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'My husband gave his brother a kidney and asked for some of my food for post-op medicine'

Are you planning on a healthier, low-sugar diet for 2017? Cookbook writer Dearbhla Reynolds, from Hollywood, tells Una Brankin that nutritious fermented foods make an excellent starting point

A sweet tooth isn't easy to lose, but like most addictions it is not impossible to overcome. It's just a matter of retraining your palate - which can be achieved surprisingly quickly, according to Dearbhla Reynolds.

The Holywood-based mother-of-two gave up sugar "accidentally" after introducing home-made fermented foods, from sauerkraut to pickles, into her family's diet.

"My palate began to change... I became very aware of sugar content in various foods and I thought, 'I can do without this'," she recalls. "I skipped all white carbs, like bread and pasta, fruit and starchy veg. I had bad sugar cravings for two days, but after that it was effortless.

"I did like a bar of chocolate before, but I no longer enjoyed it and I didn't like the feeling of sugar in my body. I find cake too sweet now. The food I eat is so alive, whereas anything with sugar is dull and dead and I don't feel great after it."

As well as curbing sugar and carb cravings, eating fermented foods has been shown to benefit a number of health conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome, digestive difficulties and other inflammatory conditions.

Dearbhla is reviving the tradition through her recently published cookbook, The Cultured Club: Fabulously Funky Fermentation Recipes, which explains how to turn simple ingredients into super-foods by using one of the world's oldest methods of food preservation.

The beautifully illustrated publication features tangy preserves such as kombucha, kimchi, kefir and other probiotics supporting a healthy gut.

"Fermentation techniques are simple and the only complicated bit happens within the jar," Dearbhla says. "The jar becomes an aerobic environment, producing carbon dioxide and allowing good bacteria to dominate.

"This creates extra enzymes and vitamins, hence all the health-giving properties of fermented and cultured food."

An added benefit is better skin. "All this preserving is hopefully preserving me a little bit too," says the 40-year-old.

"My skin has become very clear and I don't bother with make-up or skin creams - just coconut oil.

"Fermented foods nourish your skin from within, whereas foods with sugar age it.

"It really is one of the worst things you can put in your body. A sweet tooth is easy to satisfy but sugar has no benefits - diseases thrive on it."

Dearbhla was taught to cook by her mother, Ann, a former home economics teacher. Her father, Felix McNally, is a retired chemist who founded McNally's pharmacies in Newry. Two of her older brothers are doctors, another is a pilot with British Airways, and her younger sister, Grainne, runs an eco-friendly skincare company.

"To describe my childhood, it would taste of honey and home cooking," Dearbhla writes in the introduction to The Cultured Club. "It would smell of a hearty stew and hedgerows, coupled with the heady mix of iodine, ether, borax, liniments and gauze from an old-school pharmacy."

Dearbhla credits her parents with giving her a good example to follow in regard to healthy eating and for imparting the lesson that food is medicine.

"Mum ran the house meticulously and showed me how to make various sauces, put buttermilk in the mash and bake soda bread," the cookbook author recalls. "She has been a big influence, dad too. He used to keep bees and ferment mead.

"I became more experimental with cooking when I left home and went to art college, but I didn't get into fermentation and cultured foods until the children came along."

After college, Dearbhla worked in several local community arts projects, which included prettifying derelict buildings in towns and villages by painting charming window murals on street-facing walls.

Her public artwork can be also seen in the medieval village of Carlingford, Co Louth, where her mother is from.

"Having Holly (7) and Jude (4) was a turning point - I didn't want to go back to art as such," she says. "What was uppermost in my mind was what to feed these kids and what was healthy and nutritious, and when I first discovered fermentation, it seemed to make perfect sense, and it's eco-friendly.

"I started experimenting with various foods and probiotic drinks using strange-looking little starter cultures. The kids were among my first my tasters - now they'll happily drink beet kvass without thinking twice, and they're familiar with the waft of kimchi in the kitchen.

"Holly appreciates lots of flavours, though I do have to disguise the taste of milk kefir in her smoothies. Jude loves all these foods. He has grown up with them, really, so he loves sauerkraut, kimchi and dilly beans - or prickleys, as he calls them.

"That said, they will head straight for the sweets and biscuits aisle or the most processed food, if left to do so. Children have a naturally sweet tooth and bad taste."

Encouraged by the visible health benefits of her preserves, Dearbhla set up her Cultured Club from home, with an open invitation for anyone interested "to come and join in the fun". She soon began teaching the techniques, which led to a collaboration with the multiple award-winning OX restaurant in Belfast.

Her classes cover a selection of different aspects of fermentation, from easy drinks to prepare at home, to delicious alternative nut-cheeses for dessert.

For those with an obstinate sweet tooth, Dearbhla recommends water or milk kefir (a drinking yoghurt).

"There's no radical overhaul to the diet involved," she emphasises. "We have such a good food provenance here - our farmers treat their cattle with such respect, which gives us better-quality milk, cream and butter for a start.

"Fermented foods can be put on a plate with good locally sourced produce, mixed in or paired with other flavours, disguised, or eaten straight out of the jar. I'd suggest starting with a little salsa or sauerkraut."

In May, Dearbhla's Dublin-born husband, Ed, underwent surgery to give his brother a kidney. He's such a fan of Dearbhla's concoctions, he asked her to bring kimchi into the hospital as his "post-op medicine".

She recalls: "Ed's operation was relatively simple keyhole surgery, and he's doing well. He was my guinea pig when I started out with the fermentation five years ago. There wasn't much awareness back then, but there has been a lot of interest recently, which is great to see.

"The techniques really are very simple, and once you get into it, your appreciation of living food becomes addiction - a healthy one."

Dearbhla will be teaching fermentation and cultured food courses in 2017. Her book and her Fabulously Funky Ferments products can be bought from theculturedclub.com

The Cultured Club salsa recipe

WHAT YOU'LL NEED

Makes a 1-litre jar

8-10 ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped

2 red or green peppers, roughly chopped

1 medium onion, roughly chopped

1-2 garlic cloves, minced

Juice of 1 lime

Handful of fresh coriander, chopped

2 tsp fine sea salt (add more if needed)

½ tsp cumin seeds

½ tsp freshly ground black pepper

Pinch of smoked paprika

METHOD

Simply mix together all the ingredients in a bowl. After this, pack the mixture into a clean one-litre jar, making sure that you leave 2.5cm of headspace at the top of the jar.

Close the lid and allow to ferment for at least three days at room temperature.

Salsas have always been one of the more lively ferments, and can make a lot of noise.

As the carbon dioxide escapes, it brings some of that lovely juice with it, so place the jar on a dish to collect the juice, and open it with care. Once it's ready, transfer to the fridge.

It will keep for at least six months once opened.

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