Tonight, let's talk about bacteria. Y'know, those horrible little gremlins that lurk around on everything and can make us very, very ill unless we bleach and sterilise everything in sight, over and over again. Oh, and let's not forget antibiotics, which should be prescribed whenever anyone comes down with sniffles, just in case - because you can not have too much of a good thing, and better safe than sorry, right ?
Er.... Not quite.
Now, the above is very much what it was like when I was growing up. My mum, who was always somewhat alternatively inclined, and really quite ahead of the time with her unshakeable belief that pretty much any ailment known to humankind is down to misuse of chemicals or inadequate diet, and can be corrected to same extent, if not fully healed, by the adjustment of the above, was luckily quite determined to go head-to-head with medical establishment when my four bouts of what was allegedly pneumonia in a single year (I believe I was about two years old at the time) and the resultant courses of antibiotics left me unable to digest pretty much any food going - but she was very much looked on as a potentially dangerous kook by the majority.
Well, she is my mum, and I love her - but she is a bit of a kook. Does not mean she is wrong, though, at least not all the time.
And that time she was right. We now know that not all bacteria - I really should say micro-organisms, because there is more to them than just a proliferation of the humble bacterium - that not all micro-organisms are created equal. There is no doubt that the discovery of penicillin, and how to produce it on a massive scale, as well as everything that followed from there on, has changed the world, as it was at the time, for the better. Going even further back, learning that to wash one's hands can stop the spread of some very dangerous diseases - especially if you are, for instance, a doctor rummaging around a woman's private parts on the occasion of childbirth - has no doubt saved numerous lives.
That does not mean that antibiotics, or assiduous extermination of all micro-organisms through bleaching and sterilisation is good for every occasion, or even necessary. The antibiotics will do nothing to a virus - your body's immune system has to take care of that. The best you can do is to help the immune system along through adequate rest, liquids, clean eating - and certain herbal remedies that are well known to help your natural immunity along.
And the sterilisation and bleaching and all that..... Trouble with all that is that all too often it will throw natural balance of things off-kilter. Those little friendly bacteria that live in your gut and are necessary for the healthy digestion and general balance of your internal system ? If everything you touch is bleached, if every ailment is treated with antibiotics, if everything you ingest is pasteurised and homogenised and processed into oblivion.... Those little guys will suffer, too.
This is where natural probiotics come into it.
Taking a step back now - remember Paleo diet and its insistence that all that we are genetically programmed to digest nothing else but fresh meat, fish, fruit veg and nuts, and how I had a bit of a problem with that statement ?
Well, turns out that I was far from the only one. Further reading on the subject shows that there is a large community of folk out there who have taken the same reasoning path as I have, and after the initial elimination/weight loss/healing stage of "pure Paleo", settled into what I would term "Paleo nourishing traditions" - a sort of amalgam of the Paleo tradition with some additions of non-Paleo foods, prepared and treated according to the Nourishing Traditions principles. So, a legume or two ? Cool, but sprout 'em first. Occasional loaf of bread, even ? No problem, but make it sourdough. And that uber-hobgoblin of "we were not meant to eat that" - cow's, sheep's or goat's milk ?
Actually, that is cool too, at least for a certain proportion of people (remember, not everyone's ancestors remained hunter-gatherer's until recently, and some have been milking domesticated animals for manymanymany generations) - but not pasteurised, not homogenised, and no, definitely not UHT or powdered. Fresh outta a healthy goat is cool - but how many of us keep a handy goat in our back garden ? Clearly, suggesting that mass-produced milk on a scale that we are used to nowadays would be achievable without pasteurisation is laughable.... The question though is, if it was a case of having to choose between such milk "on tap", as it were, and no milk or dairy at all, should probably be answered as "go dairy free".
Enter cultured milk. I have not researched this too much as it is not an issue that has affected any of us directly (we use very little dairy on a normal basis anyway), but I have come across suggestions that culturing milk changes its chemical make-up to a sufficient extent to make it digestible to many people who are intolerant to it in its normal state. If this is you, do more research before you experiment, though, and don't take my word for it !
Anyway, I don't know what it was like where you all were growing up, but in my country, when I was a kid, it seemed that every other week there was an article in some paper or magazine of some rural community or a "primitive" tribe discovered in some hard-to-reach nook of the planet, where everyone lived to see their centenary in absolute perfect health, and no one was ever sick; and they all seemed to exist on some variety of a Nourishin Tradition diet, that usually contained daily ingestion of some form of cultured milk.
Now, what is cultured milk ? Simply put, it is milk, Jim, but not as we know - it's milk with extra life innit. A culture of micro-organisms (those little friendly bacteria) is added to milk, and left at room temperature to do its work - eventually transforming the whole lot into a healthy, probiotic drink.
The simplest way to try this for yourself is to buy some live yogurt, or a small pot of buttermilk, from your supermarket of choice, and add it to some milk. When your milk has turned into yogurt/buttermilk, just save a little back for your next batch.
