Noma has been voted best restaurant in the world four years running. Co-owner, super-chef René Redzepi, tells Claire Coleman how fermentation has become the Copenhagen restaurant's bloodline and the difference it makes to the seasonal ingredients in their award-winning food . . .
You might not think that what you put on your family’s plates has a lot to do with what they’re serving at a restaurant roundly considered to be the best in the world. But if you’ve ever dished up sourdough, kimchee, miso, kombucha, sauerkraut or any other newly-fashionable fermented foods, you probably should — in part — be thanking René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen, often lauded as the ‘best restaurant in the world’.
While the restaurant was initially best known for dishes based on foraged ingredients, Redzepi has — like Heston Blumenthal in the UK — always experimented with food and fermentation became a huge part of those experiments. They were, he says, driven by “the same basic train of thought: We need more things to cook with. We have these seasonal ingredients. What can we do to make them better? What can we do to make them last?”
The answer was fermentation, a method of preservation that alters a food through microorganisms.
“It sounds very daunting when we talk about it like that but a glass of beer, chocolate, coffee, wine, cheese — these are all products of fermentation.”
Today, Redzepi says “fermentation has become our bloodline at the restaurant. It’s in everything we serve, it’s that thing that nobody can see but most often, it’s the thing that makes the difference. It’s like when you have sushi and you dip your sushi in soy sauce [which is fermented soya beans] and it makes that big difference, that’s what fermentation can do for your cooking.”
And it’s his passion for this type of food that has led to a new book, The Noma Guide to Fermentation, co-authored by Redzepi and David Zilber, who heads up the fermentation lab at Noma. Full of colour photos, step by step guides, and inspirational ideas, it’s the sort of thing that will appeal to restaurant nerds, food geeks, and home cooks who like to take things a step further. And Redzepi promises it has the potential to elevate every single meal you cook.
“I believe that fermentation is one of the greatest foundations that you can have in a kitchen. If you have a well-stocked larder of fermented products, cooking will become easier. I don’t believe you can easily whip up a 30-minute meal when you don’t have experience in cooking, but if you learn how to incorporate fermented foods into your meals, it makes it easier to create quick, and really delicious meals.”
MIXING IT UP
Over the years, Redzepi and Zilber have pushed the boundaries of fermentation and — naturally — there have been some mis-steps along the way.
“Garums are sort of variations on a Thai fish sauce — you mix a protein with salt and leave it in a hot, humid environment. We’ve experimented with all sorts — oxtail, oysters, squid, even grasshoppers — they were all delicious. But the one thing that really didn’t work was trying to do it with blood. We tried pigs’ blood, cows’ blood. All I can say is think of the most foul thing you’ve ever smelled — it was ten times worse than that.”
His current favourite ferment is roast chicken wing garum that he describes as tasting like a cross between “roast chicken, the sticky caramelised sauce you get in the bottom of the pan when you roast a chicken and lemon juice, with the texture of regular chicken stock”. Add a few drops of that to anything and he promises you it will be transformative.
“My wife used a few drops in with some egg yolks when she was making a sauce for pasta the other day and it was just outstanding.”
If fermenting meat — or blood — is out of your comfort zone, don’t panic. While there are recipes for multiple garums, as well as detailed advice on how to construct your own temperature and humidity-controlled fermentation chamber, you don’t actually need anything more complicated than a jar, some salt and a handful of berries to get started.
And while, there’s no doubt that fermenting will improve the taste of your meals, and quite probably the health of your gut microbiome, it could also help your mind.
“In a digitalised age, people want analogue things,” says Redzepi, explaining the growing popularity of home fermentation. “They want to be present and have something that takes time. A lot of fermenting is menial mixing and waiting but there’s something really appealing about the physical act of doing something with your hands that isn’t downloading or swiping.”
The Noma Guide to Fermentation by Rene Redzepi and David Zilber is published by Artisan, www.artisanbooks.com
This feature first appeared in Luxury Plus magazine.