Roots Action 2015 – Fermentation in Action

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Presenters: Kevin Farley, co-owner of the Cultured Pickle Shop in Berkeley, CA and Chef Edward Lee, chef/owner of 610 Magnolia in Louisville, KY and author of Smoke and Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen.

The following is an addendum to my reportage and reflections on the Roots 2015 Conference held at the Culinary Vegetable Institute in Milan, Ohio in September. My assignment in this post is Fermentation in Action, one of a dozen panel discussions presented at the conference, which, as with each of the presentations, could have been a conference unto itself. Like each of the topics presented, I came away with a better understanding of a timely subject, along with a personal goal to further explore and research the world of fermentation. When one initially thinks of fermentation, visions of jars, crocks, and vats filled with floating objects reminiscent of a science experiment or a laboratory in a science fiction movie come to mind. Although I am not a neophyte to fermentation, having experience with canning and preserving, bread and cheese making, I am now encouraged to do more fermenting for its health benefits, as well as for its ability to add flavor, diversity and complexity to foods. As a culinary instructor I am very excited to disseminate what I’ve learned to the countless students that I instruct every day. The best way to learn something is to teach it. And it’s always good to pay it forward.

The subject of many past and current books, articles, and discussions, fermentation is nearly as old as agriculture itself and is enjoying a renaissance of sorts. Once the bailiwick of home canners, DYI enthusiasts, and homesteaders, fermentation is now being touted and practiced by health devotees, renowned chefs, and locavores. You might say that fermentation is at the forefront of a “cultural” revolution, pun intended. Now to the matter at hand. Fermentation is a transformative process by which food, acted upon by various bacteria, fungi, and enzymes, becomes preserved, more digestible, less toxic, and more delicious. By some estimates, as much as one-third of all food eaten by human beings worldwide is fermented, and fermented food production, taken as a whole, constitutes one of the world’s largest industries.

That said, rare is the person who has had no exposure to fermentation. If you think of it, who has not experienced one or several of a long list of fermented foods including pickles, either commercially or home-fermented, all sorts of pickled vegetables, sauerkraut, beer, wine, alcohol, sourdough bread, yogurt, cheeses, sour cream, kefir, fermented bean curd, miso, fish sauce, tamari, soy sauce, tabasco sauce, Worcestershire sauce, kimchi, tempeh, kombucha, along with a myriad of other lesser known products from across the globe.

Chef Edward Lee

Chef Edward Lee

In Edward Lee’s words, “salt + patience = fermentation.” Fermentation involves experimentation. Lee, chef/owner, author, and periodic television personality explains “We take stuff and rot it,” “We get out of its way and see what happens.” Fermentation can capture foods at different stages; thusly fermentation provides an opportunity for attaining the Japanese culinary concept of “shun”. Shun is the tradition that avows that every food should be eaten only in its proper season and only when it is at the peak of its flavor. Lee referred to this as the “moment of perfection.” He further states that we(chefs) are going so much faster than the government in the area of providing standards, regulations, and techniques for fermentation. On the topic of flavor, he speaks to umami, that mild, yet savory, brothy taste sensation that is so hard to describe but so sought-after. He goes on to state that fermentation is not an end goal but rather a vehicle to add complexity and diversity to a food, i.e. how fermented items can complement a fatty protein such as a steak; and how acid promotes umami in this case.

Kevin Farley with Anne Engamare McBride and Jody Eddy

Kevin Farley with Anne Engamare McBride and Jody Eddy

Kevin Farley, co-owner, with his wife, Alex Hozven of the Cultured Pickle, a small store in West Berkeley, California, which is dedicated to preserving pickling traditions from around the globe, professes a particular fondness for Japanese methods and focuses on ancient artisanal Japanese styles of fermentation. Their specialty line includes innovative spins on familiar foods: seaweed sauerkraut, kimchee with mustard greens and red spring onions, and carrot kombucha (a fermented drink prized for its active cultures, called probiotics, said to have a host of health benefits). We’re really seeing growth in demand, as restaurants incorporate Japanese products, many of them fermented, either by producers or made in-house, as interest in Asian cuisine increases. Kevin states his mantra on fermenting, “just pay attention”.

Take aways from the presentation for me were:

  • fermentation was born out of frugality
  • the stage of the food to be fermented is captured by fermentation
  • preservation is not the only benefit of fermentation
  • fermented foods provide many health benefits
  • fermented foods provide extraordinary flavors only achieved by the fermentation process

So, the next time you raise a glass of beer or wine; the next time you choose sourdough bread for your sandwich, eggs, or accompaniment to your meal; the next time you have a meal at an Asian or Asian-inspired restaurant; the next time you slather sour cream on your baked potato or favorite Mexican-inspired food; the next time you reach for the soy, tabasco, or Worcestershire sauce, know that you’re just being cultured.


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