Anty Gin

Added on by Jonas Astrup Pedersen.

Finally, it's here. After its debut at last year's Pestival tasting and following a long development process to ready it for market, we're excited to share Anty Gin with the world.

Our first commercial run is ninety-nine bottles. Here it is, on sale.
And here, the official Press release.
All the info below.
Let us know what you think.

The NFL team

--

Anty Gin

A joint venture between experimental Copenhagen-based Nordic Food Lab and the world’s first gin tailor, The Cambridge Distillery, is introducing a new and somewhat different gin to the market.

Formica rufa, the red wood ant, are found in forests around the Northern Hemisphere, and are inspiringly sophisticated creatures. They communicate using a host of chemical pheromones, which allow them to form immense colonies housed in large mounds, and they defend their complex communities by producing formic acid in their abdomens and spraying it in the direction of any invader. Luckily for us, these very compounds hold great delicious potential. Formic acid (the simplest organic carboxylic acid, with the chemical formula HCOOH) is a very reactive compound in alcohol, serving as an agent for producing various aromatic esters. Furthermore, many of their chemical pheromones are the same volatile molecules we perceive as aroma. Through distillation of these wood ants, we can explore the tasty universe of these naturally occurring molecules and reactions, capturing the flavours of this fascinating species.

Over six thousand Formica rufa have been foraged and preserved by Forager, a team of wild plant specialists led by Miles Irving in the forests of Kent, UK. Each bottle of Anty Gin will contain the essence of approximately sixty-two wood ants. To support the distinctive flavour of the wood ant distillate and the characteristics of Bulgarian juniper berries, we have selected a handful of prime-quality, wild springtime botanicals to add complexity to the final blend: wood avens (Geum urbanum), nettle (Urtica dioica), and alexanders seed (Smyrnium olusatrum). In order to ensure exceptional quality of base alcohol, only 100% organic grown English wheat has been used for the spirit, and every distillation is carried out just one litre a time.

Our first commercial batch of Anty Gin will produce only ninety-nine bottles, at a retail price of £200 GBP (€250) per bottle. From foraging to bottling and labelling by hand with The Cambridge Distillery’s 1924 typewriter, every step of the process has been done with a dedication to craft. And to share our excitement for the unique flavour of the Formica rufa, each bottle of Anty Gin will come with a 50 ml bottle of pure wood ant distillate.

We look forward to sharing it with you. 


Nordic Food Lab is a non-profit, open-source organisation that investigates food diversity and deliciousness. We combine scientific and cultural approaches with culinary techniques from around the world to explore the edible potential of the Nordic region. We work to broaden our taste, generating and adapting practical ideas and methods for those who make food and those who enjoy eating. 

The Cambridge Distillery is the world’s first gin tailor, using unique methods to create bespoke gins for individuals, organisations and institutions. Approaching the traditional craft of gin distillation from a modern, scientific angle, we experiment continually to discover and apply the best methods of extraction and distillation for each botanical and flavour we work with.


Available this week in limited numbers from:
www.cambridgedistilleryshop.co.uk

700ml Anty Gin
+ 50ml Ant Distillate dropper 

£200 / €250 


For more information, please contact:

Nordic Food Lab                                                       The Cambridge Distillery
Jonas Astrup Pedersen                                            Will Lowe
+45 61711531                                                          +44 07970 339015
jap@nordicfoodlab.org                                             will@cambridgedistillery.co.uk


New crew

Added on by Josh Evans.

The past few months have seen a series of transitions here at the Lab. Ben, who's been leading the team as Head of R&D for the past two years, left us at the end of June to start his own projects. We wish him all the best in his return to his hometown of Edinburgh after ten years on the road, leading restaurant kitchens, skiing the Alps, studying in Piemonte and captaining a crazy crew in Copenhagen. He'll be doing very tasty things, so keep an eye and a tongue out.

One of our very long-term intern Researchers, Guillemette Barthouil, also left us at the end of June. She'll be returning to her family business in the French Basque country as a fourth-generation foie gras producer, but only after sailing the Baltic, opening up a garden restaurant in the Netherlands, and spending some time in Ecuador.

They have both contributed an immense amount to the Lab and we are grateful for them.

These two send-offs also coincide with two welcomes to our permanent team.

Robbe plating up some lamb tartare with sprouted purple wheat. photo credit: Afton Halloran

Robbe plating up some lamb tartare with sprouted purple wheat. photo credit: Afton Halloran

Roberto Flore now officially joins us as our Head Chef, after starting with us on a stage in February and being brought on as interim Head Chef in June. Ben and I first met Robbe last October, when we traveled to Sardinia to research casu marzu, one of the few existing European traditions of entomophagy. Robbe is from Seneghe, a small town of about two thousand people in the hills north of Oristano on the western coast of Sardinia. He took us everywhere, introducing us to shepherds, producers, and eaters and facilitating our research with a splendid intensity. He joins us from being Executive Chef and Management Partner at Antica Dimora del Gruccione, an acclaimed inn and gastronomic learning centre in Santu Lussurgiu, Sardinia, where he did everything from running the restaurant to collaborating with producers to leading workshops with visitors from around the world. He has been making food in the Canary Islands, Sardinia, and across Italy, cooking in restaurants such as Metamorfosi in Rome and the Four Seasons in Milan and working directly with butchers, bakers, cheesemakers, and other producers of all sorts. Robbe has also studied agronomy, and holds a diploma in Management of Marine Parks, Forests and Nature Reserves. We look forward to his broad experience with both chefs and producers helping us build our community in Denmark and the Nordic region, and his commitment to advancing our kitchen, his love of the edible landscape, and his background bringing a new perspective to our work.

Jonas on the boat.

Jonas on the boat.

Jonas Astrup Pedersen has been a familiar face around the Lab for a couple years. He has spent time with us already, first as an intern conducting research on kombucha in winter 2012/2013 for a Project in Practice as part of his MSc in Food Science and Technology at University of Copenhagen, and then returning in Spring 2014 to write his Master's thesis, entitled 'Disgusting or Delicious: Utilisation of bee larvae as an ingredient and consumer acceptance of the resulting food'. Aside from his work with us, he has been heavily involved in food and gastronomy in Denmark, consulting for Estate Coffee, developing a tea program for Chokolade Compagniet, teaching baking at Meyers Madhus, and making regular appearances as a food science expert on Danish news television. Jonas brings a lot of knowledge and skills to the team and will work with us primarily as a product developer, in addition to project managing our contribution to the newly-begun Smag for Livet project ('Taste for Life'), which focusses on the taste of food as a driving force behind health, learning, development, and life satisfaction especially of children and adolescents.

We're excited about the new crew and have already launched into new projects to push our exploration further. Here's to even more deliciousness!


- Josh

Slime dies hard

Added on by Edith Salminen.

by Edith Salminen

How hard can it be, I told myself. The thought of Nothing is impossible until it’s tried kept me going. Possibilities are endless and the sky isn’t the limit. Nevertheless, there I stood, scratching my head, clueless. Seeing my reflection in the window, I sure looked like someone in the know, someone creative. After all, I was in chef’s whites with the whole lab kitchen at my command. I had made this childhood favourite, extremely banal Finnish food, viili, because I wanted to give it new life. Now what? I wanted to prove to myself that just because things have always been done a certain way doesn’t mean they can’t be altered and adapted. But truth be told, when it came to this Finnish food that is so normal to me as to be completely banal, I faced a dead end. I felt I should just hang up my white jacket. As a Finn, I should be the most qualified to experiment with my own food traditions – yet instead I had a hard time tackling such a familiar food from a new angle.

Traditional way to serve viili, with berries (here strawberries, though technically an aggregate fruit and not a 'true' berry) and cinnamon – a summertime lunch or snack. Photo Outi Rinne.

Traditional way to serve viili, with berries (here strawberries, though technically an aggregate fruit and not a 'true' berry) and cinnamon – a summertime lunch or snack. Photo Outi Rinne.

C-R-E-A-T-I-V-I-T-Y – ten innocent letters in the Roman alphabet. When placed after one another in the right order they form a delightful yet pressuring monster of a word. Big news: creativity doesn’t happen on command. Yet, when the pressure is on, miracles can and do happen. But the balance is delicate. In hopes of getting my mojo back I looked up the definition: “Having or showing an ability to make new things or think of new ideas”. New, new, new. Think new. The burden of novelty was eating me from the inside.

Not to be afraid of failure and to play like a child without set goals or defined objectives is the best medicine when in creative standstill. I decided to go for the good old exclusion strategy – reaching for the best solution by trying everything then excluding what doesn’t work. Every time someone at the Lab asked me whether I had tried this or that, I made sure to do so.

Can you make viili ice cream? Let’s see. What about a viili panna cotta? Exciting. Viili butter? The mould would probably add nice flavour. Viili foam? We might lose the ropiness but bring it on. Have you smoked it? Let’s do it. Try using it to cure or inoculate other foods? Why not. And so the list went on. I had the scent. I started to understand what to do and what not to do, gradually excluding options. Creativity was flourishing in an ever-expanding scope of possibilities.

Yet each new endeavour generated some degree of growing pains. This amused me. I can’t do that with viili. My culturally-constructed culinary grammar saw mistakes everywhere. But the child in me kept on playing, against the rules. Funnily enough, I never thought I was being conservative, or stuck in foodways determined by tradition and food-related ‘codes of conduct’. Usually I’m the first one to question commonly accepted ways of preparing classic dishes and handling classic food products. In countries like France and Italy where traditions and family recipes have the toughest roots to pull up and interrogate, I enjoy provoking people by asking why they never try to do grandma’s recipe differently. The default comeback “Because it’s perfect like this” never satisfies me, even though I sometimes end up agreeing. It was time to take my own medicine.

All my new viili applications pleased me, and it was fun to see some of the Lab crew-members find their personal favourites. I was excited again. The viili ice cream was fresh and acidic. I simply poured viili is a PACO jet tube, added some organic sugar, froze it and spun it down. It was more of a granité than an ice cream, but worked nicely on the side of a sweet piece of pie. The panna cotta idea made a lot of sense in principle, but the outcome wasn’t much to celebrate over. I tried both with and without gelatine, added and no added cream, and it was good, but not great. I didn’t manage to both get the thing out of its mould and keep the slimy ropiness. The butter was a favourite. I inoculated cream with viili and let it ferment 24h. Then I simply whisked it like one would when making butter. The mould as I expected added some depth and character to the flavour – a light mushroomy, foresty aroma. Since I have been making this Finnish squeaky cheese called leipäjuusto (an oven-baked, fresh raw cow milk cheese) I thought I could make a Finnish white mould cheese. Sounded easy enough. All I did was to make my cheese and smear it with viili and wait. The texture of the cheese broke down and softened a bit. It tasted like a cheap bloc of Brie. Not bad but definitely would need more work. Then there was the curing – it wasn’t my idea, but Roberto’s. He wanted to cure fish with viili, thinking something in line with surströmming. We jarred some raw cod with viili and sealed it up. A few weeks later, he approached me with the jar. “Would you volunteer to taste?”. Of course. It smelled very fishy but tasted quiet nice. Fishy but fresh. The slime from the viili together with the fishy aroma was a bit challenging I must say. But I swallowed it with no problems. But the foam was the absolute winner (at least that’s what Josh, Alicynn and I thought). Combine 1 part cream and 2 parts viili, and whisk on. The exopolysaccharides ensured the foam whipped up nicely and retained its texture, the ropiness transformed into an ethereal but stable substance through the simple introduction of air. Either sweet or savoury it tasted lovely: light and fresh, acidic and clean.

Viili foam (down-right) was a welcome element at NFL family meal.

Viili foam (down-right) was a welcome element at NFL family meal.

By this time Josh had become the number-one viili fan and encouraged me to share some of my viili work at noma’s Saturday Night Projects – a weekly gathering after Saturday night service introduced by René to encourage the team at the restaurant to present each other with new, creative and though-provoking ‘projects’: a technique, a flavour combination, an ingredient, or a full-blown dish. Some chefs work on their respective projects for weeks, some for days; some simply end up pulling it together at the drop of the hat. The modest and shy Finn in me wasn't convinced. Josh however remained affirmative. It was set. I was shitting my pants. Luckily though, we are a team here at the Lab and people are happy to help out a friend any time. Roberto – a talented chef with great gusto from Sardinia who had showed great interest in viili – would be my partner in crime. A great opportunity was ahead of us. To have the noma team taste and critique a flavour and texture I had spent so much time and energy on would be the best reward.

Roberto and I preparing on project night. photo Afton Halloran

Roberto and I preparing on project night. photo Afton Halloran

Together with Roberto, we wanted to tell the story of viili on a plate. There had to be sauna and spring present in the final dish – two very important parts of the Finnish cultural identity. It also seemed ideal to find ways to combine our two very different food cultures, or at least put them in dialogue: we needed our dish to be delicate and subtle, yet expressive and effusive. After a few days of twisting and turning, tasting and savouring, we ended up choosing elements and techniques that would pay homage to both Roberto’s Sardinian heritage and my Finnish roots.

Ironically, after all the experimenting, we chose to keep the protagonist – viili – in its expressive, unadulterated form. Whether it was the newly-found conservative in me or Roberto’s respect for tradition that led to that, I don’t know. Probably a combination. What I do know is that viili is fundamentally Finnish: simple, modest and pure. Sometimes an ingredient just won’t get any better by applying advance cooking techniques to it. I knew this in principle, but it is a lot different to come face to face with this realisation with a product you know and love, and is duly humbling.

Finding the right flavours.

Finding the right flavours.

We chose to accompany it with a personal favourite of mine, the parsnip. Roberto had a brilliant idea to cook the humble root vegetable in ash – an ancient technique much used in Sardinia, “old school sous-vide” as he calls it. We would only use the peel though, dehydrate it into a crispy, sweet chip. The juicy inside would be incorporated elsewhere. The parsnip skin looked exactly like tree bark. Ashes and bark. Sauna. Bingo! Baby nasturtium leaves rising from an icy nasturtium granité would speak to rebirth and spring – another great idea by chef Roberto. I felt the dish just wouldn’t be complete without some salmiakki (Finnish salty liquorice) which marries incredibly well with parsnips. Salmiakki has variants across the Nordic region, though the common principle is liquorice flavoured with ammonium chloride. We wanted the liquid salmiakki to look like the thickest, deepest traditional balsamic vinegar. A few shiny drops of it on the parsnip bark made it resemble sap, yet another sauna allusion. 

Parsnip bark. photo Afton Halloran

Parsnip bark. photo Afton Halloran

Nasturtium granité. photo Afton Halloran

Nasturtium granité. photo Afton Halloran

After selecting the right plate for our creation, we needed to make it look as beautiful as it tasted. Trials and errors. Splashing, drizzling, dripping, painting, gently placing tiny leaves with a millimetre focus. Intense, all right. For Roberto this is his job, he handled it like a pro and had nerves of steel. For me, each step along the way was a revelation of flavour combinations that viili either enhanced or became enhanced by. And yes, it was also extremely nerve-wracking, for me at least. It made me relentlessly emotional. Roberto made fun of me, but in the most loving way. He understood my exaggerated emotional reactions – he’s Sardinian and Italian, after all. 

The creative process.

The creative process.

On D-day, ten minutes before we were to enter the culinary dragons’ den, I felt confident. We were ready, we had been working hard. Still, I needed a good luck charm. Fast, Edith, think. A week earlier I had been curious and ordered a viili seed all the way from the States. It arrived dehydrated, complete with an adoption certificate.

Adopted American viili.

Adopted American viili.

That would work perfectly. I placed the tiny plastic bag in my pocket. “Showtime buddy,” I whispered to my new Finnish-American friend. With the support of all the crew members, we stepped off the boat, onto land and entered the restaurant.

"Everything okay guys?" head chef Dan at noma. photo Afton Halloran

"Everything okay guys?" head chef Dan at noma. photo Afton Halloran

Robbe plating. photo Afton Halloran

Robbe plating. photo Afton Halloran

Presenting my slimy friend. photo Afton Halloran

Presenting my slimy friend. photo Afton Halloran

We continued working together like a true dream team. I did most of the talking, the academic mumbling of a presentation, introducing all the curious chefs to the slimy mouldy Finn. Roberto was right beside me making sure our dish would be spot on and delicious. Like clockwork, when I wrapped up my introduction, Roberto served the dishes to the hungry and curious cooks. Tasting, laughter, confusion, below-the-belt jokes. We were ready for the toughest of questions. Final pH? Heat resistance? Why? How? When? We kept assessing the questions until both minds and taste buds were satisfied.

