Traditional Ways Of Preserving Food In South Africa


It is worth distinguishing between the preservation of raw food and the preservation of food that has already been cooked. Cooking food destroys some essential nutrients such as vitamin C, it kills off enzymes present in the food and it kills off beneficial bacteria. This is not to say that cooked food is bad and should be abandoned. Quite the contrary. Cooked food has many, many other advantages that should not be ignored. Cooked food releases an abundance of energy and releases nutrients otherwise locked into the food source. Do not stop cooking.

This, however, is a chapter on preserved food the vast body of which concerns uncooked food. Traditional, uncooked, preserved food retains and in many cases boosts the nutrient content of the food being preserved, enzymes remain in tact and in the case of traditionally pickled food are brimming with trillions of LABs that feed our micro-flora. It is for this reason that Sally Fallon recommends always eating some raw, preferably fermented, condiments along-side cooked food.


Pickling is a loose term used to denote the preservation of raw (and sometimes cooked) food in acid. It is one of the oldest and most common forms of traditional food preservation since it is highly effective, relatively simple and requires little in the way of expensive ingredients. The acid required of a good pickle can be produced by LABs present in a salt pickle (such as sauerkraut, kimchi, gherkins); it can be the spontaneous pickling of dairy products or it can be formed when oxygen interacts with alcohol to produce acetic acid commonly known as vinegar.

Pathogenic microorganisms can not survive an acid environment below a ph. level of 4.6 which is why global populations have pickled food for millennia. Vegetables, fruit, grains, meat, fish and dairy products can all be pickled. Most pickled foods are preserved raw and served unheated which means that enzymes and many nutrients that would otherwise be destroyed are preserved for us to benefit from. Further, in the case of traditional salt pickling or dairy fermentation (as opposed to vinegar pickles) the eater will benefit enormously from the full gamut of live beneficial bacteria present in the food.


Nowadays, the term lacto-fermentation means little to most English-speaking readers. Other than in small isolated pockets, the practice has been largely abandoned by the home cook. In other parts of the world such as Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and South America home fermenting still thrives.

When fermentation was used as a means to preserve food in the English speaking world they were seldom, other than in the rarefied literature, referred to as ferments. Fermented foods were simply known as pickles, relishes, salamis, buttermilk, chutneys, dry-cured sausages, cottage cheese, curds and whey, condiments, ale, wine … all fermented food products but rarely referred to as such.

Ever heard of a lacto-fermented olive? Probably not. Yet the only olive any of us will have ever eaten are softened and flavoured through the process of a lengthy salt-brine fermentation. Plucked fresh from the tree and the olive is bitter, hard and toxic. Following a lengthy salt-brine fermentation, however, and the olive is transformed into a nutritious, tasty and softned condiment or nibble. Fermented foods form a vast repertoire of our foods yet few are aware of this.

To encourage the home cook to make their own fermented preserves and in order to distinguish lacto-fermentation from vinegar based pickles and the food industry’s “pro-biotic” products the recipes in this book refer to traditional salt pickles rather than lacto-fermented pickles.

All of the recipes listed rely on the full gamut of free, wild microorganisms that anyone and everyone from Hackney to the Hebrides, from Windsor Castle to Warrington, from Hollywood to Holyrood can tap into without having to pay a single corporation for the right to use them. Consider them, if you will, a gift from the Gods.

The benefits of traditionally pickled food

Taste: First and foremost: they taste great; either as a stand alone snack or sitting alongside cooked food as a condiment. The deep, challenging flavours of ferments are an acquired taste but once acquired they soon become highly desirable and enjoyable.

Enzymes: Second, a good unheated ferment will be packed with natural enzymes that will help digest the cooked food. This is of great importance and not to be underestimated. The consumption of natural, raw enzymes present in a wild ferment will put less of a strain on our own pancreas and liver particularly when eaten alongside cooked food.

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Pre-digestion: Third, fermentation kick-starts enzymatic activity which in turn begins deconstructing the fermenting food into something more digestible. In the case of buttermilk, yoghurt or kefir derived from cows the enzyme lactase deconstructs the simple sugar lactose into smaller parts thereby making it more tolerable to drink even for those who are lactose intolerant.

