Before we start, here is what you need to know about me. Though this is indeed Science on Tap, and though I was indeed invited here by the College of Physicians, I am neither a scientist nor an M.D. I am a food blogger, a folklorist, a historian, and — if anything — a fermentation enthusiast. This means that what I am interested in is people — how people use fermentation, how they have used it in the past, and how it works as a technology that improves quality of life, and the flavor and longevity of whatever it is folks are eating.
Fermentation is a bit of a popular topic right now. Alternet, the online indy reporting outfit and sometime light-news rag, called it their number one top food trend of 2013. In December of last year, they wrote:
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term inspissated is an adjective meaning: brought to a thick consistence; thickened.
I mention it because in the 1777 volume, A Voyage Toward the South Pole, Captain James Cook speaks of having been given several barrels of inspissated wort — syrup of unfermented beer — to carry aboard the H. M. Bark Endeavour as it sailed to the South Pacific and around the world. It was thought, he writes, that the syrup would require to be fermented with yeast, in the usual way of making beer.
But things do not, apparently, always go as planned at sea. So active was this inspissated wort — because of the heat of the weather, and the agitation of the ship — that it reached the highest state of fermentation all on its own, and evaded all our endeavours to stop it.
If this juice could be kept from fermenting, Cook writes, it certainly would be a most valuable article at sea. But alas. It was not to be.
Those same shipboard conditions that proved so beneficial to the aging of Madeira wine made this particular fermentation experiment a spectacular, perhaps explosive, failure.
And the sailors — poor sailors — were left with a sticky, beery mess to clean.