Backyard Garden in February

We had a very warm Heritage Day last Monday and the bees came out for a poop flight 🐝 💩 Our hens Mags, Peg, and Zebadina also enjoyed the sun.

There’s been 12 storms so far this winter and it’s not over yet! Despite the 4+ foot snowdrifts, the hens and bees are doing well!

All Tucked In

Applying mindful laziness to your fall garden clean-up

I’m a lazy gardener. I don’t pull weeds. I don’t harvest the kale and lettuce that’s going to seed. I don’t till the plot where I’m planning on planting fall vegetables. That’s too much work, it’s way too hot, and, besides, the bees enjoy the weeds and kale flowers, and my chickens will gladly do the tilling for me. 

Despite being lazy in some respects, I put a lot of thought and planning into my garden. I’m not doing nothing, I’m working towards doing nothing. Do-nothing farming is an idea put into practice by Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka, who grew rice by scattering seeds in straw mulch, and filled his mandarin orchard with perennial and self-seeding vegetables. He never tilled or used chemical fertilizers, and instead let nature guide his farming practices. Transitioning from gardening to farming, reading every book on the topic I could get from my library, I found that Fukuoka’s The One-Straw Revolution spoke to me the most. Why sweat in the hot fields pruning tomatoes, or pushing a heavy, stinky, polluting rototiller, when I can sit in the shade under my cherry trees drinking homemade dandelion beer? 

I apply lazy gardening techniques to my fall garden. Starting in early August, after the garlic is harvested, I move my chickens onto those now-empty plots, where they quickly get to work weeding, fertilizing, tilling, and eating up ants and slugs. (Since I got backyard chickens three years ago, my garden has never had fewer pests). Then, two or three weeks later, I move the birds somewhere else. (We use hardware cloth and broken hockey sticks for a simple – and truly Canadian – portable fence system). Then I start prepping the beds for fall crops. 

Depending on how compacted the soil is, I may broadfork the plot, then I’ll layer composted chicken manure and municipal compost. Like Fukuoka, I’ll scatter seeds, gently rake them in, add straw and seaweed mulch, then water. In amongst the emerging seeds, I transplant fall and winter crops like kale, collards, and beets, which I have seeded in soil blocks around the time I harvested the garlic. Soil blocks are the lazy gardener’s friend – no plastic, no garbage, just a square of soil ready to be popped into the ground. Just before freeze-up in December, I put hoops in the ground, cover it all in plastic, and – voilà – instant greenhouse for four-season growing!  

Perpetual Kale

In some parts of the 6,000-square-foot yard around my company house in New Waterford, N.S., the food grows by itself. By fall, the kale and lettuce I’ve let go to seed (which fed my honeybees throughout July) have started to dry and fall over. Though I collect and save seeds, I prefer to let the seeds plant themselves. I’ll throw manure and compost on top of my “perpetual kale yard,” and just let the kale grow back on its own. The kale tends to move around, in part thanks to the chickens. Carol Deppe, in The Tao of Vegetable Gardening, advises that the only plants that really need to be rotated each year are tomatoes and other nightshades, so I don’t worry too much about rotating my other crops. 

As a four-season grower, I don’t really put my garden to bed for winter, but rather tuck it in. Instead of ripping up spent plants, I leave them in the soil to break down naturally; that way, as Fukuoka suggests, the nutrients those plants took from the soil go right back into the soil. The plants also add extra protection from winter erosion. The only time I ripped up plants was the year my beans got blight. It broke my heart to put something biodegradable into the trash, but thanks to better soil management, it never happened again. My summer and winter squash almost always turn grey from powdery mildew, which in our Maritime climate is unavoidable. I compost my squash vines and tomato plants only because, by fall, I’m tired of tripping over them. I snip the plants at the base of the stem, and leave the roots in the soil to rot – again, to add back nutrients. Everything else, I leave in the garden.  

Much Mulch

Fall is all about mulch – the blanket I use to tuck in my crops. The cheaper the mulch, the better. On Nov. 1, I place an ad on Kijiji looking for straw and hay bales used as Hallowe’en decorations. People text me their address and the location of said bales, then off I go to pick them up. The hay bales insulate my vegetables; the straw bales I use around the chicken coop and on top of my garlic beds. (A word of caution: don’t let your chickens get at the hay, as they could develop crop impaction problems.) No worries about introducing new seeds to my garden; the chickens take care of those. This past spring I planted zucchini and cucumbers in the leftover, rotting bales, and so far the squash seem to love it. 