Strengthening the human biome: Fourth, the regular consumption of uncooked fermented food, such as sauerkraut, kimchi, salt-pickled gherkins, traditional salamis, chorizo and cheeses results in the replenishment of beneficial bacteria that helps to feed and replenish the microorganisms present in our gut and which play such a vital role in digestion and our immune system (see above).

How fermentation works as a food preservative

Fermentation works by relying on LABs to turn the food environment acidic enough to prevent the growth of pathogenic microorganisms.

No microorganism – pathogenic or beneficial – can tolerate a high acid, high saline environment, which is why salt has always played a leading role in food preservation. There are two ways in which food can be preserved through salt. Firstly, by simply “salting” or “brining” the food (see Salting below).

The second way is to rely on salt is to encourage the growth of LABs whilst preventing the growth of pathogenic microorganisms. Pathogenic bacteria can not tolerate high concentrations of salt. LABs, on the other hand, can which gives them a competitive advantage over pathogenic microorganisms. By adding the right amount of salt LABs are given a head start to consume the available foods and multiply. As the LABs set about consuming the available sugars and as they begin to multiply they release lactic acid and other anti-microbial elements. The acid and anti-microbial elements, in turn prevent, pathogens from getting a food-hold on the food.

(Note: when fermenting dairy, grain or fruits salt is not necessary since they will ferment spontaneously. Salt, however, is necessary for vegetable, meat and fish recipes.)

The acid produced by the LABs explains why most fermented foods taste sour (sauerkraut, pickles, yoghurts, sourdough bread etc.). The exception to the sour rule are fermented meat (parma ham, salami, chorizo), fish (gravlax) and cheeses (cheddar, red Leicester) which have a more powerful savoury rather than sour flavour but they too have a low enough ph. level to prevent pathogenic growth or contamination.

Over a period of time and depending on various conditions such as temperature, available food resources and moisture the LABs will turn the entire food environment acidic enough to act as an effective method of preserving food and prevent it from spoiling. In the case of vegetables that have been salt pickled the food is perfectly safe to consume.

Meat and fish on the other hand do require some extra steps to prevent the colonisation of the botulism bacteria, which like LABs are anaerobic. Meat and fish consist mostly of proteins and are notable for their absence of sugar which LABs rely upon if they are to multiply and secret acid. When it comes to the fermentation of meat and fish, therefore, it is very important to ensure that the correct steps are taken to give LABs a head start and prevent pathogenic bacteria, particularly clostridium botulism gaining a foothold in the food source.

To preserve food successfully through fermentation the following conditions must first be in place:


As with all microorganisms LABs require moisture to breed. Fermenting techniques generate moisture either by crushing the food being fermented and releasing the natural moisture of the plant (as with sauerkraut or kimchi) or by adding water and salt to the plant (as with gherkins) or by simply adding water to the food which kick-starts the fermentation process (as with a sourdough starter).

An anaerobic environment

LABs will only thrive in an anaerobic environment, never in the presence of oxygen which is why food being fermented must always remain submerged in the salt brine or water to prevent contact with air and oxygen. Food that floats to the top of the brine and interacts with the oxygen rich air before the LABs have had a chance to turn the food environment acidic enough (a common problem given that salt causes food to float) will develop surface moulds and yeasts. Food submerged below the brine level, however, remain incubated from oxygen and are thus isolated from other microorganisms.

When first starting out with traditional pickled vegetables the trickiest thing is to find a weight to keep the food submerged and prevent the growth of surface yeasts and moulds. If these white yeasts are not removed other more problematic moulds can develop on top of them which will spoil the flavour of the ferment. If any bright coloured moulds appear – either blue, green or red the ferment should be discarded. As Sally Fallon states – on the rare occasion that a ferment has failed the subsequent smell would be so intense and off-putting nothing on earth would make you want to eat it. I’m not sure how safe this test is given that most ferments smell challenging to begin with! Rest assured – vegetable ferments are safe to consume. The high acid levels will guarantee that no pathogenic microorganisms will have contaminated the food source.

