Kitchen science

 Day 1. Cloudy from the flour still.
Day 1. Cloudy from the flour still.

There’s a bit of a science experiment going on in my kitchen. I have not much idea of what I’ll have when it’s over but, whatever it is, it will be really interesting.

It started like many of my experiments. I suddenly had a heap of produce and I wasn’t sure quite what to do with it.

In this case it was a whole bunch of not-quite-ripe Granny Smith apples. A branch on my friend’s tree had broken off, bucking under the weight of a mass of developing fruit. It was more fruit that she could deal with at that time, so she brought me a bagful.

Most of my cookbooks are in storage at the moment while we do some renovations, including almost all of my books on preserves. I’ve been collecting the older-style preserves books for a while and have a few real favourites that have served me well time and time again.

Day 2. Clear signs it has started to ferment.
Day 2. Clear signs it has started to ferment.

But not this time. All I have at the moment are 20-odd of my favourite, most-used cookbooks, and a couple of new ones that I’m still exploring. I had thought we’d be done by now, and the books liberated from the storage locker, but I guess it’s no surprise to anyone who’s renovated that it’s taking a little longer than I expected.

And so I started in search. Inspiration came from an unlikely source (for apples, anyway): the remarkable The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz. I have been exploring various ferments for a while. It’s a big part of the German tradition I was raised in – sauerkraut and various pickles, sourdough breads, stuff like that. I’ve always loved those slightly sour, funky flavours.

But when I looked up apples in this index it took me somewhere unexpected.

Brined apples

I’m not sure if that’s what I should call them, but there is no real name for this snippet of a recipe. And not a lot of instruction either, which adds to the fun.

Day 3. The liquid has cleared, the vine leaves are darkening, the rye flour remains as a lay on the bottom, and the smell is divine.
Day 3. The liquid has cleared, the vine leaves are darkening, the rye flour remains as a lay on the bottom, and the smell is divine.

The recipe, such as it is, originally comes from Anna Volokh’s book The Art of Russian Cuisine and clearly comes from a central/eastern European tradition. Note that the measurements are a bit odd, but they are as listed in the book.

First mix a sweet brine:
3.5 tbs sugar (50ml)
1.75 tbs salt (25ml)
3 litres of water
6 tbs rye flour (90ml)

Mix until the sugar and salt are dissolved. I thought the rye flour might, but it hasn’t.

The recipe says to layer whole tart cooking apples in a gallon jar. With each layer, put in a layer of sour cherry leaves and tarragon, and keep layering until it’s full.  I did not have gallon jars, so I used what I had. In one narrow jar I have three whole apples (three layers). In the others I have mostly halves and a few quarters.

I also did not have sour cherry leaves. I did a bit of research and discovered a couple of other Russian recipes that talked about something similar, and that it’s the tannins that are important. Alternatives included grape leaves and oak leaves.

I went back to Robyn, who provided the apples, and asked for a bunch of leaves from her grape vine. They’re late season and tough and starting to get a bit sad, but I figure that’s ok. It’s an old-fashioned recipe that would simply have used what was available in the season. And what would be available in apple season for all of those leaves would be old, tough and getting a bit sad. And I’m certain they are not intended to be eaten at the end.

So, substitutions made, I filled the jars with brine.

The instructions are to leave them on the kitchen counter at room temperature for a couple of days, presumably to get the fermentation process started. Then they go into a cellar or cooler place for a month or longer. Be aware that once they start fermenting, the bubbling will tend to push some liquid out under the lid. No much, but worth being ready for.

I’m sure the heat this week gave the fermentation process a kickstart, but I was incredibly excited to open one jar a day later and see the gentle bubbling taking place. I was worried that using cut fruit would mean the cut surfaces would brown and discolour, but a couple of days in to the process that still hasn’t happened. There’s still a layer of rye flour on the bottom, which I have shaken up a couple of times just to see if I could get a bit more to dissolve, but maybe it won’t.

And the smell! Amazing. It’s like a really soft cider, a fresh and beautiful aroma.

The jars go into my little “cellar” later today, and I’ll be waiting excitedly to see what I get at the end. I’m guessing some kind of picked apple, something like a crisp gherkin, but I really have no idea, and the book didn’t say.

As I said, an experiment. With a very promising beginning.

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