Fall leaves are another favourite mulch. On my bale collection rounds I also pick up bagged leaves. How nice of my neighbours to do all that raking for me! Last fall I dragged home two giant bags of leaves from a Sydney cemetery, and they contained bonus apples that the chickens enjoyed. 

My favourite mulch has got to be seaweed – something coastal gardeners have used to build and amend their soil for centuries. Irish farmers with rocky land planted their potatoes directly in seaweed. Seaweed is full of nutrients that plants love. Late last November, after I’d planted my garlic, I mulched the beds with a layer of seaweed, then a layer of straw. The mulch was so thick that, once the ground froze, the chickens could free-range over the beds without damaging the garlic underneath. I had to loosen the seaweed come spring – it was a bit too much for the garlic to poke through – but the bulbs I harvested this year were huge! 

When a rogue pattypan sprouted in my garden last year, producing pounds and pounds of squash, my search for an easy, lazy method of preserving led to my newest passion: fermenting. No boiling, no hot-water baths; just chop, salt, toss in a crock, weigh it down, and wait. A week or so later, I’d produced almost five gallons of a unique fermented spread that tasted great on pizza. This year, with all the heat we’ve gotten, I have a bumper crop of basil and hot peppers, so I’m looking forward to making fermented hot sauces and pesto – which I’ll get to, eventually. The fall sunshine has got me feeling lazy, and I’ve got another glass of dandelion beer to finish.  

This article first appeared in the October 2018 issue of Rural Delivery (Volume 43.4).


Well-Seasoned

Banish blandness by planting a wide selection of herbs

The first food I ever attempted to grow was herbs. One winter while living in Toronto, I bought some small clay pots, soil, and chive seeds. I planted the seeds, watered them, placed them on my south-facing windowsill, and waited. My mouth watered at the thought of adding fresh chives to my soups, rice, eggs, and salad.  

One week passed. And then another. A month later, still no chives. Eventually, I gave up, replaced the unsprouted seeds with spider plants, and didn’t attempt to grow food again for several years. Now chives grow in quite a few corners of my garden. I’m happy I didn’t give up on my chive dreams (I wonder if this is the real meaning behind “Keep calm and chive on”?), because chives, one of many perennial herbs, are an extremely welcome sight in spring, often popping out of the ground when it’s still cold and snowy in April. Turns out, chives can be rather tricky to grow from seed; it’s much better to plant transplants.  

By persevering, I also learned that herbs are extremely rewarding to grow. They don’t take up too much space, they grow well in pots, they complement other vegetables in your garden, they offer health benefits, and they can even keep pests away. In fact, despite my early, failed attempts, herbs are the first thing I recommend new gardeners grow. After all, a few fresh leaves of basil, snips of chives, or pinches of thyme can really add some zing to staples like eggs, meat, soup, and grains. Even a small, simple salad of fresh, cold-hardy parsley – with a basic vinaigrette – is incredibly energizing when the temperature drops and the days grow short.  

If you’re just starting out, you can get herb transplants from a garden centre or a farmers’ market vendor, or you can grow them from seed. Common transplants include savoury herbs like thyme, rosemary, basil, chives, and parsley. Perennial seeds, as I said, can be a bit tricky to start yourself – but once they’re established, you essentially have a lifetime supply of chives or thyme. For annual herbs – plants that live and die in one season – it’s much more cost-effective to start the plants from seed. Besides, a seed catalogue offers a far greater selection than you will find in most nurseries.  

Heat-lover

Basil is my favourite herb to grow from seed, but because it is native to tropical regions, it takes a few tricks to get big, healthy plants in our cooler Maritime climate. Jo Ann Gardner, in her book Living with Herbs, suggests buying seeds that boast large leaf sizes, such as Genovese, or Mammoth, or a crinkly-leaved variety I grew this past year called Napoletano. Basil hates the cold; even cold soil and cold wind will stunt or burn this sensitive plant. So I start my seeds indoors about six to eight weeks before the last frost, then gradually harden them off in my cold frame or under plastic.  

Basil is considered an excellent companion plant for tomatoes, but when I tried this I found the tomatoes would eventually engulf the basil, keeping the tiny plants in perpetual shadow, which they do not like. Now I grow my basil exclusively in pots on my hot, sunny deck. This keeps the soil much warmer (especially if you use black pots), allows for more consistent watering, and makes it easy to move the basil under cover or even bring it inside if the temperature suddenly drops.  

