Over the last year, I’ve watched chefs all around the world become fascinated by aging and fermentation—different but related processes that rely on time and often microbes such as bacteria, yeasts and molds—to alter the most basic structure of food. At first I thought: Really? Did everybody just buy copies of Sandor Ellix Katz’s 2012 book The Art of Fermentation? (It’s a road map to all kinds of rot, written in an encouraging, homesteader-ready style.) And why now? Why are so many people hiding crocks of months-old this and that in the corners of their wine cellars?
Fäviken Magasinet, a tiny restaurant in the Swedish countryside with one of the most-talked about chefs in the world, ages beef for nine months; in contrast, “long-aged” beef in the States gets only 28 days. In his Fäviken cookbook, out this month, Magnus Nilsson writes that the beef “may smell a little bit like mature cheese, which should not be alarming as long as it smells pleasant.”
Daniel Patterson of Coi in San Francisco, a chef who has been on the forefront of the fermentation trend, explains it as the DIY effect: “These days, everyone is into the personalization of not just their dishes, but their own ingredients.” He continues, “The greatest, most profound flavors in the world are created through fermentation,” citing wine, vinegar, soy sauce, kimchi, miso and sauerkraut.
Patterson has been making his own garum, a stinky (or, if you like, “strongly aromatic”) fish sauce-like condiment that was popular in the days of Pliny the Elder. After aging the garum for six months or longer, he combines it with lamb, in a nod to the Provençal combination of lamb and anchovies. Patterson says part of the appeal of ingredients like garum is what he calls their slow-fast flavor. “It’s slow to develop, but quick to use. And transformative.”
It would be easy to react in a knee-jerk way to this new interest in all things aged, to think that it’s just another chance for restaurants to cram another adjective in the “house-made” style on their menus. But the flavors many of these chefs are conjuring are distinct and unique, new weapons in their arsenals. And with basements, attics, barrels and refrigerators full of ingredients that time and nature are slowly transforming, we’ve only begun to see the results of these chefs’ experiments. With time, we’ll see many more.
Peter Meehan is co-editor of Lucky Peach magazine and a freelance writer based in New York City.