future vintages, ensuring their long-term survival as well as our own.

So next time you’re enjoying a glass of your favorite vino, raise a toast to the natural miracle that make it all possible, and that helped mankind survive long enough to develop some of the more refined oenological techniques (all of which still require our friends the yeast)...fermentation, in all its unlikely glory. Who’d have thought that an invisible fungus and controlled spoilage could have supported human endeavors right up to the present day?

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