Healing foods not only for aficionados

How to ferment your way into greater well-being

It is mid August and it’s fermenting time! And the reason is because I am staying at a permaculture farm at the foothills of Serra D’Arada in central-western Portugal. The place nestles between pine-and-eucalyptus-framed hills and lush green valleys. This time of the year sweet aromas of blossoms fill the air and the garden is full of organic edibles. We have cherry tomatoes, grapes, peppers, pumpkins, and aromatic herbs to choose from. The warm evenings are long and serene ambience lends itself perfectly to retreats, which began at this enchanting oasis.

Highly enjoyable, although intense, bursts of cooking and fermenting interrupt my writing. Then we turn the owner’s kitchen into an alchemist’s lab. When I arrived at the farm, the plant called mullein (Verbascum densiflorum) immediately drew me in. It is a pretty flowering plant with large velvety silver-green leaves. I was trying to encounter it en route here. This unassuming plant is happily growing on the land to the owner’s delight who can make use of it for asthma. Eastern and central Europeans have long considered mullein sacred. The plant has many healing properties. This incredible herb can alleviate respiratory problems. We can use its dried flowers and leaves to inhale as steam, drink as tea, or even smoke them. Additionally, the scent of the plant repels aphids and dry stems deter rodents. I have a stash of it with me. And I look forward to growing my own medicinal mullein from the seeds which I shall collect here.

Fermenting is a gift to humanity

Fermenting craft has always been part of my growing up as my mother with almost saintly reverence dedicated a few weeks every summer to pickling and fermenting summer fruit and vegetables. We enjoyed these tasty preserves for the whole winter. So, whenever we get together my brothers and I can, to this day, try different delicious home-made pickles, jams and beverages that line up the shelves of our mother’s compact cellar. During my research I also learnt that Korean mothers do the same. They prepare vast quantities of kimchi to satisfy their family’s desire for this obligatory fermented dish.

Fermentation is an ancient gift from our ancestors according to indigenous beliefs. It had always held a special place among the first peoples. As they explored the mysteries of plants, grains and yeasts, they fell in love with the alchemy of food fermenting. We also share great affinity for this increasingly popular craft. Today, fermenting is a way of living for many cultures. And many of us are natural at this art of transforming raw food into healthier foods and beverages. Fermenting is so complex and nuanced that it actually is a discipline called zymology or zymurgy.

God made yeast, as well as a dough, and loves fermentation just as dearly as he loves vegetation. Ralph W. Emerson, Essays.

A look beneath the surface of “fermented foods and brews”

As far as human development goes, domestication of grains is the forerunner of the civilisation as we know it. As people began to settle in one place, they started to grow food. Some researchers dispute this today as more evidence comes to light. Fermenting could be a much older activity. And evidence points to honey being fermented long before grains – as long as 35,000 years ago. So, fermentation is the most likely reason for human settling in one place. People grew grains and formed societies. Fermentation made food last longer and increased their nutritional value. Millet growing on a large scale in Tanzania and Himalayas seems to further proof this interesting theory. People used millet only for fermentations and rarely ate it.

Many indigenous cultures on every continent share this belief. Man did not discover fermentation. Sacred beings gave it to humankind in response to prayers, offerings and rituals involving the use of plant medicines. Europeans added wild plants such as rosemary, sage, wormwood and even lichens and mosses to the brews. Why? They did it to impart plant medicinal qualities. Ethnobotanical research has documented this skilful art well. Medicine folk used beers as carriers for these medicinal herbs in the same way as alcohol is in tinctures. The extract of a healing herb needs a carrier. In this case, a fermented wheat beverage to do its healing job. Brewers boil alcoholic wort at high temperatures to extract the goodness from herbal admixtures. This is by far a more efficient method than using an herb and water infusion.

Herbs in fermenting connect us with our ancient brewing traditions

Often certain herbal additions produced intoxicating effects. Interestingly, many brewers welcomed this result. A case in point was the application of mandrake or henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) to fortify the beverage. We have touched on this in our previous articles.