The scrutiny. photo Afton Halloran

The scrutiny. photo Afton Halloran

There were many interesting thoughts that arose in the discussion. Roberto and I had designed our viili dish as a refreshing and appetite-stimulating starter. Of course there was certain sweetness to the dish as a whole, mostly derived from the dehydrated parsnip. Nevertheless we sensed that viili would work perfectly as a palate-cleanser to begin a long tasting menu, a bit like wiping your hands with a hot or cold wet towel before eating. The green, subtly spicy and slightly sweetened nasturtium granité would support viili in this. René & Co. had another vision though: dessert.

photo Afton Halloran

photo Afton Halloran

I guess this made sense, especially from the noma-perspective. The aversion to synthetic sweetness in the New Nordic cuisine is a known fact. But for Roberto the dish wasn’t sweet. For me, regarding viili as dessert seemed odd (no surprise there), but in this setting and with this dish I could understand it. What really flirted with my nerdy academic mind was the debate on the degree of sweetness of not the viili, but the granité. I have always regarded the perception of sweetness as extremely socio-culturally modulated, and therefore it was a fascinating topic of discussion that revealed a lot about the differences in taste perception between southern and northern Europe emerging from their different landscapes. When fruit ripens in the Nordic region, it can get sweet but it usually retains quite a bit of acidity, like its many apples and berries. Sources of saccharine ripeness are rare, which translates into a palate here that tends to be pretty sensitive to sweetness – though this does not mean that you can't find some really sweet things here, like classic Danish baked goods drømmekage and brunsviger. But in southern Europe, plants get lots of sun for a long growing season, and much more sugar tends to develop in fruits. Could this be part of the reason why René tasted the dish sweeter than Roberto? Or is it simply individual preference uncorrelated with geography?

Rosio with the refractometer. photo Afton Halloran

Rosio with the refractometer. photo Afton Halloran

Head of pastry, Rosio, was even asked to come forward with the big guns, the refractometer used to measure dissolved solids (and thus sugar) in aqueous solutions like, for example, wine. One degree Brix translates to 1 gram of sucrose in 100 grams of solution and represents the strength of the solution as percentage by weight (% w/w). Roberto was baffled by all this, and so was I –  Roberto because he didn’t think it was sweet at all, and me because of all the technical precision. “It must be at least 23,” the chefs mused. It turned out to be 9°Bx! “The device must be broken,” they said. They couldn’t believe it.

But that didn’t stop anyone from enjoying the dish, wherever in a meal in might come. “As a dessert, who fucking loves this?!” René said, raising his hand as he looked around at his brown-aproned team. It was a room of hands in the air. The verdict was in.

Breaking habitual patterns is among the toughest things for human beings to accomplish.  My slimy childhood friend had confronted me in very concrete terms with the paradox of being omnivorous: we like and seek comfort in the familiar, yet we simultaneously yearn for the new. I ended up presenting viili as viili, my old friend. But the way we combined it with other flavours and techniques fed my inner raging neophile. There are different types of experimenting – trying to turn viili into something it’s not didn’t really work, but developing a dish with it revealed other aspects to its character that I didn’t know before. Sometimes you need to try it all to realise that the most obvious and simple solution works best. The difference is that now I know why it does, and how to go from there. And I think, in the end, I managed to do my slimy friend and my culture’s culinary traditions proud.


photo Afton Halloran

photo Afton Halloran

Sauna & Spring
for one dish

Viili
15ml, serve cold (from a 4˚C fridge)

Parsnip bark
1 parsnip, burned with blowtorch, cooked under ash of a fire for 50 minutes, then peeled and skin dehydrated at 50˚C overnight until crisp.

Sunflower seed crumble
Sunflower seeds, toasted in pan, blended together in thermomix.
Salt to season.

Nasturtium granité
25g nasturtium leaves and stalks
500g water
35g white sugar
2 ice cubes
All blended in thermomix 1 minute maximum. Filtered through fine mesh net. Put in blast freezer in shallow gastro. Scrape the ice down every three minutes.
It is important to create sufficiently small ice crystals. The more sugar, the smaller the crystals will freeze, but this can also be achieved through more frequent and faster scraping. Best prepared about 50 minutes before plating the dish – when made hold in bowl on a larger bowl of ice until ready to plate.

Spinach powder
Spinach, dehydrated at 50˚c until dry, then powdered by hand. Filtered through fine mesh net. 

Salmiakki reduction
10ml salmiakki (salty liquorice liquid) : 1ml apple cider vinegar
Reduced to the consistency of aged balsamic vinegar.

Nasturtium leaves
Small, to garnish 

Plating
Make sure to pre-chill your plate. Be creative!

Best viili duo.

Best viili duo.

Big thanks/grazie mille to my partner in crime, Roberto!

Ants and flukes

Added on by Ben Reade.

As part of Nordic Food Lab's insect project, we are lucky enough to work alongside Jørgen Eilenberg and Annette Bruun Jensen. These clever folks are specialists in insect pathology at Copenhagen University and they have been helping us figure out some complicated aspects of insect eating. So, since starting our research they have begun to uncover some details about a parasite that may or may not be a problem for humans. So although we don't have very much information at this point, we wanted to share what we had in this mini-post to keep everyone up to date. Here is a brief excerpt from Annette:   

 

"The Lancet liver fluke, Dicrocoelium dendriticum, is a trematode parasite that inhibits the bile duct of its terminal host, normally a grazing animal. To fulfil its life cycle, it needs to complete its developmental stages in intermediate hosts: first terrestrial snails and then ants. In Denmark we know that the red wood ant, Formica rufa, is infected by the Lancet liver fluke. Ants infected with fluke cercariae don’t usually die from the infection, but as a 'body-snatcher' the parasite causes a change in the ant's behaviour: at daytime, they climb up vegetation to some elevated position and bite the leaf or grass blade with their mandibles. The parasite-manipulated ants then have a much higher chance of being eaten by the fluke’s terminal host.

"Human infections are rare because it comes along with ingestion of a live infected ant. So if you want to taste ants foraged from nature, don’t eat them raw. This rule is recommended not only for ants, but for other insects in general, as we don't always know what other parasites they may be carriers for.

"As for eating live or raw insects foraged from nature, it should only be done on insects that have been researched, either by researchers, or by locals who have explored the eventual risks in their traditional cuisines."

 

So from what Annette is saying, it is best to steer clear of most raw wild insects, especially if there is no existing widespread tradition of eating them. Now, she is a scientist and we (some of us) are cooks. We recognise that scientists recommend a whole host of things which chefs like to disregard, like, for example, deep-freezing of fish before making sashimi (deep freezing almost certainly kills the ant fluke as well). We also recognise that ignoring such processes is often not out of negligence but out of a desire to maximise sensory experience of the product, and it should to some extent be up to the well-informed individual what they choose to do. Josh and I for example, well in the knowledge of this, have been eating a bunch of raw insects on our field work, because it is most important to try everything – and often they are part of an existing culinary tradition. So, we supply with the facts, you choose to do with them as you will.

photo credit: the internet.

photo credit: the internet.







Roasted Locusts

Added on by Josh Pollen.

Recipe development for our Pestival menu, by Josh Pollen – one half of Blanch & Shock and one third of London Research Kitchen

Schistocerca gregaria

Schistocerca gregaria

Roasted grasshoppers are simple to make and eat, and also pretty accessible – many people have tried them already when traveling. We wanted to present this idea with the quite beautiful desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria), an elegantly spotted creature of green and yellow and black, paired with an emulsion of common wood ants from the forest (Formica rufa) and wild garlic that was just coming into season.

Roasted desert locust

These are quite easy to make. We prefer to use the sub-adult (3rd) instar of the desert locust. Remove the legs and wings. Roast in an oven with butter and salt at 170˚c for 12 minutes, or until gently browned and crisp.

Wild garlic and ant emulsion

130g neutral oil, (grapeseed, sunflower etc.)
20g egg yolk
5g wood ants (Formica rufa)
52g wild garlic (ramson) leaves
10g water
0.75g salt

Blanch the wild garlic leaves in water, seasoned with 2.5% salt for 10 seconds. Shock in iced water and drain. Squeeze out as much excess liquid as possible, and freeze in a Pacojet container. Spin in the Pacojet. Pass the ground, frozen herb paste through a very fine screen, resulting in a stiff, smooth paste. Refrigerate.

NFL INSECTS WEEK 3-9768.jpg
NFL INSECTS WEEK 3-9771.jpg

Cook an egg for 45 minutes at 65C˚ (this step results in a more stable emulsion and the pasteurisation means it can be eaten by anyone who is unable to eat raw eggs). Cool in iced water, and remove the yolk. Using a tall beaker and an immersion blender, start the emulsion by blending the egg yolk with the water and salt. Add the herb paste and ants while blending, and then add the oil one third at a time until the preferred texture is achieved. Pass the emulsion through a very fine sieve or silk screen, removing the miniscule ant parts, and serve with the roasted desert locusts.

IMG_9658.JPG
residual ant particles

residual ant particles

An early iteration, with legs intact.

An early iteration, with legs intact.

photo: Nowness. Serving at Pestival.

photo: Nowness. Serving at Pestival.

Ramson and friends

Added on by Avery McGuire.

by Avery McGuire

 

Spring is upon us. The sky is a vast and brilliant blue. The sun is bright and blinding, and lingers longer each evening. Flowers speckle the first grass with yellow, white and periwinkle. The air is sweet with new life.

The city is awake. People are out, their cheeks blushed, wrapped in blankets with hot coffee or cold beer in hand, soaking up every golden drop of sun no matter how chilly it may still be.

Step out your front door and watch the world budding. There are new shoots and buds, delicate young leaves, and the very first flowers – many of which are not only safe to eat, but healthy and delicious!

ramson. photo credit: Afton Halloran

ramson. photo credit: Afton Halloran

Ramson

Over the last few years, ramson (Allium ursinum), a variety of wild garlic, have (re-)entered into mainstream food and become quite popular. You can find ramson pesto, soups and oils on restaurant menus across Europe. You can even find fresh ramson being sold in higher-end grocery stores and food markets. A similar resurgence has been happening in the US and Canada with ramps (Allium tricoccum), the eastern North American wild garlic. But why buy it when you can forage it for free?

Ramson grow abundantly and are easy to identify, making it a great plant for beginner foragers. They favour semi-shady areas and grow mostly in wooded areas or along riverbanks – usually in large colonies, often covering 100 square meters or more (Irving 2012). Here in Copenhagen you can find them all over Assistens Kirkegård, Amagerfælled, Kalvebod and Kongelund – just to name a few spots.

Ramson have long elliptical leaves that taper to a point. The leaves are slightly ribbed and brilliant green. As the season progresses the plants will produce a tight, rounded cluster of small white, 6-petalled flowers. At their root is a small bulb which looks like a clove of garlic. When the leaves are crushed they smell strongly of garlic.

ramson botanical illustration. photo credit: http://mybotanicalgarden.wordpress.com/2013/04/11/allium-ursinum-and-low-genetic-variability/

ramson botanical illustration.
photo credit: http://mybotanicalgarden.wordpress.com/2013/04/11/allium-ursinum-and-low-genetic-variability/

Miles Irving, a professional forager in the UK, has some words of advice for how to distinguish ramson from lookalikes:

The leaves are the easiest part of the plant to harvest – however they can be confused with other plants. Two of the most important potential lookalikes are Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majus) and Lords and Ladies (Arum maculatum). Lords and Ladies often grows in amongst ramsons so it can slip into a bag if you are not picking carefully.

Both of these plants are highly poisonous, so it is important to be fully familiarised with them before harvesting ramsons. However, neither of them smells of garlic so if you think you have found ramsons always crush a few leaves and smell them, as part of the wider identification process.
— Irving, 2012

Rasmon are extremely versatile in the kitchen. They have strong garlicky characteristics yet are also quite herbaceous and floral.  They are great in pesto, infused into oil or vinegar, mixed into butter, blended into soup (nettle season is here as well!), incorporated into pasta dough, eaten fresh by the handful…

ramson close-up. photo credit: Afton Halloran

ramson close-up. photo credit: Afton Halloran

The ramson season only lasts a month or two so one had better act fast. By now, they are producing flowers and in some places, will have already begun producing fruits – small three-lobed fruits with an intense garlic flavour, delicious and powerful fresh and perfect for pickling and lacto-fermenting.

Yet ramson are just one of many tasty wild plants available at this time of year. Here are some other plants you might find walking though a park, in the forest or along the beach:

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) – this succulent ‘weed’ is somewhat crunchy with a slight lemony taste. It can be tossed into salad or used in place of spinach in many recipes.

Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) –  You can eat the roots, leaves and flowers of this common ‘weed’. Toss the leaves in a salad or cook them into a quiche. Roast or boil the roots as your would parsnips. Add the bright yellow flowers to your next salad for a pop of color and an added zesty flavor. Or dip them into batter and fry them.

Violets (Viola odorata) – These delicate purple flowers are often used as decoration on cakes and other confections. They can be infused into cream for custards and ice creams, or infused into spirits. They can also be brewed into tea or added to lemonade for a refreshing floral summer drink.          

Lambs quarters or goosefoot (Chenopodium album) – The leaves of this plant are a bit bland but highly nutritious. Use them as you would spinach. Sauté them in garlic and oil, use them as pizza topping or turn them into soup. Although they are not the most interesting wild plant, they grow abundantly in many areas of the world, and are one of the most common agricultural ‘pest’, growing quickly between crops and along fields and hedgerows. More interesting then the leaves of this plant are the seeds, which can be dried and ground into flour to be incorporated into bread or other baked goods. The seeds have a very tannic and earthy taste (they are in the same genus as quinoa) and a bit of a coarse texture.

Nettle (Urtica dioica) – Make sure you wear gloves while harvesting this plant. The leaves cause an uncomfortable stinging sensation. Do not worry though, this defense mechanism will disappear after just 30 seconds of cooking the leaves in boiling water. Alternatively, sauté them in olive oil or butter for three to six minutes. Use them in a similar way to spinach in curries and stews, risottos, baked omelettes, gnocchi and pies.

Purple Deadnettle (Lamium purpureum) – Though a member of the mint family, the purple deadnettle tastes nothing of mint. This plant can be easily recognized by its long square stalk (indicating its mint family identity), delicate purple flowers and fuzzy spade-shaped leaves. It’s best to add the young leaves and flowers to salads or gentle sautés.

Blackberry leaves (Rubus fruticosus) – Although the fruits of a blackberry bush are not ripe this time of year, do not overlook the other parts of this surprisingly versatile plant. The young leaves of blackberry bush have a distinct coconut/fig leaf aroma, and can be dried and turned into tea which for has been used as a digestive aid for centuries. They make a delicious drink regardless of whether you are feeling healthy or a bit under the weather.

Ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria) – Another common garden ‘weed’, the young shoots of this plant with their folded leaves make excellent herbal additions to both raw and cooked food. Use as an herb in salads, a garnish for meat, fish, and eggs, or along with other cooked greens as above for a fresh, somewhat celery-like flavour without the bitterness.

Garlic mustard or onion cress (Alliaria petiolata) – Here’s another one that likes hedgerows, woodland edges, and unused soil in the garden. The leaves have some of the aroma of garlic and the pepperiness of mustard at once. Excellent in salads and tossed through pastas at the last minute. The white flowers are currently in bloom and have a lovely garlic/mustard flavour with floral notes, sometimes faintly of bitter almond.

Sea Beet (Beta vulgaris maritima) – This costal plant is a relative of beetroot, chard and perpetual spinach. Much like its relatives, sea beet has pointed leaves and firm stems. The glossy, fresh leaves are an excellent vegetable and can be served in just about any recipe that calls for cooked spinach or chard.

sea beet.

sea beet.

Sea Kale and Sea Kale Broccoli (Crambe maritima) – This hearty vegetable can be found growing in the sand, on rocky shores and along the coastline. The firm stalk grows about 1 meter tall and produces thick fleshy leaves with a deep purple vein and wavy edges. Before the sea kale blooms, the flower head is reminiscent of broccoli.

sea kale.

sea kale.

Sea Arrow Grass (Triglochin maritima) – Cilantro of the sea. Sea arrow grass can be found growing along the waterline, on rocky shores, and in seashore meadows. The tender lower tip tastes of salty, yet slightly sweet cilantro. It is advised not to eat too much of the upper green leaf, although it is not dangerous to consume in small quantities.

Many of these plants can also be excellent in beer. We recently made a spring brew with our friend and master brewer Morten using some of these herbs, like nettles, violets, and blackberry shoots. It turned out nicely – complex, herbaceous, and well-balanced.

