I visited northern California a few months ago with Art Culinaire to profile chefs Corey Lee, former chef de cuisine of The French Laundry, now owner and executive chef of Benu in San Francisco; Charles Phan of The Slanted Door in San Francisco; Christopher Kostow of The Meadowood in St. Helena; and Aaron London of Napa’s Ubuntu.
I was excited about profiling the first three, but I must admit that even though Ubuntu has garnered numerous accolades since it opened in 2007, I wasn’t thrilled about covering an exclusively vegetarian restaurant. Although I am a proponent of eschewing plates with a face for ethical and health reasons, the bottom line for me is that when it comes to flavor, the lackluster afterthoughts that so many vegetarian dishes seem to relegated to on restaurant menus left me feeling disenchanted.
After watching Aaron plate dish after whimsical dish of vegetables, the kaleidoscope of radiant colors were too much for my eyes to resist. I was sold…at least aesthetically.
I still suspected that flavor would be another story entirely and prepared myself for disappointment. I have been burned one too many times into thinking that the beguiling contours and intense colors of an heirloom vegetable equate to flavor capable of blowing my mind.
I experienced a revelation on that scorching summer’s day at Ubuntu. Not only did the colors and plating scream, “Eat me!” when I finally gave in and took a bite, my palette whispered in delight, “Thank you.” I asked Aaron how he managed to pack such explosive flavor into each bite and he suggested we take a road trip.
We spent the final few hours of the shoot at the restaurant’s two-acre biodynamic farm where they source nearly every single ingredient on Ubuntu’s menu. One thing was obvious, Ubuntu isn’t one of those disappointing places claiming to source from its own garden-whose garden then equates to a chive planter-box on the windowsill.
The gorgeous farm, with a chicken coop in one corner and a darkened storehouse of mushrooms sprouting on tree trunks in the other, spills down a gentle hill into the decadently fertile Napa Valley. Carl Swanson, Ubuntu’s pastry chef, told me that on the other side of the fence border lived a Highland Cattle and her calf. I’m a sucker for these other-worldly looking beasts that seem more fitting for a C.S. Lewis story than a wooded field in the Napa Valley. Seeing one would have kicked the already nearly perfect afternoon into a new level of bliss entirely.
Alas, mom and calf were in stealth mode that day but it really doesn’t matter that much. Wandering with the chefs through the gardens was pleasure enough. Even in the midst of all that agrarian eye candy, I still didn’t quite believe that the intensity of flavors at Ubuntu could be solely attributed to the result of a happy vegetable thriving in contentment beneath an ample sun. There had to be more to it than that.
And there was.
Aaron explained that one of his bibles is a book I had never heard of called “Wild Fermentation” by Sandor Ellix Katz. Fermentation was one of Ubuntu’s magic wands and the chef explained with conviction how wild fermentation transforms many of the vegetables from Ubuntu’s farm into ingredients so intensely flavored their irrepressible liveliness tastes more like sorcery than something our ancestors have practiced for millennia.
A few weeks following my Ubuntu revelation, I was at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery talking to the man himself, Sandor Ellix Katz. He was presenting on the final day and while all of the presenters were impressive and highly regarded but for me, the star of the show was Sandor. Still fueled by the electric flavor memories of Ubuntu, I basically accosted the poor man with stories of my recent Napa epiphany.
He graciously offered to sign the Wild Fermentation book I purchased directly from his backpack. I thought asking him for an autograph might make him feel more rock star, less author of Ubuntu’s bible and I was happy for it. For me, someone so committed to promoting a practice that has the potential of transforming vegetarian dishes the world over into the very best version of themselves deserves more praise then a celebrity would ever deserve.
Sandor’s presentation was an impassioned plea for us to suppress the urge to fear the misguided dangers of wild fermentation that many in America espouse. He advocated incorporating the practice into our lives in as many ways as possible, ending the symposium on a resounding high note.
Upon my return home, I asked Sandor for an interview and much to my delight, he generously agreed. I would encourage everyone to buy his book and discover for themselves the virtues of wild fermentation. For me, wild fermentation symbolizes a wiser, more ethical way of eating. It adheres to the tenants adopted by the restaurant that first inspired me to explore wild fermentation. The word “ubuntu” is a South African Zulu phrase defined as “ethic or humanist philosophy focusing on people’s allegiances and relations with each other emphasizing community, sharing and generosity.” It’s what the restaurant and Sandor are all about.
How and why did you become interested in fermentation?
I have always been drawn to the flavors of lactic acid fermentation. My favorite food as a kid was sour pickles. Then, in my twenties, when I experimented for a while with a macrobiotic diet, I started to learn about the digestive benefits of live cultures. But I didn’t start fermenting things myself until I got involved in gardening, and was faced with the challenge of what to do with lots of cabbages coming in at the same time.
What are some of the health benefits of live-cultured foods?
There are four distinct health benefits from fermented foods: predigestion, nutrient enhancement, detoxification, and the live cultures. Predigestion breaks down nutrients into simpler forms before we eat the food, frequently making nutrients more accessible to us. Fermentation also creates nutrients, B-vitamins and some very special micronutrients. Detoxification removes compounds that can be toxic or inhibit effective utilization of nutrients. These benefits persist in ferments even if they are cooked. But the live culture benefit derives only from raw ferments, which have not been cooked after fermentation. It is the lactic acid bacteria, in particular, that are beneficial to humans, replenishing bacterial populations and genetics that are critical for our effective functioning, but under attack in our time from antibiotics, chlorine, antibacterial cleansers, and other common chemicals.
