Making fermented foods to preserve the harvest, while adding nutrients and zippy flavours
Monique Vassallo remembers asking her mom what Grandma Amirault had in the big crocks in the cellar. Under the wooden lid and heavy rock were vegetables: string beans and passe-pierre – wild Goose Tongue greens – that her Acadian grandmother had picked along the Petitcodiac River in Memramcook, New Brunswick.
“She put one layer of veggies in the crock, salted it, then repeated the layers. More would be added later,” Vassallo recalls. “Then the crocks were kept in the cool basement.”
Now a grandmother herself, Vassallo is describing a preservation technique called dry salt fermenting: vegetables are chopped, salted, squeezed, bruised or pounded, then submerged and soaked in their own juices. At this point, lactic acid bacteria (lactobacillus) takes over, converting sugars to lactic acid, thus preserving the vegetables and giving such ferments their sour, vinegary flavour.
Vassallo hasn’t done much fermenting herself, but the vegetables she and her husband Leonard grow at Blue Heron Farm in Gardiner Mines, Cape Breton, have been used in some of Brenna Phillips’ ferments. Originally from Truro, N.S., Phillips moved to Cape Breton three summers ago to manage the kitchen at a new inn called Salty Rose’s and the Periwinkle Café, in Ingonish. Several items on their menu feature the ferments that she makes as an independent business called Punch and Jingles. Examples include a red cabbage sauerkraut used in the restaurant’s smoked-meat sandwich, and a wild rose flavoured kombucha inspired by the name of the inn.
“I’m also working on a Cape Breton kimchi,” Phillips says. This Korean-style ferment will be made entirely from locally grown vegetables, including Napa cabbage from Blue Heron Farm.
Working 50-60 hours a week at the café, Phillips has little time to do her own ferments. “Punch and Jingles is a bit on the back burner until the off-season,” she says. Once the Periwinkle closes for the winter, she will return to her soup-and-bread-and-ferment club, a CSA-style take-out. Patrons indicate their food choices at the beginning of the week, then pick up their meals on Friday.
“I never had fewer than 12 customers,” she says, “which was exactly what I could handle.”
Phillips became interested in making fermented foods 10 years ago, but she’s been eating them since she was a kid. “My mom and I always had vegetarian tendencies, and she showed me, for example, if you go to a barbecue where the only option is sausages, and you don’t want to make a fuss, you just fill your bun full of sauerkraut and mustard, and no one will notice.”
When she was a young adult, Phillips’ peer group included food activists and vegans who often engaged in “dumpster diving” to scavenge discarded food. This led them to fermenting, as a means of protecting the found food from rot, and to add nutrients. Lacto-ferments such as sauerkraut are high in the B vitamins that are present in meat but lacking in many vegetarian and vegan diets.
“I would do just basic sauerkrauts, and I got a SCOBY (the jellyfish-like kombucha ‘mother’) that I’m still using nine years later. Then I started making weird things in my apartment, inviting people over for Scandinavian-themed meals. I became deeply obsessed with the flavour profile – the sour. It’s a way of cooking that I love so much: working with food, processing food, taking an ingredient and transforming it, getting to hang out with it for a long time, and eventually eating it. It’s the ultimate slow cooking – all intuition and observation. I jive with that so much.”
From the Ancients
Fermentation isn’t new. In fact, it’s very, very old. Before the development of refrigeration technology, humans depended on fermenting vegetables, fruit, and meat to survive cold months and lean times. But fermenting wasn’t just about survival. From the Greeks’ Dionysus to the Vikings’ Odin, Gilling, and Suttung, ancient myths attest to the near-worship of such mind-altering ferments as wine and mead.
“Sourdough is trendy from about 5000 BC,” says the renowned Irish baker and cookbook author Patrick Ryan. “The future in food and bread is about going back to the past. Your granny might have made soda bread, but your granny’s granny made sourdough.”
In the past three years, the production of fermented foods and beverages has increased by 300-400 percent in Nova Scotia. This includes everything from craft beers and ciders, to kombucha sold in grocery stores, to the increased presence of sauerkrauts and kimchis and kefirs at farmers’ markets. What gave rise to this resurgence?
