slow Aoife McElwain

Can you adopt a slow approach to food?

The slow movement has been gaining momentum (pun intended) over the last year, but what’s it really about? Does it mean doing everything at a snail’s pace? Or does it mean adopting a slower approach to every aspect of our lives?

Journalist Aoife McElwain recently released a book about her year of living slow. One of the things she realised was that to truly slow her life down she needed to look at all habits. Including what she ate. So she began to look at slow food.

If you’re in any way into food, you’ll be all over kombucha, kefir and kimchi. These cultured food and drinks are as oldas the hills but their relevance has been gaining ground in the last five to 10 years. A resurgence in popularity among chefs, cooks and food lovers has brought these foods into the limelight. Together with scientific research which can back up the benefits of the age-old method of preservation.

In other parts of Europe and around the world, the method of production that centres around fermentation has never fallen out of fashion. Back in 1985, Gaby and Hans Wieland moved to Ireland from Germany. Gaby was a nurse and Hans was a teacher, and they were looking to gain more control over the pace of their lives. After travelling around Europe looking for like-minded communities, they decided to move to a mobile home in Sligo. ‘Sometimes in life,’ Hans tells me, ‘if you’re looking for adventure, you have to take a leap of faith and go.’

The fabric of food

The mobile home had no running water or electricity. Luckily, Hans and Gaby were already well versed in the ways of pickling, fermenting and preserving food. Because of the traditional food culture of Germany. ‘If you’re wealthy or have a certain income you can buy your own food. If you have less income or no income, to be self-sufficient, you have to produce your own food.’

Hans grew up in a small village in Germany called Untersteinach where fermented foods were part of the fabric of food production in the community. ‘The most important part of fermented foods in that village was preserving,’ explains Hans. ‘You wanted to make milk last longer so you made it into quark cheese. Flour doesn’t last for ever so you make it into a sourdough starter. You turned cabbage into sauerkraut.’ Hans would help his grandmother in her shop by filling bags with sauerkraut from huge jars in her basement to sell to customers. Gaby is from the outskirts of Frankfurt and she remembers eating bags of sauerkraut on her way to school as a snack.

Because they spent their first two years in Ireland living in a mobile home with no water or electricity, knowing how to make sourdough bread, cheese and sauerkraut helped them survive and thrive. They eventually moved out of their mobile home but stayed in Sligo and went on to make goat’s cheese under the name Cliffoney Organic Farmhouse Cheeses. They’re both involved in the Organic Centre in Rossinver in Co Leitrim, where they lecture about food to this day. They are considered by many to be the foremost experts in fermentation in Ireland and they were among the key organisers of Ireland’s first Fermentation Festival in 2016.

Why bother?

‘The health benefit of fermentation is in the pre-digestion,’ explains Hans. ‘The food has been broken down already. Soya beans are a good example. You can’t really digest them but if they’re fermented and made into miso, then through the fermentation process the body can digest it and take the nutrients in. Sauerkraut actually enhances the nutrition of cabbage. Fermentation not only makes it last longer and more digestible, but it makes it nutritionally better. A lot of fermented foods are low in calories as well.

‘In my own experience,’ he goes on to say, ‘fermented food creates a healthy gut. In turn, the healthy gut leads to a good immune system. On a personal level, I never get coughs and colds. I’m fairly healthy when it comes to the normal bugs you get in the winter or summer.’

The science bit

Back at the APC Microbiome Institute in University College Cork, Dr John Cryan and his colleagues have been studying the science behind this ancient food process. You aren’t just what you eat, he says, but you are what your microbes (i.e. the good bacteria that cause fermentation) eat. In a Ted Talk from July 2017, he says that ‘over the last two decades, we have begun to really understand that there is a very important relationship between our microbes and our overall physiology’.78

Dr Cryan gives me a beginner’s lesson on the science behind our microbiome (the ecosystem of microorganisms living in our gut), and the connection between our diet, our microbiome and our brain function. ‘How we eat really affects our microbiome so much,’ he says. ‘We know, for example, that Omega 3 fatty acids, polyphenols affect the micro biome in a positive way.’ Cryan explains that perhaps the positive effects that have been reported in connection to certain types of food, such as increased energy, are actually linked to their positive impact on the microbiome.

‘Fermented foods like kefir, kimchi and sauerkraut are really great foods for bolstering our microbiome which in turn can positively change our brain function.’ There are ongoing studies about how fermented foods can dampen down our stress response, Cryan tells me. ‘People have to go to work and it’s inevitable that they will get stressed, but it’s how you react to that stress that counts.’

The kefir train

I see fermented foods as the ultimate in slow food. It’s not difficult but I have killed many a kefir grain and sourdough starter through a lack of respect for its rhythm. It requires some attention and a certain modicum of routine. My friend Helen Heanue from Inishturk Island gifted me with kefir grains in the summer of 2016. It was such an honour to take these precious little microbe-rich grains back to the mainland with me to look after. It took me all of three weeks to kill them, through sheer neglect. I got too ‘busy’. My life was so fractured and disorganised and frantic that I wasn’t able to look after myself, let alone these kefir grains.

I tried again in the summer of 2017, towards the end of my year of working slowly. Helen gifted me with more kefir grains and this time I was determined to look after them properly. I found it easier to get into the rhythm of looking after these little live cultures. The process involves placing the grains in a jar and adding a few cups of really good-quality milk (organic and raw in my case), and then letting them sit in a warm place for 12 to 24 hours. The next step is to remove the grains from the kefir milk and store them in another jar, topped up with some good-quality milk. Then the kefir milk, which can be as thick and sour as a yogurt, is ready to be enjoyed.

Slow the train down

That sounds easy, doesn’t it? And it is easy, but it requires routine and a measured pace. If you’re flying all over the gaff like a headless chicken going from one task to the next, it’s also very easy to leave the kefir out on the windowsill for too long or forget about it in the fridge for a few weeks. Well, I’m happy to report that, at the time of writing, Helen’s kefir grains are alive and well. I even have a friend lined up to look after them while I go away on holidays. The process of looking after these mysterious little cultured grains that I don’t fully understand, which in turn seem to be looking after me, has been a rewarding one. And I can finally show my face in Helen’s Inishturk kitchen without feeling guilty about being a kefir grain murderer.

‘If you look at fermentation,’ Hans tells me, ‘it creates really, really good food but it needs time. You can’t do sourdough in an hour or two. We recently timed our own sourdough process at home, and from the start of the process to being able to eat it took 30 hours. But what you get from those 30 hours is a really, really delicious and nutritious bread which lasts two or three weeks. But it needs time to develop in the first place. Often slowing down in food production makes a much better product. If you compare that to how people work, if we slow down and focus the end product of our work will be much better than this fast-paced lifestyle. Slowing down is the future.’

Amen to that.


Final Cover - Slow at Work


An extract from Aoife McElwain’s Slow at Work (Gill Books, €14.99)


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