Crammed into a bench behind a long wooden table, I sat among a few other brave sweaty Belgians and squinted at my Lambic, focusing on the intricate patterns of light refracted through this bubbling beverage. The oppressive afternoon rays drenching the inside of La Morte Subite were reflected and amplified by the bar’s enormous mirrors that frame its hallowed hall. Like so many before me, I came to Brussels for the beer. The olives were a surprise.
Home to both NATO and the EU, Brussels has a reputation as an international city, and this cosmopolitanism is supposedly reflected in the many cuisines that mix and mingle on the streets and in the markets. Thus, one blustery Thursday morning, I set out to see if I could find some kind of fermented food in the Moroccan market suggested by my guidebook. Making my way past raw meats, dried fruits, and fresh fish, I finally spotted gold. Well… green really, and black and red and various other hues. Piles upon piles of olives…Olives with garlic, olives with lemon, olives drenched in chili sauce and olives from Yemen (I don’t think that’s accurate, but it completes the suess-ambic meter) and you could try every…single…style… I went for the mixed green (young) and black (ripe), with garlic, oil and cilantro. So into the backpack went a handful and a half, to be enjoyed later in the company of Belgium’s other special ferments: bread, cheese, chocolate and beer.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, the olives, and the chocolate in my backpack were not such an odd couple. Reviewing my favorite FAO report of all time (you don’t have one?) I found that both products require proper fermentation to achieve a palatable taste, and both are spontaneously fermented. Raw olives contain Oleuropein, a glucoside compound –sugar and something else- which has a bitter taste and is toxic to bacteria. In order to remove this compound, raw olives are put in a lye solution which removes the offending compound, but also pierces the skin, allowing easier access for bacteria to get in there and do their thing. Olives also share with cocoa the wicked sweet factor of being spontaneously fermented, a class shared by such awe inspiring products as kimchi, lambic beers, and pretty much every ferment before the eighteenth century. Thus, the party in both cocoa and olives is, shall we say, a mixed crowd. Lactic acid producing bacteria compete with acetic acid bacteria and yeasts galore. Who knows how many different species are invited. Though well attended, these parties usually don’t end well for the party-goers, coming to a sudden and violent finish either in roasting (all cocoa) or pasteurizing (most olives). However, this party, like many others, isn’t over, its only ever postponed. As soon as you take that olive out into the fresh air, there is a whole sea of anxious opportunists ready to rage.
I didn’t want my own personal quadruple wrapped microbial get-together to be crashed by any unsavory characters. So I moved the whole thing into my micro-floral "living room", combining the event with an ongoing affair in the form of a raw milk cheese. The party went well.
Next up, a visit to the cantal brewery, where spiders rule and they have realized my domestic dream: a beer swimming pool in the attic.
Reference note: My favorite FAO report of all time, and source for the informative portion of this post, is: Fermented Fruits and Vegetables. A Global Perspective, Mr. Mike Battcock and Dr. Sue Azam-Ali. FAO United Nations, 1998.