2018 was always going to be an exciting year. My 40th was looming and I was thinking about back-packing India again. Then I discovered my fermentation hero/guru, Sandor Katz, was holding a Fermentation Residency Program in his home in Tennessee USA...
The thought of camping in an off-grid community with a dozen other passionate fermenters from around the world put my head in a spin and filled my tummy with excitement – that's the gut-brain connection for you! I had always dreamt of meeting Sandor, ever since I read his book 'The Art of Fermentation' (aka the bible of fermentation) which inspired a new chapter in my life.
A few years ago, our family swapped a busy city life for country living and with a little more time on our hands, the mystical world of microbes took us on a life-changing journey. Bubbling crocks and fermentation literature slowly swallowed our kitchen as we experimented with various vegetables, flavours and fermentation techniques. This lead to the birth of our business, Forage & Ferment. Little did I know back then, this journey would take me half way around the world.
In April 2018, I left my life/business partner Simon and our three small boys to travel 13,000kms to Short Mountain, Cannon County, mid-Tennessee, USA. Short Mountain is the moonshine capital of the USA and home to the largest, oldest and most well-known planned LGBT community. It's also the ‘beating heart’ of international wild fermentation revivalism and home to Sandor Katz, a James Beard Award winner, NY Times bestselling author, fermentation revivalist, food activist, Faerie and inspiring human. It was the perfect location for a week of non-stop learning, sharing, eating, drinking and collaborating with people just like me - wild fermentation junkies!
I was warmly embraced by Sandor on my arrival to Walnut Ridge and welcomed to the ‘Foundation for Fermentation Fervor’ HQ. His exquisitely renovated 1820’s log cabin home was nestled under a magnificent canopy of established trees, with pretty Dogwood in white spring bloom. I pitched my tent on the gentle sloping lawn outside the main house, just a short walk to the rustic out-house (a long-drop with wonderful bush views) before being served sourdough pancakes with a tangy yoghurt - the first of many mouth-watering delights that week.
We quickly discovered how diverse our 12-person residency was, just like the wild fermentation subject that had brought us together. Along with the amazing Mara King, co-founder of Ozuke ferments in Boulder, Colorado; there was an English Professor, software developer, pastor, teacher, health and wellness blogger, lawyer, physiotherapist, and anthropologists undertaking a microbial research project – with whom we shared our daily bowel movements in the name of science (more about that later). It was a funky group of guitar/banjo playing fermentation enthusiasts, almost as funky as the subject that was about to interconnect our lives. A group of real food lovers all as hungry as I was to learn, share and contribute. Full of appreciation for the magical world of microbes and how we can harness them to enhance both the taste and nutritional value of food.
Our first day was spent soaking and sprouting - starting fermenting projects that would nourish and sustain us for the week. We fed the sourdough starter; soaked buckwheat for bread; black-eyed peas for acaraje (deep fried bean balls from West African/Brazilian cuisines); teff flour for injera (sourdough flatbread from Ethiopia); and rice and lentils for South Indian ferments of dosas (thin pancakes) and idlis (steam-bread).
We also prepared yoghurt; milk kefir; natto and koji - a fungus (Aspergillus oryzae) which we later used for fermentation of miso, tempeh and sake. To grow the koji fungus, we sprinkled spores onto cooled rice and barley, while Sandor rolled an old fridge on wheels into his kitchen, a crafty homemade incubation chamber, warmed by an incandescent light bulb and monitored by a greenhouse temperature controller. We also prepared a delicious effervescent fermented beverage called ‘sweet potato fly’ which I happily grated all the sweet potato for, on the condition it was henceforth renamed 'kumera fly’!
The anthropologists who joined us were researching the connection between fermented foods and the human microbiome. They are launching a long-term research project over multiple countries to understand more about what microorganisms live in different fermented foods in different places, and how fermented foods can be used for medicinal purposes in place of pharmaceuticals. That’s what you call mixing the art and science of fermentation! As well as sampling the foods we were fermenting; we donated daily stool samples to their cause. It's exciting to be part of a study that could help us learn more about how these ancient foods are relevant to a modern gut.