Then, if you are so inclined, you can scale the operations up, and through a simple expedient of leaving your cultured milk at room temperature a while longer, then straining, you will be left with healthy cream cheese (think Philadelphia, only really good for you), and something even more precious - whey, which can then be used to make really, really nice lacto-fermented vegetables - which are also natural probiotics.
If you would like more details about either cheese/whey making, or lacto-fermented veg, let me know either in the comments or via email, and I will write up a tutorial. Might even stretch to a picture or two, if I am feeling generous ;o)
The probiotics that you will probably hear most often about, if you are interested in that sort of thing, are kefir, and kombucha. Kefir is a culture that resembles a clump of grains, and there are two sorts - milk kefir, which cultures your milk, and water kefir, which I've not tried, but I imagine is used to "culture" water, that is, make a water-based probiotic. The usual way to get into kefir making is through buying some kefir grains - or obtaining them from someone who is already using them; they multiply quite slowly though, so coughing up the cash to start with is probably your best bet.
The two basic rules for kefir making are as follows: 1) absolutely no metal; 2) no extremes of temperature. Kefir grains, however, can be stored in the fridge (in a jar of milk) - this will arrest their development, but keep them alive. If you are thinking of acquiring some, make sure you have a couple of glass jars to do your brewing in, wooden or silicone spoons to handle the grains with, and a plastic sieve. If you don't do plastic (and who can blame you), you'll have to mess about with muslin cloths, and that can get rather messy. Plastic sieve does make life a great deal easier in that respect. I got my kefir grains (and my kombucha scoby) from these people: http://happykombucha.co.uk/ and was happy with both the service and the product.
Kombucha is a culture that forms a slimy looking layer that some people thing resembles a mushroom of some kind, which is why you will hear people referring to kombucha "mushrooms" . They are not a mushroom - in fact, they are not a fungus of any sort. The proper name for it is a kombucha scoby, which stands for "symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast" What kombucha "cultures" though - really, it's fermentation we are talking about here - is neither milk nor water, but tea. Preparation of kombucha requires quite a lot of sugar - it is what feeds the culture - but the opinion is divided as to whether this sugar counts and sugar digested or not - my personal opinion is that, since this sugar is fed to the scoby, and therefore its chemical makeup is changed prior to your digesting the drink, it doesn't. As this opinion is based on gut instinct rather than sound scientific research, if you are diabetic, or do not want to touch sugar for any other reason, then kombucha is probably not for you.
As with kefir, the rules are - no metal, no extreme temperatures - but kombucha is not happy in the fridge, so if you are ever taking a break from it, just keep it room temperature in its own starter liquid. When you are sold or given a kombucha scoby, this will come to you in some "starter liquid" - basically, a little bit of the fermented kombucha drink that the scoby produced. Pop it into a glass jar until you are ready to brew your own.
When you are ready, get your glass jar - how big a jar depend on how big your "mother" scoby is - small or medium will need a litre jar; large one a jar twice that volume - then boil the required amount of water, and chuck in teabags at the rate of 3 per litre (black, green or white tea are all good; strong flavoured teas such as Lapsang Souchong are said to produce odd-tasting drinks and are best avoided; herbal teas are really herbal infusions and therefore do not count as "tea" for the purpose of kombucha brewing) and sugar at the rate of 80-90g per litre. Leave for about half an hour then fish the teabags out and stir the sugar in. Try to use a non-metal spoon for this. Then allow to cool to room temperature, before placing your scoby and all of its starter liquid into the jar. Cover the jar, but do not shut the lid - lid half-open, or covered with muslin is fine - and leave in a dark cupboard somewhere for a couple of weeks.
After a couple of weeks, you will have a refreshing, sparkling fermented probiotic drink - but what you will also have is a "daughter" scoby - a thin layer at the top of your jar that can be grown on into a larger scoby and thus increase your kombucha production - or shared with friends.
Thus far, I have been doing the latter, and I am happy to continue doing so, which is why I am inviting any UK readers who would like to give it a go to leave me a comment on the bottom of this post if they would like a small/medium kombucha scoby sending to them. To make it a little bit simpler for myself, it has to be a comment if you want to be in the running - I will not consider you if you only email me asking for one at this stage; you have to leave a comment on this post. This offer is only open to UK readers simply because it is a living organism, and posting it is likely to be a bit of a headache anyway, seeing how it needs to include liquid, but should really not feature leakages. I am willing to give it a go, though.
The way this is going to work is as follows: I have a few scobys to share out, but the supply is not unlimited, so if there are fewer UK readers than scobys available, you all get one. If there is only one or two takers more than scobys, it'll be a case of "first come, first served", but I will remember the remaining readers when I have some more scobys.... And if there's loads interested, it will have to be a draw. That seems to be about it.... Oh, and as Broad Bean is the one that got me thinking about it, if she would like one, I am keeping one back for her, no matter how tardy she is in commenting. That's only fair, right ? ;o)
So - over to you now. Would you like to see a post on cream cheese and whey ? Would you like to see a post of lacto-fermenting vegetables ? Would you like a kombucha scoby ? Looking forward to hearing from you.....