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.