Why do you think there is such animosity and fear in America towards live-cultured food?
I’m not really sure I agree that there is animosity toward live-culture foods, as much as fear and confusion. On the one hand, the idea that yogurt contains “good” bacteria is quite mainstream, and the market for raw milk cheeses as well as sauerkraut, kombucha, and other live-culture foods is rapidly growing. On the other hand, being the place where refrigeration first became widespread, we have a high level of fear about aging food outside of refrigeration and a generalized fear of botulism and other food poisoning in preserved foods, without a clear understanding of the facts and real risks. The reality is that fermentation is a strategy not only for food preservation, but also for food safety.
How is the disappearance of fermented foods connected to the industrialization of our food system?
Like all aspects of food production, fermentation has disappeared from the fabric of our lives and largely been sequestered behind factory doors, where what was formerly the province of generalist householders has become the realm of experts.
What do you think needs to happen to reconnect us with real food?
I think we have to reclaim food production in our communities, so that many more of us are participants in it, and all of us see it and understand where our food comes from. The experiment in mass-produced food has been a terrible failure. It is destroying our earth, destroying our health, and destroying the foundations of economic security. We must each find ways to restore our food to its place within a web relationships—with plants, animals, microorganisms, and our human neighbors—that ties us to the environments in which we live. Sustainability is not something we can buy in a store; it requires our active participation.
Why is our obsession with sterilization not actually the road to optimal health?
Because we live in a bacterial world, and to thrive we must seek strategies to peacefully coexist with bacteria rather than try to eradicate them. If we were to succeed in eradicating bacteria, we could not possibly survive.
What are some of your favorite fermented foods?
You have linked fermentation to the evolution of culture. How so?
The link between fermentation and culture exists at many levels. When we introduce specific bacterial and/or fungal starters into foods we are fermenting, we call that culturing. It is very interesting to me that we use the same word for these communities of microbes that we use to describe language, knowledge, values, belief systems, music, literature, and all that we seek to pass down from generation to generation. The word culture derives from the Latin word for cultivation, so culture has something to do with cultivation of the soil, and agricultural societies—investing considerable energy into crops that are harvested at a particular moment of the year—would not be feasible without food preservation wisdom and practices, including fermentation. And significantly, fermentation appears to be universally practiced, though widely varying in all the particulars.
What are some of the basic tools that someone interested in exploring wild fermentation would need and what is your advice on how to get started?
Many ferments do not require any special tools. These are ancient rituals that our ancestors have practiced for generations. The easiest place to start, I think, is with sauerkraut, or any fermented vegetables. You can ferment vegetables in a wide-mouth jar. You need cabbage or other vegetables, salt, a cutting board and knife, and a bowl to mix the chopped veggies with the salt. People who like to measure usually go for 1.5-2% salt by weight, but I just salt lightly to taste. I like to squeeze the shredded veggies with the salt for a few minutes until they wilt and moisten. That way when you press them tightly into the jar, the veggies will be submerged under their own juices, thereby protected from oxygen and aerobic molds. Stuff in a jar and leave to ferment a few days, weeks, or months, depending upon temperatures and your needs. Seal jars loosely for the first few days, or be prepared to release pressure that will build up. Taste at intervals and enjoy the evolving flavors. Refrigerate if desired when desired flavor is reached. See my website www.wildfermentation.com or books for more details.
In what way are microbial cultures essential to life?
Bacteria are the source of all life, and the context in which all other life evolved and exists. In out own bodies, the cells containing our unique individual DNA are outnumbered 10:1 by bacteria. Coexistence with microbes is a simple biological imperative.
What are some of our most common, and not so common, fermented foods?
Bread and cheese are perhaps the most common fermented foods in the United States. Not so common for us here might be Sudanese kawal, a flavoring made by fermenting the leaves of a particular plant, or nata, a Filipino fermented candy. Fermentation is practiced so widely that one culture’s most common ferments are obscure exotica in another cultural context.
What are some of the nutrients created through the process of fermentation?
Fermentation pre-digests foods, breaking dense compound nutrients into more accessible forms, such as proteins into amino acids and neutralizing many potentially toxic compounds. Fermentation also contributes additional nutrients, including B-vitamins and special micronutrients. Ferments with live lactic acid bacteria intact (raw) contribute live bacterial cultures, which can replenish our intestinal populations and the genetic pool from which they draw, and stimulate our digestion and immune function. (repeats earlier answer)
Fermenting your own foods might feel intimidating to some. Do you need a PhD in food chemistry to do it?
No. Fermentation is ancient. There is technique to learn, but it is not rocket science.
In some cultures, fermentation is viewed on an almost mystical level. Do you have any examples of this?
Much indigenous ritual revolves around fermentation and its products. However, rather than citing an indigenous example, I’d like to point out that the iconography of some of the major world religions that many of us are very familiar with invest products of fermentation with mystical meanings. For instance, it is wine that transubstantiates into the blood of Jesus Christ in the Roman Catholic mass, and the doctrine is explicit that transubstantiation is literal rather than metaphorical. In the Jewish religion that I grew up in, wine is a sacrament, with its own prayer, repeated over and over again: Blessed is the creator of the fruit of the vine.
Who are your heroes in the world of fermentation?
My heroes are farmers. No food, no fermentation. We must reclaim our food and restore the ideal of regional food self-sufficiency. In order to do this, more of us must get involved in the dirty, physical work of producing food.