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River Cottage's Rachel De Thample says you should go with your gut for fun fermenting

By Features Reporter

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Rachel De Thample. Picture: PA Photo
Rachel De Thample. Picture: PA Photo

What if we told you there’s a fizzy drink that can give you a major energy boost, but it doesn’t involve a can containing astronomical amounts of sugar or caffeine – in fact, it’s highly nutritious, and can be made at home?

Rachel De Thample says she experienced a “massive wave of energy” when she started drinking kefir, a fermented dairy drink, on a daily basis. It was not long after giving birth to her son, when she’d started to feel “wiped out” all the time.

“That’s quite common for new parents, but I just felt like there was something else going on. I was feeling pretty horrid and I went to see a nutritionist and she did some gut testing and found I had no good bacteria in my gut,” the food writer says.

Blaming a poor diet growing up in the US, combined with “a lot of antibiotics” she’d taken as a child, De Thample cut out sugary and starchy foods and embarked on “a pretty pure diet”, mostly fruits and veg and nuts and a few lean meats and fish.

“Then after I did that for about six weeks, I started to introduce loads of fermented foods to repopulate the good bacteria – the one I first started with was goat’s milk kefir from Wales,” she recalls.

After enjoying the energy “rushing back”, Texas-born De Thample decided to have a go at making her own kefir, which is how her obsession with all things fermented began.

“I did and I just thought, ‘Well that’s easy’. That really opened the culinary door. Once I started making my own, I realised how much fun it is and how many flavour combos you could start playing with.”

Now, the 44-year-old, who started out as a TV news journalist before moving to the UK and making the switch to food writing and training as a chef, has penned River Cottage Handbook No.18: Fermentation, imparting all the knowledge she’s garnered throughout the years.

So what exactly is fermentation? “Basically, you’re creating an environment where good bacteria can multiply,” De Thample explains. She’s keen to stress that you don’t need to get bogged down in the science if you want to create tasty fermented foods like pickles, sauerkraut and sourdough bread, or drinks like kefir and kombucha.

“I try to explain enough of the basic science in the book, without being too off-putting, because it put me off initially,” she says.

To create fermented drinks, you will need some extra ingredients. Kefir grains are what start the fermentation process, while a ‘scoby’ (which stands for ‘symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast’) gets things going while brewing black tea-based kombucha.

She recommends starting with one portion of fermented food a day – and be aware that eating a lot of sugar can actually destroy the good bacteria in your gut.

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