For the past year, I've been concocting an unlikely plan to save the world by making pickles. It's a simple plan, it's a plan that could almost work.
Incredibly, while chopping apples with a friend, she told me that she has a plan to save the world with fermentation. “Me too!” I exclaimed. We both looked at each other quizzically, amazed that anyone else could share the same absurd dream.
She shared her plan first. If we ferment huge quantities of food and bury it in jars under the ground, if future humans are ever in great need because their above-ground food resources are scarce, they can dig for fermented food. Not exactly the plan I had in mind, but nevertheless an interesting take on the world-saving capacities of sauerkraut.
My pickle plan goes as follows: we are currently in the process of losing sustainable skills that are essential for the continuance of humanity. While we enforce mandatory education for youngsters to learn about trigonometry and memorize the periodic table, most children and adults are unable to identify wild edibles in their own backyard. The sustainable skills that were developed over centuries and passed down through generations—finding and growing food, making tools from natural materials, building biodegradable shelters, reading the landscape, making canoes and baskets—is simply becoming lost from our cultural collective knowledge. As an eager eco-citizen, I'd like to learn it all, these skills and competencies from a sustainable past and for a sustainable future. Unfortunately, I can't learn it all. Fortunately, collectively we can.
I give to myself, and to anyone else who's up for it, the “sustainable skills challenge,” to learn at least one sustainable skill very well, well enough to teach it to others. Let's retain the sustainable elements of our cultural identity so that we can pass them on to those around us, creating a more ecological present, and pass them down to the next generations, giving them the tools for a healthier future.
Getting back to pickles. My sustainable challenge that I decided to personally undertake is fermentation, learning how to conserve foods with simple techniques so I can eat locally year-round in a northern environment. After one year, I'm considered a local 'fermentation expert' (even if I'm not quite), and I've been able to help many people in my community learn basic fermentation skills. That, in its simplicity, is my elaborate plan to save the world by making pickles.
Cultures from around the world have fermentation traditions, making foods easier to digest, and allowing us to conserve foods for months or years on end. Cucumbers will normally rot within weeks, though when conserved as pickles they can be stored for years. I'm not talking about the uniform and sterile pickles from supermarkets that are covered in distilled vinegar and preservatives. I'm talking about classic, traditional pickles that are made with salt water, genuine living foods. It's amazing—cucumbers in salty water will naturally turn into pickles (scroll down for a recipe). In a salty environment, the bacteria that cause decomposition are unable to thrive, whereas the bacteria lactobacillus are able to live, and they naturally create lactic acid, which conserves the cucumbers and gives a vinegar flavour. Incredible.
Interestingly, fermentation is the only form of food storage that can actually increase the nutritional value. With canning, freezing, and dehydration there are losses of vitamins. With fermentation, while there are surely losses of certain vitamins, other vitamins increase in quantity. For example, in the lactofermentation of vegetables, B vitamins are contributed by the lifecycle of the microorganisms.
I made about 50 litres of pickles this week, with cucumbers and fennel directly from the fields, and water from the well. In a week or two they'll be ready to go into a cold room, where they'll be stored until the snow falls. Perhaps this won't save the world in and of itself. If in doubt, I'll bury the pickles underground for future survivors.
How to make lactofermented pickles:
There are many techniques for lactofermentation. I'm describing a simple technique that I personally find works well for small batches at home, using readily available materials. Check online for other techniques, especially if you want to make large batches.
Find a clean mason jar, larger is better.
Gently clean some cucumbers in water. Smaller cucumbers tend to make better pickles. The cucumbers should at least be a couple of inches shorter than the mason jar so they fit in easily.
Add cucumbers one by one. Shove in the last couple of cucumbers tightly. Ideally you should be able to turn the jar upside down and shake it without any cucumbers coming out. If the cucumbers are loose, shove some carrots tightly in the gaps. All of the veggies should be at least an inch lower than the top of the mason jar, and tightly wedged.
Add a mix of water and salt, with about 3 tablespoons of salt per litre of water. The salt should ideally be pure, without iodine or anti-caking agents. The water should be unchlorinated (leave tap water on the counter overnight before using it for fermentation, and the chlorine will evaporate). Add this mixture, completely covering the veggies, though leaving a little air at the top of the mason jar. If the veggies are tightly packed, they shouldn't float when the water is added. If they do float, this is problematic, since exposure to air can cause them to rot.
Close the lid of the mason jar gently, as the gases produced by the microorganisms need to escape. The microorganisms will form naturally, as they are all around us, and already on the vegetables.
Water will often overflow from the mason jar during the fermentation process, so it's best to put the mason jar in a bowl or a plastic container. Cover the mason jar with a cloth to avoid contact with sunlight, and leave at room temperature.
Check your pickles every day or two, to make sure none of the veggies are floating above the water. If there is a little white yeast, just scoop it off.
After a week or two, the pickles will probably be ready. Taste them! They should taste like vinegar. When they seem ready, put them in the refrigerator for storage. If it doesn't work the first time, no worries, just keep on experimenting.
Eat them in winter. Share them with friends. Learn a sustainable skill. Save the world, one pickle at a time :)