On the eve of his Australian tour, food fermentation 'revivalist' and guru Sandor Ellix Katz distils 20 years of brewing experience.
Sandorkraut - it's a nickname Sandor Ellix Katz wears well. The American author knows a thing or two about sauerkraut - sauerkraut, pickles, ginger beer and kombucha. He's also conversant in miso, kimchi, kefir and hoppers. He's a cultured yoghurt man, and has a black belt in tempeh. Fermentation is Katz's passion, and, to flick through the index of his most recent publication on the subject, you can see that this interest roves far and wide, taking in brewing, preserving, liquorice and West African condiments. Perhaps most fascinatingly, hot sauces (pages 117-18) and huitlacoche (page 214) are followed by "human bodies, disposal of" (pages 401, 434).
Katz, a "fermentation revivalist", has been pickling, curing and crocking for more than 20 years, penning two well-regarded books on the subject along the way, Wild Fermentation: The Flavour, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods (Chelsea Green, $32.50, pbk), and the more recent The Art of Fermentation (Chelsea Green, $51.95, hbk), earning the adoration of health enthusiasts and artisan food lovers around the world along the way.
The New York Times has described him as "a charismatic, consciousness-raising thinker and advocate who wants people to see the world in a new way", while American author and food authority Michael Pollan (who wrote the foreword in The Art of Fermentation) positions him as a "confirmed pacifist" in the war on bacteria.
Katz is touring Australia this February, running a series of workshops and talks, so we caught up with him for a chat.
Gourmet Traveller: Why do you reckon restaurant chefs in the West are so interested in fermentation all of a sudden?
Sandor Ellix Katz: Chefs and eaters have always incorporated products of fermentation such as wine, vinegar, cheese, bread, soy sauce, condiments, etc. These foods have had enduring popularity. What's being revived right now in home kitchens as well as restaurants is a desire to practise fermentation. I attribute this to a broad interest in becoming more connected to our food, following a long period of people being thrilled to do less work in the kitchen and garden and outsource as much food production as possible. We now see that there are downsides to convenience and centralised production, and home cooks and restaurant chefs alike are interested in reclaiming food. Fermentation is an integral part of this process.
Which chefs and restaurants in your sphere are embracing the possibilities of fermentation to their most delicious extent?
I see lots of exciting experimentation - chefs taking ancient processes and giving them a new twist. Some restaurant chefs I've encountered who are fermenting outside the box are René Redzepi at Noma in Copenhagen, David Chang at Momofuku in New York and Sydney, and Nick Balla and Cortney Burns of Bar Tartine in San Francisco. I look forward to seeing what Australian chefs are doing.
What about you - what is it about the field that grabbed your interest and has held it for so long?
I first started making sauerkraut 20 years ago for practical reasons to preserve my garden's harvest. Then I got obsessed with all things fermented, and that has never waned. Most of the world's greatest delicacies are products of fermentation. I don't believe any one person could have a comprehensive knowledge of fermentation and I enjoy continually learning about new foods. Also, advances in microbiology have made this a very exciting time to be interested in bacteria, the matrix for all life. Fermentation is the realm in which bacteria transform the plants and animals that sustain us, and this bacterial activity improves the food in different ways (flavour, stability, nutritional content) and has a beneficial impact on our bodies as well.
Do you think we've become distanced from fermenting in the Anglophone West?
I think in the Anglophone West, as in every culinary tradition, fermentation is quite prominent. Bread, cheese, vinegar, beer, condiments - even Vegemite is a product of fermentation. The allure of convenience foods has distanced most of us from the actual fermentation process, but the foods themselves have endured in popularity.
How can we, as home cooks, dip our toes into a little fermenting?
I generally recommend that people start with fermenting vegetables. It's incredibly easy: chop, salt, squeeze or pound, and stuff into a jar. You can enjoy results pretty quickly, beginning after just a few days (but potentially continuing for weeks or even months). No need for special starter cultures; it's all on the vegetables. No special equipment needed. Crocks are great, but a jar works fine and you've probably got plenty of those around. It's extremely safe; in fact, statistically speaking, safer than eating raw vegetables. According to the US Department of Agriculture, there have not been any documented cases of food poisoning from fermented vegetables. And they are delicious, probiotic, and nutritious. A great thing to integrate into almost any meal.
What about the more experienced fermenters among us - what do you recommend by way of a more involved project?
From there the possibilities are infinite. Mead (fermented honey) is simple and wonderful. So is wine; beer is a bit more technically demanding but faster. I love my homemade yoghurt and kefir. If you are interested in bread or pancakes, try starting and maintaining a sourdough. Try fermenting miso, or hot sauce, or a fruit vinegar. Get into a rhythm with kombucha and experiment with seasonal flavour variations. Try curing meat, making cheese, or learning pickling techniques from around the world. For ideas and resources, check out my website.
How little gear can we get away with, as would-be fermenters?
Jar, knife, cutting board - you can get started with simple gear you already have.
You mentioned Vegemite earlier - what do you know of our national food?
I know it's made from yeast extract, which I imagine means it's mostly cooked-down residual dead yeast from brewing. I've tried it once or twice. It was okay but didn't grab me. Maybe this time.
Sandor Ellix Katz will be in Brisbane 7-9 February, Byron Bay 12 February, Sydney 14-16 February, Hobart 20 February and Melbourne 21-23 February. Tickets start from $59 (most are $220 per session). For details and bookings visit the Milkwood Permaculture website.