hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture October 2016


A cultural exchange you can taste

Mass., Vermont festivals celebrate the variety of fermented foods


Fermentation Festival photoBy TRACY FRISCH
Contributing writer



Real Pickles, a worker-owned cooperative based in Greenfield, Mass., was among the vendors at last month’s Berkshire Fermentation Festival in Great Barrington. A similar event is planned this month in Poultney, Vt.Courtesy photo/Chris Gauthier

When many people hear the word fermentation, they think of how beer and wine are made.
But to organizers of the Berkshire Fermentation Festival, held last month at the Great Barrington, and those behind a similar Vermont event planned for Oct. 16 at Green Mountain College in Poultney, fermentation has a much more expansive, richer meaning. For them, it encompasses all sorts of delicacies and staples, from chocolate and coffee to cheese, miso, sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir and more.
“We’ve only had refrigeration for 120 years, so a lot of the foods at the festival connect us with our ancestral roots,” explained Michelle Kaplan, one of the organizers of the Berkshire festival. Some fermented foods predate recorded history by thousands of years, she added.

The Berkshire festival, held Sept. 11 at the Great Barrington Fairgrounds, featured 10 concurrent workshops in making fermented foods as well as several dozen mostly local vendors who offered diverse cultured foods and related products, such as books and pottery, to a steady stream of customers. In this, its second year, the festival attracted nearly 2,000 people – more than double the number who showed up for last year’s inaugural event, Kaplan said.
There were also book signings and ongoing demonstrations of macrobiotic-friendly ferments by the Kushi Institute, the educational center in Becket founded by Michio Kushi, a pioneer of the macrobiotic diet.

And depending on when you stopped by the “culture swap” table, where homemade ferments were welcome, you might have been able to pick up a kombucha scoby or water kefir grains or taste some lacto-fermented dilly beans.

Even the musical entertainment -- groups with such names as Moonshine Holler and Whiskey Jack String Band -- was appropriate to the occasion.

The word “ferment” comes from the Latin root “fervere,” which means to boil, Kaplan explained.
“There’s all the bubbling and brewing and also a social and cultural ferment here, boiling with excitement,” she said.


Rediscovering a tradition
Kaplan said she got turned on to fermentation eight years ago. After graduating from high school in 2008, she began learning about organic agriculture through Willing Workers on Organic Farms, a network of organizations that arrange for young people to volunteer on farms in exchange for room and board. As a “woofer,” as the WWOOF volunteers are known, Kaplan’s “gap year” stretched into five: She traveled around the country, living in intentional communities and trading her labor for education and sustenance.

While perusing the cookbook collection at the Sirius Community in Shutesbury, Mass., she happened upon the book “Wild Fermentation” by Sandor Katz, published in 2003 by Chelsea Green. From then on, she said, she kept seeing the colorful paperback everywhere. Finally, at a homestead in Pennsylvania, she threw herself into fermentation, making a different recipe every night.

“I realized I could do this,” Kaplan said. “You don’t need to be a professional chef. When my great-great-grandparents made pickles, they didn’t go to the store to buy the culture.”

Now she wants to share her enthusiasm for fermented foods with others. In addition to her work with Berkshire Ferments, the group behind the Great Barrington festival, Kaplan offers occasional free workshops at the local library and the Berkshire Co-op Market. Much of her effort to educate others involves dispelling fear, she added.

“A lot of people associate food preservation with canning and botulism,” Kaplan said. “They’ll say, ‘You’re going to leave this out on the counter? What about botulism?’ I want them to understand that this is a strategy for food safety. Vegetable ferments are very safe. When there’s something that has gone wrong, you can see or smell it.”


Spreading the word – and flavor
Kaplan said she got the idea of creating a fermentation festival in the Berkshires after she attended the first Boston Fermentation Festival several years ago.

Fermentation festivals now take place in far more than a dozen cities and towns across the United States, from Pittsburgh to Austin, Texas. One of the first, launched in 2010 by the WormFarm Institute in rural Salk County, Wis., was billed as “A Live Culture Convergence,” a nine-day celebration featuring everything from dance to yogurt and poetry to sauerkraut.
But the festivals generally stick to a more narrow purpose: seeking to elevate fermented foods and beverages to their traditional prominence. Festivals expose a wider audience to the diversity and wonders of fermented foods and demystify how they’re made with workshops, demonstrations and opportunities to talk with producers. They also provide a specialized marketplace for everything fermented.