During the day, Sandor 'changed channel' often, juggling numerous projects at various stages of their fermentation. For the most part were quiet, busy concentrating and scribbling down his pearls of wisdom, completely spellbound. His teachings flowed effortlessly and he captivated us with his depth of knowledge, passion for fermentation and the fascinating age and history of his yoghurt and sourdough starters (nourishing public figures and journeying across borders).
When Mara King stepped in to help, what a dream team they made. Mara taught with the precision of a trained chef (which she is) and Sandor with a more relaxed approach. I loved how every question he answered started with “well sure…” Mara expertly filleted a mackerel before pickling it for our lunch; and later introduced us to pao cai, a Chinese (Sichuan cuisine) vegetable ferment designed to be a continuous brew, replenished regularly. The sliced vegetables were flavored with a brine made from Sichuan peppercorns, licorice root, bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, malt sugar, cardamom, and salt. I loved how the flavors brought back memories of my life in Hong Kong.
Our communal meals were a time to re-wild our body with the delicious ferments we made, or residents had brought with them, including cheeses, breads, kimchi and home brews. We also devoured some of Sandor’s ferments, including his vinegars, country wines, mead, and the radish sauerkraut he ferments in his cellar to share with his community (it’s how he got his name Sandor Kraut after all). We also had the privilege of meeting some of his community. Friends with intriguing names like ‘Leopard’ and ‘Shopping Spree’ who helped make our stay such a rich experience.
I enjoyed starting each new day with an uplifting session of chi gong, led by Leopard. The slow purposeful movement resonated deeply. Despite being half a world away from my family, I felt at home - a strong, beautiful connection to the place and people I was sharing it with. I felt a sense of release from my life back home, with all the demands of running a business and raising a young family. Along the way I was reminded why we opened the fermentary in the first place.
The residency was more than just reconnecting with age-old practices passed down from our ancestors to enhance flavour and make food more stable for storage (and more digestible and nutritious). It was a retreat and a lesson in community, food production, diversity, sustainability, and social change. A powerful reminder to stop the war on bacteria and start co-existing with microbes – revisiting how we ‘sanitise’ our food and our environment.
Raw, unpasteurized, living fermented foods carry probiotic bacteria directly to our digestive systems, where they help replenish and diversity our gut microbiome, strengthen our immune system to prevent illness and disease, and regulate many of our physiological systems in ways we are just beginning to recognise. In his revised book 'Wild Fermentation' (which is filled with wonderful recipes), Sandor powerfully describes microorganisms as "our ancestors and our allies".
I'm excited an international fermentation revival is underway and that I can share my wild fermentation experience with NZ. If I've learned anything from my time in Tennessee, it's that the beautiful art of fermentation can help reconnect us to the natural rhythm's of the Earth; benefit our health in so many complex ways; and rescue, restore and revive our culture too. The most important ingredients of all are time, energy and love.
Thank you to Sandor (I hope your pounamu/greenstone leads you back to NZ one day soon), Mara, MaxZine, Leopard, Mati and all the residents for opening your hearts, sharing your recipes, strumming your instruments and generally making our residency such a fulfilling and meaningful experience. It was truly epic!
Photo credits: Christopher Weeks, Yo Soy Fermenista, Mr Dickey, Mark Whitsel - thanks for sharing.
About Forage & Ferment
Forage & Ferment is a boutique fermentary in Clevedon, NZ specializing in wild fermentation to create enlivened food full of flavor and nourishment. You can read more about us or read our recent blogs including The Benefits of Fermented Foods. www.forageandferment.co.nz.
September is ‘Bee Aware Month’, dedicated to celebrating the mighty bee.
Forage & Ferment has a particular love of bumblebees. Not only are they essential for abundant crops but they are constantly buzzing around us as we forage in our garden farmacy for wild edibles and healing herbs for our delicious wild kraut and kimchi. Simply put they are part of our team!
