Pickling, fermenting, inoculating – words that conjure up images of shelves lined with jars full of ominous liquids, scientific equations and the possibility of mould or rotten food. At least, this was the case as little as five years ago. Thankfully, the UK has rediscovered its love for preserves, with many of us now pickling our own onions and turning seasonal fruit into jams. But the most exciting things are happening in professional kitchens, as chefs push the limits of what we know about this culinary science.
Dean Parker is one of these people. As head chef at Clapham-based The Manor (the second of Robin Gill’s restaurants after opening The Dairy round the corner), he has been wowing diners with his homemade purées, piquant pickles and delicious kombucha (fermented tea). It all started when a food writer called John Lanchester dropped off a book at the bar.
‘We’d been playing around with things like charcuterie when John gave us a book called The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz,’ says Dean. ‘It didn’t have any recipes in or anything like that but it did explain the theory behind all the processes. I read the entire book and just started experimenting with things like sorrel and kale. Four weeks later John came back, and we served him everything we’d made. It all turned out amazing, and we’ve been going from strength to strength since then.’
Now Dean’s creations make regular appearances on his menus. ‘Fermentation has its benefits – health reasons are just one of them,’ he explains. ‘When you open up a ferment it’s like gaining access to a treasure box of new flavours you’ve never come across before. You can always enhance things with ingredients like vinegar or lemon juice, but by fermenting you’re preserving that innate, natural flavour, instead of introducing new ones that can overpower the original taste.
‘Then there’s the preservation side of things,’ continues Dean. ‘Ingredients like wild garlic and nettles are only available in spring, but if you ferment them you can use them throughout the year, even in January and February.’