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FermentBrussels: A toast to urbanibalism

Wietske Maas and Matteo Pasquinelli

Open Sauces, Brussels - 22 November 2008

Zoe seeks sweetness and finds an intensification in it. A further intensification was provided by the making of an intoxicating drink from honey. — Carl Kerény, Dionysus: An archetypal image of an indestructible life

FermentBrussels is a fermented honey concoction based on the recipe of a primordial drink, hydromel: the first alcoholic drink of human kind (the ambrosia of mythology). This brew is remade today from ingredients sourced and scraped from the bowels of Brussels, and in particular from its micoflora (the invisible army of yeasts that makes Belgian beer and bread unique). This aperitif made of the metropolis is also a salute to urbanibalism, the practice of feasting on unsuspecting ingredients found within the cityscape. While gathering these along the concrete sprawl of Brussels, we met a beekeeper, a brewer, a microbiologist, a phytosociologist as well as many urban dilettantes. What follows is an abbreviated diary-recipe of this urban hydromel.

Urban honey. Honey has been harvested by the most active bee-keeper in Brussels: Marc Wollast. For him setting up hives in public locations is part of a campaign for bio-diversity in urban zones. Two hives are for instance on the Gare du Midi and on the roof of a university. Unlike their fellow country bees, urban bees are able to sup much more nectar from an indiscriminate array of flowers. This honey, sourced from brambles on balconies to dandelions in the cemetery, contains an invisible geography of cross-pollination and is also surprinsinlgy non-polluted since the bees function as natural filters.

Wild yeast. Yeast is an animal of the air. Yeast spores are everywhere. The air of Brussels is home to an intriguing fauna of yeast strains, the Brettanomyces bruxellensis (aka “Brett”). Like any yeast, Brett converts sugars into alcohol and CO2. Its synergy with other local bacteria is what has created the distinctive sour lambic beer. The Cantillon brewery, situated west of the Gare du midi, is one of the few remaining breweries to make this unusual beer using the spontaneous fermentation method. Spontaneous fermentation is done by leaving the beer wort in a big open vat just under the perforated roof of the brewery. This way, the wort is left exposed to the Brussels air until the fermentation begins (7 days or more). Given that a beer wort is comparable to the honey-water mix of hydromel, we decide to use some of the yeast from a bottle of Cantillon lambic, giving us a pre-caught portion of Bruxellensis yeast to inoculate our first batch.

Edible urban plants. Recipes for hydromel were common in medieval times. Piquant plant foliage or roots were used not only to flavour the fermenting honey or for medicinal purposes, but also to activate the yeast. This floric-macerated hydromel is called ‘metheglin’. An urban phyto-sociologist was able to give us advice on where to scout urban veg-edibles and rhizomes: along walls, canal embankments, semi-forgotten or unmaintained zone. At the time of preparing FermentBrussels in September 2007, there were over 50 different edible plant species in the Brussels environs. To find at least a few, we trekked along the Brussels canal; kilometres of relentless grey slabs and unforgivingly spartan walls which seem sterilised of any vegetable vivre. Our luck turned as we found an old station master’s office, a train platform gone to rack and ruin, yet between them a few harvestable varieties including silverweed, burdock, stickywillow and groundelder.

Natural fermentation. By way of unexpected serendipity, we also met hydromel expert and founder of the Belgian Confrerie de Hydromel monsieur Michel Poncé. He lives in Ottiginies, south-east of Brussels, where he actively brews and ages hundreds of litres of fruit wines from rhubarb wine anno 1998 to bone-dry metheglins. Poncé is a purist and is willing to disseminate his knowledge to thirsty beginners. With his advice we embarked in the first (failed) attempts of fermentation. For this final batch we use the urban honey, a water decoction made from Brusselian burdock roots (Arctium Lappa which is very rich in curative properties: an excellent blood cleaner, for instance) and the unique Brussels Brett yeast culture. After a short period of fermentation, the ferment is siphoned into soda bottles which then continues to foam and froth for a few extra days, giving enough time to create a sufficient and enjoyable level of fizz and alcohol.

Although the know-how required to confect this urban brew is still in a rudimentary stage of invention, we'd nonetheless like to raise our tasting cups to the coalition of insects, parasites, histories and to all the small encounters between ourselves and other amateurs and professionals alike to which our urban existence is indebted.

Our indelible thanks to:

Biography:

Living in Amsterdam, Wietske Maas and Matteo Pasquinelli try to experience the city as a materialistic form of life that grows autonomously from any planned 'city ecology'. Against the superficial aesthetics of 'food design', they explore the very material necessity and historical roots at the basis of any cuisine. A more spontaneous art of the food chain of the city is their concern and enjoyment. Their practice of gathering and hunting the urban space: urbanibalism, is about turning unsuspecting urban ingredients into something edible. Practically, their changing community of urban gastronomers — from brewers, butchers to birdwatchers — usually culminates in a monthly social dinner. Urbanibalism and its process of collection, preparation and (public) consumption raises questions about the future of food economy as well as new aesthetic engagements for life in the metropolis.

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