Forage & Ferment proudly supports the New Zealand Bumblebee Conservation Trust (NZBCT). We are that passionate about this furry friend, you will see a bumblebee on the back of every jar. These little workhorses play an essential role in pollinating the food that nourishes us.
We salute the humble bumblebee and while we're at it we would like to share some amazing facts about these furry little characters that we so often take for granted.
Some things you may not know about bumblebees:
It is estimated that around a third of the human food supply depends on pollination by insects, birds and bats and most of this is accomplished by bees. That's one in every three mouthfuls! Pollinators are crucial in promoting the beautiful flora throughout our environment and the farmers of meat and dairy products rely on them to provide the sustainable pollination of crops for animals such as clover and alfalfa. Bumblebees are super pollinators and a single bumblebee can do 50 times the work of a honeybee and they carry a bigger payload of pollen.
There are over 255 species of bumblebees, New Zealand has only four - all were introduced from the UK as early as 1885, initially to assist with the pollination of clover. The rarest species of NZ bumblebee the Bombus subterraneus is thought to be the one of rarest in the world, becoming extinct in England many years ago after living there since the last Ice Age.
Bumblebees have smelly feet and will leave a smelly footprint to show they have been to a flower. Other bees will be able to tell if the flower has already been looted and move on to the next. Various flowers replenish pollen and nectar at different speeds, some in hours and some in days. Once the flower is full again the smelly footprint wears off giving the go ahead for whoever is ready to loot next.
Bumblebees are also known as a bit of a cheat in the world of pollination and have been referred to as robbers. Sometimes they rob the flower of its nectar without pollinating it in return. Some species locate where they think the nectar is from the outside of the flower, then bite and poke a hole to mop it all up. This is certainly appreciated by other varieties of bees and insects who may also use the hole depending on the type of flower. Using a robbing hole made by another bee is referred to as 'secondary robbing' and is very common.
Whilst it is often thought that humming birds have the highest metabolic rate of all animals, the metabolic rate of bumblebees is 75% higher than a humming bird's. They need this remarkable zest to carry their large bumbling bodies through the air. They will also work from daylight to dark in rainy weather and continue working in temperatures just above freezing.
Bumblebees carry up to 90% of their body weight in food. The level of activity and energy required to fly is so great they are only ever 40 minutes away from starvation. They can reach ground speeds up to 54 km per hour and are great navigators, remembering specific landmarks to help navigate back to the nest (yes nest not hive). Bumblebees are social insects and can live in nests of up to 400 bees. Each nest has a queen and will last for only one year. Bumble bees rarely nest in the same location two years running. Unlike bees who forage long range, bumblebees like to stay local. Most workers forage within 5kms of the nest. They are a flying advertisement for 'live local, eat local'.
Bumblebees will also pollinate flowers honeybees can’t, like tomato flowers. Honeybees aren’t boisterous enough to dislodge pollen from tomato flowers whereas bumblebees will vigorously buzz the flower and bee rewarded with showers of pollen falling on their bodies. This technique is known as ‘buzz pollination’. In a glasshouse one bumble bee can pollinate up to 450 flowers per hour.
Bumblebee decline around the world is a worry for us all, and this decline has been caused by multiple factors, including a reduction in wildflowers and flowering trees from the landscape. Like many other animals and insects this habitat loss and the increasing use of pesticides has had a dramatic effect on the bumblebee.
Next time you are pottering in the garden spare a thought for the hardworking, black-and-yellow striped bumblebee which is probably buzzing around somewhere pollinating your strawberries, rocket, beans, kiwi fruit, avocados… Without this master forager, your crops wouldn’t be anywhere near as abundant.
If you want to help nurture and promote our very special pollinator friends, then plant bee-friendly gardens and wild flowers which will attract them to forage the flowers for nectar and pollen. You can also support the New Zealand Bumblebee Conservation Trust (NZBCT).
About Forage & Ferment
Forage & Ferment handcrafts unique kraut and kimchi using traditional wild fermentation practices. To create our delicious vegetable ferments, we source fresh ingredients from responsible local growers and forage our garden farmacy for nature’s finest wild edibles. www.forageandferment.co.nz