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Fear and Loathing in Fermentation

Just before the closure we were planning a workshop event with Gastronomer Robin Sherriff in which he was going to teach us all about fermentation and have us bottling our own unique recipes. This article goes someway to explaining Robin's self confessed obsession with fermentation and why we should all be doing it...who knows, with some encouragement maybe he'll do an online workshop with us instead?!

Hi, my name is Robin. I put food in jars for long periods of time then eat the contents.

Welcome to the wonderful world of vegetable fermentation. A way to concoct interesting flavours, preserve seasonal vegetables year round, reduce food waste and increase food security.

If that sounds like your kind of thing, wonderful! Read on, check out the sources I’ve listed and tell me about your current projects! If that sounds terrible, humour me for a bit and let me try to convince you otherwise.

My obsessive interest with fermentation leads me to have a lot of conversations on the topic with friends and strangers alike. Quite a number of these conversations lead to a common question: Why haven’t you given it a try yet? The majority of the answers I’ve received fall into three main camps. Time, fear or disgust.

Time - From a cursory glance at fermented foods, it would appear that they require a fairly large time investment as a function of the long period between preparation and consumption. The reality of the process for the home cook is quite the opposite. After a short preparation time, and a few minutes of maintenance every couple of days, you are rewarded with ready to eat, tasty veggies straight from the jar. This makes fermented veg the ‘slowest kind of fast food’ to quote the title of Sharon Flynn’s wonderful book on the topic.

Fear - Fear of failure. There seems to be a prevailing opinion that fermentation is massively involved and complex. I think that this has filtered down from the recent rise in the cult of exactitude and precision that has stemmed from Noma’s experiments and the molecular gastronomy trend. Whilst these are doubtlessly valuable for pushing the boundaries of flavour, they do create the perception that getting into fermentation takes a laboratory and a Phd. All you really need is salt, vegetables and patience.

Disgust - Poisoning. Decay. Pestilence. Plague. Death. All things associated with rot. And for good reason, many microbes have an enormous capacity to do harm. Human beings have evolved to have a natural revulsion to these things. But, we have also developed a huge array of techniques to utilise friendly, beneficial and harmless microbes to outcompete their pathogenic cousins and preserve the edibility of our food. Learning a few of these basic techniques goes a long way to alleviating any aversion. My basic rules are keep everything fairly sanitary, green, yellow or black moulds are an immediate no deal, slimy is bad and trust your senses. It’s the same as knowing that cooked chicken, well prepared sushi and fresh oysters won’t make you sick.

Ultimately the best way to learn is to try things and to talk to people. There is a growing community of fermentation enthusiasts that are more than happy to share their knowledge. I hope that this brief overview has either persuaded you to try fermentation or emboldened your efforts.

Please send me any fermentation questions you might have. If I don’t have an answer right away - I’ll find you one.

Instagram - @robinsherriff

Further reading:

The Art of Fermentation - Sandor Katz

Ferment for Good - Sharon Flynn

Fermented Vegetables - Kirsten K. Shockey & Christopher Shockey

Traditionally Fermented Foods - Shannon Stonger

The Noma Guide to Fermentation - René Redzepi & David Zilber

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