In the Kitchen
Your average garden variety of problem sparked Sandor Katz's fermentation obsession.
A New York City boy, Katz only started gardening when he moved to rural Tennessee 21 years ago. Flummoxed by the sudden glut when all the cabbages, radishes and other vegetables ripened at the same time, he realised he needed to find a way to preserve his crop.
"Faced with this simple challenge of a fleeting abundance I remembered that I loved pickles and decided to figure out how to make sauerkraut."
Katz left New York - and his job as a policy wonk and aspiring politician - partly in pursuit of a healthier, less stressful life, having been diagnosed with HIV in the 1980s. He credits fermented foods with helping him to stay well despite living with the disease.
Before he knew it Katz was fermenting milk, making yoghurt and sourdough and brewing elderberry wine. After about a decade it morphed from a personal to a public obsession, when Katz self-published a zine entitled Wild Fermentation - a do- it-yourself guide to cultural manipulation.
Since then he's published three books and conducted workshops around the world. Next stop Wellington, for events at Nikau Cafe and as part of the New Zealand Festival.
Katz used to call himself a fermentation fetishist. He's tempered the lingo, maturing to a fermentation revivalist. But he hasn't tempered his passion for the ancient practice and for the foods he calls "the highest expressions in most culinary traditions around the world".
The term revivalist suggests fermented foods are disappearing from our food supply, which isn't true. Look around any gourmet food store and your favourite foods probably involve fermentation at some stage in their processing - coffee, chocolate, olives, pickles, cheese, cured meats, wine, beer . . .
Some researchers have estimated that about one-third of all the foods we eat have been transformed by fermentation, which is broadly defined as the chemical breakdown of a substance by bacteria, yeasts or other micro-organisms.
But what has largely disappeared is the art of fermenting at home. One of the most profound benefits of fermented foods, Katz says, is that many contain live bacterial cultures.
In a world awash with antibiotic and antibacterial products, it's more important than ever to consciously replenish and diversify good bacteria in the gut.
"From the emergence of microbiology 150 years ago until the last decade or so, we really were looking at bacteria as dangerous and associating it with disease and death. We're now beginning to take a more nuanced view and understand that bacteria are critically important for our wellbeing."
While some commercially produced foods such as yoghurts contain live bacterial cultures, many - such as canned pickles - have undergone microbial massacre in the industrial production process.
The most common barrier to fermenting at home, Katz says, is fear that the process will culture bad bacteria as well as, or instead of, good bacteria. That's ironic, given that fermentation has been used for generations to make food safer and stop it going off.
Fermentation happens spontaneously in nature but is thought to have been first harnessed by humans to make alcohol about 9000 years ago.
Katz argues fermentation would also have made agriculture possible, by providing a way to preserve crops, meat and milk, making the investment of effort in growing worthwhile.
Ethnic cultures around the globe have developed foods involving fermentation - the Germans have sauerkraut, Koreans make kimchi, the Japanese use fermentation to transform indigestible soy beans into miso and soy sauce.
When exposed to the air vegetables will eventually grow mould. But the simple act of submerging them under brine creates an acidic environment which kills potentially harmful bacteria.
While it is possible for home fermentation to lead to nasty mistakes, it's usually obvious by the smell and look of the finished product that something is wrong, Katz says.
He's anxious not to promote fermented foods as a fad diet. While he makes his own sauerkraut, pickles, sourdough and yoghurt and has 20 gallons of miso and a leg of deer curing in his cellar, Katz eats a balanced diet. And you can have too much of a good thing - studies have linked Asian cultures which eat a lot of pickled vegetables with a higher risk of oesophageal cancer.
Katz recommends aspiring home fermenters begin by pickling vegetables, as there's more scope for error fermenting meat or milk products.
"It's really easy, it's intrinsically safe, you can see results in three or four days, it's incredibly delicious, it can accent and augment all kinds of food and it's really healthy.
"I'm trying to share information about how this stuff is done, because people imagine it's highly technical, that you need a laboratory, a microscope, knowledge about microbiology, when in fact our ancestors have been doing this for thousands of years."
See wildfermentation.com for recipes and tips
Sandor Katz will speak at Nikau Cafe on March 7, 5.30-8.30pm, (tickets $100, inc food and drinks); and in the New Zealand Festival, at Hannah Playhouse on Macrh 8, 9.15am ($18).
- The Dominion Post