The presence of sugar

LABs live off sugars. They are not particularly fussy about which sugar they consume but it has to be a sugar of some form – fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose. No sugar – no fermentation. Vegetables contain enough glucose to make successful sour ferments such as kimchi, sauerkraut or salt pickles. When preparing salt pickled chutneys which contain fruit and vegetables wild yeasts will convert the fructose into alcohol – but not enough to cause inebriation. Chutneys are mildly alcoholic. Dairy products that contain the sugar lactose ferment rapidly, hence yoghurts, fromage frais, buttermilk, kefir, cottage cheese etc. Grains such as wheat, spelt or rye contain glucose which results in fermented grain known as sourdough starters. Soaked whole grain berries that have sprouted create a sugar known as maltose, which allows brewers to brew beer. When preserving meat and fish through lacto-fermentation, however, sugars must be introduced to the food to kick-start the lacto-fermentation process. Meat on its own contains little, if no sugars, and without the addition of some sugar the LABs would have no food source to survive on and the meat would rapidly rot.

Sufficient warmth

There must be sufficient warmth for the LABs to do their work. Below ten degrees centigrade and the activity of the LABs slows down considerably. If the environment becomes warmer the activity of the LABs will speed up leading to an over-ripe sourdough starter or extra-sour fermented vegetable or dairy preserves during the summer months. Above a certain temperature and the LABs, like all micro-organisms, will be killed off.

Just the right amount of salt – for meat and vegetable fermented pickles

Too much salt will prevent LABs from developing and will taste unpleasant, too little salt could risk pathogenic bacteria from colonising the food. A pinch of salt is not going to work but neither is a whole cup of salt to one cup of water. As a general rule of thumb food preserved in a salt brine (such as whole gherkins, beans, onions, carrots etc.) require around 3% salt added to the total volume. Shredded root vegetables such as cabbages, turnips, horse-radish and onions which are fermented in their own juices require less, around 2%. For meat roughly 6% of the food content should be salt.

The difference between LABs and Pro-biotics

Although Master in the Kitchen and most enthusiasts of traditional food preservation like to talk about wild beneficial bacteria the food industry prefers to call them “pro-biotic” and many may have heard of them as such. They are not the same as those you can cultivate in the kitchen. Pro-biotics are LABs that have been intentionally isolated from other microorganisms and grown isolated in a lab. They are then harvested and added to a food product that has undergone the scorched earth policy of sterilisation. It is the exact opposite of spontaneous, wild fermentation where the whole gamut of beneficial wild bacteria are cultivated and consumed.

Most modern populations in the developed world will have consumed factory prepared fermented foods at some point typically products such as sweetened pro-biotic yoghurts or plastic wrap cheeses. These products are sub-optimal at best, third rate when compared to home-made fermented pickles.

Pro-biotic are not bad. They are not dangerous. They are better than nothing – but they are categorically not the same as the whole spectrum of beneficial bacteria that it is possible for the home-cook to make perfectly safely following some simple recipes that have been set out here. Home made buttermilk will have the full gamut of beneficial bacteria. Store bought, branded yoghurts in pretty plastic containers will typically have been injected with just one or two strains of “pro-biotic” – and lots of artificial sugars.


Vinegar is a fermented food product. To be precise it is acetic acid and occurs when oxygen interacts with alcohol to turn it into vinegar – one of the reasons why wineries go to great lengths to seal their bottles with air-tight corks to prevent the wine from turning to vinegar. Any food that contains fructose can turn into alcohol and from alcohol into vinegar. All vinegars stem from alcoholic beverages – hence wine vinegars, malt vinegars (from beer and ale), raspberry vinegars, apple vinegars, rice vinegars etc.

Other than the milder Asian rice vinegars most European vinegars have a high enough acid content (typically around 5%) and are thus suitable for preserving food in. Preserving food in a vinegar, salt, sugar, herb & spice solution is a very common, traditional practise – as common and as traditional as lacto-fermentation. In eastern Europe – from Poland, through to Russia, Romania, Bulgaria and right through to the Middle East – most populations pickled their seasonal vegetables with salt in order to kick-start pickling through fermentation.