One of the motivations behind the seemingly sudden popularity of fermented foods has to do with their health benefits.

“Studies are showing that one forkful of sauerkraut is rich in lacto bacteria,” Kaplan said. “Fermentation is really the ultimate probiotic.”

Making an implicit comparison to the pharmaceutical probiotics some consumers buy as capsules and powders, she added, “You can only get so many species in a laboratory.”
Dan Hegerich, who identified himself as a six-time survivor of cancer, presented a workshop on cultured milk. When a bone-marrow transplant failed after only a few weeks, he said, he decided he was done with chemotherapy. He sought to restore his health through nutrition and movement; now, six years later, he says he’s able to live the life he wants.

Hegerich questions whether degenerative diseases are natural or inevitable. He said fermented foods like clabbered milk and kefir are among the keys to reversing digestive and other health problems.

Both clabbered milk and kefir are made at or near room temperature, unlike yogurt, which must be heated to about 100 degrees. Kefir is anaerobic, meaning it ferments without oxygen, while the organisms that clabber milk thrive in the presence of air.

To make kefir, he adds kefir grains to a jar of raw milk and covers it with cheesecloth. When the milk separates in 24 to 36 hours, he removes the grains, replaces the cheesecloth with a lid and an airlock to keep out air and leaves it at about 72 degrees for two or three days.


The culture of sourdough
Richard Bourdon, a native of Quebec, immersed himself in the art of natural sourdough bread making in Europe before coming to western Massachusetts. About 30 years ago, he founded Berkshire Mountain Bakery in Housatonic.

Although flavor is important to Bourdon, nutrition and health provide his deepest motivation.
“If we had a billion dollars to come up with a way to make grains more digestible, we’d still only find two distinct solutions: Either sprout them or ferment them,” he said.

At the Berkshire Fermentation Festival, Bourdon led a workshop on making low-carbohydrate, high-protein bread. Surprisingly, the main ingredient was wheat flour.

He performed that sleight of hand with a sourdough culture. He made the culture by mixing equal parts whole-wheat flour and unbleached white flour with enough water to make a thick pancake-like batter and salting it to taste. He filled a glass jar to the top with this mix and closed the lid. Bourdon recommends making a full quart or even a gallon at a time.

Left on the counter at room temperature, he said, the mixture will catch wild fermentation organisms in the air. (Or, “you can always come to the bakery for some starter,” he told the workshop audience.)

The jar should be opened now and again to release pressure that builds up with fermentation, Bourdon said. When it becomes acidic, after a week or several, the culture may be refrigerated and will keep for months or even years. That’s because, once it reaches a certain level of fermentation, the culture becomes so acidic that “nothing else can disturb it,” he explained.
By that point, he added, the bacteria and wild yeasts have consumed all the carbohydrates in the flour and assimilated them into their bodies, which are largely protein.

When Bourdon was ready to make the bread, he added a little baking soda, which is alkaline, to a cup of the acidic batter. The chemical reaction produces an airy batter. Poured onto a hot griddle, it cooked into a spongy flavorful flatbread, which he shared with an appreciative crowd.


Expanding to commercial scale
In one area, the Berkshire festival featured five vegetable fermentation vendors lined up next to each other. Although the five were nominally competitors, they were taking pictures together and comparing notes, Kaplan said.

One of those vendors was Hosta Hill, where farmers Maddie Elling and Abe Hunrichs ferment the vegetables they grow, plus some that they buy, yielding several varieties of sauerkraut and kimchi. Elling also helped organize the festival.

Hosta Hill, based in Housatonic, originally sold its products exclusively at farmers markets because Massachusetts, like many states, has fewer regulatory requirements for direct marketers. But in 2012, Elling and Hunrichs built a kitchen to meet state standards allowing them to wholesale their products, and they began ramping up production. Like most small commercial fermenters, they now ferment in 55-gallon, food-grade plastic drums. (They said they make 30- or 40-pound mini-batches until each barrel is full.)

