Sour by Mark Diacono

In a lifetime you might get half a dozen letters that truly stand out, the sort that are seared in your memory for what they said in the time they were written. My top letter to date was written to me by Mark Diacono, it came unexpectedly and brought light and joy when those things felt far away.  All of this is to say that I am very biased when it comes to Mark’s writing for he truly is the master of sentences that sing with storytelling and humour.

Sour, as the name suggests is a book all about things that make your mouth pucker with pungency or tingle with tartness.  You might not feel that this is a subject you want an entire book about, but you do for it spans everything from the home fermented vinegars, shrubs and verjuice (unripe pressed grapes) to the sour of fermented batters and doughs, dosas to hearty stews that have been marinating in those vinegars and verjuices.

The first half of the book is a detailed account of how to ferment foods to create sour flavour profiles. This covers sourdough, dairy, vinegar, fermented fruits and vegetables and fermented drinks and is a comprehensive and easy to use account of the skills need to master this. Then, which is where other fermented books have sometimes failed, the second half of the book is a worldwide tour in what to do with these ingredients.

As I am forever fermenting something, it was to this section that I headed to see what was on offer. I tried the Umeboshi gooseberries, then used to the same method with some fermented blackcurrants I had kicking about. The idea is that you ferment the berries in a salt solution (just under 1 percent) and then dehydrate the berries until they are they are just dry. The flavour is wild, salty and very sour. A few of these berries are perfect addition to a cheese board, or as Mark suggests in a gooseberry focaccia (page 75), I’ve also used them in game and cured meats.  They are the perfect solution to not yet more frozen gooseberries in the freezer.  I also tried the Sambal Oelek, a deliciously hot condiment made of Thai chilies, lime juice and sea salt.

I also had a go at the chaat roasted cabbage, a delicious simple roasting of green cabbage in chaat masala herbs ad good olive oil, or if you want to experiment with caraway or fennel and roasted lemon. The idea here is to roast to the point where the centre of the cabbage with sweet but the chard edges bitter. At the other end of the book, I had ago at making the orange and cardamom gin, which is an excellent thing and need no more introduction that.

I have many other pages marked for trying out and I can see that it will be a well-thumbed cook book and perhaps better than that, one where you love and learn the recipes by heart, tweaking, adding too until they are deeply familiar, which is the highest praise I can give a recipe book.

This book is a brilliant present for anyone wanting to get into fermenting or wants to learn how to enhance their food through the power of sour.  It’s a beautiful book, Mark is a man of many talents, which means he took all the photographs and the zinging lime cloth bound cover makes it a handsome addition to the book shelf.

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