ReLocavore: Redefining "local"

A locavore moves from Wisconsin to New Hampshire and rediscovers what "local" means.


My Fermenting Adventures

Even given my kvetching, Sandor Katz fermenting workshop had a strong influence on me. I guess I may be developing my skills as an amature fermento. I have now fermented:

The Kimchi is clearly my biggest fermentation success. Yummy yum. I think I got the balance of spice and saltiness, and since we had the space to let the stink dissipate, I was able to let it ferment for a month and get very sour. Next time – more ginger, for sure. I have enjoyed eating my kimchi on pizza. The flavors of kimchi are very similar to the flavors of pepperoni and pepperoncini: hot, tangy, and salty. In fact, some pepperoni are actually fermented by being inoculated with flavor-enhancing molds!

Mixed vegetable kraut we made at the Katz workshop. It’s shredded carrots, radishes, white turnips and onions. I have let it sit for a few weeks and flavors have mellowed and gotten more sour. The onion smell was initially very strong – I was slightly worried I would get a charge on my hotel bill for cleaning out the stank. But over a few weeks the onion smell has become milder and richer with more umami. We have been eating it all along the fermenting time and I think it gets better every time I eat some.

Blueberry Soda was demoed at the workshop, so after picking blueberries, I used some to make my own soda. I used about 1/2 cup of sugar, a pint of blueberries and about a quart of water. I mixed it together without crushing the berries and kept stirring over 4 days. The final product went into a growler and has been hanging in the fridge. It’s a light pink color with a mild effervescence, kind of like kombucha. It’s OK, but I wouldn’t want to drink a lot. I’m not a big fan of sweet drinks, but it would be a good mixer.

I found an accidental glut of cucumbers in the garden last week and decided to try to make half-sour pickles. The cukes were too big for whole pickles, so I cut them into spears. Whole cucumbers will ferment for weeks or months and still stay slightly crisp, but fermenting cucumber spears will inevitably lead to mushy pickles after a week or so. I decided to make half-sour pickles, which are in a stronger brine and fermented for a short period. Into big quart jars I added two crushed garlic cloves, a big sprig of fresh dill, and a 3% salt brine – about two tablespoons of salt for a quart of water. They hung out on the kitchen counter for 4 days. They came out crisp, yet salty and a little tangy. Sam seems to be a big fan of them.



Sandor Katz Fermenting Workshop

On Jul 22-23 I participated in a Fermenting workshop with Sandor Katz, the author of The Art of Fermentation and Wild Fermentation. Shelburne Farms, just outside Burlington, Vermont hosted the event. If you’ve been to Shelburne Farms before, we were in the Coach Barn for the event. Over two days we covered the basics of fermenting, lactic-acid fermentation of vegetables, a hands-on exercise making our own ferment, (day 2) dairy fermentation, fermenting grains and legumes, and fermented beverages like kombucha.

In general, I was impressed with Mr. Katz knowledge and experience with fermenting. He clearly has a passion for the art and has experimented with a lot of interesting techniques. Admittedly, that was where my enthusiasm stopped. Sorry to drag work into my blog, but I was criticizing Mr. Katz classroom technique throughout the workshop and found his teaching to be lacking. The entire second day was blocked out into 2-hour chunks with 30, 60, and 30 minute breaks between (8 hour day total). Most of the content was basic lecture with a few quick demonstrations (blueberry soda and yogurt). We had a hands-on activity after lunch on day 1, but day 2 was uninterrupted sitting. To compound the fatigue from sitting, the space had uncomfortable chairs and was not air-conditioned. We were pretty short tempered and sweaty in a 90+ degree room with little moving air. I didn’t get much out of the second day, even when I abandoned my uncomfortable chair to stand in the back of the room and hope to catch a little breeze. I did learn a lot, and the course definitely met my objective of motivating me to make better kraut and kimchee. I think I may even start to make our own yogurt.

I had three major takeaways from the event:

  1. Everything is rotting, being digested and broken down by microbes. Fermenting is just using different techniques to control the process of rotting food by favoring different microbes over others. Malted barley plus water makes sugars that can be digested by yeast to make alcoholic beer, or by other molds to make nasty undrinkable stank.
  2. Fermenting refers to two different processes. Process 1 is where yeast convert sugar to alcohol in the presence of oxygen, then acetobacteria convert alcohol to acetic acid (vinegar), again, still with oxygen. Process 2 is where lactic acid bacteria convert carbohydrates and sugars to lactic acid in the absence of oxygen. The following table may help clarify the difference between the two foods:
    Process 1 Process 2
    Microbe  Yeast  Lactic Acid Bacteria
    Substrate  Sugar  Carbohydrates and Sugar
    Oxygen  Present  Absent
    Byproduct  Alcohol + CO2  Lactic Acid + CO2
    Secondary Process  Acetobacteria convert
    alcohol to vinegar
    Food Characteristics  Alcoholic, Bubbly  Tart, tangy, softer
    Tasty Examples  Beer, Wine  Sauerkraut, Yogurt
  3. Fermentation has become very “faddish” due to confusion and misinformation about the well-supported versus not-so-well supported benefits of fermentation. Fermentation has three well-known and supported benefits: pre-digestion of food,  preservation of unstable foods, and increased diversity of gut flora. With pre-digestion, the bacteria or yeast break down the substances in the food into simpler forms. Complex carbohydrates (e.g. cell walls) become simple carbohydrates (sugars), and complex sugars (disaccharides like sucrose or lactose) become simple sugars (monosaccharides like fructose or glucose). Fermented foods are more stable over time – sauerkraut lasts longer than a plain cabbage, and yogurt lasts longer than milk. Additionally, fermented foods are home to a culture of microbes that have been shown to have benefits for diseases of the gut.The confusion comes from the secondary effects. In the process of fermenting foods, some people argue that the food becomes more nutritious, makes certain nutrients more available for the body to absorb, and may have broader effects on the whole immune system of the body. Some participants at the workshop even argued (from their own personal experience) that fermented foods helped them recover from cancer, HIV, and other serious diseases. While these are nice stories to tell, the research just doesn’t pan out to support these effects. I’m working on a systematic review of the literature and when it gets complete, I’m happy to provide detailed citations. In the few areas where there have been studies, the studies have been small and results are non-conclusive. In the absence of good evidence, it’s fine to eat fermented foods because you like to eat them and drink them, but don’t do it because you think it will be some health panacea. It’s just a fad.

I know them’s fightin’ words, so please give feedback in the comments.