“So what can’t you ferment?”: “Plastic”
Nick Balla from Bar Tartine in San Francisco, CA
Fermentation is a time tested method of preserving food that has recently experienced resurgence. It is not a faddish notion or a marketing ploy that promises eternal youth and miraculous healing. It has been practiced for generations by many different cultures around the world. People have long manipulated food through fermentation to render it more palatable, nutritious and longer lasting. If you eat food (and I hope you do), chances are you have already, albeit unknowingly, eaten more than one variety of fermented foods.
Still, in the minds of many people, fermentation equals spoilage and a great deal of misinformation remains around the process and its salubrity. In my opinion, this is an unfortunate side effect of the homogenization of the modern food supply and the relentless pursuit of the shelf stable, perfectly packaged food product.
When I was very young, I remember seeing my Dad eat fermented red cabbage, pickles and beets at the dinner table. He always had some in the refrigerator at all times. Occasionally, I would sneak a bite or two of the red cabbage between meals by pinching the content of the jar with my fingers. I couldn’t understand how I always got caught, but I guess the indelible bright pink splatters on my clothes were a giveaway. Recently, I found myself scooping spoonfuls of Sobremesa sauerkraut the same way. It’s a flavor I crave and a texture I find very satisfying. I am also grateful that in this case I am dealing with clear brine, so no elaborate alibis are needed. If the jar happens to be empty when someone else reaches for it, I can simply say we used it up. That’s my story and I am sticking to it.
It is amazing how many foods can be fermented and transformed into a whole new ingredient. Milk from a variety of animals can be fermented into yogurt, kefir and cheese. Vegetables can be pickled and fermented into sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, natto or tempeh. Sourdough bread, for instance, is a fermented food familiar to most of us. Kvass is a Russian fermented drink made from rye bread and fashionable kombucha is fermented black or green tea with or without flavoring agents. Fish sauce, a staple of Asian cuisine, is the result of patiently fermenting raw fish. Even grains such as rice, in this case fermented specifically with koji, can be made into delicious, sweet treats like amazake.
In fact, fermentation does more than just transform food. In many cases it makes it healthier for us. Lactic fermentation changes the nutritional profile of food. In the first place, it makes it more digestible. Whether inoculated with a particular starter culture or simply made with salt, these foods are alive with probiotics. These are remarkably beneficial bacteria that help our intestines remain healthy. When ingested, they crowd out other harmful intestinal bacteria that can cause disease. Through this mechanism probiotics help in the treatment of illnesses such as urinary tract infections, bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections to name just a few. By taking up residence in the intestine, helpful probiotics also bolster immunity throughout the body helping you fight more pervasive and systemic diseases. It has even been determined that individuals who regularly consume probiotics such as the ones present in fermented foods experience fewer episodes of anxiety and depression, showing lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Sobremesa is the brainchild of Caitlin and Jason Elberson who live and work at their Wild Rhythms Farm in Marshfield, Vermont. In these beautiful surroundings they craft their products with great care and dedication. The name of their business, sobremesa, is Spanish for time lingering around the dinner table after a meal and it literally translates as “on the table”. It evokes the pleasures of a good, long meal and the time immediately following it, a time full of conversation and family time. Sobremesa still endures as a daily ritual in many parts of the world and it is indeed a healthy habit that induces relaxation, proper digestion and closeness with others.
Similarly, the fermented foods created by the Elbersons, a trove of nourishing “encurtidos” (Spanish for “pickled”), enhance the experience of any meal as well as your ability to digest your food properly. They are created with organic vegetables harvested at the peak of their freshness and always in synergy with the seasons. Their crisp sauerkraut and spicy kimchi are staples, but other varieties such as beets, tomatillos and rhubarb make for some interesting options. All of the products I have tasted are excellent. My personal favorite is the Atlantic Brine sauerkraut. It includes seaweed in its preparation and opening the jar is like stepping into a cloudy day by the rocky Atlantic shore. You can smell the seawater and you can taste the salty breeze.
By all means add these products to your daily diet if you suffer from any form of digestive discomfort and wish to transition to a more gut friendly diet. The large variety of products that Sobremesa offers makes it easy to rotate flavors and never feel like you are eating the same thing over and over. They succeed in making fermented foods a delectable option you can rely on year round. Be it cabbage, beets, carrots or cucumbers, the fermented versions of these vegetables should always call your dinner plate home. Enjoy them as part of your favorite meals and then stay a while and linger with your loved ones around the table for a true experience of a sobremesa as it should be.
All photos appearing in this post are by Caitlin Elberson.