With demand for their products growing, this year Elling and Hunrichs invested in some key pieces of farm equipment so they could efficiently expand crop production. A new vacuum seeder has partially automated seeding flats in the greenhouse, and a transplanter speeds up getting seedlings in the ground. For their fall crop, four people were able to transplant three-quarters of an acre of cabbage in just four hours.

In a question-and-answer session at which home fermenters could learn from Hosta Hill, Hunrichs pointed out that different varieties of cabbage affect the taste and texture of sauerkraut. He said Hosta Hill avoids cabbages high in sugar because they make sauerkraut very pungent and acidic, and drier varieties are better suited for sauerkraut than juicy types.

“We like our ferments crunchy, not mushy,” he explained.

Another factor affecting the quality of the final product is the temperature at which fermentation takes place. Hunrichs said he prefers a temperature in the 70s. If you let the ferment get too warm or leave it going for too long, the vegetables will become soft, he said. Another factor is the salt ratio.


Hot sauces and tropical tastes
Festivalgoers were able to choose from several strengths of hot sauce at the booth of Poor Devil Pepper Co., the tiny start-up of Jared Schwartz and Laura Webster if Ghent, N.Y. Schwartz and Webster explained that it doesn’t take much space or many loads of peppers to make a lot of hot sauce. They make theirs out of Hudson Valley and Berkshire peppers in the commercial kitchen at Hawthorne Valley Farm, where Schwartz is employed as the sauerkraut maker.

This year, Schwartz and Webster have 20 five-gallon vats for production. The process couldn’t be simpler: They remove the stems from raw peppers, both sweet and hot, add 1.5 percent to 2 percent salt by weight, and lacto-ferment them for eight weeks in a five-gallon vat. An airlock keeps out oxygen. When the fermentation is complete, they puree everything and bottle the resulting sauces by hand.

Besides teaching the basics and finer points of old standbys like sauerkraut and kimchi, fermentation festivals also introduce attendees to unfamiliar ferments from other cultures. Adam Elabd, the author of “Fermenting Food Step by Step,” demonstrated how to make a refreshing, low-alcohol Mexican pineapple drink called gapache. He said this beverage is traditionally served in a glass with a wedge of lime, the rim dipped in cayenne powder and salt. A chili tamarind candy doubles as a straw.

Elabd, who’s originally from Saudi Arabia and is married to a Mexican potter, described gapache as something you make with the parts you’d otherwise throw away. Starting with a ripe pineapple, preferably organic, you twist off the top. The drink is made with the pineapple core and rind, non-chlorinated or filtered water and unrefined cane sugar. One pineapple makes a half-gallon to a gallon of gapache.

Natural yeasts on the pineapple rind initiate the fermentation. At room temperature and out of direct sunlight, primary fermentation may be completed in as little as two to three days. He advises tasting it every day. Then he bottles it, adds more sugar, and caps it.


Making sausage
Meats can also be fermented. Phoebe Young does just that to make a smoked, semi-dry 100 percent beef sausage based on the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition of Lebanon bologna. Coincidentally, she is making it in New Lebanon, N.Y.

Although Young technically is still a hobbyist, she has named her future business the New Lebanon Baloney Co. and is on track to get licensed and set up a proper store. Best of all, other members of her family have flocked to help with her new enterprise.

The retiree said she moved to upstate New York five years ago after Scott Walker, the Wisconsin governor, “drove me out of government at a mere 59.” She didn’t know how she was going to spend the rest of her life, but since she likes to work with her hands, she was considering becoming a cheese maker.

But then she took a series of sausage-making workshops at The Meat Market in Great Barrington, and when the call came for an apprentice, her hand shot up.
“Everyone else had a job,” she recalled.

Her two-day-a-week apprenticeship lasted 15 or 16 months. Young said she became proficient at making fresh sausages and even developed her own recipes.

“I learned to appreciate the whole process of fermenting meats,” she said. “There’s a lot of science.”

Young also broke down animals, cut meat and helped make the cured meats. Now she teaches sausage-making workshops through “Behold! New Lebanon,” the living history program in her adopted hometown.