But before you set out to explore the edible world just beyond you front door, prepare yourself wisely and remember not every plant is safe to consume. Below you will find a guide to ease the fear of the unknown and make foraging fun, safe, accessible and sustainable.

ITEM!

Identify – Be sure you have confidently identified the plant you are looking for. If you are not 100% sure, do not eat it until you are. In other words, “when in doubt, don’t pull it out.” Smell the plant, observe its leaf shape and arrangement, its stem’s shape, and type of flowers. For more information on plant identification in Denmark check out this site.

Time of year – Know what plants are available at the given time of year so you have a rough idea of what you can expect to find.

Environment – Know what kind of plants grow in a given habitat. Be aware of the ecosystem around you and know how certain plants fit into that habitat.  

Method of harvesting – This includes both location and technique. Be sure it is legal to take plants form the land and make sure the land has not been sprayed with harmful pesticides. Harvest plants sustainably. Only take as much as you need, and familiarize yourself with the appropriate harvesting technique for each plant based on the part you want to consume and how to propagate its future growth. For more information on best foraging practices, check out some of our guidelines for sustainable foraging.

Happy hunting. 

 

References

Irving, Miles. The Forager Handbook: a guide to the edible plants of Britain. UK: Ebury, 2009. 

Moth Mousse

Added on by Nurdin Topham.

Recipe development for our Pestival menu, by Nurdin Topham – now Head Chef at NUR in Hong Kong

The juicy larvae of the wax moth simply blanched in water for a minute has a naturally sweet taste, but both the texture and appearance are barriers to consumption. 

We pureed the larvae and passed it through a very fine mesh to remove the unpleasant stringy fibres. Once passed, we tied the puree into a roulade using cling film and poached it at 65˚C for 8 minutes.

The result had a delicate ‘insect’ sweetness that was not totally unpleasant, however owing to the lack of integral protein (about 10%) the purée did not quite set. The flavour was vaguely similar to a light sea scallop mousseline, a recipe from the classic French kitchen with the addition of cream.

We wondered, could we use this larva to create a super-light mouse – as an expression of the lightness of a moth and its pursuit towards the light.

We experimented with the use of setting agents and found a small amount of chicken puree incorporated in with the larvae worked most effectively, when blended with a little cream.

Some early trials, before finding the right setting agent.

Some early trials, before finding the right setting agent.

We began experimenting with flavour pairings and textures to accompany what was developing into a silky smooth mousse. The month was April and things were just turning into spring, so were thinking green – we tried raw cucumber juice with verbena, asparagus juice with pine oil, grilled asparagus juice, grilled cucumber juice, each time with an assortment of vegetable preparations, wild herbs and flowers. While the dishes looked attractive they lacked cohesion in terms of flavour.

Initially we worked with cream in the mouse; then we tried smoking some skyr, which didn’t work as its acidity produced a grainy split paste instead of the silky-smooth, just-set cream we were after. The smoke, though, was very pleasant. We continued to smoke cream with juniper wood which was delicious, interesting and rich.

Then we moved into a range of nut creams, and tested a few with the larvae. We decided finally on hazelnut as the best pairing with the wax moth larvae, and when smoked it really worked. The smoke, the nuts, and the delicate sweetness of the wax moths worked well with a simple mushroom sauce made from dried morels, a little mushroom stock, some hazelnut cream and infused with some lemon verbena at the end.

Click through to see some different iterations of the dish throughout the creative process:

Moth Mousse, hazelnuts & morels & ‘faux foie’

Yield: 10 x taster portions / 4

Ingredients

1. For the smoked hazelnut cream:
200g  Hazelnuts, skins removed            
400g  Water, filtered                                            
0.4g    Xanthan gum
5g       shaved Juniper wood & Polyscience smoke gun 

2. For the moth mousse:
200g  Wax moth larvae, blanched 5 seconds in boiling water, refreshed in iced water, drained and dried
200g  Smoked hazelnut cream from the above preparation
75g     Passed chicken puree* (passed through a very fine sieve)
2g       Sea salt
5g       Faux foie seasoning (optional, but recommended – recipe to come)

3. Morel & hazelnut cream:
100g   Morel mushrooms, dried, rehydrated in 600ml water overnight
600g  Chestnut mushrooms, finely sliced 1mm
60g     Unsalted butter
60g     Shallots, finely sliced 2mm
300g   Smoked hazelnut milk
60ml   Mead, dry not too sweet
10g      Faux foie (optional)
3g        Fresh lemon verbena
Sea salt

4. Morel crisp
30g     Morel puree
30g     Egg white
5g       Koji extract (optional but excellent)
3g       Faux foie (optional)

5. Ingredients to garnish and plate:
20g     Unsalted butter
150g Fresh / rehydrated morels, small, well washed and dried
15g     Dry mead
3g       Lemon verbena, fresh leaves
10no Garlic flowers 

Method

1. To make the smoked hazelnut milk:

Blend the hazelnuts and the water together for 2 minutes on high power in the thermomix. Leave in the fridge overnight. Squeeze the liquid through a fine superbag to separate the pulp from the cream. You should be left with a yield of 440-450g. In a blender on high  power incorporate the xanthan gum with the hazelnut milk.

Decant the hazelnut milk into a large bowl and cover with cling film. Using the smoke gun fill the bowl with juniper smoke and allow to infuse, covered for 10 minutes. Repeat this process to develop a pronounced smoky flavour.

 

2. To make the moth mousse:

In the chilled jug of a thermomix blender, Blend the wax moth larvae with 100g of the smoked hazelnut cream on full power for 1 minute. Scrape down the sides of the blender jug and repeat 3 times. Pass this puree through a very fine mesh you should yield 140g, reserve on ice.

Return the passed wax moth larvae puree to the chilled jug of the thermomix blender. Add the passed chicken puree, 100g smoked hazelnut cream and seasonings. Blend to achieve a silky smooth mousse.

Prepare a tester by wrapping 30g of the mouse mix in a cling film boudin and poach at 65˚C in a water bath for 10 minutes. Taste to adjust the seasoning. the mouse should be light and delicate with gently smoky flavour. Once satisfied with the seasoning wrap in cling film and reserve on ice until ready to cook.

NFL INSECTS WEEK 1-42.jpg

*It is important to keep the temperature cool to ensure the mechanical action of the blade does not generate heat which could begin to coagulate the chicken protein, resulting in a grainy texture in the finished mousse.


3. To make the morel & hazelnut cream:

First make the mushroom stock: in a large frying pan, caramelize half of the sliced chestnut mushrooms in 30g unsalted butter until golden and crisp. Separately soften the remaining mushrooms in a dry pan. Strain the soaked morels, passing the soaking liquid through a fine mesh to remove any grit. Add the caramelized mushrooms and morel soaking liquid to the softened mushrooms. Simmer for 20 minutes, skim and remove from the heat and allow to rest for 20 minutes before pressing and passing the mushroom stock to extract all the liquid.

For the sauce, soften the finely sliced shallots for 8 minutes on a low heat until  translucent, with no colour. Stir in the morels and cook for a further 5 minutes. Add the  hazelnut milk, boiled mead and mushroom stock, and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the lemon verbena sprig, cover to infuse and allow to rest for 20 minutes before blitzing for 10 seconds with a hand blender and passing through a fine sieve. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding the faux foie if using.


4. To make the morel crisp

Mix the ingredients together and spread in a fine layer on a silpat mat. Place in a dehydrator at 55˚C for 5-6 hours until dehydrated and crisp. Break into shards and store in an airtight container, with a packet of silica gel to keep dry if available.


5. To garnish and serve

Poach the moth mousse boudins blancs as with the testers at 65˚C for 10 minutes. In a little unsalted butter, sauté the morel mushrooms briefly with a little sea salt and a splash of dry mead. Remove from the heat add a sprig of verbena, the faux foie if using and cover. Reheat the morel and hazelnut cream, blend to emulsify and lighten. Lift the boudins blancs from the water bath, cut to remove the cling film, portion and place the moth mousse in warm bowls. Spoon over the morel and hazelnut cream, top with the sautéed morels, morel crisp and a few small leaves of verbena and garlic flowers.

photo: Nowness. Serving at Pestival.

photo: Nowness. Serving at Pestival.

There will be slime

Added on by Edith Salminen.

by Edith Salminen


Overview

Nordic people love fermented milks, with an average intake per person of 100g a day. We have in the Nordic region a distinctive subfamily of fermented milk and cream products sometimes referred to in English as the “ropy milks of Scandinavia”. These ropy milks are rather similar in flavour and acidity, but differ in consistency and mouthfeel. The Finnish one is called viili and it is a traditional fermented milk product involving lactic acid bacteria (LAB) that enjoy ambient temperatures between 17 and 22 °c, as well as a surface mould which makes the product unique in taste, aroma and appearance compared to all other Nordic fermented milks. The mould growing on the surface is Geotrichum candidum (the same mould which plays a crucial role in the development of certain cheeses). It feeds on the cream and forms a tasty, slightly fuzzy upper layer.

The slimy ropiness of viili is created by a specific strain of LAB called Lactococcus lactis subsp. cremoris. Other LAB strains used in industrially produced viili are Lactococcus lactis subsp. lactis biovar diacetylactis (contributes to flavour) and Leuconostoc mesenteroides subsp. cremoris. These LAB strains produce long chains of exopolysaccharides. Exopolysaccharides are long chains of many (‘poly’) sugars (‘saccharides’) that are excreted from the cell (‘exo’) as part of its metabolism. Other, more known exopolysaccharides commonly used in the food industry are Xantan and Gellan gum.

Viili was traditionally made in wooden barrels, often made of alder wood. Nowadays, one doesn’t need to carve a barrel of alder: making viili is a no-brainer. If you have full fat, good quality, unhomogenized cow’s milk, a 200ml plastic or glass jar and a viili seed you’re good to go. Go ahead and try it for yourself. Let there be slime!


Our viili gets its own fridge drawer.

Our viili gets its own fridge drawer.

Nordic people love their fermented milks, with an average intake per person of 100g a day. Finns and Danes rank highest in the bunch with a ravishing 41 kg per person per year (Fondén & et al. in Tamine 2007)! Yet what is perhaps less known is many people’s proclivity for a bit of slime in their fermented milk.

We have in the Nordic region a distinctive subfamily of fermented milk and cream products that Harold McGee refers to as the "ropy milks of Scandinavia" (McGee 2004, 50). These yoghurt-like substances are known under different names depending on their geographical origins: långfil in Sweden, tettemelk in Norway and viili in Finland. These ropy milks are rather similar in flavour and acidity, but differences in consistency and mouthfeel are noticeable even to a non-Nordic palate.

I am Finnish so viili is my bread and butter. Let me tell you a story of viili.

 

Viili

Viili is a traditional Finnish fermented milk product involving mesophilic bacteria[1]. In some scientific papers it has also been classified as a “mould-lactic fermentation product” (Tamine & Marshall in Law 1997). Viili is the modern version of old-school filbunke traditionally produced in Sweden, from where it made its way to Finland when the two countries were one roughly from the 12th century up to the year 1809 (Fondén & et al. in Tamine 2007). It is hard to say how long viili has existed, but there are records of it being produced and consumed in Finland since the 19th century. Somewhere along the way, distinct from its Swedish ancestor, viili gained a mould growth on the surface, which makes it unique in taste, aroma and appearance compared to all other Nordic fermented milks (Law 1997). Beautiful, delicious surface mould.

1-2-3-VIILI.

1-2-3-VIILI.

Today, viili is mostly considered as breakfast or a snack, whereas back in the days it was regarded as a full meal, especially in summertime (Linquist 2009, 79). Nowadays viili is most often consumed topped with sugar and cinnamon, or served with fruit. To give viili a modernising face-lift, fruit-flavoured and -coloured industrial viili called Viilis was introduced to the market in the 1980s and continues to be popular among children (Tamine & Robinson 1988).

The reason why I decided to get to know my beloved slimy friend more deeply is because I have been taking it for granted all these years. Available in any little kiosk or food store in Finland, viili is no longer an artisan product as it used to, the viili seed passing from mother to daughter. I want to change that.

 

Once upon a time…

The first commercially sold viili was produced in a sauna hut by a riverbank close to the town of Sipoo in South-eastern Finland in 1929 (Ingman 2013; Wallén 2003). A young man called Hjalmar Ingman made his first trip to Helsinki to sell his viili – thirty 1-liter wooden jars of it to be exact – on June 23rd of that year. Safe to say his efforts paid off. Ingman’s viili was a succulent success. Except for a brief halt in business from spring to October 1941 due to WWII, Ingman’s viili business kept growing. In 1960, he founded Hj. Ingman Ky, a public organization owned by a group of municipalities. That is also when his viili would become available in the first milk shops such as Wickström, HOK and other Finnish supermarkets (Wallén 2003, 220).

Determined and young Mr. Ingman (Wallén 2004).

Determined and young Mr. Ingman (Wallén 2004).

As mentioned above, viili was traditionally made in wooden barrels. According to old sources, the best wood to use was alder wood. Whether the wood added some important aromas or flavour to the final product or had some other particular function is uncertain, but one could guess it did. When time to eat, the viili barrels (hence the Swedish name filbunke, or 'viili bowl/barrel') were placed in the middle of the table for shared consumption. The unwritten eating rules were common knowledge: one should always keep to one's own corner of the barrel and one was never to only skim the creamy surface that for many was the most delicious part. From the 1920s onward the wooden barrels were gradually replaced by single serving glass jars (Lindquist 2009, 78). Nowadays, viili is sold in plastic single-portion-sized (250g) containers sealed with an aluminium foil cap.

 

It’s all in the slime

What is so precious and exciting about viili is its distinctive ropy and gelatinous consistency, which gives it its characteristic mouthfeel. Other Nordic fermented milk products with mesophilic bacteria have this to some degree, but viili is downright the slimiest I’ve encountered. Slurp a spoonful of viili and you can feel how it holds together firmly but softly. In fact, viili is so cohesive that if some of the viili spills out from its container the rest of it will most probably be dragged out of the container too. It’s like a dairy slinky. As a kid I remember thoroughly enjoying and playing with this feature.

Ropy viili.

Ropy viili.

The slimy ropiness is created by a specific strain of lactic acid bacteria (LAB) called Lactococcus lactis subsp. cremoris. Other LAB strains used in industrially-produced viili are Lactococcus lactis subsp. lactis biovar diacetylactis (contributes to flavour) and Leuconostoc mesenteroides subsp. cremoris (Meriläinen 1984). These LAB strains produce long chains of exopolysaccharides at the correct fermentation temperature to create the characteristic consistency and also contribute to the aroma and flavor profile of viili (Kahala & Joutsjoki 2012, 177).

Exopolysaccharides are long chains of many (‘poly’) sugars (‘saccharides’) that are excreted from the cell (‘exo’) as part of its metabolism. They have multiple applications in various food industries, as their properties are almost identical to different plant and algal gums currently in use (e.g. xantan gum, gellan etc.). In general, the various exopolysaccharides are increasingly used to attain certain wanted textures and consistency as well as to improve physical stability in food items (Giavasis & Bilideris 2007). To give you a concrete and more familiar example, Gellan gum (E number E418) forms soft, elastic, transparent and flexible gels, but forms hard, non-elastic brittle gels once de-acylated. Xanthan gum (E number E415), another common exopolysaccharide and often used in gluten-free baked goods, hydrates rapidly in cold water without lumping to give a reliable viscosity, encouraging its use as thickener, stabilizer, emulsifier and foaming agent.

[1] Gellan gum molecule. Source: Water Structure and Science, Martin Chaplin, 2012.

[1] Gellan gum molecule. Source: Water Structure and Science, Martin Chaplin, 2012.

[2] Xantan gum molecule. Source: Water Structure and Science, Martin Chaplin, 2012.

[2] Xantan gum molecule. Source: Water Structure and Science, Martin Chaplin, 2012.

Moreover, the naturally-occurring exopolysaccharides that give rise to sliminess also prevent syneresis (the expulsion of water from a gel) and graininess, resulting in a pleasant natural thickness in the product (Macura & Townsley 1983). According to Sundman, It is thanks to these exopolysaccharides that the Nordic ropy fermented milks, and viili in particular, keep longer than many other fermented milk products under the same conditions (Sundman 1953). 

[3] Lactococcus lactis subsp. cremoris, bar: 1 µm. Photo by Bart Weimer, Utah State University.

