Jason Goodwin: ‘In a regimented, digital world, where everyone seems to be selling something, yeast and bacteria are free and wild’

Jason Goodwin discusses kombucha, the deceptively foreign-sounding tea-based drink, among other weird and wonderful things produced by home fermentation.

All his life, that fine old Georgian radical and polemicist William Cobbett thundered against The Thing. Whatever robbed ordinary people of power over their own destinies, whether it was banking, capitalism or centralisation, that was The Thing, and he thought we could do something about it by making our beer and bread at home, and giving up tea.

He lost that battle, but his point stands. In a cartonised, packaged-up, standardised world, there’s still a wild frontier at home. It’s ranged not by buffalo or beasts, but by bacteria and yeasts. Take kombucha. This morning’s batch was light and sweet, with a delightful sparkle. Last week, it was flat. The week before, Anna pulled a face: ‘I’d rather have a glass of water.’

Kombucha, as you know, is a fashionable non-alcoholic drink. Cobbett would choke, as it’s made from old tea, rather the way vinegar is made from old wine. As farmers in southern France have their vinaigrier – an earthenware crock into which they pour leftover wine to brew for a few months in the presence of a vinegar ‘mother’ – so we have a big jar with a tap into which we pour our tea.

Kombucha (fermented Tea)

It’s so very British, despite the exotic name. You can make kombucha with PG Tips or Earl Grey, lapsang souchong or gunpowder green. It needs to be sweetened to ferment. You pour the sweetened tea into a jar, which contains a kombucha mother and, after a few days, you get the healthful drink that everyone raves about, a sparkling beverage with a pleasantly astringent taste, full of zing and pep and probiotics. It’s P. G. Wodehouse’s Buck-U-Uppo.

That’s only when the kombucha mother (technically, a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) is happy in her occult task. Neglect her, overwhelm her or let her touch metal and she goes off, leaving you with a substandard vinegar that makes children wrinkle their noses.

She’s a little like Herman, the German friendship cake. Herman arrived from primary school a few years ago, a thick yellowish slime in a jam jar, smelling of beer. The idea is that you feed Herman on flour, water and sugar and he grows. On the ninth day, you divide him into three parts: one you give away to a friend, another you use to bake a cake, and the third you keep, to start again. But Herman died.

Homemade rustic bloomer loaf of bread

As the kombucha ferments quietly at the back of the Aga, a sourdough starter froths on the side. We feed her occasionally on flour and water. I’ve heard there are sourdough mothers from Russia that survived the Bolshevik revolution and are still thriving a century later on communes in northern California, developing an incredible depth of flavour.

Izzy made this one at university, from scratch. This mother must be very powerful, because she sat for a year immobile at the back of the fridge and – with just a sprinkling of flour and water – came back to life like Frankenstein’s monster.

Now and then, someone emerges from the scullery complaining about our sauerkraut, which, like durian fruit, tastes much better than you’d expect from the smell. You make sauerkraut by squeezing chopped white cabbage with salt until it starts to sweat. Then, you put it in a jar, weighted down with a plate, and let it ferment. It’s ready in about 10 days. It’s very good for you, too.

The injunction against letting kombucha touch iron extends to vinegar, to mayonnaise and to fairies. This is old lore we’re dealing with. In a regimented, digital world, where everyone seems to be selling something, yeast and bacteria are free and wild. That mother doesn’t belong to The Man. She fights The Thing. Lift the lid and, through her bubble and fizz, you can hear her tiny roar.


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