Young became especially interested in Lebanon bologna, a favorite food she first tasted as a child. It is only made around Lebanon, Pa., where her father’s family settled in the early 1700s.
On the Internet, she found a few recipes for Lebanon bologna. From reports after an outbreak of E. coli in 2009 or 2010, she discovered how the production process was changed to prevent future outbreaks. This research gave her a grasp of the difficulties with making this product.
Meat is one of those processed foods that can be dangerous if made incorrectly, even if it’s fermented. Grinding meat, which is 70 percent water, provides a favorable environment for all sorts of bacteria. Pathogens readily reproduce in warm, wet conditions as long as they have something to eat. Besides infecting humans, some bacteria also produce toxins.

Young said the goal of a sausage maker is to create favorable conditions for the growth of beneficial bacteria while preventing the growth of spoilage bacteria and of dangerous bacteria.
Before such foods can be legally made commercially, the make process must be approved for safety by the state’s designated food authority. For her, it’s the New York State Food Venture Center in Geneva, N.Y. Experts there examined Young’s recipe and every detail of her production process -- and also tested the product for pathogens. Her product was approved.

In the next six months, Young hopes to buy an old New Lebanon building that once contained a store and butcher shop. In the meantime, she has been picking up equipment on Craigslist and has made her own smokers out of worn-out commercial refrigerators. She’s also preparing a business plan so she can apply for loans.

Young describes her rural community as a food desert. It has a farmers market but no grocery store. In her shop, she intends to sell other local foods. She already uses local meat for the sausages she makes as a hobby.


Shrubs and bitters
Another vendor at the Berkshire Fermentation Festival is helping to revive the almost forgotten tradition of preserving fruit in vinegar, known as shrub. Kaplan explained that shrub fits in with the event because “vinegar is an amazing cultured product.”

Marianne Courville is the former professional photographer turned shrub maker who started The Hudson Standard in Hudson, N.Y. She said the alchemy of cooking – its mix of science and creativity -- reminded her of her darkroom days.

“People would come over and say, ‘What’s a shrub?’” Courville said. “Ordinarily, the challenge is to figure out how to communicate the answer in a way that they’ll think it will be tasty. When we say it’s vinegar-based, they often make a face.”

But in contrast to some other venues where she’s shown off her wares, Courville said the crowd at the Great Barrington festival was eager to have a taste.

“People wanted to learn!” she exclaimed. “We felt we were with our people – in the right church.”
Courville always gives kids a taste of her strawberry-rhubarb shrub. She was preparing one small boy for its sourness when his mom told her not to worry, because he drinks pickle juice for breakfast.

A shrub is normally made from vinegar, the juice of a fruit and a sweetener in equal parts by weight, though Courville adjusts the proportions to taste and always uses less sweetener.
The Hudson Standard shrubs come in a variety of blends, from pear-honey-ginger to three pines, which includes balsam fir foraged in the Catskills. Customers typically use shrub as a base for a unique beverage. They’re all the rage in cocktails or with seltzer as a soda.

The Hudson Standard also handcrafts bitters -- tinctures that use high-proof alcohol to naturally extract the flavors of botanicals. Originally bitters were purely medicinal, but now they also are used for flavoring, in cocktails and even in cooking.


Vermont festival this month
For those who missed the Great Barrington festival, a similar event is planned this month in southern Vermont. The Fourth Annual Vermont Fermentation Festival is scheduled for 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 16 in Withey Hall at Green Mountain College in Poultney.

The festival will feature demonstrations and workshops on making kombucha, vegan yogurt, fermented sodas, ethnic pickles, cheese, sourdough bread, kimchi, sauerkraut, cider vinegar, mead and other historic spirits, dosa (a South Indian fermented lentil and rice flatbread pancake) and more. A number of small businesses that make fermented food and drink will be on hand to sample and sell their products. (More information is available at www.rutlandfarmandfood.org/events/fermentation.)

Leslie Silver, one of the organizers of the Vermont festival, said the event attracts people who are new to the world of fermentation as well as those with a lot of knowledge and experience. As with the Berkshire festival, Silver got the idea for organizing a festival after she heard about another one, in this case in Oregon. She approached Rutland Area Food and Farm Link, which serves as the festival’s umbrella organization, and also attracted support from the sustainable food program at Green Mountain College.

Silver’s days as a fermenter date back to a Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont workshop some 20 years ago. Before that experience, she hadn’t known that she even liked sauerkraut.

But the seed was planted long before when she was a child in Philadelphia. She grew up adoring the lacto-fermented dill pickles that her father made.
“As a kid I didn’t know that they were special,” she said.