Certain LAB strains, but also yeast and fungi, excrete exopolysaccharides as part of their metabolism. Research shows that these molecules have beneficial effects to human health, being antitumorous, immunostimulatory, hypocholesterolic and hypoglycemic (Giavasis & Bilideris 2007.) The exopolysaccharides do not interact directly with the pathogenic agent, but they do stimulate the immune system to respond and are therefore referred to as “biological response modifiers” (Giavasis & Bilideris 2007).

(For more on lactic acid fermentation, read this article on the blog and listen to this podcast of one of our talks for noma stagiaires and staff.)

 

Delicious mould

Often, moulds and fungi tend to not tolerate lactic acid bacteria very well, that is why you rarely find, for example, green mould on your yoghurt (unless its very old) (Frisvad 2014, personal communication). But what distinguishes viili from its other Nordic counterparts is in fact its delicate mouldy surface. When making viili, the milk cream rises to the surface (a normal occurrence when unhomogenized milk is left to stand). Many Finns consider this upper layer the most delicious part of viili, as do many of us at the lab. This deliciousness is not only because it is composed of cream (duh) – the mould Geotrichum candidum (which plays a crucial role in the development of certain cheeses, particularly small-format goat’s cheeses from the Loire Valley) feeds on the cream and forms a tasty, slightly fuzzy upper layer (Kurmann et al. 1992). 

[4] Geotrichtum candidum x1000 LPCB stain. Photo by George Barron 2013. 

[4] Geotrichtum candidum x1000 LPCB stain. Photo by George Barron 2013. 

The G. candidum also contributes to viili’s overall flavour formation giving it some fruity and mushroomy notes. Like most other moulds, G. candidum is aerobic and therefore only develops on the surface of the viili (Frisvad 2014 personal communication). This mould also consumes lactate (any salt or ester of lactic acid). This process lowers the acidity in viili resulting in a mild and delicate, slightly acidified milk flavour – less acidic than the similar Swedish långfil, for example. As moulds consume oxygen and produce carbon dioxide, an airtight viili jar bought from the store can be slightly carbonated when opened – totally fine, and totally tasty (Kahala et al. 2008,105). Some of this carbonation could also be due to heterofermentative LAB. In addition to G. candidum, traditional viili also contains the yeast strains Kluyveromyces marxianus[2] and Pichia fermentans. In industrially-produced viili, however, these two yeast strains are considered contaminants.

 

All for slime and slime for all

Making viili is a no-brainer. If you have full fat, good quality, unhomogenized cow’s milk, a 200ml plastic or glass jar and a viili seed you’re good to go (unless you happen to be located in a very warm climate). When in Finland, one can walk into practically any little food store or kiosk and find viili next to milk, butter and yoghurt. In Denmark on the other hand, viili is nowhere to be found, but that’s what kind mothers are for. A quick call to Finland and I had both a viili seed and my mother in Copenhagen a week later. That’s what I call a special delivery.

But do not worry, fellow viili-lover – there is another way to get your viili going if you don’t happen to have a mother in Finland. To my delightful surprise while reading Sandor Katz, I discovered that a viili seed, a real traditional one, was transported dried in a piece of cloth to the United States over a 100 years ago. The family with Finnish origins, now American, run a webstore called GEM Cultures selling various microbial cultures that have been in their family for ages, and among them a viili culture. Similar online stores selling viili seeds are Happy Herbalist, Cultures for Health, and Yemoos Nourishing Cultures. I tried the latter, just out of curiosity and because they send you the seed dried. I also discovered a woman from Norway named Eva Bakkeslett, an artist and cultivator who as a part of her artistic work uncovers forgotten or rejected practices, concepts and cultures which she then cultivates and shares with others. Eva has made a whole anthropological art project on my beloved slimy milk! Check out her work here.

It never ceases to amaze me when, concentrating on one single esoteric subject, one finds leads and connections all over the world. We often become so used to our distinctive cultural food items that we forget their peculiarity and their beauty. Stumbling upon these viili lovers all the way in the United States really made me appreciate this odd Finnish dairy product even more.

This is not a drill.

This is not a drill.

As we speak, there are containers of different sizes all over the lab breeding slimy deliciousness. Though I have to admit that stepping outside of my culturally constructed box when it comes to viili has been challenging. What to do and what to create with something that is already so good and special as it is? How to give a new angle to it without losing its essential character? Luckily this is what we do here at the lab and I’ve got a great team pushing me to rethink viili and all its potential. The full results of my viili experiments remain to be seen, but what I know without a doubt is that I have an important mission to spread the seed. Getting the sporadic visitors and curious passers-by to take home a few tablespoons of viili is my immediate aim. So far viili seeds have travelled to Norway, Austria, Greece and back home to Finland. Slowly but surely, my humble Finnish ropy milk will take the world over. There will be slime –

to be continued...

 

Footnotes

[1] Mesophilic bacteria are medium temperature bacteria, a group that grow and thrive in a moderate temperature range between 20°C and 45°C. The optimum temperature range for these bacteria in anaerobic digestion is 30°C to 38°C.

[2] This yeast is also produced commercially as a nutritional and bonding agent for fodder and pet food, and as a source of ribonucleic acid in pharmaceuticals.

 

Images

[1] http://www1.lsbu.ac.uk/water/hygellan.html (Accessed March 24th 2014).

[2] http://www1.lsbu.ac.uk/water/hyxan.html (Accessed March 24th 2014).

[3] http://www.magma.ca/~scimat/science/Leuconostoc.htm (Accessed March 18th 2014).

[4] https://atrium.lib.uoguelph.ca/xmlui/handle/10214/6084?show=full (Accessed march 18th 2014).

 

References

Fondén R. et al. “Nordic/Scandinavian Fermented Milk Products” in Fermented Milk, Wiley-Blackwell, 2006.

Frisvad, Jens Christian, personal communication at the Lab on March 12th 2014.

Fuquay et al. Encyclopedia of Dairy Sciences 2nd Edition Second Edition, Academic Press, 2011.

Giavasis I. & C. G. Biliaderis “Microbial Polysaccharides” in Functional Food Carbohydrates, Eds. Biliaderis & Izydorczyk, 2007.

Kalaha et al. “Characterization of starter lactic acid bacteria from Finnish fermented milk product viili”, Journal of Applied Microbiology, vol 15, 2008: 1929-1938.

Kahala M. & V. Joutsjoki “Traditional Finnish Fermented Milk “Viili”, Handbook of Animal-Based Fermented Food and Beverage Technology, Second Edition, Eds. Y . H . Hui, E . Özgül Evranuz,  CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group, 2012.

Kurmann, J. et al. Encyclopedia of Fermented Fresh Milk Products: An International Inventory of Fermented Milk, Cream, Buttermilk, Whey, and Related Products, Springer, 1992.

Linquist, Yrsa Mat, måltid, minne – Hundra år av finlandssvensk matkultur, Svenska litteratursällskapet, Helsinki, 2009. 

Law, B.A Microbiology and Biochemistry of Cheese and Fermented Milk Second Edition, Chapman & Hall, London, 1997.

Macura D. & Townsley P. M. “Scandinavian Ropy Milk – Identification and characterization of endogenous ropy lactic streptococci and their extracellular excretion”, Journal of Dairy Science, vol. 67, 1984: 735-744.

McGee, H On Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2004.

Meriläinen V. T “Microorganisms in fermented milks: Other Microorganisms”, Bull. of Int. Dairy. Fed., vol 179, 1984: 89-93.

Sundman V. “On the protein character of a slime produced by Streptococcus cremoris in Finnish ropy sour milk”, Acta Chem. Scand., vol 7, 1953: 558-560.

Tamine A. Y. Fermented Milks, Wiley-Blackwell, 2006.

Tamine A.Y. & Robinson R.K. “Microbiology of yoghurt and related starter cultures”, Yoghurt: Science and Technology. Eds. Tamine A.Y., Robinson R.K. Cambridge, Woodhead Publishing Ltd. 2007, 468-534.

http://viiliculture.wordpress.com

Wallén, B  Juusto-Uusimaa: Itä-Uudenmaan kadonnut juustonvalmistusperinne/Ostnyland : Den försvunna osttillverkartraditionen i Östra Nyland, ETC-consulting, Finland, 2004.

 

 

 

 

Vinegar Science pt. 5: Recipes

Added on by Arielle Johnson.

by Arielle Johnson


Overview

What follows in our last post in this 5-part miniseries on the hows and whys of vinegar making are some of the recipes we developed using the previously discussed techniques and methods. There are three recipes: one for celery vinegar using the ethanol addition method and single (acetic) fermentation; one for strawberry vinegar using a double (alcoholic and acetic) fermentation and aquarium bubbler; and one for roasted koji ale vinegar, using a triple fermentation (fungal saccharification, alcoholic, and acetic), and passive aeration.


Young Celery Vinegar:

1. Juice celery in a juicer – you should get a yield in juice of approximately 50% of the initial weight.

2. Add high-proof alcohol to the celery juice until the mixture has an ethanol concentration of 6-8%. If you're using 80 proof liquor to do this, only 40% of what you're adding is ethyl alcohol so plan accordingly.

3. Add 20% of a raw, unpasteurized vinegar you like the flavour of – either a previous batch of homemade vinegar, a commercial vinegar, or vinegar mother.

4. Submerge an aquarium air pump and airstone in the vinegar, cover the container with something air-permeable, like cheesecloth with a fine weave or a side towel ­(you'll want to keep fruit flies out but let the air you're pumping in escape) and aerate the mixture until it tastes strongly of vinegar, approximately 3-8 days.

Alas, a Dane wrote the names, in whose language celery has two 'l's (bladselleri)

Alas, a Dane wrote the names, in whose language celery has two 'l's (bladselleri)

Strawberry Vinegar:

1. Juice strawberries.

2. You want juice with 12.5-15% sugar to reach 6-8% alcohol post-fermentation. Your juice alone will probably not have this much sugar. Split the juice into two even volumes, reduce one on the stove by about 3/4, then combine them to attain this range. This method assumes you have about 8% sugar in your strawberry juice to begin with. If you have a refractometer, take measurements and calculate; or, cowboy it by taste and let us know how it turns out, we're curious.

4. Add champagne or white wine yeast to your strawberry juice, seal it with an airlock, and let it ferment until it stops bubbling (it should taste dry and alcoholic), somewhere around 7-14 days.

5. Rack the strawberry wine off the yeast lees, add raw unpasteurized vinegar at 20%, and either aerate or let stand for 2-4 months.

Roasted Koji Ale Vinegar (with botanicals)

(Makes 25 L of beer, 30 L of vinegar)

1. Make Koji: Soak 1.5 kg of pearled barley overnight, steam it for 1.5 hours, cool to 35˚, inoculate with 1.5 g koji spores (1g/kg dry grain if using pure spores; 20g/kg if using koji-kin), spread into a 2cm layer, cover with a damp towel, and incubate in a humid room at 30˚. Stir and turn after 6, 12, and 18 hours. The koji is ready when a fuzzy white mycelium binds the grains together; if it has started turning green, use these parts for spores but don't cook with them. Roast the koji at 175°, mixing frequently, until it is dark golden brown.

2. For easier fermentation and improved beer flavour, make a yeast starter. Make 2L of wort the day before brewing by diluting malt extract or dried malt in boiling water to about 12-13% sugar, let cool, and add a packet of dried yeast or, better, a tube of yeast culture like White Labs California V Ale Yeast, and let it grow for 24 hours before you brew. Adding this larger amount of yeast to the 25 L of wort stresses the yeast less.

3. Grind 4500 g of Maris Otter Pale Malt or another similar malt, and 1900 g of roasted barley koji.

4. Pre-heat a large insulated container such as a large thermal drink dispenser or cooler by pouring boiling water into it. This container is your ‘Mash Tun’. It will make your life much easier if it has a tap at the bottom out of which you can drain liquid, and even more so if you attach a piece or a cylinder of wire mesh to the opening as a filter)

5. Heat 15 L of filtered water to 72°C. This is your ‘strike water’, and you want it at a temperature so that when you mix it with your grain, they will be at 65°C. Use this calculator for a more precise estimate.

6. Combine the grain and the heated water in the pre-heated insulated container, make sure the temperature of the mixture is about 65°C, stir it, put a lid on it, and let it sit for an hour. Right now you've activated amylolytic enzymes in the malt which are converting starches into sugars, and these sugars as well as other flavour compounds are being extracted into the water. The extracted grain is your wort.

7. Heat another 15 L of water to at least 72°C; it can be boiling.

8. After an hour, slowly drain the wort off the grain with the tap on your mash tun. This is called lautering. Minimizing exposure to air, for example by covering the spout with tubing, will prevent oxidative flavors. Your wort will probably be fairly cloudy. If the mash tun has no tap, you can pour all of it through a strainer to separate the spent grain from the wort.

9. To filter the wort further and extract more sugar, slowly pour the drained wort over the grain bed again one or two times, preferably through some kind of perforated plastic so the wort trickles over the whole surface and contacts all the grain.

10. Pour the second batch of 15 L of water slowly over the mashed grain and collect it. Mix the original wort with this second batch of wort. [i]

11. Let the wort cool and take a sample to measure its sugar content by specific gravity. This is done with a hydrometer, which floats in the wort and measures its density by how high or low it floats. Assuming you'll have a small amount of sugar and other dissolved solids left when the yeast have finished their fermentation, you want an original gravity of about 1055-1060, which means that the wort has a density that is 1.055-1.06 times that of water. A higher gravity means higher sugar, and either a sweeter or higher-alcohol beer. You can add water or boil down to adjust the gravity. You can also check the sugar content with a refractometer, which measures degrees brix, or percentage of dissolved solids calibrated to sucrose.

12. When the wort is at about room temperature, add yeast. We recommend White Labs Burton Ale Yeast, WLP023, as a starting point.  Put the yeasted wort in a sealed container with an airlock and let it ferment until you like the sweetness-alcohol balance; for vinegar you may want to stop it before it gets completely dry. This will take about 1-2 weeks. Either at this point or at the next step when you add vinegar starter, add 0.5-5% by weight of botanicals, depending on intensity and desired aromatic balance. We have used juniper berries, juniper wood, pine needles, liquorice root, and kelp.

13. Add 20% of the volume of beer of unpasteurized raw vinegar to the beer. Cover the container with an air-permeable cover, like a clean kitchen towel or muslin, and let it sit in a relatively warm place for 2-4 months, tasting every 2-4 weeks, until it reaches an acidity level that you like.

 

[i]            At this point, if you want to turn it into beer, you'd take hops, and boil some of them in the wort for an hour and then add the rest to boil for a short amount of time- the long boil transforms some of the hop compounds into bitter-tasting isomers, and the short boil will provide more hop aroma. Hopped beer can be made into vinegar, too.

 

Cricket Broth

Added on by Nurdin Topham.

Recipe development for our Pestival menu, by Nurdin Topham – now Head Chef at NUR in Hong Kong

NFL INSECTS WEEK 1-43.jpg

As part of our own learning process we tried making some simple stocks to taste the inherent flavour of these different creatures, and to determine which was the optimal proportion of insect to use to impart the flavour.

After trying 10%, 20%, 30%, 40% we found that 20% was sufficient.

Once determining our basic ratio, we began adding a few more variables with the following recipes cooked sous vide at 85˚C for 1 hour.

NFL INSECTS WEEK 1-48.jpg

White stocks

1. Cricket
60g     20%    Crickets
0.5g    0.1%     Sea salt
300g   100%   H20

2. Cricket & Kombu
60g     20%    Crickets
0.5g    0.1%     Sea Salt
2g       0.6%    Kombu
300g   100%   H20

3. Meal worm
60g     20%    Meal worms
0.5g    0.1%    Sea Salt
300g   100%   H20

4. Meal worm & Kombu
60g     20%    Meal worms
0.5g    0.1%    Sea Salt
2g       0.6%   Kombu
300g  100%    H20

Brown stocks

5. Cricket
60g     20%    Crickets, roasted 12 minutes @ 160˚C w/ 5g rapeseed oil
0.5g    0.1%     Sea Salt
300g   100%   H20

6. Cricket & Kombu
60g     20%    Crickets, roasted 12 minutes @ 160˚C w/ 5g rapeseed oil
0.5g    0.1%     Sea Salt
2g       0.6%    Kombu
300g   100%   H20

7. Meal worm
60g     20%    Meal worms
0.5g    0.1%    Sea Salt
300g   100%   H20

8. Meal worm & Kombu
60g     20%    Meal worms
0.5g    0.1%    Sea Salt
2g       0.6%   Kombu
300g   100%   H20

NFL INSECTS WEEK 1-49.jpg
NFL INSECTS WEEK 1-51.jpg

Tasting notes:

Screen Shot 2014-02-20 at 1.09.17 PM.png

Conclusion

The brown stocks were on the whole better than the white. With the browning masking some of the ‘unpleasant insect’ flavours. Cricket stocks were the more pleasant, naturally sweet and reminiscent of a prawn with a rounded biscuity savoury flavour. The Meal worm flavour was distinctively unpleasant – the aroma and flavour was hidden and improved with roasting which gave rise to chicken skin flavours and a crispy texture.

