When I think of yeast I’m reminded of the ginger beer plant my mother was given, back in the 60’s. A ginger beer plant is similar to a sourdough starter, but is more difficult to make. The original ginger beer plant dates back to the 18th century; it is a combination of the yeast Saccharomyces florentinus and the bacterium Lactobacillus hilgardii. Unlike modern plants which use Brewers Yeast, it produces an unfermented, and therefore non-alcoholic beverage, suitable for the whole family. Although the original plants are now available via the internet, they all but died out during World War 2, so mum considered herself lucky to have aquired one.
Traditionally, before making each fresh batch of ginger beer, the plant would be split in half, and one half would be given away, while the other half was split in two. One portion would be made into ginger beer, while the other porion was left to grow – and so it continued.
At first my siblings and I were ecstatic – particularly my eldest brother Angus who has a particular passion for ginger. Suddenly there was an endless supply of that beautiful, fizzy. warming, thirst-quenching drink, and when mum began handing out the plants to friends and neighbours they were equally happy. For many of them it brought back childhood memories of those days before the war, when their mothers had similar plants.
We lived in a small rural community. For women, social life mostly consisted of going to Womens’ Institute meetings, church, (for those who weren’t married to rabid, controlling atheists such as my father) and drinking tea in each other’s kitchens. My mother’s circle was wider than those of her neighbours, so it was a while before the ginger beer plant showed its true colours.
She gave a ginger beer plant to her lovely lesbian friends, a couple who lived in another village, about five miles away.
The next plant went to Trudi, who lived about five minutes walk away.
She gave one to Mike and Molly, who ran the folk club in a nearby town, and lived about fifteen miles away.
Margaret, who lived just up the road, had one.
She handed them out to anyone who was willing to take them – artists, musicians, her friends at the Scottish Country Dance Group, shopkeepers, the people she worked with – it saddened her that the homeless man with whom she was friendly had nowhere to make ginger beer, not that it was his preferred tipple anyway.
After a while…
After a while, in north Devon, there were hotspots where Ginger beer was as plentiful as tap water.
Mum tried to give a plant to the wife of a local farmer. She didn’t want it. Trudi had aleady given her one. She offered one to a teacher at the primary school in the nearby village, but she’d got one from the headmaster’s wife.
The ginger beer supply had reached saturation point, and yet still the plant kept expanding. All the people we knew were trying to give each other ginger beer plants, but everybody already had one.
The village was trying to raise money to build a new village hall. The Womens Institute had come up with the innovative idea of opening a transport cafe. This transport cafe was housed in the old village hall, and was open for business throughout the night once a week, and on that night, from my bedroom window half a mile away, I could see the headlights of lorries as they pulled in, and when they left.
I had a mental image of each driver walking into the hall anticipating a slap-up breakfast, only to find himself surrounded by women who clutched his sleeve, sank to their knees in front of him and tried to thrust ginger beer plants into his hands, all the time begging and wailing “Take mine, please, kind sir, take mine.”
The day came when my mother split her ginger beer plant, but couldn’t get anyone to take it. The next time she made ginger beer she felt compelled to produce a double batch in the hope that she would manage to give some away, but nobody wanted it because they already had too much of their own. She tried to pursuade us to drink extra, but the stomach cna only contain a finite amount of fluid, and anyway, it didn’t taste the same as it used to, because she was so sick of making it that she’d become sloppy with measuring out the ingredients.
That’s when I knew the ginger beer plant was a tyrant. It wanted to be in every household in the world, to enslave the entire population, to force everyone to make rivers of ginger beer which would drown us, before flowing into the oceans all over the planet, turning everything it touched into ginger beer. It was a conspiracy. The ginger beer plant wanted to drown us in sweet nectar.
Eventually, Mum, her friends and her neighbours must have realised the truth, because one by one they destroyed the plants.
Sometimes we missed mum’s ginger beer, but we knew it was for the best.
Yeast is a useful ingredient, but it sometimes wants to be the main dish.
©Jane Paterson Basil