Preserving for taste and health
Max Herzog is the Culinary Director of the Carlton Hotel in St. Moritz. He has been working in hospitality industry for many years and he knows a thing or two about what his guests love and expect from 5 star hotel cuisine. Living and working in the mountains has turned Max into a passionate believer in the benefits of fermentation. It can be difficult in winter to sustainably source the ingredients he likes to serve and so every summer he cultivates and picks fruit and vegetables to ferment for the winter season.
When we cook or freeze produce, nutrients are lost, including vitamins, minerals and other important trace elements. The cooking process can be particularly damaging to vitamin C, destroying up to 50% of this important element in fresh produce. The act of fermentation avoids this damage. Fermentation has additional benefits: probiotic lactic acid bacteria are produced during the process and these have a positive impact on intestinal flora.
We spoke to Max Herzog about the art of preserving food and what you need to know if you want to take up the challenge and ferment your own produce at home.
Why do you preserve?
Although there are numerous preservation methods, I tend to use a fermentation process. There are a total of eight processes that are widely used and I focus on just three of them. It takes time to obtain the knowledge you need and gain adequate experience.
The main reasons for preserving food are to maintain taste, to improve digestive tolerance and, of course, to keep the price as low as possible. Fruit that is picked in summer has a higher sugar content and a better taste; preserving the fruit maintains both these aspects. When we preserve food, the cell structure is broken down, which means that whatever we preserve becomes softer and easier to digest. In addition, the lactic acid bacteria that are produced in the process are good for our intestinal flora. It also makes a big difference in terms of price. If I order porcini mushrooms in St. Moritz in winter, a kilo often costs more than CHF 150. If I order them in summer, they cost less than CHF 50 per kilo.
What do you preserve?
Fruit, such as apples, pears, quinces, peaches, nectarines, and other things. I basically like to preserve anything with a high sugar content. The more acid a fruit or vegetable contains, the less suitable it is, which means that it wouldn’t make much sense to preserve a pineapple.
Preserved lemons are extremely interesting: these are (unwaxed) lemons that have been cut open, washed in hot water and placed unpeeled in a salt-sugar mixture. The sugar is used up completely during the process as it serves as food for the lactic acid bacteria. Ideally, you then leave the lemons to rest for six to twelve months. After this, you can eat them whole, including the peel. Preserved lemons improve with time and are absolutely sensational with lamb or fish dishes.
Porcini are preserved in oil, and I preserve berries and peaches in vinegar. Cabbage is also very good for preserving, and we all know fermented cabbage as sauerkraut.
What happens to nutrients during the preservation process?
Preserving is a big word and you need to make a distinction between preserving on an industrial scale and preserving at home. On an industrial scale, the aim is to preserve something with an ultimate focus on turnover. That’s why I prefer the term fermentation, which is what you can easily do at home for reasons of taste or health. The nutrient level remains more or less the same, and the fruit or vegetable becomes easier to digest.
History itself provides evidence of the fact that nutrients, in particular vitamins, are not lost during fermentation. In 1542, the French seafarer and explorer Jacques Cartier wrote in his logbook about his crew suffering from a disease known as scurvy, where a lack of vitamin C causes metabolic processes in the body to come to a halt. This meant that the sailors’ hair and teeth fell out, inflammations and muscle wasting set in, their wounds did not heal, they suffered from hallucinations and, in the end, died. Until the 19th century, the disease, which was also known as mouth rot, was one of the most common causes of death at sea. British seafarer James Cook finally managed to break this curse in 1776 and prescribed sauerkraut (cabbage preserved in salt) for his sailors. As the vitamin C remained intact, the sailors survived their months at sea.
- The C in vitamin C stems from 1919. Although people at that time knew how to combat the dreadful disease caused by a lack of vitamin C, people were not yet aware of the exact active substances or of what vitamins actually were. Sir Jack Drummer of Great Britain suggested using the letter C to label the crates that contained the fruit with this “scurvy-fighting something”. In 1927, Hungarian biochemist Albert Szent-Györgyi managed to isolate vitamin C from paprika.
We have put together a recipe and the most important tips for you so that you can try your hand at preserving. We hope you have fun.
The delicious recipe for preserved lemons for you to try:
- Cut organic lemons lengthwise into quarters, leaving them attached at the end.
- Fill the cut lemons with coarse sea salt.
- Place the salt-filled lemons into a preserving jar, packing them in tightly so they cannot move.
- Fill the jar with water.
- Leave for at least three weeks.
General tips for trying it out at home:
- You need airtight containers (preserving jars or Tupperware containers).
- The warmer it is, the quicker the process will be. If you allow the fermentation process to take place in a fridge, it will take longer and everything will keep for longer (this is why it is best to store the preserving jars in a cool cellar). Fermentation can, however, take place quickly at room temperature (3-7 days for normal household portions).
- Given that fermentation takes time, you need to plan carefully, which means planning when you want to eat what and then getting started.
- Label and date jars and any other containers you are going to use so that you can keep an eye on how long fermentation has been underway for.
Once the jar has been opened, don’t let the fermentation process continue, but start to eat the preserved fruit and vegetables.