I also make sure to pinch my basil – meaning I snip the leader stem when it looks to be setting flowers, which encourages the side stems to develop leaves, ensuring a bushier plant and a longer harvest. My basil loved the hot, dry summer this past year, and in September I harvested my biggest crop ever, filling a large garbage bag with the pungent green leaves. 

Most herbs dry quite well if hung upside-down in a relatively dry room out of direct sunlight, but dried or frozen basil can get brown and ugly. The best way to preserve basil is to use it as an ingredient. In the fall I make large batches of pesto and zucchini-basil soup, which I freeze, to be enjoyed throughout the winter.  

This past year I adapted Pascal Baudar’s salted herb recipe (from his book The New Wildcrafted Cuisine) by combining one part salt to four parts chopped basil, which resulted in a very flavourful bouillon-type mixture; I add a spoonful or two to soup, or as a salt substitute in other recipes. The salted herbs keep well in the fridge, and as they very slowly ferment, the saltiness diminishes. You can use any herb in place of basil. 

A couple of years ago I noticed how much the local bumblebees loved the few basil flowers I neglected to pinch, so I now make sure to let some of my basil plants go to flower, to share with the bees. My honeybees are indifferent to my savoury basil, but they love my tulsi (Sacred basil) flowers. With its potent smell, a unique flavour resembling bubble gum, and prolific growth, tulsi has become one of my favourite tea herbs. Plus, like a lot of herbs, it’s loaded with health benefits; it relieves stress, alleviates cold and flu symptoms, and is even good for oral and dental health. I harvest my tea herbs in the summer and fall, dry them until they’re crispy, store them in Mason jars in a dark, cool place, and make healthful teas or use them to flavour kombucha all winter.   

Tea Time

Other tea herbs I enjoy growing include chamomile, lemon balm, and chocolate mint. Another bee favourite, anise hyssop (aka liquorice mint), is a tall-growing perennial that I plant at the northern end of my garden beds. I love growing as many perennials as I can; unlike fussy annuals, my chives, oregano, lavender, mint, and lemon balm come up year after year once established, with little or no work.  

A lot of herbs will also self-seed, so you may find chamomile, cilantro, or dill popping up in unusual places all over your garden. Be careful, though, because a few, such as mint and lemon balm, may threaten to take over. Not that I mind, however. My lemon balm has become a lovely ground cover, and in the summer it’s delightful to roam through and enjoy its bright, citrusy scent. 

And that’s just the tip of the basil flower when it comes to herbs. There’s a vast number of varieties and flavours to grow and experiment with. If at first you don’t succeed – well, keep trying and chive on! 

This article first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2019 issue of Rural Delivery (Volume 43.7).

Hike Soda

Adapted from Pascal Baudar’s The Wildcrafting Brewer.

Equipment

  • 4L (1 gallon) glass jar (plastic will do)
  • measuring cups
  • thin towel or cheesecloth
  • rubber band
  • large mixing spoon
  • funnel
  • resealable bottles

Ingredients

  • 4 L (1 gallon) of de-chlorinated water (you can pour the water out the night before and leave it on your counter—the chlorine will evaporate by morning)
  • 1 cup of sugar
  • 1/2 – 3/4 cup starter (e.g., ginger bug)
  • foraged (edible!) ingredients such as: flowers, herbs, bark, leaves, needles, cones, seeds, berries, etc.

Notes on Foraging (aka., Wildcrafting or Gleaning)

  • Never eat anything you don’t know or recognize. Some plants are poisonous.
  • To ensure its health and longevity, and to share with others, take no more than 1/3 of each plant.
  • It is not recommended that you forage plants from along roadsides. 
  • Forage plants from areas where people do not use pesticides.

Flavours

The flavour (and colour) of your hike soda will change with the seasons. Experiment with flavours by combining multiple plants—it’s fun to figure out what plants taste good together…and which ones do not.

