I can always tell from the twinkle in contributor Anthony Boutard's eyes (not to mention his prose) that he is on the verge of springing something surprising on his audience. In the case of his latest project, outlined below, he practically had laser beams shooting out of those baby blues.
Several years ago Chef Naoko Tamura handed us a jar with soured (fermented) rice. As she described it, just some rice grains, salt and water. The milky liquid had a soft and appealing acidity, not sharp as in vinegar or lemon, and retaining the essence of the grain. The flavor lingered and a nascent project lodged in an overloaded "to do" synapse.
Around the same time, our research for Beautiful Corn led us to Romania where corn worked its way into the national diet and was a very important export crop. The Romanian Cook Book by Anisoara Stan (Castle 1951) devoted a chapter to mămăligă dishes—what we call polenta/grits/mush. Going back a couple of millennia, mămăligă was a porridge of millet, but corn edged the smaller grain aside in the late 19th century.
Left to right: soft red wheat (after 24 hrs.); Peace, No War corn (24 hrs.); Migration Barley (0 hrs.).
Another chapter covered the region's acidic soup, the ciorbă. Traditionally the liquid base for the soup is from soured barley or wheat bran, called borş, though over time lemon, pickle and sauerkraut juice provided a substitute for the soured grain base. Stan lamented that the younger generation was not willing to devote the time necessary for traditional foods, a familiar refrain in most cultures. (Today, the companies Maggi and Vladi offer processed versions of borş in Romanian supermarkets.) A bigger factor was probably the loss of small mills as that nation focused on corn for an export crop, as a result freshly milled small grains and their bran became hard to find. A similar loss of small mills happened here in the United States around the same time. Another "to do" synapse occupied.
Soups made from soured grains are a tradition in other parts of Eastern Europe. In Poland, white borscht is made from soured rye or wheat flour. There are also regional soups prepared from soured cornmeal and oatmeal. However, every time our interest in soured grains was piqued, it quickly abated when we saw the recipes; they were more potion than proportion, more magic than method. The recipes lacked the utter simplicity of Naoko's soured rice and, as we contemplated the various ingredients, great potential for funk or discordant flavors. We weren't ready for the ordeal of failed fermentation, the awkward moment of wondering if it really should taste and smell that way.
Fermentation complete and mixture strained.
Last autumn, we started milling barley. With a supply of fresh, top quality bran in the milling room the raw ingredient was at hand, but we still had to work out a reasonable fermentation protocol. In August, our farm fellow, Myrtha Zierock, left a jar of fresh bran on the kitchen counter leftover from preparing her farewell pflaumenkuchen. We were pickling some cucumbers that day and Naoko's simple preparation slipped out of the synapse's embrace. Hmmm. Why not put the bran in the extra pickling brine, leave it on the counter and see what happens? Into the jar it went.
After a couple days the liquid developed a pleasant aroma, and about five days later it started its lava lamp stage—hypnotic bouts of belching. The next day, we strained off the milky liquid. The pH hovered around four, essentially the same as pickle or sauerkraut juice, but it had that soft acidity and grain flavor we remembered from Naoko's soured rice. Despite its acidity, we could drink it from a glass without a shudder. Alas, Myrtha was working her final night at Lovely's 50/50 so she never tasted the borş she initiated.
After refrigeration, the fines drop to the bottom of the jar.
Soured grain recipes specify either bran or flour for the fermentation. We have decided to use coarsely ground, unsifted grain containing bran, middlings and flour. This coarse grind offers up a bit more body to the ferment. The fermented liquid is very cloudy but becomes clear overnight as the fines settle. This provides a choice of styles, clear or milky.
We have since made several batches to be sure we have the proportions and fermentation times right. Our goal is to make it as easy as growing a jar of Sea Monkeys—pour package in jar, add water, mix by shaking not stirring, and wait for life to manifest itself. We have settled on a proportion of 28 grams of salt to 200 grams of coarsely ground grain. The dry ingredients go into a two-quart mason jar, and the jar is filled to the top with very warm water. Put on a lid, shake well and then loosen the lid a bit so the jar won't explode. Leave on the kitchen counter for four to five days. We screw the lid tight again and shake the jar two or three times a day, remembering to loosen it after shaking. The liquid is strained into a clean jar and refrigerated. The yield is roughly 1.5 liters of borş.
The fermented liquid is a sophisticated and nourishing base for soups that adds a body to the dish much in the same manner as a meat-based stock. The traditional ciorbă contains meatballs, meat or fish, but mostly as an accent or flavoring in a combination heavy with vegetables such as knob celery, potatoes and fennel, as well as herbs such as lovage. For vegetarians, soured grains open up a whole new source and diversity of stocks as yet unexplored in the United States. They are cheaper to produce than classic vegetable stocks and more nourishing. Just seven ounces of grain yields one and a half quarts of flavorful stock. Simple in flavor and production, no toiling over the stove, no wondering if the vegetables have been over-cooked. They provide the acidity to offset the sweetness of root vegetables and showcase the subtle flavors of fungi. Soured grains also meet the needs of raw food devotees.
Oh yes, Myrtha, we did brine the Peace, No War cornmeal you left in the refrigerator as well. It started out a dark purple and, as the broth acidified, it turned a bright fuchsia pink. The anthocyanin in corn is a pH indicator. Talk about a stylish borş.
Anyway, we hope we have made this as easy as growing Sea Monkeys and maybe some of you are willing to leap into the wonderful living world of soured grains.