Sandor Katz, the respected fermentation revivalist, asserts that the art of fermenting food is a metaphor for cultural and political activism – a process of creating new and compelling forms from the status quo. While that’s obviously true, for me the activity of fermenting simple ingredients to make something good and nutritious to eat, also has a contemplative quality.
There is no cooking, no blur of kitchen fervour, and no right to assert your genius. The fermenter’s kitchen is a place where things are quietly brought together and left to their own ancient alchemy, while you get out of the way.
The organisms on the surface of a cabbage leaf that enable the lactic fermentation in sauerkraut are there all along, waiting for you to provide the right conditions (salty water) for them to get to work. In the microbial world of fermentation, if good bacteria proliferate, the bad ones can’t.
Next you must tolerate doing almost nothing, except waiting and keeping a weather eye on how things are unfolding. When the novelty of your new fermenting hobby fades as the days pass, you realise you’re merely a shepherd in the process.
But, rather like caring for plants, it becomes a soothing thread through the passage of time as you make your daily observations, and marvel at the tiny kingdom teeming away under your watchful gaze.
In Summer 2020 I was lucky enough to eat some incredible vegan cashew ‘cheese’, made by Palace Culture in London. My good friend, and London chef, Steve Gower always answers my ‘what’s the best brand of XX’ questions with… ‘the one you made yourself!’, and with this in mind I wondered how easy it was to re-create.
At the same time I discovered the excellent and free e-book developed by Thomas Pagot at fullofplants.com – The Art of Vegan Cheesemaking, which takes you through numerous recipes and methods, starting with cream cheese and onward through Camembert and Roquefort.
Soaked and softened cashew nuts made into a smooth paste provide the right conditions for dairy cheesemaking cultures to do what they do in dairy cheesemaking – acidify the curd through lactic fermentation, and grow rind blooms for preservation and flavour.
Here’s how to make yourself some cashew cream cheese, which is arguably one of the most satisfying options – it is simple to make, but a real crowd pleaser. This is my slightly tweaked recipe, but it draws heavily from the methods in the Full of Plants e-book:
2 cups / 300g cashews, covered in boiling water and left covered to soak overnight
0.75 cup / 150 ml water or full fat coconut milk
1/16 tsp of mesophilic culture* or 4 acidophilus capsules**
1 tsp salt
* I started with ordinary powdered mesophilic culture from a cheesemaking supply shop, and then acquired a vegan version from Cashewbert in Germany (which is also another fantastic resource selling kits and offering much free knowledge).
** Thomas recommends Solgar brand’s Acidophilus Advanced. I have not looked into this at all but I understand that not all capsules are made equal. Do your research if you go this route.
Drain your soaked cashews and combine with the water/coconut milk and blend to a fine purée in a blender, or with a good stick blender.
Sprinkle over your culturing powder and allow it to hydrate for 5 minutes, then stir in thoroughly. Clean down the sides of the bowl with a spatula, forming a neat cake of curd in the bottom, then lay a piece of clingfilm on it and press down making sure it is all covered neatly, then add another piece of clingfilm over the top of the bowl.
Depending on the time of year and the air temperature in your kitchen, leave for between 24 and 72 hours at room temperature, for the culturing to take place. When it is ready it will smell clearly of cheese (like Philadelphia!) and taste tangy and creamy.
Once it is at this point, stir in the salt to taste and transfer to a clean vessel to keep in the fridge for up to a week.
Once you have an affinity for the process, you can take your cultured cream cheese curd and shape it into little pucks using clingfilm and cheesemaking molds, and then culture them on the top shelf of your fridge, or in a drinks fridge set to 11ºC, imitating the conditions of a cheese cave.
The next step is to let each puck sit on a square of baking paper in a tupperware container, slowly drying out. Carefully flip it over every day, and replace the paper.
After a week when it is starting to firm up, you can use a piece of plastic cheesemaker’s grid to sit it on and provide airflow. After two weeks you have a fairly firm cheese to dredge with smoked paprika or herbs and devour with some fresh sourdough!
You can incorporate cheesemaker’s rind spores in your mix to make Camembert or Roquefort – using strains of Penicillium. These rinds start to appear during the second week, slowly and surely blooming over the surface, creating a puckered and mottled skin that looks like it came from a potter’s glaze.
These longer aged cheeses are at their best after 5-6 weeks of ageing, and it’s interesting to track the changes in flavour as the culturing continues. 4 weeks can be too lactic and sour, but into the 5th week a mellow complexity develops.
Culturing plant based curds, or making fermented vegetables, or sourdough bread, throws light on what it means to slow down.
Actively waiting and watching is engaging with the mystery and letting go of expectation, and the intimacy that arises from shepherding this quiet world of microbes is magical – it’s slow culture feeds your heart and mind, as well as your appetite.
The true purpose [of Zen] is to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goesShunryu Suzuki
Based in Cranbrook, South East England, Matt runs a graphic design studio, grows veg, makes sourdough, and is trying to get better at chess.
Matt once offered to run a small sourdough walk-through class on a fermenting facebook group, only to wake up the next day to 600 participants eagerly awaiting instruction.