In Germany, France, the UK, Sweden or Norway it was and is more common to pickle food in vinegar. Some ardent traditionalists spurn vinegar based preserves since they do not contain the same amount of LABs as a salt pickle. I have been unable to find any more information on the nutritional value of vinegars. What I do know is that vinegar pickles is very common and very traditional in western European cultures. They taste amazing and raw, unpasteurised apple, malt or wine vinegars are bound to have some nutritional value, which is why I’ve included some vinegar recipes in the book.

Be aware thought that most commercially available vinegar pickles will have been subjected to pasteurisation – that extra little precaution food regulators impose on industry to eliminate all risk but which is so effective at destroying enzymes and nutrients. Pasteurisation, to recall is part of the food regulator’s and food industry’s scorched earth policy. It will destroy most of the benefits of consuming a perfectly safe vinegar pickle. Many modern recipes call on high heat processing of vinegar based preserves after the food has been bottled. If, however, the traditional vinegar recipe has been followed correctly and the acid level on the bottle of vinegar states 5% then the chances of there being any pathogenic bacteria present in the preserved vinegar pickle are very low indeed and the everyday cook can feel assured that they are serving perfectly safe pickles.

Further, if one is consuming other raw fermented foods regularly such as home-made yoghurts, buttermilk, or sauerkraut, one will be ingesting enough wild beneficial bacteria to keep the body and soul in good humour.


Salting and brining is not the same as fermentation though both use salt as the main ingredient to preserve food. Salting or brining food requires a high saline content – typically 10% of the total volume. At these concentrations no bacteria can thrive – neither harmful, harmless nor beneficial which is why it is excellent at preserving food.

Salting is also a means to draw free-moisture from meat through the process of osmosis. Such high concentrations of salt, however, are unpalatable which is why food preserved this way is often rinsed before being consumed. Salting or brining is typically reserved to meat and fish rather than fruit, vegetables or dairy products.


Mankind has instinctively understood, since time immemorial, that moisture causes food to spoil, which explains why many traditional methods of preserving food seek different ways to eliminate moisture from the food and thereby ensure its preservation. When we talk about moisture in food the literature refers to two types – free-moisture and bound-moisture. It is the free-moisture content that causes food to deteriorate by allowing pathogenic micro-organisms to multiply and feed. Moisture that is bound can not cause decomposition or spoiling.

Raisins, dates, prunes, sun-dried tomatoes, wheat, chickpeas, lentils, jerky, billabong are all examples of food from which the free-moisture has been removed rendering them edible to eat after a long period of time. Some of the most common, traditional techniques used to bind moisture include sun-drying, evaporation, dehydration, smoking, airing and salting. Different regions rely on different ways to eliminate moisture depending on climate, conditions and availability of resources.

Hanging freshly caught, non-oily fish, out to dry along the coast in Norway, by way of example, is a very effective way to dry and preserve the catch. Norway has bright days and a steady coastal breeze both of which are excellent at evaporating moisture before the pathogenic bacteria has a chance to colonise the fish and cause it to rot. The same can not be said of many Scottish coastal regions where there is too much rain and not enough sun to dry the fish before pathogenic micro-organisms can get a foot-hold in the food. Scottish populations relied instead on salting and smoking their fish, which is why Scotland is famous for its smoked kippers and salmon.


Potting involves sealing cooked food (typically meat) in saturated fat thereby eliminating light, oxygen and pathogenic micro-organisms all of which could contaminate the cooked food. France is famous for its delicious, mouth-watering confits and rillettes which are still wide-spread in the south-west of France to this day regardless of all the recent hullabaloo over saturated-fats. Although France is one of the few countries that still consumes large amounts of confit and rillettes, it was a relatively common technique used to preserve food across Europe. Corned beef is a form of potting meat that used to be common in the UK but which has since gone out of fashion due to the scare over saturated fat.


In order to preserve food through smoking the food is typically first cured with salt or dried since smoke alone is unlikely to preserve the food effectively enough. Some of the best known smoked foods such as Arbroath smoked haddock or smoked kippers have typically been brined in salt before being smoked with a hard-wood. The tastes and flavours of traditionally smoked foods are second to none. Food that has been cold smoked retains many of the enzymes but has to be consumed quicker than food which has been hot smoked.

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