During a research visit to the Copenhagen zoo we learnt that often crickets’ diet is based on 1/2 cereals and 1/2 fish feed. We wondered to what extent the fish feed influenced the flavour of the crickets – more work could explore the effects of different feeding regimes on flavour. After speaking to different suppliers, we found crickets fed on grasses, not on fish food, and this improved the flavor dramatically.

NFL INSECTS WEEK 1-44.jpg

Cricket Broth

After these initial trials we decided to pursue a broth as a concept to present the pure taste of insect. So we continued to investigate how to best obtain this purity of flavour. 

Our first task was to try testers of different stock cooking methods – in a pan, sous vide, and in the pressure cooker. We found sous vide to provide the cleanest flavour. 

Some notebook diagram notes:

fig 1: cricket broth trials

fig 1: cricket broth trials

fig 2: broth 2 - production batch

fig 2: broth 2 - production batch

Final broth recipe

Base brown cricket stock
1000g            100%             Water
200g             20%               Crickets roasted, preheated Rational 160˚C for 18 minutes
4g                  0.4%              Sea salt        

Combine in sous vide bag and cook @ 85˚C for 1 hour, then chill.

For the clarification & final broth

500g             100%             Brown cricket stock, reduced by half, cold
165g              33%               Crickets roasted in a preheated oven at 160˚C for 18 minutes
50g               10%                Carrot, finely sliced 2mm 
50g               10%                Shallot, finely sliced 2mm            
50g               10%                Leek, finely sliced 2mm                          
80g               16%                Chicken breast
50g               10%                Egg white
10g                 2%                Grasshopper garum

Method

Puree chicken breast and egg white together at full power for 20 seconds. Mix ingredients together in a vacuum bag and seal under full vacuum. Cook at 85˚C for 1 hour, pass through a fine super bag, taste and adjust the balance of seasoning with a little grasshopper garum if necessary.

When preparing for larger numbers we cooked the clarification traditionally in a large stock pot.

At the Pestival event, we served alongside the roasted desert locusts.

photo: Wellcome Images

photo: Wellcome Images

Vinegar Science pt. 4: Slow Malt Vinegars with Nordic Flavours

Added on by Arielle Johnson.

by Arielle Johnson


Overview

Traditional malt vinegar, most commonly doused on fish and chips, is not regarded with much culinary interest. In our quest for developing Nordic vinegar, we found this widely produced, commercial malt vinegar as a source of inspiration for developing beer-base vinegars that held the potential for more complex and interesting flavors. The experimentation consisted of two types of malt-beer bases. For one, we mashed and fermented pale ale barley malt in a style similar to home-brewed beer. For the other, we brewed a koji-beer by creating a mash as if koji were malt. This method of brewing and fermenting koji proved unsuccessful, so we tried using another type of grain-based alcohol as our base. We created barley koji sake, which yielded much better results. To these malt vinegar bases we added flavourful foraged Nordic botanicals and allowed the vinegars to continue to slowly ferment for another 3-4 months.


After our descriptive analysis, we wanted to experiment further, especially with approaches to alcoholic fermentation and flavour addition. Could we better incorporate Nordic flavors like pine, liquorice, and juniper, as well as things like seaweed, which we have used at Nordic Food Lab for other flavour and functional purposes, into robustly-flavored, well-rounded vinegars with stability and aging potential?

The obvious next step was to explore a 3-stage process: a sugar-to-alcohol yeast fermentation, followed by the addition of non-fermentable, highly-flavoured ingredients (either during or after fermentation), and then a slow (3-4 month) passive fermentation into vinegar following the addition of raw vinegar as a starter culture.

Sugar and Alcohol

Initial ideas for sugar sources that could contribute a pleasant but not overpowering flavour to a vinegar, that would be available in the winter (in keeping with our interest in seasonality), and that would ferment nicely were apple juice and birch syrup. Apple juice could be reduced into a syrup through boiling, and then mixed with uncooked juice to reach a sugar level that would yield a relatively mild vinegar. Similarly, birch syrup, which has a much fruitier flavour than maple syrup, could be diluted to a comparable level. Both of these sugar sources, we reasoned, should provide, if not a blank canvas, then at least a foundation to begin showcasing other aromatic ingredients.

We were separately but simultaneously experimenting with an insect-hopped ale, and realized that beer malt was another near-perfect base for new vinegars. Relatively inexpensive, plentiful, covering a huge range of flavours (all beers, by definition, involve malt; the flavour range between, say, lagers, lambics, pale ales, baltic porters, and quadrupels speaks to the versatility and diversity of malting as a process), and fairly easy to work with, malt also allowed us to begin exploring vinegars made from more specialty beers. Traditional malt vinegar is one of the most widely-produced commercial varieties of vinegar, but despite its ubiquity on fish and chips, the commercial versions are not so interesting culinarily. This next-stage project would focus not on getting the cheapest vinegar out of malt, but exploring malt’s potential for producing and supporting complex and delicious flavours.

malts!

malts!

We mashed and fermented pale ale barley malt (augmented with a variety of other malts) in batches of 8 to 30L with techniques likely familiar to home brewers. Using some handy online calculators, we figured out how much malt we needed to obtain a certain sugar content. About 80% of malt mass can be converted into sugar, and somewhere between 60-90% of this sugar can be extracted out of the grain – which in turn yields a particular alcohol level and, after acetic fermentation, a particular concentration of acetic acid. We ground the malts in a grain-grinder, small enough for an efficient extraction but not so fine that the particles would mix with water and cause a ‘stuck’ or slow fermentation.

our mash tun

our mash tun

The malt and hot water were mixed together in an insulated container and held at a temperature between 64 and 69°C, where the amylase enzymes in the malt are most active, chopping long starch molecules into small sugars which yeast can metabolize into ethyl alcohol. At the lower end of this range (64-65°C), beta-amylases are more active, leading to higher proportions of disaccharides (called maltose), which are wholly digestible by yeast. At the higher end (67-69°C), a different form of the enzyme called alpha-amylase becomes active, and this indiscriminate digester of starch yields maltose molecules as well as many other larger oligosaccharides, called dextrins, which can contribute viscosity, body, and sweetness but are not digestible by yeast. As such, a slightly cooler mashing will yield a drier, higher alcohol beer, while a hotter mashing will produce a sweeter, more viscous, and less alcoholic beverage. For most of our batches we stuck to the lower range, but for a few we heated the mash up to higher temperatures at the end to get a bit more body and sweetness in our resulting vinegars.

Many times, projects that may seem new actually end up being reinterpretations of long-held traditions. In taking malt through the brewing process, for example, the question of to hop or not to hop invariably came up. For vinegars with a distinctly beer-like taste it would make sense to hop the beer, but we also wanted to make at least some vinegars whose flavours expressed the other aromatic ingredients along with the malt. A little research into the history of brewing shows that the un-hopped beers we made were actually much closer to the medieval and pre-early-modern version of ale, which didn't contain hops until somewhere between the 11th and 16th centuries. Totally unhopped, alcoholic malted grain beverages, at least in England, were called ales, to differentiate them from hopped versions imported from Holland, which were called beers. In fact, adding things like pine needles, juniper wood and berries, and other foraged herbs to the fermenting or finished wort actually reflects a much earlier style of brew called gruit (which often also included bog myrtle, mugwort, yarrow, and/or heather), or the still-popular Finnish beer sahti, made with juniper berries and filtered through juniper twigs.

At the same time that we were developing beer vinegars, we also started playing with roasting koji, which caramelizes the sugars in the koji and creates new flavours, similar to coffee or chocolate but definitely its own creature. Our friends at the Noma test kitchen put this to excellent use in a mole dish (a diverse group of sauces in Mexico, some of which involve cacao), and we collaborated on different ways to get roasted koji into vinegar – making alcoholic teas out of it, pine-vinegar-1.0 style, and also adding it to a beer mash with regular malt. By exploring different roast levels, ratios, and fermentation routes, we made koji-beers in a variety of colours, strengths, and flavours that then slowly, with the addition of foraged botanicals, continued on their way to becoming vinegars. For the recipe for Ben's first roasted koji pale ale, check out our post on roasting koji.

roasted barley koji

roasted barley koji

It seemed logical to also try brewing with barley koji directly, rather than as an adjunct to a malt fermentation. Treating the koji like a malt – mashing it with water at pro-amylolytic temperatures (64-68°C) – was unsuccessful, as it had quite a low yield and also seemed to induce some proteolytic action, producing a funky taste that wasn't altogether pleasant. Making a barley sake, on the other hand, worked quite well, and we're excited to see what acetifying this will lead to. Unlike the sugar extraction through mashing and heat involved in beer-brewing, that in sake-making involves Aspergillus oryzae grown on grain (in our case, barley) to make koji, which is sweet and full of amylolytic enzymes, and then mixed with cool water, more steamed barley, and yeast. The koji will slowly convert the starch of the steamed barley into sugar, and the yeast will metabolize the sugar as it is transformed into alcohol. Then, the sake is strained off of the lees of grain, mold, and yeast, and these lees – which still have some enzymatic activity – can be used for pickling (as in the traditional Japanese kasu-zuke, sake-lee pickles) or other purposes.

After brewing and fermenting the beers/gruits with yeast under an airlock, we began splitting the larger batches and adding aromatic ingredients, as well as starter vinegar, which we kept at 20% in order to control our comparisons from batch to batch. Each vinegar batch gets a cloth lid so oxygen can get in, and we are keeping them in a safe place until later, when we are planning to do a more formal sensory analysis.

Next up: Recipes

 

 

A side of bee larva with your afternoon coffee?

Added on by Edith Salminen.

by Edith Salminen

Bee larvae straight from our freezer.

Bee larvae straight from our freezer.

When a fellow researcher here at the Lab asks me whether I’d like to give him a hand doing field work for his thesis, meaning feeding random Copenhageners bee larva soup, I say “Ja tak!” 

Could there possibly be a better way to spend an afternoon?

Jonas Astrup Pedersen is the Larva-man. Now an almost-graduated Master in Food Science and Technology at University of Copenhagen, Jonas has been in and out of this rocking houseboat for as long as some of the oldest ferments downstairs. He is passionate about sensory analysis and experimentation, coffee and sourdough bread – really everything gastronomy. Being one of the only Danes on board, Jonas has been a wanted man these days, requested to address various food-related topics on Danish national TV and radio. Blood and gluten are some of the more recent ones. When he’s not busy doing public appearances that is, Jonas is keen on discovering how neophobic – or neophilic – Danes are in their foodways. Ever since November, I’ve been sitting across from him at the Lab watching him meticulously busting his brain for his master’s thesis on unravelling how people perceive and accept novel foods, using bee larvae as a case study.  The Lab for him – as for us all – is both his playground and safe-zone for quirky and delicious experimentation. Stepping out from this inspiring and encouraging cradle can sometimes get rather knotty. 

Almost ready for service.

Almost ready for service.

“If we manage to get 70 people to try the soup today, that would be great,” he says with his characteristic grin, as we start prepping the vegetable and bee larva soup in the morning for our first service. It says ‘VISIBLE LARVAE’, ‘INVISIBLE LARVAE’, ‘NO LARVAE’ on a sheet of paper next to the cutting board on the stainless steel island. Three soups, one base recipe with three slightly different variations. Will people want to see the larvae as they savour the soup, or is ignorance bliss? Will the bee larva flavour be a sought-after twist to a perfectly acceptable but otherwise banal veggie soup? Let’s see.

By now, two months into my internship at the Lab, I’ve learned to recognize the very distinctive smell and flavour of the fatty little creatures: nutty and buttery, sometimes even mushroomy, and to me much like this ubiquitous Swedish “liver” paté that comes in a tube (super addictive). I’ve only had them straight up deep frozen and in Jonas’ soup, but Josh describes fresh and alive bee larvae as something close to fish roe in texture, very delicate and “fucking delicious” in flavour. Listening to Josh’s description, I got the oddest urge to pop one of those alive babies in my mouth. Deranged? Totally, but also far from it. Talking about how bee larvae burst against one’s palate… I can but smile, stir the soup and see how the tasty little suckers float around in creamy veg stock together with carrots, celeriac, leek and onions. The whole boat smells of sautéed bee larvae. Yup, very distinctively bee larvae indeed. And we love it.

 

Off to the larva-mobile!

The Larva-man has chosen to do his guerrilla soup tasting at three different locations in order to reach the maximum variety of people. This excites me. Not only do I get to see Copenhagen’s many sides, but I’ll also get the chance to observe different people accepting or refusing insects as an edible food item. The socio-anthropologist in me is on alert. 

Jonas working his charm on one of our first guests at Spinderiet.

Jonas working his charm on one of our first guests at Spinderiet.

First up, a suburban square by Spinderiet mall in Valby, a 15 minute bike ride away from the centre of Copenhagen. Valby is a kind of grudgy neighbourhood further west from the hipster central Vesterbro. Second stop, the humongous shopping centre Field’s erected in the middle of nowhere, on a field, hence the (not very original) name. At Field’s you get all kinds of people, students, teenagers, families, locals and foreigners: a mish-mash of people living in Copenhagen for different reasons. Last stop, Torvehallerne right by Nørreport station. This bourgeois-bohème indoor market is where the well-off Copenhageners buy their (very expensive) food. It’s also a favourite amongst tourists. Of all three locations this is surely the most foodie-like of them. Our presumption is that the higher socio-economical status might correlate to an increase of the acceptance of our experiment. 

“These are places where we’ll find normal people,” Jonas explains. “Normal people” are a rare breed here at the Lab where the next person stepping on board this mad, floating research centre is probably somehow loonier than the previous one. We often forget about “those other types of people” who might not, with immense appetite and lust for umami, attack a container filled with more or less mashed and rotten edibles or, for that matter, a fragrant bowl of bee larva soup. We didn't really discuss this potential challenge beforehand, but we certainly expected to be confronted with it to varying degrees in the different locations.

Jonas and I head to the first location right after lunchtime, our car loaded up with our three steaming soup pots. I wonder how many Danes will choose a side of larvae over a kanelsnurrer with their afternoon coffee? As my Danish is not quite there yet, I told Jonas I’d do the people hunting and lure them in for him to feed them larva soup. Game on. 

(Click through the photos below of some of our intrepid participants)

How hard could it be?

The table is set.

The table is set.

Spinderiet. We definitely overestimated people’s will and courage in trying novel foods. “No thanks, I’ve got a chewing gum in my mouth”, “I just ate”, “I’m vegan”, “Why would I eat bugs”, “Are you crazy”, “ I have no time for such nonsense”, “No time, sorry”, “Oh no, insects, no, no, I thought it was free coffee”, “No thanks, I’ve got a girlfriend” were some of the reactions I got approaching our potential targets. At the Valby mall women especially did not like the idea of a bee larva soup dégustation on this crisp winter afternoon. On the other hand when I, as a woman, challenged young and middle-aged men to try Jonas’ soup, asking them if they’re “man enough”, they obviously couldn’t say no. It proved to be a good strategy and we got a decent number of hits with this method. Nevertheless, my utmost respect goes out to a mother of two boys, I’m guessing a 5- and a 9-year-old, who didn’t hesitate having a fun and educational pit-stop at Jonas’ soup shack. What a cool mum! And the boys loved it too. 

Field’s. Damn, even harder than the previous location. People at Field’s were on autopilot, wired to their smartphones, impossible to be reached and couldn’t be bothered to take part in our wacky arthropodan experiment. It seemed as though the “normal people” at Field’s that cold and grey afternoon had no interest in “new foods”, and as a matter of fact, using those two words in the first sentence of approach was not the way to go. Enquiring “Have you ever eaten insects before?” had a slightly better effect, but still didn’t do the trick. Frustrated, we had to face the obvious: people were just more neophobic in this part of town. Third time’s the charm, we thought. However well one prepares for such fieldwork, trying to reach out to a maximum number of people across the maximum range of a crowd is a real Rubik’s cube.

The Lab bike parked at Torvehallerne. 

The Lab bike parked at Torvehallerne. 

