One of the benefits of living in my small country town is the local food tradition. Sheep, beef, canola and wheat farms dominate the skyline as you approach and the town has a rich tradition of homegrown and homemade food that comes with a close connection with the land.
While it’s true that the local supermarket does excellent business, it’s not hard to find exceptional organic food from townsfolk if you search carefully. For example, getting a packet of fresh, delicious and very affordable eggs from free range chickens is just a matter of following the signs at the farm or local street, asking a neighbour or (more usually) checking the local social media pages. Backyards are bigger here than those postage stamp-sized versions in the city and the extra space well suited for chickens, ducks and a veggie patch.
Perhaps this stems from a country custom of self-sufficiency? The often hard-scrabble existence of farming has made a home-grown foods philosophy an essential part of life, a practice that not only has fed generations but also makes a little extra money when times are tough. It may also stem from the Australian love of common sense. Why not produce your own fresh fruit, veggies and eggs if you have spare room in your backyard or farm?
One of the best places to see this is the local markets. Part of a network of farmers’ markets in the area, the stalls feature a rich range of produce with both local and regional sellers. One of the highlights of the markets is the community stall which allows people to sell their backyard produce.
The local Facebook Group is well maintained and popular and also plays a key part in bringing organic produce to the notice of people like us — those willing to make an effort to find true organic food but unwilling to pay the price premium.
In a pickle of sorts…
However, of all the seedlings, fresh veggies, fruit, eggs and more that are available, my favourite is the local pickles. Like self-sufficiency, the local custom of pickling appears to be deep-rooted in the region. And the two may be closely interwoven. The simple ethos is: Preserve that which you cannot eat during the warmer months and have a ready reserve of pickles to supplement food during the winter months.
I was first introduced to the town’s pickling tradition when I bought a dining table from a near neighbour. Sourced from local social media (again) I popped round, introduced myself and bought a handsome and durable table. Just as I was about to struggle off with it with the aid of my son, the neighbour — a former miner now ravaged with emphysema — gasped a question: Did I eat pickles? The fact was I hadn’t for many years but I said yes. He wheezed over to the stash of jars under the front stairs, found two jars and said: “Try these”. They were sublime. I eat them regularly now, with our wonderful free range egg supplier often throwing in a jar for free.
But it’s not just for the taste that my consumption of pickled tomatoes, gherkins, cabbage, has risen. Gut bacteria is the hot topic in nutrition right now. There doesn’t seem to be a week without a new claim — usually backed by latest scientific studies — about the effectiveness of having “good”, balanced bacteria in your gut. The so-called gut microbiome. Nutritionists are now saying that a balance of “good” gut bacteria will not improve health but help with mental illness.
One of the oldest forms of food preservation, pickling is known to have been carried out in India around 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. Using traditional ingredients such as salt and oil, food items that were limited, or of a seasonal nature, were pickled to keep fresh for later consumption.
The evidence now shows that eating your way to good health will go through the gut. But what are the foods that we should be eating to boost this precious teeming microflora? How should we re-organise our diets accordingly?
Certainly there are many ways to boost the “good” gut bacteria and improve our health. Just avoiding processed foods such as sugar and fast food will go a long way to making these necessary changes. Indeed studies have shown the negative effects of ultra-processed foods in our Western diet. (1) However in addition to avoiding these foods, adding probiotic-rich foods is key amongst those that should be eaten to boost friendly, probiotic bacteria. Fermented foods are recommended for this reason.
According to the Organic Facts website: “Naturally fermented salt pickles encourage the growth of these friendly bacteria, which will replenish the numbers in our digestive system and restore our health.”(2)
In other words, traditionally-fermented pickles will not only boost the flavour of dishes such as curries, they will increase the ratio of gut bacteria which, in turn, will help boost mental and physical health. Choose homemade pickles if possible as the pasteurisation process of shop and supermarket-bought products kills both the good and bad bacteria.
Though beneficial, pickles do contain salt and sugar so limit yourself according to your dietary needs. But if you are able to source a supply of home-made pickles from places such as farmers’ markets, consider yourself very lucky and enjoy the healthy and delicious boost to your diet.