Rick Kane, food safety and regulatory specialist with Perennia, cites local workshops by U.S. food writer Sandor Katz, a self-described “fermentation revivalist.” Kane also notes the increase in immigrants to the Maritimes from places where fermenting is more common, such as Asia and the Middle East, and a growing public interest in more diverse and healthful handmade foods.
It was the health and flavour factors that led Brendan Neima to fermenting foods 10 years ago. “I always wanted to make things from scratch,” he says, “to control the ingredients, like salt.”
Neima discovered Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions, a seminal fermenting book, like Katz’s Wild Fermentation, that has inspired many fermenters’ passions, featuring standard recipes as well as unique ones such as fermented ketchup.
After working on a small farm in B.C., Neima moved back to Truro and started Good Clean Farm Ferments. His offerings – which include cortido, a spicy Latin American kraut – can be found at the farmers’ market and at Red Knot Bakery in Truro, as well as at the Earltown General Store. Seeking good, local ingredients for his ferments is actually what led him to start farming on his grandfather’s land in Salmon River.
“At my small scale, fermenting was easier than only growing vegetables,” he says, noting that the ferments account for more than a third of Good Clean Farm’s revenues.
Both Phillips and Neima acknowledge the benefit of partnerships in helping to develop their respective businesses. Not only have they worked with local farmers to obtain ingredients, but both have found that having access to a commercial kitchen was integral. In order to adhere to provincial food safety standards, Neima makes his retail ferments at Red Knot Bakery, Phillips at the Periwinkle Café.
And both have worked with Rick Kane at Perennia to have recipes approved and pH levels tested. In Nova Scotia, ferments are considered “Schedule B” foods and can therefore be processed at home and sold at farmers’ markets, but to be sold in retail stores, they must be made in certifiable kitchens and approved by government. This process can be time-consuming and costly; however, Perennia receives federal funding (via the Canadian Agricultural Partnership) to cover the analysis, product and process evaluation, and support for new agriculture-based businesses in the province – as long as their products are primarily composed of Nova Scotia food ingredients.
Many fermenters speak highly of the openness of the fermentation community. Perhaps this is a reflection of the fermenting process itself, which involves cultures comprising millions of micro-organisms working together beneficially. Even the term SCOBY – which refers to the starter culture needed to ferment tea into kombucha – is an acronym for “symbiotic community of bacteria and yeast.” Phillips can’t recall how many SCOBY “babies” she’s given to friends and acquaintances over the years. And due to popular demand, she now offers fermenting workshops through Punch and Jingles, when she isn’t busy at the café.
Eating “live” foods may seem intimidating, but fermentation is an extremely safe method of preservation. There have only been a handful of fermented food recalls globally. And there are several health benefits to eating cultured foods. Since they are already somewhat broken down or “digested,” they’re easier for our bodies to process. Making sauerkraut, for example, which Katz calls the “gateway ferment,” is a way of infusing a regular cabbage with extra beneficial vitamins. Probiotic consumption has been linked to treating and preventing diseases of the digestive tract, reducing incidents and duration of common colds and high blood pressure, and reducing anxiety. Often, ferment converts talk of feeling happier, of having clearer skin and shinier hair, and of improved gut health.
With more public awareness of these benefits, the demand for ferments is at an all-time high. Neima’s customers frequently tell him how tasty his sauerkraut is compared to the store-bought kind. He says it’s exciting to play a part in expanding the palate of Maritime consumers.
Phillips admits there would be no Punch and Jingles without the support of friends and customers who’ve become devoted fans of her ferments. “People with health concerns would ask me to make meals for their families. I started getting these little jobs, and I loved it. So I decided to learn it more officially.”
Two years ago Phillips attended Sandor Katz’s ferment residency at his commune in Tennessee. “It was one of the best things I’ve ever done,” she says.
These local leaders in the fermented food revival may be bringing back a part of our diet that we’ve been missing. Phillips says her ferments are even popular with children.
“Kids love sauerkraut,” she says. “They come in with their parents asking, ‘Can we have kraut?’ If you gave a kid a leaf of cabbage, they wouldn’t touch it, but they’ll eat a bowl of sauerkraut!”