Torvehallerne. “Foodies” and gourmands pilgrimage here for quality food. Also a lot of tourists come here to savour the “chic and pure” taste of Copenhagen – the perfect crowd for our fieldwork. Of course, it had to be the coldest day so far this winter. Typical. With icy wind and snow freezing to the core, we had our doubts about how well it could go. We served the soup out of our very cool Lab bike right outside the entrance to the market. Whether it was the weather or the slow Monday, we didn’t have the same stamina in our approach. However, to our happy surprise, people actually came to us. The ‘Nordic Food Lab’-branded bike surely helped in attracting curious eaters. Not only did people want to try the soups, but they were keen on learning more about insects as food. We had the privilege of feeding an Austrian noma chef, a professor of landscape architecture (and his gorgeous 1 year old Samoyed doggie too), a group of business school exchange students from Australia, just to name a few. All in all, Torvehallerne was the most fruitful of the three locations.

 

(Don’t) Stop bugging me

Close to a hundred people accepted the challenge of tasting Jonas’ bee larva special, keen on trying a novel ingredient with potential for expanding cuisine. Unfortunately, at least the same amount, if not more, bluntly declined. For some reason, men were more prone to savour the soup than women were.  An observation that made us hopeful was that kids and teenagers seemed more curious and keen to eat the larvae. Could it be they are more open and have a different attitude to the future, or just a battle of gaining coolness points by doing something outrageous? Let’s be positive and go with the first idea. Quite a few elderly people proved to be gutsy too, even though most were hard to convince at first. They were definitely more open to spare us ten minutes out of their busy schedules than others. Yet if we only managed to hold people's interest while presenting our motivation in a few sentences, it opened up a window in most people’s minds for what they might consider food. It also proved easier to attract couples or small groups. Peer pressure and/or encouragement from loved ones also seemed to make it easier to accept and grasp what we were trying to do. 

"Normal people" at Field's.

"Normal people" at Field's.

(from R to L) Me, Jonas, and one of our most enthusiastic participants at Torvehallerne. Thanks for the photo, Alex!

(from R to L) Me, Jonas, and one of our most enthusiastic participants at Torvehallerne. Thanks for the photo, Alex!

Most importantly, these taste experiments in the field made us reflect on how crucial it is to not forget about all the “normal people” out there. Whether it’s about them having different tastes or a less-strong attraction to the new and unusual compared to the people in our immediate surroundings is a big question worth thinking about. What is usual here at the Lab is often weird and disgusting for many folks out there. Doing what we do is exciting and fun, at times both dippy and inspiring – but if we fail to reach out and convince others unlike us to at least give some of these foods a try, what is the point in the long run? After all, our ultimate aim is to share our food and ideas with everyone, not just preaching to the choir or worse, fuelling a load of foodie onanism.

In the car after our third and last guerrilla soup run, we drove in silence. I think both Jonas and I had a lot on our minds, many impressions and many questions without simple or straightforward answers. As we parked the car outside the Larva-cave, we glanced at each other and smiled. We both knew… we’re lucky to be where we are and this experience was a much needed reality check. We need reminders of the fact that there’s a whole world out there to reach in order to make people look at bugs – or seaweed, or microbes, or any other neglected or underutilised ingredient – and go, “Yum, I’ll have that for lunch." For us, it is the kick we need to give all of this madness a real purpose.

Hop into it

Added on by Justine de Valicourt.

by Justine de Valicourt


OVERVIEW

We did a lot of different things to hops. Some worked, some didn't. An exploration of the life of Humulus lupulus beyond beer.


When people ask, we say the lab is funded by independent foundations, private businesses, and government sources. This is true; though really, we should start saying producers, passion, and the sheer generosity of people.

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We recently asked a hops supplier from Germany to send us 2 kg of two kinds of fresh hops to experiment on the curing process and the effects on beer taste. Our aim was to investigate flavours in other ways of preparing hops than the conventional quick-drying method. Yet instead of 2kg, we received 12 kg of each variety. 24 kg of fresh hops is a lot. A – lot. We don’t think this was a mistake, because we received even more a few days after. Beyond the fact that the lab smelled like legal cannabaceae for days – as did our urine – this free flood of hops was a great creative challenge and pushed us to investigate not only the drying process, but also their molecular composition and culinary potential. For two weeks, we almost stopped every other project to be able to process and use this mountain of hops.

I will reveal the punchline up-front: hops are terribly bitter and most of our recipes turned bitterly bad. But gaining this knowledge is indeed the aim of trying.

Contrary to what many people think, Nordic Food Lab is small. The team currently varies between 4 and 8 researchers at a time, depending of the season and the day of the week. This small scale and loose structure permit us to impose few limits on our thoughts. The team is formed with people with different backgrounds and strengths, but we are all curious. And we like answers.

Receiving 24kg of hops, or 40kg of herrings, or 150kg of quinces fuels our drive for knowledge. What to do with all this? How to keep it? How to make it delicious? Sometimes it is not the quantity but the thing itself that poses a creative challenge. What should we do with a very smelly beaver or just a tail of one of its fellows? Or with kilos of green, unripe plums?

It's Christmas at every funky delivery. First, we look, then we smell, and, when possible, we taste it raw. For some ingredients, these first steps are enough to bring an idea that will take care of all of it. It was the case for the green plums: we tried different ways of curing them as if they were fresh olives. Some turned out awesome – a little acidic and crunchy, definitely delicious in a salsa verde or with a beer.

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The hops were more difficult. Before receiving them, we had never heard about hops in anything other than alcoholic beverages. Knowing that hops are in the same family as marijuana and hemp made things easier. There are a lot more how-to-get-stoned-with-cannabis recipes out there than ones that use hops beyond brewing. Part of our conclusion was to not use the hops as a main ingredient, but rather as a subtle spice. Hops give a lot of flavour even in very low concentrations. The bitterness is also easier to manage in fats than in water, partly because the α-acids are hydrophobic, so the essential oils containing all these acids cannot be washed from the tongue with water. Oils and fats bond with the bitter molecules, preventing them from interacting with the taste buds. In other words, if those acids are mixed in oil, they are going to have less interaction with the tongue cells because they will stay 'attached' to the fatty molecules, and so the taste won't be as potent as if they are in suspension in water.

We tried many many recipes.

A hop mayo was awful, as were all things involving infusion into water: soup, tea, etc.

We also tried to lacto-ferment some, as we do with almost every new ingredient we get. Didn't work. Hops, as we already knew, inhibit bacterial growth (Simpson, 1993), especially lactobacilli, the bacteria responsible for wild lacto-fermentation, and beer spoilage.

From our research on marijuana, we decided to try butter, but preparing from scratch, using the hops to both infuse and culture the cream. We tried cold and warm infusion at 10% w/v. Don't try the warm version. The cold infusion was fine, but nothing outstanding: a butter that tastes like hops.

We also found a recipe for hop and potato sourdough and made a bread from it. The result was a beautiful crusty bread with a nice texture – but the taste was the worst ever for a bread.

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Yet there were some recipes with real potential. One was a gravlax exchanging the traditional dill for hops – fragrant and complex. Another discovery was grapeseed oil cold-infused with hop for few minutes – it turned out to be very fruity, green and with a little pinch of spiciness at the back of the throat, similar to some extra-virgin olive oil. We tried this technique with a variety of hops called Herkules, an infusion of 30 minutes with a concentration of 10% (10 parts fresh hops, 100 parts oil). Better results could probably be obtained with other hop varieties with lower alpha-acid content. Next season we will try with the wild hops we foraged in Christiania (yes, it's hops, so nothing illegal).

We inoculated them with food-grade moulds: Aspergillus niger and Botryotinia fuckeliana. A. niger occurs in the process of making Pu-erh tea, but didn't bring anything interesting to the hops, just some oxidized aromas. Botrytis, however, gave us something worth talking about. B. fuckeliana is also called noble rot, the fungus that infects some grapes and permits the famous Sauterne wine, among others. On the grape, Botrytis concentrate the solids (sugars, minerals, fruit acids) by making holes in the skin, allowing some of the water to evaporate. On the hop, by unknown means, it developed fruity and citrusy aromas. Further investigation has to be done to use these nobly-rotted hops in different kinds of beverages and food.

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We had some leftover still sweet elderflower wine. We cooked it briefly to stop the fermentation and added hops (10%, cold-infused for 1hr) and kombucha mother. It turned out better than the wine by itself. We also made a hopped cherry wine, a hopped cider, a hopped malolactic fermented cider, and brewed a half apple juice half malt beer. All of these alcohols are quite interesting, some are even gaining some complexity with time, and even if they are not outstanding yet, they are a first step that could be taken further by others who know more about brewing and alcoholic beverages.

We brainstormed about how to make acceptable the strong bitterness that came with all our food trials, and decided to go for sweets. We made two types of toffees, both traditional recipes from Quebec. I guess we Quebecois have a sweet tooth. The first is called ‘Tire Ste-Catherine’ and is a smooth toffee made from sugar, molasses, water, vinegar, something alkaline and a few other things. It is pulled for a while when still warm and turns golden. We cold-infused the hops in water (10g of fresh hop/100mL of water) and the final flavour was interesting. Just hoppy enough to add some complexity to the taste and balance the sweetness.

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The second recipe is more hoppy. We cold infused hops in cream (10g of fresh hop/100mL of cream) and forgot about it for more than a week. We finally used that cream to make ‘Sucre à la crème’ or Scottish tablet. In Quebec, it is a toffee traditionally made from maple syrup, cream and butter. Without the maple syrup, it can easily be done with brown sugar. The recipe is 1 parts cream hopped cream, 1 part of fresh cream, 6 parts sugar/syrup and 1 part of butter. Cook it until it reaches 118°C, let it cool down without disturbing until 50°C, then whisk and pour into a mould. At the whisking step, one can also add some nuts. Cut before it cools down completely. The whisking process brings seeds of crystallisation and makes the final texture sandy and moist at the same time, without sticking to your teeth. Miam! Is it better with hops? I'm not sure, but it might be more interesting to pair with coffee this way. Doing the same recipe with proper maple syrup and cream a little less infused hops would probably turn out even better.

No more bitter-sweet for now. Further directions include exploring some of the more aromatic varieties from Australia, New Zealand, and the US, investigating different types of bitterness (co-humulone is often thought to give a more rough bitterness at the end, for example), and looking deeper into different techniques for oxidation. One of our collaborators at the Jacobsen brewery has even told us about an experimental German variety he has with 0% alpha acid – that’s exciting. In addition, in the coming months we hope to smoke food with the hops along with wood chips, make new trials with alcohol infusion, and perfect the hop oil.

And even with all these trials, our freezer is still full of dried hops. Any ideas are welcome.

Vinegar Science pt. 3: Sensory Analysis

Added on by Arielle Johnson.

by Arielle Johnson


Overview

With all of these techniques being put to the test, comparison is needed to to determine whether the different vinegars are interesting enough for future elaboration. In this third instalment of our 5-part miniseries on vinegar science, we detail the process of sensory analysis – including assembling a trained human panel, generating flavour descriptors, identifying reference standards, and conducting replicate sets of tests – that we used to qualify their specific characteristics and perhaps to reveal which processes had led to a tastier result. Overall, it seemed that the vinegars that had ended with some residual sugar and had undergone more stages of fermentation yielded tastier vinegars.


While we taste all our experiments carefully and mindfully, we decided for this vinegar-investigating project to use descriptive analysis to profile the flavours of the vinegars. This meant that we could get some hard data to work with, and also explore how best to incorporate sensory analysis techniques into our ongoing research and development. We performed descriptive analysis on our vinegars at the University of Copenhagen (KU) Faculty of Life Sciences in Frederiksberg, with the help of a trained panel of ten volunteers from the food science department. The goal of this analysis was to pinpoint specific flavours, fix their definitions to real references, and determine the intensity of each flavour in a set of products.

The key components of a descriptive analysis are:

- The samples in the experimental set: Are they very similar or very different from each other? Small differences will be more difficult to detect but may yield more specific and less obvious information about flavour. Our samples were somewhat similar as they are all vinegars, with many of their flavour differences coming simply from differences in their primary ingredients.

- The panel: Human beings used as analytical instruments, reporting on what flavours are present and at what intensities.

- Flavour descriptor generation: The panel is both the tool and the process by which sensory analysis determines what flavours are present and prominent in a set of samples. This begins with panelists tasting the samples blind, thinking about what they perceive, and discussing them with each other, which leads us to:

- Terms and references: For every flavour the panel says they perceive, it is our job to create a reference that captures a consensus definition for each aroma. For example, when a panelists says “citrus", does she mean lemon peel or orange peel? Or something that only exists as a mixture of different fruits? We need to figure out the ideal combination that will then serve as a reference standard to keep all panelists based in a shared olfactory vocabulary.

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Along with the taste descriptors sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami, we narrowed the list of flavours down to “red berry”, “strawberry”, “acetic acid”, “rotten fruit”, “chemical”, “green apple”, “liquorice”, “yeast”, “wine”, “tropical fruit”, “rhubarb”, “celery”, “earthy”, “green vegetable”, “citrus”, “pine”, and “blue cheese”. Creating references for some of these were pretty straightforward. Everyone agreed that the descriptor “strawberry” was perfectly captured by a ripe strawberry, cut in half.  But what about less precise terms? Rotten fruit – according to the panelists – did not smell like a fully rotten apple, but was more oxidized and fermented than just a bruised apple. Cubed, bruised, and yeast-sprinkled apples and pears, left to sit on a counter for a day, we finally agreed, captured the aroma the best. Dry yeast was too weak for the panel, but a cube of fresh yeast was perfect (since Danes tend to use this variety for baking, it was likely more familiar to our local panelists). For “red berry”, which the panel insisted was different from strawberry, neither red currants nor raspberries alone were quite right, but satisfied when combined together. The "chemical" aroma the panel was picking up on was probably ethyl acetate, a common by-product of vinegar fermentation formed from the reaction of ethyl alcohol and acetic acid; for this, nail polish remover was a good match. For “pine” and “earthy” references I gathered samples from the Assistens cemetery in Nørrebrø. Who knows, maybe they imparted a few molecules of Hans Christian Andersen, who is buried there, for good luck.

the references, with watch glasses on top to keep the smells from dissipating

the references, with watch glasses on top to keep the smells from dissipating

With the references prepared and agreed upon, we began the descriptive analysis proper. For 3 days in a row, the panelists smelled the references to reacquaint themselves with each aroma and its specific descriptor, and then went into isolation booths, where they smelled and tasted each of the vinegars and then rated the intensity of each of the reference flavours in the samples.

These pooled intensity ratings make up the flavour profile data we use to analyze the sensory characteristics of the vinegars. Certain statistical techniques we apply to this data determine which flavours are most useful for distinguishing samples from each other, while other techniques look at the sensory data holistically, and compare it to the flavour-active molecules present in each vinegar, to describe the sensory and molecular drivers of flavour across the dataset as a whole. This analysis will be made available in a forthcoming journal paper.

The sensory and chemical analyses we performed on our vinegars give us a glimpse into how their component flavours interact. By continuing to borrow analytical techniques from academic sensory and flavour chemistry labs, we look forward to building a molecular intuition about flavour to complement the intuition of our palates. But when it comes to the answers we seek, and their questions, the scientific process will only reveal so much. To fully understand food, we need also to listen to our palates in more aesthetic, less quantitative ways. For example, some of us around the lab, and some of the panelists, talked about differences in balance, complexity, and depth of flavour, which are difficult to measure analytically. We can develop our culinary empiricism to deal with these ideas faster and better not only by taking into account whatever hard data we might have, but also by contemplating and making decisions on the most compelling directions to pursue using our own senses.

Many of the most interesting questions that arose while we developed our vinegars had little to do with naturalist, analytical ideas of underlying flavour chemistry and more to do with practical concerns about what we can do with these ingredients, the best ways to work with them, and how to make products that are new and interesting and better than what we already have.

For example, it seemed like some of the tastier vinegars were more complex and had gone through multiple fermentations (for instance, a yeast fermentation followed by an acetic fermentation). On a molecular level, this theory makes sense: each fermentation step will generate more and different volatile molecules as by-products, leading to a greater potential pool of flavours. Furthermore, starting from a sugary mixture and fermenting it into alcohol with yeast means that some residual sugar might be left over – balancing some of the acid, giving a bit of body, and improving the overall flavour. At the same time, some of the tea-based vinegars had interesting flavour potential but at times seemed to lack complexity. We also wondered if the air-pump approach to running the acetic fermentation – which was especially good for rapid prototyping as it produced workable vinegars in under a week – led to any flavour differences, good or bad, compared to a slower, passive fermentation over the course of months.

Next up: Slowing down the process, and expanding from wine to beer.

Dream Christmas Cake

Added on by Guillemette Barthouil.

by Guillemette Barthouil

Dreams are in season. Days blur into nights,

the northern darkness plays with our minds.

