Fermentation is the process where microbes chemically break down food substances by producing enzymes in the absence of oxygen. There are some aerobic processes in foods such as mould ripened cheese and kombucha which is also classified as fermentation. The oldest culinary practice is the use of yeasts (fungal microorganisms) used to convert sugars into alcohol.
Fermentation has had a resurgence in popular food magazines, high end restaurants and in kitchens of passionate cooks. It is important to note however, that fermentation is above all a fundamental and quite basic process that happens on a microbial level. It existed long before us and will most likely outlive us.
Over thousands of years, through mistakes and experiments, we have learned through instinct and our primary senses to harness these microbes for preserving and making food delicious. With the relatively new field of microbiology, we are learning more about fermentation every day. It happens in our muscles when they are starved of oxygen and resort to anaerobic respiration to create energy. It's in the earth in compacted soils below heavily ploughed land or concrete blocks. It's in our guts, helping to break down the foods and release nutrients. It's been used to create mass populations of medicinal microbes. It holds a part of the puzzle for renewable energy in anaerobic waste management.
So what can fermentation do? How can it solve some of our problems?
Preserving food is not a necessity these days, although I have heard of clever chefs using fermentation to store foods when doing mass catering. It is certainly healthy, but exactly in what way? And who benefits from it? Can it help us to save money? Can it encourage more people to cook at home, and to source responsibly? Is it just a trend that will pass with time, or is it creating new, unique traditions as local groups apply learned processes to their own environment?