Henbane contains psychoactive tropane alkaloids and henbane beers were common in Germany and Sweden for a very long time. The introduction of a legal act in 1516 in Germany rid the beers of this powerful additive. The Celts and Wiccans revered henbane. Although its connection to long lost fermentation remains etymological in nature, the German word for henbane, Bilsenkraut, keeps this connection alive. It means pilsner brewing plant.

Herbs also flavour and preserve foods and drinks just like vinegar does. It can also alter the appearance and taste of pickled vegetables. Vinegar, which features in my mother’s recipes, is always white vinegar. The simplest purest vinegar is best. This time round I use local good quality white wine vinegar, which is a good alternative.

Mullein is not a demanding plant that can grow almost anywhere

Our ancestors thought of plants as sacred sources of knowledge. This also applies to the craft itself. We have a cornucopia of fermenting plants as well as psychoactive compounds at our disposal. Grains, fungi, herbs and trees are fermenters ‘allies. Spiritual shamanic practices aimed at healing all kinds of ailments with special brews. We know today that beers or wines in the West contained one or more of these sacred plants.

Fermenting methods

There are many, at times, less conventional ways to ferment. For instance, during my travel in Peru, I got to try a maize beer (chicha). An elderly woman offered it to our group to try. The woman was fermenting her brews by converting corn starch into sugar with her own saliva. She would chew the grain and repeatedly spit it out into a ceramic tub with the brew. This is a common practice also among the North American Indians. They also make chicha and often add coca leaves (Erythroxylon coca) and other plant psychotropes, i.e. plants that affect the mind.

In South America, fermenting is a woman’s domain. According to these women, they receive all the technical wisdom and spiritual guidance they need during ceremonies. Medicine plants give it to them. This concept, although strange to us, makes the only sense. As the female brewers or curanderas have no formal training of exact compounds they add. They seem to know well plant proportions and their corresponding effects on the body and consciousness. This is also the case with shamans or curanderos who practice the art of communing with plant medicines. We discover that peasant shamans humbly accept these other subtle realities. It is at the intersection of higher intelligence and mystery of the universe that plant medicines speak to those who work with them.

So what role does saliva have in fermenting?

It is an enzyme diastase that breaks down the starch. This mastication of grains and roots with human saliva goes back to early times of experimenting with plant medicines. Long before the domestication and cultivation. Making sacred brews, using fermenting, helped people ease their labour and spirits. It also brought higher understanding and joy into their lives.

Fermenting can open doors of perception

Here is an anecdote I found interesting while delving into the history of fermenting by different cultures. In Mexico, a certain tribe calls fermenting boiling. Though we cannot be certain, this is perhaps because a fermenting liquid produces bubbles that may look like boiling. Fermenting vessels are ‘boiling jars.’ And an unfermented beverage sits next to a ‘boiled’ one for it to ‘learn’ from the other. This poetic concept perhaps simply explains an airborne passage of yeast spores from one jar to another. Or, equally, it may mean exactly that. A magical knowledge exchange that takes place between the jars. People perceive this when they drink the brew.

The indigenous psyche conceives and perceives reality in a different way to our Western perspective. In the New World legends of sacred plants, manifesting in peoples’ lives, abound. Herbs, cacti and fungi are teachers. People think of rocks and rivers as living beings that have intelligent awareness just like we do. They call it Logos. This awareness moves through it all. They can consult it to find diseases and cures. Anyone who knows how to work with plant medicines can do this. Our civilisation has a long history of fermenting. Many prominent doctors including Pliny, Democritus, Pasteur and Rilke resorted to fermentation for human benefit. So, it is hardly surprising that many cultures continue to explore fermenting to this day.


Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers. Stephen H. Buhner. Siris Books, 1998.

 ‘The Mead of Inspiration.” Christian Ratsch, in Ralph Metzner, The Well of Remembrance (Boston: Shambhala Press, 1994).

“Plant Powers, Poisons and Herbcraft.” Dale Pendell. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California, 1995.

“Teaching Embodied Fermentation Knowledges: Against Purity/ Towards Entanglement.” Michaela Kennedy (online source: pdf version), 2017.

All photographs by Earthvoice, except for an image of henbane. All Rights Reserved.