We awake with cake: our dreamed christmas cake –

a midwinter feast to celebrate the light.

Longer days – a taste

of what has and is to come.

 

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We have had one of our whiteboards emblazoned for months with the phrase “DREAM CHRISTMAS CAKE” and filled upwith all sorts of related brainstorms. Then, in late fall, the Sustainable Food Trust asked us to make a dessert for a conference they were organising in London entitled ‘True Cost Accounting: Food and Farming’ – a key issue in our current food system. The event was to be held in early December. It was close enough to Christmas: time to actually make the cake we had been dreaming up for months.

Traditionally, much of the food eaten at Christmas is preserved in one way or another – dried, cured, smoked, fermented, combination thereof. But what about making the cake itself the way of preserving? English Christmas puddings, cakes, and mince pie seem to have evolved from the same fifteenth-century process of preserving meat [1]. In autumn, when fodder was dwindling, farmers would slaughter the surplus livestock. The meat was then preserved in a pastry case and mixed with dried fruit to prevent spoilage. Over time, dried fruits have become the main component of the sweetened pudding, with suet reminding us of its meat-based history. The alcohol component has been present at least since the 19th century, when Christmas pudding and cake as a dessert rather than a savoury course ('Christmas pottage') emerged as the now traditional dish [2]. It is likely, though, that alcohol appeared in prior recipes, for its abilities to enhance both preservation and enjoyment. British gentlemen (including our beloved head of research and development, a Scot) will tell you that the best puddings are at least one year old, the best being considerable older, doused in alcohol every once in a while to preserve it. Bloody English. [ed. – It should be noted that the author of this post is herself French – enough said.]

As we began to experiment in the kitchen, we started to favour pudding over cake, for its flavour, texture, and pliability. Then, in trying to source ingredients from our landscape while keeping the taste identity of a Christmas pudding, we slightly adapted the classic recipe. We adopted bone-marrow over suet for its delicate yet meaty and distinctly umami component. The liquoricey, clovey, and mineral notes of beet molasses allowed us to forego spices in the mix, while giving the pudding a beautiful dark colour. The addition of a nice dark beer only enhanced the deep, bittersweet, mineral flavour profile of the pudding. Working with the concept of preservation we also decided to make our own raisins. We lacto-fermented grapes – in brine with 2% salt – for 2 weeks and then dehydrated them at 40°C. This process gave the grapes a dried fig taste that fit perfectly with the pudding.

 

NFL Christmas pudding

100g bone marrow
20g butter
110g breadcrumbs
60g wheat flour
1 tsp baking soda
225g beet molasses
110g raisins
60g dried lacto-fermented grapes
275g dried blackcurrant
1 grated pear
2 tbsp brandy (we used oaked apple cider brandy)
75ml Dark Christmas beer
2 eggs

Freeze the bone marrow. Grate.

Weigh the breadcrumbs, flour and baking soda. Blend with the grated bone marrow.

Melt the butter over low heat. Weigh the molasses. Add them to the mix.

Weigh the dried fruits. Grate the pear. Add to mixture.

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Mix the eggs, brandy, and beer. Add to mixture.

Blend the ingredients thoroughly. Cover and let the dough rest in the fridge overnight.

 

The next day, press the dough into a stainless steel bowl. Wrap and steam for 8h in a combi oven.

After the pudding is cooked and cooled, pour brandy over. Depending on how much in advance you make your pudding – and how alcoholic you like it – you can repeat this process as many times as you like.

credit: Nicola Robecchi

credit: Nicola Robecchi

The result was a rich and beautiful pudding, waiting to be paired with the freshness of a fruit. A poached pear seemed like the perfect accompaniment; classic.

Too classic. At this stage, we got stuck. Nothing really sang. We couldn’t find the thing that would make us jump to the next step.

One day, our microbiologist friend and mushroom expert, Sara Landvik, was at the boat for lunch. After lunch we served a version of the dessert for critique, and together we tried to talk it through. All of a sudden Sara said “you should serve it like a mushroom!” That was just the leap we needed. The rest is history.

A pear, poached in a syrup of elderberry, dried chanterelle and labrador tea. Fruity, fragrant, and terpinous as a walk in the woods.

 

Poached pear

Choose a round-shaped pear variety – we chose Williams.

labrador tea

labrador tea

Peel, cut horizontally into two equal parts and carve out the inside with a melon baller, leaving edges of around 0,5 cm. With a turning knife remove the stalk and the calix end of the fruit.

For the syrup, boil 1L of water with 100g of sugar and 100g of elderberries.

10 minutes before poaching the pears, add 15g of dried chanterelles and 5g of labrador tea, Rhododendron tomentosum.

Strain the syrup and poach the pears for 10 minutes.

Once poached, remove the pears and reduce the syrup to a fifth of its original volume. Pour the syrup over the pears so they become bright red.

credit: Nicola Robecchi

credit: Nicola Robecchi

Stuff the pears with approximately 30g of the soaked Christmas pudding, shaping it with your finger as if it were the stalk of a mushroom supporting the fruiting body of the pear. The pudding should stick out of the pear about 1 to 2 cm. One pudding should yield enough for around 50 mushrooms.

credit: Nicola Robecchi

credit: Nicola Robecchi

Cheese dots

Take 150g of Stichelton cheese (delicious English raw milk blue cheese), mix it in a thermomix with 150g of cow cream 38% and 1,5g of Xanthan. You should obtain a soft yet solid paste with a mild flavour of Penicillium roquefortii.

Fill a pastry bag, cut 3 mm off the end and create dots of cheese on the poached pear, transforming it into the classic fairytale mushroom, Amanita muscaria, the fly agaric.

Amanita muscaria

Amanita muscaria

Like children dancing around the Christmas tree, we were super excited about our wild mushroom Christmas pudding. Tasting, critiquing, finding new ideas and pairing - we tried and tried again. Though something was still missing. What did we want to eat most when we were playing in the forest as kids? What lies under the underbrush, the result of fungi digesting and mulch compacting, the foundation of the forest? Earth; of course. Mother Earth.

Edible soil

200g wheat flour
120g butter
140g beet molasses
200g toasted hazelnuts coarsely grounded
30g finely grounded toasted koji
10g porcini powder
1 tsp baking soda
2 eggs

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Mix the flour, hazelnuts, koji, porcini powder and baking soda together.

Melt the butter over very low heat.

Add the butter, beet molasses and eggs.

Mix the ingredients together, working the dough as little as possible.

Spread on a baking sheet approximately 0,5cm thick and cook at 160°C for 20 minutes.

Once cooked, dehydrate the cake overnight in a dehydrator or in the oven at around 45°C.

Crumble.

credit: Nicola Robecchi Sweet Amanita Victorian plum pudding with bone marrow and berries, poached English pears, Stichelton cheese and edible soil.

credit: Nicola Robecchi
Sweet Amanita
Victorian plum pudding with bone marrow and berries, poached English pears, Stichelton cheese and edible soil.

Oh Sweet Amanita!

Pick the right one, enjoy your trip and see you in the new year!

 

 

[1]  Black, M. 1981. “The Englishman's Plum Pudding” in History Today, Volume 31, Issue 12
[2}  Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. p.184-5.

 

 

Roasting Koji

Added on by Josh Evans.

by Josh Evans

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Finished koji smells amazing. It is fruity and floral, with an underlying hint of fresh mushrooms. And it changes depending on the substrate: rice and quinoa give a nuttier aroma, sunflower seeds and buckwheat are more earthy, and beans give a smell that is entirely savoury.

At the beginning of this year, we began thinking of how we could broaden this flavour spectrum even further. Maybe it was the zeitgeist in our little family at the time – Rosio in the noma test kitchen began to roast the koji and it gained an entirely different flavour profile. When we began doing the same on the boat, our first method was to roast the loose grains at 160˚C for 30-40 minutes. The koji became deep and rich, with aromas reminiscent of chocolate, coffee, caramel, and toast. Some of our trials retained hints of their original fruity and floral aromas. The potential was great.

We began treating this new ingredient in a similar way to its flavour companions. 
Taking Rosio's lead, we infused it into cream (1 part koji : 2 parts cream) overnight, and passed the thickened mixture through a sieve the next day which yielded a rich, ganache-like substance.

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We brewed the ground grains into coffee (more work is needed). We stirred some fine powder into heated milk and chocolate for a more complex cocoa (admittedly more of a treat than an experiment).

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Over at noma, it has found its way into a variety of dishes and projects, from the Potatoes and Bleak Roe to the Seaweed Danish. Definitely a versatile ingredient.

It also became a crucial pairing with pork’s blood in many of our intern Elisabeth’s recipes for blood as an egg substitute in baking. The minerality of the blood meshes well with the caramel and Maillard notes of the roasted koji, and one of the successes of that project (in my eyes at least) was a recipe for ‘chocolate’ ice cream with blood, roasted koji, no chocolate, and no eggs. Details forthcoming.

The similarity to malt was undeniable, and Ben started using it to make syrup extracts and to brew beer. At first, the beer trials seemed to lack body, but after some months of aging they are starting to develop into something quite good. We’ll be taking this one further for sure. In the meantime, here’s our first recipe.

Ben’s Toasted Koji Pale Ale

Statistics
Volume:      28 L
OG:           1050
FG:             1025
Alcohol:      3.3% but we had problems with attenuation
IBU            39
BU/GU       0.78

Fermentables
Maris Otter Pale Malt    5634g
Roasted Koji                 1000g

Mash schedule:
66­68°C / 60 minutes, 71°C  / 35 minutes (during continuous sparge) 

Hops
Summit                    17.4% alpha      20g   90 minutes
Saaz                        4.4% alpha        33g   15 minutes
East Kent Golding   5.85% alpha     16g    10 minutes
East Kent Golding   5.85% alpha     22g    5 minutes

Fermentation
Yeast: WLP500 Trappist Ale
Fermented at 18 degrees C for 30 days.
Bottled conditioned with 7g/L of sugar although still quite dense
Needs time in the bottle to improve.

Notes
We are not experts in beer making, and so working out how much roasted koji to put in this recipe was really just instinct; however, the result is good. There are problems with attenuation, like how much sugar is left in the beer, but the taste is good, and improving with age.

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We recently became more curious about the roasting process and decided to go back to basics to better understand our options, creating a sensory trial with samples varying temperature and time. We roasted batches of 300g at 140˚C, 160˚C, 180˚C, and 200˚C for 20, 30, 40, and 45 minutes. We then let the samples rest for two days for some of the most assertive burned or over-roasted flavours to dissipate, then we ground them in the thermomix for 10 seconds at level 7. We added 60g of the ground koji to 120g of cream, and vacuumed the mixture to 96.5% to infuse overnight. The next day they were warmed in a bath for around one minute to return the mixture to a fluid state. Samples were tasted with small spoons and included the ground koji in the cream.

Sensory evaluation by lab members yielded the following results.

140˚C

20 min   fruity with some chocolate notes. Very koji-y. tropical, passionfruit.

30 min   less flavourful, creamier

40 min   little burnt taste at the end, dark chocolate at the end

45 min   more burnt, little coffee-y

160˚C   very oily

20 min   acidic, burnt, like bad coffee… very oily

30 min   more coffee-y, harshness like 100% cocoa chocolate

40 min   toasted breadcrumbs, burnt, maybe good in small amounts

45 min   just burnt

180˚C   also very oily

20 min   interesting, in between green coffee and burnt, more pleasant coffee acidity, green leafy vegetalness

30 min   bitter burnt caramel

40 min   just burnt

45 min   ashes

200˚C

20 min   burnt with koji fruitiness, between chocolate and coffee with slight caramel, uneven toasting

30 min   acidic and burnt

40 min   very unpleasant, way too much toast

45 min   too much toast

One of the lab members also thought the 140-series smelled very savoury, like fermented soy-style sauces, while the 160-series gained more of the chocolate/coffee notes. The 180-series was pretty variable, with the lower times having bitternesses bordering pleasure and distate, while the 200-series was pretty much inedible, although there could be some possible applications of a quick blast with high heat.

Overall, the mid-160-series came through as a stronger roast, with the 140-series generating gentler and more diverse aromas and the shorter end of the 180-series also holding potential for further exploration. 

We are excited by this wealth of unexplored possibilities. Further directions include refining its use in beer (we also used some in ‘Wormhole’, our ‘oatmealworm stout’ designed with Siren Craft Brewery for our Pestival menu in April/May), and developing recipes for a Nordic chocolate and a Nordic coffee using wild plants, fruits, roots, and other botanicals. In the meantime, I’m fine eating the ganache straight with a spoon.

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Koji – history and process

Added on by Josh Evans.

by Josh Evans

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Koji is our lifeblood. It is the basis of many of our fermentation experiments, the functional backbone of our pursuit for diverse flavours and umami taste. This post reviews its cultural and evolutionary history, and describes our technique for producing koji at the lab.

The basics

Koji (kōji in Japanese, qu in Chinese, nurukgyun in Korean) is a culture made by growing different fungi on cooked grains or legumes in a warm, humid place (Shurtleff & Aoyagi 2012). The koji moulds produce many enzymes, including amylases, proteases, lipases, and tanninase, that break down (hydrolyse) macromolecules like starches, proteins, and fats into their constituent parts, such as dextrin, glucose, peptides, amino acids, and fatty acid chains (Chen et al. 2008). These simpler substrates provide nutrition for cultures of yeasts and bacteria that come in subsequent fermentation stages (Mheen 1972). The cultures are ancient technologies used to produce a variety of fermented food products, including soy sauces, jiang/miso, fermented black soybeans, and grain-based wines like sake, amazake, and li (Shurtleff & Aoyagi 2012). The most frequently occurring microorganism found in koji production is the fungus Aspergillus oryzae, but there are others that also occur, including A. sojae, A. usami, A. awamori, A. kawachii, Rhizopus spp., Monascus spp., Mucor spp., and Absidia spp. (Murooka & Yamshita 2008; Chen et al 2008).

There is a diversity of methods for koji or qu production around East Asia, using different microorganisms, wild or inoculated sources, mixed or pure cultures, and a variety of substrates. This diversity can make mapping the relationships between the different analogues tricky. For example, in English the term ‘koji’ has come to stand for all members of the family of grain-based saccharifying fermentations involving A. oryzae and related organisms, even though the Japanese word kōji refers to only one subset of the larger group of more or less loosely related cultural analogues. Korean nuruk, for example is used for making rice wine, while meju is the one used for protein-rich fermentations. Chinese qu alone encompasses a breadth of fermentations involving different substrates such as rice, sorghum, wheat, barley, peas, or soybeans, different microbial species of the genera Aspergillus spp., Rhizopus spp., Monascus spp., Mucor spp., and Absidia spp., and different techniques such as keeping mixed cultures, using various wild sources for microbes, and making the qu in loose or different pressed forms (Chen et al 2008). This diversity is in turn spread across widely different geographical areas. We generally use the Japanese word ‘koji’ to refer more broadly to the class of grain-based saccharifying fermentations involving A. oryzae, while recognizing the multitude of both different traditions and words used to describe them – this decision is mainly due to the historical introduction of the concept and word into English from the Japanese, as well as our process with koji-making starting with an eye to exploring Japanese fermentation traditions; since then, we have begun exploring some Korean and Chinese techniques as well.

To illustrate the point, here are a few examples of different qu preparations:
Hong qu – also known as ‘red yeast rice’ or ‘red fermented rice’, fermented with Monascus spp., in loose form
Xiao qu – from south China, made with rice and rice chaff, fermented with Rhizopus spp., pressed into an egg-shaped form
Mai qu – from north China, made with wheat, fermented with Aspergillus spp., pressed into a brick-shaped form
Da qu – derived from Mai qu, made with barley, wheat, and peas, fermented with Mucor spp. and Rhizopus spp., pressed into a brick
Da qu with red core – fermented with Mucor spp. and Absidia spp. (dominant), Rhizopus spp. and Aspergillus spp. (less dominant), and Monascus spp. (minority), used especially in the production of Shanxi aged vinegar
Fu qu – a more recent type, made with wheat bran, fermented with pure cultures of Aspergillus oryzae

Regardless of the diversity of its forms, the solid-state cultivation of A. oryzae seems to be the key to inducing the production of hydrolytic enzymes, which are responsible for the breakdown of macromolecules in traditional fermented foods (Machida et al. 2008).

With soy sauces, most Japanese styles use roasted wheat and defatted soybean meal as a substrate for the koji, while most Chinese styles use the whole soybean for qu preparation. For more information about soy sauce production, check out our previous post on Yellow Pea Chiang Yu.