Steps

  1. About a week before you make the soda, you’ll need to make a ginger bug. You can also get a ginger bug starter from a friend.
  2. Go on a hike to gather your ingredients. You will want enough ingredients to fill 1/2 of your jar (that’s about 4 cups).
  3. If needed, separate leaves/flowers from stems, roots, and other inedible parts.
  4. Wash your ingredients, shake out excess water, then stuff everything into your jar.
  5. Put 1 cup of sugar and 4 cups of water in a bowl. Stir to dissolve the sugar. 
  6. Once sugar is dissolved, add the starter (ginger bug).
  7. Add the sugar water, ginger bug, and the remaining water to your jar.
  8. Stir everything together.
  9. Cover the top of the jar with cloth and rubber band.
  10. Place jar in a warm place to ferment. Active fermentation (seeing bubbles) should start within 48+ hours. Let the jar ferment for 2-5 days. The longer it ferments, the more bubbly and less sweet it will be.
  11. Once it has fermented in the jar, strain the liquid through a sieve and compost your ingredients.
  12. Pour soda into resealable bottles. Put in a warm place and ferment another 1-3 days.
  13. Place bottles in the fridge to slow fermenting. 
  14. Enjoy within 2 weeks.
  15. Caution: open bottles over a sink or outside. Hike soda often continues to ferment in the bottle so can become very explode-y.


Backyard Brewing

Using wild ingredients to produce truly unique, truly local beers

IPA beers make me sneeze. The higher the IBU (international bitterness unit), the worse I get. My face gets flushed. My sinuses clog up. After a mere bottle or two I get nauseous.

I’ve come to realize I have an allergy—or at least a major sensitivity—to bitter beers. It dawned on me slowly. I’m a longtime fan of craft beers, which tend toward the bitter and hoppy. Sadly, as the quirky sneezing increasingly led to vomiting, I knew it was time to give up the bitter. I now watch bitterness units like calories; anything over 30 IBUs, and I have to take a pass.

At first, I was devastated. Giving up on bitter beers very nearly means giving up on all craft beers – IPAs, pale ales, extra special bitters. I decided to learn more about beer. What exactly is in it that makes me sneeze? 

I was also motivated by economics. I’d just quit a well-paying job, and had started a small, urban farm. As a writer and farmer, I figured it’d be a good idea to cut costs, and beer was one of those costs. I was already growing most of my own food to shrink my grocery bill and my carbon footprint. How local could I drink? How much more money could I save by growing my own beer?

Beer, like all good things, is incredibly simple. All it takes is four ingredients: water, sugar, a bitter ingredient to offset the sugar, and yeast. Just boil your water, sugar, and bitterer, cool the resulting “wort,” then “pitch” (or add) your yeast, and let it ferment in an air-tight vessel for 10 or so days before bottling it. Wait a few more weeks, and voila, you have beer. 

Practically all beer nowadays uses malt as its sugar, and almost all malt is made from barley. Sugar is key to the the most magical part of brewing beer; it’s what the yeast eats and converts into alcohol. I could have bought beer kits that included all the ingredients and detailed step-by-step instructions, but I wasn’t interested in kits. I was interested in making beer from scratch.

Age of the Alewives

Beer has been brewed for millennia. Practically every culture in the world has drunk some form of a fermented beverage. Some argue that when humans switched from hunting and gathering to agriculture, they took up growing grain not primarily for bread, but for beer. Perhaps this says a lot about the origins of our civilization.

But beverages made with malted barley and hops have only been the de facto beer for a few hundred years. Before that, a variety of other sugars and bittering agents were used. And notably, women were the primary brewers. Now the beer industry is dominated by hops, malted barley, and men. What happened?

Industrialization happened. In his book Brew Beer Like a Yeti, Jereme Zimmerman provides some background: “By the 1500s, the types of beer-like beverages consumed in Europe and Britain were vast and diverse.” But these “gruits,” as they were often called, mostly disappeared due to social and economic changes in the industrial age, including state and church beer laws (the Reinheitsgebot in Germany), which “brought beer from the home and mead hall to the inn, alehouse, and tavern.” Authorities regulated not only the four beer ingredients we know today, but also the price – and the taxes. 

Commercial breweries made as much beer as possible – and the hoppier the beer, the better it kept during export. India Pale Ales (IPAs), the staple of many modern-day craft breweries, was originally brewed for the British troops who occupied India.

Urbanization made brewing a necessity. As towns increased in population, drinking water became polluted. By boiling the water, adding herbs, and preserving it through fermentation, people obtained a potable liquid that was also medicinal. Homebrewing became a cottage industry for the “alewives,” who made large batches of beer in cauldrons, and hung brooms over their doors to indicate a fresh batch was for sale. Alewives doubled as community herbalists; people came seeking remedies for their aliments.

