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Chemistry: A festive ferment

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Rare is the holiday meal that does not owe many of its pleasures to invisible cooks with tongue-twisting names. Do you enjoy charcuterie and pickles? Bread with cultured butter? A drizzle of vinaigrette on this or that? A bit of cheese? Some chocolates? Wine, beer or cider? Then raise a glass to Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Leuconostoc mesenteroides and their ilk, the fungi and bacteria that do the real work of turning blandness into piquant delight.

As a technology rather than a metabolic mode, fermentation is the managed microbial transformation of raw plant and animal materials into foods that resist spoilage. Above all, it has been a method of preserving the bounty of a harvest or hunt for nourishment in leaner times. Peoples across the planet have applied it to nearly everything edible, from fruits, vegetables, meats and milks to animal hides in the Sudan and fish heads in the Arctic.

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