Kefir and kombucha: making macrobiotics with Dean Parker

by Tom Shingler29 January 2016

Tom Shingler heads to The Manor in Clapham where head chef Dean Parker talks him through the various preserved vegetables, cultured creams and fermented teas he makes in-house to serve on his eclectic menu.

Tom Shingler is the former editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler was the editor at Great British Chefs until 2021, having first joined Great British Chefs in 2015.

Tom Shingler is the former editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler was the editor at Great British Chefs until 2021, having first joined Great British Chefs in 2015.

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.’

The fermented rhubarb was as strong in flavour as it was in colour
The koji grains on the left are eventually fermented into Dean's cocoa miso

In a pickle

I just started experimenting with things like sorrel and kale. It all turned out amazing, and we’ve been going from strength to strength since then.

Dean Parker

Dean talks me through the ferments he’s using at the moment: rhubarb that’s shocking pink with a magnified flavour, kimchi made with heaps of black pepper, garlic and horseradish, fermented potato that has a pleasant salty, cheesy taste which Dean then uses to make flatbreads, sorrel, and an incredible powerful fermented nettle that is toned down in a sauce with black garlic, oil, roast parsley and apple juice.

‘Fermented dulse was one of the first things we made,’ explains Dean. ‘It’s the highest form of protein, but the human body simply can’t digest all of them in its unfermented state. We follow a process called lacto-fermentation which uses whey to speed up the process and makes the proteins digestible. Because it’s quite cheesy, we usually turn it into a sauce.’

One of the ferments that Dean is particularly well known for is his cocoa miso. ‘It’s made using koji, which is cooked barley that’s inoculated with a certain kind of bacteria,’ he explains. ‘It’s how the Japanese make soy sauce, miso and sake. We then add water and salt, leave it for four days at 20–30°C and that’s where the flavour comes from. We use cocoa to flavour it then use the miso in our desserts. While we can make miso in four days, traditional varieties made using beans in a traditional style are generally kept in the cold for months or even years before they’re ready. But we use less salt and more water, which speeds everything up.’

A kombucha spore isn't the most pretty ingredient to work with
The small spores can be seen in the thickened kefir

Spores and grains

Dean is most famous for is his macrobiotic products; specifically, his homemade kombucha and the kefir (a type of eastern European fermented milk) that goes into so many of his sauces (which are usually flavoured with one of his ferments). They’re both made in a similar way; spores are added to the liquid which ferments them and develops their flavour. The spores are then removed to be used over and over.

‘We make our kefir with a mixture of ninety percent milk to ten percent cream,’ explains Dean. ‘You can buy the spores you need online and just have to wait for them to grow – it’s something you can easily do at home and it’s incredibly easy.’

Kombucha is made from sweetened brewed black, white, earl grey or lemongrass teas. The spore is much larger than the little ones used for kefir – it resembles a dead jellyfish and certainly isn’t something you’d want to eat on looks alone. But after encouragement from Dean I ate a little piece and was surprised to find it tasted like lychee. ‘The kombucha spore is a living organism, much like a mushroom or fungus,’ says Dean. ‘You just leave it in the tea for five days, then strain the liquid, bottle it and keep the spore back for the next batch. We use the liquid in anything from cocktails to desserts, and make lots of vinegars with it.’

Dean makes a variety of kombuchas
Fermented dulse was one of the first things Dean experimented with, and he now turns it into a sauce

The drink itself is delicious, from the light, sweet and floral white tea variety through to the intensely sharp and sour earl grey (‘the acids in the earl grey react with the spore, turning it very sharp,’ Dean tells me). There are some incredible flavours going on in everything Dean gives me a taste of, but what’s more incredible is the fact that he had no foundation to work from – much of this stuff, like fermented nettle leaves, was completely made up and had to be perfected through a system of trial and error. The added bonus that all these fermented, preserved and macrobiotic ingredients are also incredibly good for us is just the icing on the cake.

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