“Disgruntled men who ran the power establishments and superstitious peasants began associating the brewing cauldrons and brooms with witchcraft,” Zimmerman says. Soon, men took over brewing, and recipes were standardized. The alewives were not just put out of business, they were accused of being witches, and many were murdered. Burn the witch, kill the competition.

Alternatives

Until just a few decades ago, there was no alternative to the large breweries and the standard recipes. The craft beer explosion has been, in part, a response to the bland commercialization of beer. Small producers have pushed the standards, and have provided thirsty consumers with more choices. But there’s still a ways to go. While some brewers experiment with unique and local ingredients, the vast majority of the industry is still highly commercialized; the yeasts are developed in labs, most grains are imported vast distances, and the rows of craft IPAs at the liquor store are virtually identical. Plus, the majority of craft brewers and operators are men.

Discovering IPA’s roots in colonialism made it easier to stop drinking those bitter, sneeze-inducing beers. It also opened my eyes to craft beer’s sexism and racism problem. Not only does the industry lack women and people of colour, but its branding has been known to feature dehumanizing images of buxom serving wenches. IPAs have been referred to as “mouth rapers.” Bitterness is likened to angry ex-wives. Names of beers and companies favour masculine, settler descriptors: sons, uncles, brothers. Sir John A’s Honey Wheat Ale, produced by Gahan House in Charlottetown, is named after the man who forced Indigenous people from their land. And just last year, a craft brewery in Tusket, N.S., discontinued its Hanging Oak Red IPA after African Nova Scotians pointed out that the label’s image of a tree and noose evoked lynching. For me, homebrewing has become more than a way to save money; it is an act of de-colonization – a way of reclaiming the lost, feminine art of producing healthful, truly local beer.

In The Wildcrafting Brewer, author Pascal Baudar pours beer conventions down the drain, arguing for the use of ingredients you can grow in your own backyard. He explains how to make wild yeasts. He describes how to use honey, maple syrup, and even plain brown sugar or blackstrap molasses, and – best of all – weeds(much easier than barley, and free!) to brew beers comparable, or even superior, to commercial and craft beers. 

“Essentially,” writes Baudar, “if the beverage tastes like beer, I will call it such, and I view hops as just one of the possible ingredients.”

Using Baudar’s book as my guide, I first brewed a beer with yarrow, spruce tips, organic brown sugar, cranberries, and wild yeast – everything, except the sugar, from my backyard or the seaside cliff a 10-minute walk from my house. It tasted more like a cider than a beer, but for a first attempt, it wasn’t bad – slightly boozy and yummy, too. It was also fresher than any beer I’d ever tasted. I was immediately hooked, and started devising ways to make the beer even more local. 

The final frontier was sugar, and the most local sugar in Cape Breton is maple syrup. It all came together one day last spring while I was weeding the beds at the New Waterford Community Garden. Impressed by the fat, juicy dandelions I was pulling out of the ground, and inspired by the bright green tips popping out on the spruce trees, I realized that these were the makings of a truly wild, bitter, and refreshing beer – one that wouldn’t make me sneeze!

You can learn how to make Dandelion Spruce Tip beer here.

This article first appeared in the April 2019 issue of Rural Delivery (Volume 43.9).

Dandelion Spruce Tip Beer

Adapted from Pascal Baudar’s The Wildcrafting Brewer.

Not much maple syrup flavour remains after fermenting. This beer tastes a lot like a straightforward ale—dandelion is quite bitter. Experiment with sugars. I’ve substituted syrup for molasses, which resulted it a more porter-like beer. 

I like to add something slightly floral like spruce tips or yarrow or chamomile to offset the dandelion.

Pick dandelions just before the flowers open—though you can add a few flowers to the recipe, too.

So far I’ve found I haven’t had to prime before bottling as fresh dandelion residue continues to ferment once bottled.

This ferments to about 3.8 – 5% ABV.

To learn more about the basics of home brewing, equipment, and terminology, check out Charlie Papazian’s The New Complete Joy of Home Brewing.

Makes about 1 gallon of beer.

Wild Yeast

Before you make your beer, you’ll have to make a wild yeast. Learn how on the Wild Yeast page.