Some styles of koji production for spores (tane-koji or koji-kin) in Japan mix ash (tomo koji, lit. ‘friend of koji’) into the cooked rice, to create favourable conditions for the koji mould by increasing pH and providing certain minerals like potassium, magnesium, and phosphate, which help to increase spore production and resilience, as well as inhibiting various contaminants. The best ash is made from camellia, then zelkove (Zelkova serrata) and oak (Akita Konno).

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Koji has been and continues to be referred to as a ‘malt’ by many Westerns, at least since the 19th century. This is understandable given its similar functional role in the production of grain-based wines to malt in the production of beer: that is, providing fermentable sugars. Koji and malt also share some general chemical similarities, as both saccharify starches into sugars with enzymes. The key difference, however, is that koji uses the enzymes produced by the metabolism of a living fungus, while the production of malt involves sprouting the grain and using the enzymes produced in the sprouting, after which point the enzymatic activity is halted through roasting. We have tried using fresh koji to make a mash for beer, with limited results; roasted koji has proven much more promising (more details in a later post).

At the lab, we have been growing koji on all sorts of substrates, including pearled barley, heritage barley varieties like nøgen byg, buckwheat, rye, quinoa and other Chenopodium spp., sunflower seeds, various beans, and more. Our mainstay has become pearled barley – it is what we make most often and what we know best.

photo credit: Chris Tonnesen

photo credit: Chris Tonnesen

A brief history of koji

300BCE – in Zhouli (‘Rites of the Zhou dynasty’), China – the first written mention of qu. The first conceptual framework to connect soy sauces, jiangs/misos, fermented black soybeans, grain-based wines like sake and li (a Chinese precursor to Japanese amazake), and other koji-based foods.

90BCE – in Shiji (‘Records of the Historian’), by Sima Qian, China – indications that fermented black soybeans and qu were already major commodities in the Chinese economy.

100CE – in Liji (‘Book of rites’), China – the earliest known description of how grain-based wines were made from millet and rice koji.

121CE – in Shuowen Jiezi (‘Analytical Dictionary of Characters’), China – earliest known written character for qu/koji, composed of a top radical for bamboo () over the character for chrysanthemum (). The etymology for this character interpreted by Huang (2000) stems from the idea that qu could have occurred when cooked rice was left in a bamboo basket exposed to air, which over time turned the yellow colour of chrysanthemum.
The contemporary character for koji/qu, in both Chinese and Japanese, is .

544CE – in Qimin Yaoshu (‘Important Arts for the People’s Welfare’), by Jian Sixie, China – the first known detailed description of how to make qu. It includes recipes for nine types of qu and 37 types of grain-based wine.

725CE – in Harima no Kuni Fudoki (‘Geography and Culture of Harima province’), Japan – the first known written mention of koji outside of China. Made using airborne koji moulds.

965CE – in Qing Yilu (‘Anecdotes, simple and exotic’), by Tao Ku, China – the earliest known reference to hong qu, or red rice qu. It includes a recipe for red pot-roast lamb, involving lamb simmered with red rice koji.

1603 – in Vocabulario da Lingoa de Iapam (‘Vocabulary of the Language of Japan’) – Japanese-Portuguese dictionary for Jesuit missionaries in Nagasaki. Contains entries for:
Côji [Koji], a yeast [sic] used in Japan to make sake, or mixed with other things.
Amazaqe [Amazake], a still-bubbling fermented liquid that has not yet completely become sake; or sweet sake.
This is the earliest known European-language document that references koji and amazake.

1712 – in Amoenitatum exoticarum politico-physico-medicarum (‘Exotic novelties, political, physical, medical’) by Engelbert Kaempfer – Kaempfer traveled and lived in Japan from September 1690 to November 1692, mentioning koji, or ‘koos’ as he called it, as part of the process of making miso.

1766 – Samuel Bowen, an American, begins producing, selling, and exporting Chinese-style soy sauce in Thunderbolt near Savannah, Georgia based on a technique he learned in China. Bowen was the first to introduce the soybean to North America (Hymowitz & Harlan 1983).

1779 – in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2nd edition – the entry for ‘Dolichos’ mentions ‘koos’ (after Kaempfer).

1818 – in Account of a Voyage of Discovery to… the Great Loo-Choo Island [Ryukyu, or Okinawa], by Basil Hall – “…hard boiled eggs, cut into slices, the outside of the white being colored red.” This red colour was likely imparted to the outside of the shelled eggs by red rice koji, known in Japan as beni-koji.

1867 – in A Japanese and English Dictionary, by James C. Hepburn – the first written occurrence of koji referred to as a ‘malt’.

1878 March 10 – in Koji no setsu (‘Theory of Koji’), published in Japanese in Tokyo Iji Shinshi (Tokyo Medical Journal) by H. Ahlburg and Shinnosuke Matsubara – the first scientific article ascribing a latin binomial to koji mould. Ahlburg named the mould Eurotium oryzae, which was later renamed Aspergillus oryzae by Cohn in 1884. Japanese scientists rapidly adopting Western microbiology.

1878 Sept 12 – in Brewing in Japan, by R.W. Atkinson, British professor at University of Tokyo, published by Nature (London) – the earliest English-language document that mentions ‘tane’, or koji spores, and ‘tomo koji’, or wood ash.

1881 May 1 – R.W. Atkinson explicitly distinguishes koji from malt, and insists on the use of the Japanese word in English to avoid “erroneous impressions”.

1891 Feb 20 – The first article (appearing in the Chicago Daily Tribune) about Jokichi Takamine, a Japanese chemist residing in Chicago who developed method of using koji instead of malt to make whiskey, with 12-15% improvement in efficiency.

1894 Feb 23 – Takamine applies for a patent for ‘Taka-Diastase’, now known as the amylase produced by Aspergillus oryzae. This is the first US patent for a microbial enzyme.

1895 July – Takamine contracts with Parke, Davis & co. of Detroit, Michigan to manufacture and market Taka-Diastase on a large commercial scale. This is the earliest known commercially-produced enzyme in North America.

1897 – Yamamori Jozo-sho in San Jose, CA is the earliest-known company to produce shoyu (Japanese soy sauce) in the US.

1906 – Karuhorunia Miso Seizo-jo (California Miso Manufacturing Co.) in San Francisco is the earliest-known company to make miso in the US.

1908 – Kodama Miso Seizo-sho in Los Angeles is the earliest-known company to make and sell koji in the US, advertising its product as ‘Shiro Koji’.

1913 – Marusan Joto Shiromiso in Los Angeles is the earliest-known company to sell and advertise koji in English, as ‘Special Koji’.

1972 – The Erewhon Trading Co., Inc. catalog entitled ‘Traditional Foods’ advertises its koji imported from Japan. At this point there was a resurgent interest in koji in North America with the macrobiotic, natural-foods, and soyfoods movements.

2004 – Professor emeritus Eiji Ichishima of Tohoku University, Japan, proposes in Nippon Jozo Kyokai Zasshi (Journal of the Brewing Society, Japan) that Aspergillus oryzae become the ‘national fungus’ (kokkin), just like a national bird, flower, tree, or animal. The proposal is approved at the society’s annual meeting in 2006.

It should be noted that while the dominant popular narrative surrounding the flow of ideas – and associated structures of power – in the world has gone from ‘West’ to ‘East’, in the case of koji technology the knowledge has moved from East Asia to Europe and North America – very much the opposite.

For more information about the history of koji, look into the extensive book by Shurtleff and Aoyagi from 2012 called ‘The History of Koji’, available free online.

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Evolutionary history and domestication

The evolutionary history of Aspergillus oryzae provides an interesting model for investigating mechanisms of domestication, and how they might differ in microbes compared to animals or plants.

The closest relative to A. oryzae is A. flavus, the two species sharing 99.5% genome-wide nucleotide similarity. Yet this difference is enough for the species to exhibit markedly different metabolic and behavioural characteristics. Though under certain conditions (mainly incubation longer than the standard three days for koji fermentation) some strains of A. oryzae have been shown to produce mycotoxins such as maltoryzine, ochratoxin A, and kojic, aspergillic, cyclopiazonic, and b-nitropropionic acids (USEPA 2012; Ciegler & Vesonder, 1987; Blumenthal 2004), the fungus has been used safely in food production for centuries, is Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS) by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and has Qualified Presumption of Safety (QPS) by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). A. flavus, on the other hand, is an agricultural pest of several seed crops and producer of aflatoxin, another mycotoxin and one of the most potent naturally-occurring carcinogens.

In a 2012 study, Gibbons et al. compared the genome sequences of 14 geographically and industrially diverse strains of A. oryzae and A. flavus with their reference strains to learn more about the flavus-oryzae lineage and “the functional changes associated with microbe domestication and the impact of the process on genome variation.” Firstly, they found that the genome-wide nucleotide diversity among the A. oryzae strains was around 25% of that among the A. flavus strains. This result, paired with the knowledge that A. oryzae is monophyletic, indicates that all strains of A. oryzae originate from a single domestication event i.e. one common ancestor. Furthermore, two of the A. flavus isolates showed a closer affinity to A. oryzae than to the other A. flavus isolates, suggesting not only that A. oryzae descended from A. flavus but that it likely originated within an atoxigenic clade of A. flavus. Some strains of A. flavus are indeed known to be atoxigenic, so such an origin is evolutionarily plausible.

Some of the possible selective pressures for A. oryzae are illustrated by the relationship between koji and sake production. Aflatoxin is genotoxic to Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the principal yeast involved in the fermentation of sake and other grain-based wines, which means that evolution of the atoxigenic A. oryzae and/or its atoxigenic A. flavus ancestor could have been driven in part by its impact on yeast survival (Gibbons et al. 2012). In other words, that saccharification and alcoholic fermentation occur in parallel in many methods for sake production means that a less toxigenic saccharifying mould would allow for a stronger culture of alcoholically fermenting yeast, enhancing the production of sake and leading to alcohol levels up to 18-20% by volume – the highest recorded level of alcohol in a beverage without distillation (Murooka & Yamshita 2008). The fact that humans like alcohol probably directly selected for a non-toxic strain of saccharifying mould – leading to a technology with many applications beyond alcoholic fermentation itself.

Overall, what has emerged from this and other studies is a picture of microbe domestication different from that with many animals and plants: while domestication of many plant and animal species has been largely effected through “genetic tinkering” of developmental pathways affecting growth and morphology, the domestication of some microbes including A. oryzae was driven by the restructuring of metabolism (Gibbons et al. 2012).

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Making Koji

Now we can make some koji.
This recipe yields about 1450g of finished koji from 1 kg of dry pearled barley.

You will need:
1kg dry pearled barley, or another grain (it is worth noting that in sake production, the more polished/pearled the grain of rice, the more expensive the sake)
sufficient water for soaking
~30g koji-kin / tane-koji / koji spores
a thermomix, or strong blender, or mortar and pestle (in this case less than ideal)
a steam oven, or something to steam in, or a slow cooker, or a pot of boiling water (as a last resort)
hand sanitiser
latex gloves
a gastrotray, or another similar tray
a clean cloth that can cover the tray
a koji chamber (we use an upright fridge turned off and fitted with heating mat and temperature probe connected to PID controller – essentially some place that can maintain a constant temperature of 30˚C and retain humidity, and has some space for airflow. For more information on creating a similar device, check out our previous post ‘Home Made’).

1. Soak pearled barley overnight.

2. The next morning, turn on koji chamber to 30˚C. 

3. Steam barley (100˚C) for 90 minutes in perforated gastro tray.

3. Remove barley from oven. While it cools, blitz koji-kin in thermomix to a fine powder (~20g koji-kin / 1kg cooked barley).

4. Once barley has cooled to a comfortable temperature, sanitize hands with alcohol, put on latex gloves and break up chunks thoroughly. Pour or scoop barley into standard full-size gastros to a depth of about 2cm.

5. Prepare a warm, damp, wrung-out cloth to cover the koji.

6. When the barley has reached 35˚C, inoculate with powdered koji-kin and mix thoroughly to coat every grain. Smooth out barley and cover with the damp cloth.

7. Place the tray into the koji chamber (time T+0). Fill from the top racks down, to make use of the most heat. The barley should stay around 30˚C, and not go too far above. Place the temperature probe into the barley itself to keep track of the internal temperature – this is crucial to not letting it overheat. Put it in the koji chamber on the uppermost shelf, as it is in the warmest part of the chamber. Close door.

8. At T+18h, remove tray and turn the koji - mixing to aerate and ensure even distribution of spores. It should start to smell fruity and fragrant. Redampen the cloth, cover and return to chamber. Nestle the probe into the koji on the top shelf. Close door. Monitor the temperature carefully over the next 18h - it should stay between 25˚C and 30˚C in order to not denature any of the peptidases, and certainly no higher than 38˚C, which will kill the mould.

9. At T+24h, turn koji again. This time, create two furrows in the koji lengthwise with hands – the furrows should be as deep as possible without being able to see the pan through the grains. Return the koji to the chamber with a newly dampened cloth. Nestle the probe into the top shelf koji. This time, keep the chamber door open a crack to prevent overheating. 

10. At T+30h, turn the koji a final time, again with furrows. Lightly re-dampen the cloth (at this point the chamber should be around 95% relative humidity) and return the koji to the chamber. Nestle the probe into the top shelf koji with the door slightly cracked.

11. At T+36, the A. oryzae mycelia will have permeated the grains and they will hold together in a spongy white cake. 

12. If using koji for further fermentation, use while it is still white. If saving koji as koji-kin, let the A. oryzae continue to develop until it begins to sporulate and turn green. Once it turns green, break it up in the tray and let it dry slowly, somewhere warm and dry. Once completely dry, store and use for future koji inoculation.

13. Happy fermenting!

Troubleshooting:
If the koji turns sticky and starts to smell ammoniated and like sour bananas, the A. oryzae has probably been killed due to an excessive temperature, and the substrate has been taken over by Bacillus subtilis – bacteria that are often found in certain alkali fermentations. It is the reason why natto is sticky and ammoniated. Discard, and next time be sure to keep the temperature in the center of the grains around 30˚c. It might take some experimenting to get it right depending on your incubation set-up.

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References

Akita Konno Co., Ltd. “Outline of Koji and Yeast Stater [sic] producing process”. Japan. 17 Dec 2013. <http://www.akita-konno.co.jp/en/dekirumade/index.html>.

“Aspergillus oryzae”. Wikipedia. Sept 3 2013. Nov 24 2013. <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aspergillus_oryzae>.

“Aspergillus oryzae Final Risk Assessment”. Biotechnology Program under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), United States Environmental Protection Agency. 27 Sept 2012. 23 Dec 2013. <http://www.epa.gov/biotech_rule/pubs/fra/fra007.htm>.

Chen, Fusheng et al. “Cereal Vinegars Made by Solid-State Fermentation in China”. . 2008.

Gibbons, John et al. “The Evolutionary Imprint of Domestication on Genome Variation and Function of the Filamentous Fungus Aspergillus oryzae”. Current Biology. 22: 1403-1409 (2012).

Glenn, Dianne and Rogers, Peter. “Industrialization of Indigenous Fermented Food Processes: Biotechnological Aspects”.

Hammes, Walter et al. “Microbial ecology of cereal fermentations”. Trends in Food Science & Technology. 16: 4-11 (2005).

Hui, Y. H. et al. Handbook of Food and Beverage Fermentation Technology. New York: Marcel Dekker Inc., 2004.

Machida, Masayuki et al. “Genome sequencing and analysis of Aspergillus oryzae”. Nature. 438: 1157-1161 (2005).

Machida, Masayuki et al. “Genomics of Aspergillus oryzae: Learning from the History of Koji Mold and Exploration of Its Future”. DNA Research. 15: 173-183 (2008).

Murooka, Yoshikatsu and Yamshita, Mitsuo. “Traditional healthful fermented products of Japan”. Journal of Industrial Microbial Biotechnology. 35: 791-798 (2008).

Nielsen, Dennis et al. “Mixed microbial Fermentations and methodologies for their investigation”. Unpublished.

Shurtleff, William and Aoyagi, Akiko. History of Koji – Grains and/or soybeans enrobed with a mold culture (300BCE to 2012). USA: Soyinfo Center, 2012. 17 July 2013. 17 Dec 2013. <http://www.soyinfocenter.com/pdf/154/Koji.pdf>.

Tzean, SS et al. “Aspergillus oryzae var. effusus”. BCRC. Taiwan: Gifu University, 1990. Nov 24 2013. <http://www.bcrc.firdi.org.tw/fungi/fungal_detail.jsp?id=FU20080222000>.