Visiting New Zealand from rural Tennessee, food writer and so-called godfather of the fermentation revival, Sandor Katz is running two workshops in Auckland this weekend. Anna King Shahab met him and learned that just because a food has been picked and captured, its life isn't over – there's plenty of growth to nurture post-harvest.
The way Sandor Katz sees it, fermenting food is basically a tenet of human survival.
"Fermentation is an element of the way in which everyone, in every part of the world, makes effective use of whatever available food resources they may have. In temperate zones you grow or obtain food in the warmer months and fermentation has been essential in survival in terms of preserving that food to feed people in the colder months."
While in the relatively inhospitable Arctic, it's a way of preserving summer's catch of fish, sea mammals and sea birds. Milk from livestock, which we now pluck nonchalantly from the cool, humming box in the kitchen, has been hugely important throughout civilisation in many parts of the world, yet before the very recent advent of refrigeration, people weren't just drinking it on tap from a cow or goat when they felt like it, they were fermenting it so that its life-giving nutrients were readily available; the same goes for salami and any number of cured meats.
Preserving wasn't and isn't the only reason to ferment. "Think of grains and beans – mostly they're pretty stable if kept dry. But they can be hard to digest or contain harmful toxins and boring in flavour. Fermenting them and then making them into bread and other things can make them more appealing, lighter and more delicious," says Katz.
He points out that fermenting grains, grapes and other things to produce alcohol has always been a big drawcard and was arguably the reason humans settled down and got stuck into growing stuff instead of chancing upon it.
Soy beans, ubiquitous in Asian food cultures and in mass food production today, are "Barely even edible in a raw state," says Katz, yet look at the amazing umami creations that come from a little know-how and patience: soy sauce, miso, natto, tempeh and one of Katz's current favourites, doubanjiang.
"I was in China recently filming a YouTube series and learned about the making of doubanjiang – you grow a koji-like fungus on the fava beans and soak them in a brine, then separately you chop up lots of chillies and salt them, leave those elements for three months before mixing them together and continuing to ferment, exposing to the sunshine and giving it stir now and then, for a year." The resulting umami, spicy, red-tinged sauce is key in Sichuan cooking – if you've ever tucked into a mapo tofu, you've enjoyed its deep savoury flavour.
I guess we can't know for sure but it's safe to assume that balancing the gut microbiome and overall health benefits weren't what drove our ancestors to ferment but today the notion of boosted health is certainly key in the revival of interest in traditional fermentation techniques.
Shave off his famous grizzled 'tache and Katz, at 57, could pass for 15 years younger. He tested positive for HIV in the early 90s but looks a picture of health. He's a walking advertisement for the benefits of regularly consuming fermented food and drink but – in a social media-obsessed world that's prone to the hard-and-fast approach, Katz is refreshingly rational and throughout the hour we sit talking, never once leans on exaggeration, nor oversimplification.
In fact, as Katz sees it, simplicity is the problem, when it comes to much of modern food production. Take milk and its baby, cheeses (sorry, had to, even if grammatically incorrect). I find, I tell him, that pasteurised cheeses often go bad quickly, even when stored in my fridge.
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"When you pasteurise the milk and get rid of the bacteria and then you introduce just a few strains to make a certain cheese, then it's much more vulnerable to other bacteria taking over," Katz says. "It's the same with yoghurt. Traditional yoghurts have really broad communities of organisms that have evolved with a structure that can defend themselves from phages and the like but commercial yoghurt is made from just a few pure culture strains, where they've isolated. Because scientists were terrified by bacteria, they wanted to cut out most of them – but then you have a less robust community. Raw milk from healthy animals with adequate land to graze on naturally has robust communities and that will carry through to the cheese and it will be more self-protective."
Taking the axe to diversity, whether in terms of a singular food item or in wider terms of the bacterial environment we live in, doesn't seem to be doing us humans any favours. There's the issue of whether the widespread use of the herbicide glyphosate is depleting the biodiversity in the soil, in turn affecting our guts and perhaps giving rise to modern illnesses like coeliac disease, asthma and mental illnesses.
On top of that, there's our overzealous approach to hygiene. We're kind of obsessed with sterilisation. "People are scandalised," laughs Katz, "that when I make sauerkraut I do nothing more than quickly wash the jars. The fact is, nothing else is sterile. Not the chopping board, not the knife, not my hands - and certainly not the cabbage. But once the cabbage is submerged, lactic acid dominates every single time, knocking out pathogenic bacteria."
We, and moreover our children, are living in a more sterile world with less diversity and it's not doing us good.
"I hear success stories all the time from people who come to my workshops and start making ferments a part of their diet," he says. "You can't say to someone, 'If you eat more yoghurt and kraut you'll be less depressed and your digestion will improve.' However, there is a lot of evidence that it could help. You have nothing to lose by trying and It's more delicious than taking a pill."
In any case, all those expensive probiotic pills contain limited strains of bacteria, so again it comes back to the fact that traditional ferments contain more and there's strength in numbers. If you're reading this and thinking, "Delicious? I think not," Katz agrees that many ferments can be an acquired taste. With practice, he's learned to enjoy even the most bombastic of them, like Sweden's lightly salted, fermented and famously rank herrings, surstromming.
"[When you're young] you might watch someone you respect, like your grandfather, really, really enjoying a food and just think about trying to key into just what it is that gets him so excited about it ... Stronger fermentation tastes are unique but there can be great pleasure to be had in them. Whoever heard of anyone who liked coffee the first time they tasted it? Or beer? But look how much we grow to love them. They're not obvious flavours. You need to be motivated, to give things another chance."
Sandor Katz presents two workshops today (Saturday,m at Cook The Books in Ponsonby. Both sessions are sold out, however Katz will also be doing a book signing at the shop – check Cook The Books Facebook page for details.