Ingredients

  • 1 gallon de-chlorinated water
  • 1 lb maple syrup
  • 1/2 lb fresh dandelion greens
  • 14 g dandelion root, toasted/dried 
  • 6 g dried spruce tips
  • 1/2-3/4 cup wild yeast

Brew the Beer

  1. Clean dandelions. Separate leaves from roots.
  2. Chop dandelion roots. Roast in oven at 300˚F, stirring often, until the root is dark and crispy (about 15-20 minutes or so).
  3. Combine ingredients in a big pot—reserve 2 g of spruce tips. 
  4. Bring to a boil. Boil for 25 min. At 25 min, add remaining spruce tips. Boil for 5 more minutes.
  5. Remove from heat and cool wort to 21˚C (70˚F).
  6. Strain. Pitch wild yeast.
  7. Pour into fermenting vessel and add an airlock. Ferment in a warm place (15-27˚C) until bubbling subsides significantly (about 10 days after active fermenting starts).
  8. Bottle. Enjoy after 1-3 weeks.

Wild Yeast

If you are making a wild yeast for (beer) brewing, be sure to start it about a week before you brew your beer.

  1. Combine 1 part sugar to 4 parts (de-chlorinated) water. I like to use unpasteurized honey as it contains a lot of yeast. 
  2. Add some yeasty ingredients such as berries, flowers, leaves, bark—whatever you can find around your yard or kitchen.
  3. Cover with a cheesecloth and put in a warm place. Stir at least 2-4 times a day until it becomes active.
  4. After 2-5 days, bubbles and foam will appear at the top of your jar. Active fermentation has begun.

Cultural Revival

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.

Partnerships

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.

Health Benefits

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!”

This article first appeared in the September 2018 issue of Rural Delivery (Volume 43.3).

How to Garden in January

Harvesting vegetables from a winter garden takes a bit of planning: gardening in January really means doing the bulk of the gardening before January. That means planting the right veggies at the right time of year. It means paying attention to maturity dates and hours of sunlight each day. Once sunlight drops below 10 hours per day (usually around mid-November in Cape Breton until mid-February), everything stops growing. The trick is to get everything in the ground with some growth on before then.

Steps

1. Plant the right veggies. 

You want cold-hardy and cold-tolerant veggies. You’re not going to harvest tomatoes in January. Winter is all about kale and its cousins (the brassica family). Look for mâche, mizuna, and claytonia. Don’t forget root veggies (carrots, beets, turnips, radishes, etc). Some herbs, like parsley, are cold-hardy, too. 

2. Plant cold-hardy veggies at the right time

Eating veggies in January often means planting them in the spring, summer, or fall. Some veggies, like Brussels sprouts, are started indoors as seeds/seedlings in April or May. Others, like kale, are either planted early or not planted at all—new greens shoot off older green plants in the late summer/early fall when the temperatures cool and rain returns. 

The best timing for winter greens is to plant greens in the plot where the garlic is harvested in late July/August.

3. Pay careful attention to “mature by” dates on seed packages and know when your first frost date is for your region. 

Niki Jabbour, in her book The Year-Round Vegetable Farmer, goes into this in a lot more detail, but basically you gotta time your late summer plantings for fall/winter harvests with the date the plant is expected to mature. So, say you wanna plant some spinach. If the maturity date is 45 days, then count back from your first expected frost date (and add a week or 2 just in case). Since I live in Hardiness Zone 5b/6a my first frost date is usually around October 15-31 (proximity to the ocean usually gives us a later frost date—sometimes well into November). So, for an Oct. 15 harvest, I need to plant my spinach seeds around the first week of September or the last week of August. 

This part takes a bit of planning and it’s tough to get it exact ‘cause there’s so many things that can affect the growth of a plant.

4. Cover your veggies to keep them “warm.” 

There’s lots of ways you can cover your plots for winter: cold frames, row cover, low or mini hoop tunnels made of plastic, straw bales, or a straw/leaves mulch (again, check out Jabbour’s book for more details on covering your crops). I usually use a low tunnel: thin wire with plastic over top—though the wire can get pretty smushed by snow. Because the plants are cold-hardy, you’re not really trying to make sure they don’t freeze—you’re just protecting them from the elements. Also, once it snows, snow acts as an insulator. I’ve been making sure I dig out my tunnels after each snow as I want the sun to warm and eventually grow the veggies. If you’re not gonna eat the veggies till spring, you can keep the tunnels buried in snow until spring. 

5. Harvest your veggies at the right time of day. 

Pick veggies between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. That way they have time to defrost, slowly, outside. Harvesting earlier or later means a much faster, indoor defrost which also means mushy greens.