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Zymurgy for the Rest of Us

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What’s the last fermented thing you ate?

Beer is an easy one, sure. If you’re a fan of the recent kombucha craze, you’ve got another answer, as do lovers of sauerkraut, kimchi, salami, prosciutto, and more – but you might be as surprised as I was to remember just how many of the things we eat every day are somehow fermented. “You walk into any gourmet food store and really almost exclusively what you find are products of fermentation,” says Sandor Katz. “It creates strong, compelling flavours. Cheese, cured meats, coffee, chocolate, every condiment anyone’s ever heard of is either directly fermented or involves vinegar.”

This February Victoria was blessed with a visit from “Sandorkraut”, AKA Sandor Ellix Katz, a food writer and fermentation evangelist who spoke at the Victoria Health, Wellness and Sustainability Festival. The practice of fermenting food has really taken off lately, and I’ve been very curious about the what, how and why. Sandor has been teaching workshops and talking about fermentation for over a decade and was the perfect guide for a total newcomer.

So – what is fermentation? “ It’s the transformative action of microorganisms as applied to foods and beverages,” says Sandor. In general, if you’re intentionally letting yeasts and bacteria work on your food before eating it, you’re fermenting it. And though the trend might’ve just taken off, the practice actually probably precedes recorded human history. “If you take away the refrigerator, a technology that’s 100 years old, and you take away canning, a technology that’s 200 years old, the primary mode of food preservation around the world has been fermentation,” says Sandor.

The key difference between delicious fermentation and unwanted rot is that most of what we consider fermentation is anaerobic, or lacking in air. Anaerobic bacteria create acids as they work, which make the environment inhospitable to the kind of germs that make us sick. It’s a little counterintuitive, but in this way, fermentation becomes a very safe method of preservation without any heat or added energy.

Fermentation has a number of other benefits besides preservation. For one, it can break down poisons and other compounds that our guts can’t handle. From the cyanide in West African cassava to the gluten in bread dough, simple fermentations can predigest these foods and prepare them for eating. And though we still don’t fully understand exactly how the bacteria in our bodies affect our digestion and absorption of nutrients, it’s a good bet that more diversity caused by a wide variety of live-culture fermented foods is a potential boon.

The most exciting thing Sandor shared is that most fermentation can be done easily at home with a modicum of work. “Most fermented traditions are simple because people figured them out hundreds if not thousands of years ago,” he says. “They weren’t microbiologists, they didn’t know what kind of organisms were growing in there, but they knew if you created these conditions this amazing flavour results. So don’t be afraid!”

For more information and to get Sandor’s books on the topic, visit WildFermentation.com

- Sol

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