Associated Articles 2
San Francisco Chronicle
Cultivating their fascination with fermentation
Tara Duggan, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, June 7, 2009
Philip Sweet crossed over to the other side while volunteering at the Pickle Pavilion at last year's Slow Food Nation in San Francisco. He became fascinated with fermentation and the variety of ways people pickle around the globe.
"People are pickling everything," he says. "It opened up a whole new world to me."
As Sweet's work as an event planner slowed in recent months, he and a friend created Urban Peasant SF, an organization devoted to traditional food-preservation methods. Last month, they organized a class on fermented beverages; during the same period, Bay Area aficionados flocked to an all-day fermentation festival, a kimchi contest and a hands-on sauerkraut class, each practically unheard of a year ago.
Canning may still be having its comeback in this DIY era, but traditionally fermented vegetables - such as sauerkraut, kimchi and barrel-fermented pickles - take urban homesteaders to the next level of old-style food preservation. An easy and delicious way to put up the harvest, fermenting appeals both to the slow food and the health food crowds. It also fascinates those curious about food chemistry, whether a professional cook or passionate home tinkerer.
"I've always been interested in the old ways. I make jokes about watching 'Little House on the Prairie,' " says Alicia Preston, a client services manager for a software company. Last weekend, the self-taught pickler hosted a fermentation booth at Maker Faire in San Mateo, the annual celebration of modern-day crafts. "It's part of the lingering back-to-the- land movement stuff that I was briefly exposed to as a kid."
An ancient method
The basic method used to create common foods like bread, cheese, chocolate and wine, fermentation is almost as ancient as agriculture itself. It's simply the process by which yeast or bacteria transform sugar into acid or alcohol. While fermented foods like kombucha, kefir, old-fashioned soda and homemade miso are in the limelight, fermented vegetables - transformed from their raw form into pickles via lactic fermentation - have their own niche.
"There's a renaissance of interest in fermented foods," says Jessica Prentice, cookbook author and co-founder of the Locavores, the group who helped bring attention to using strictly local ingredients. At last month's fermentation festival in Freestone (Sonoma County), Prentice demonstrated how to make kimchi and sauerkraut. She considers the amount of attention being given to fermented foods - including by teenage vegans and hip young urbanites - at the level of a "movement."
The vast majority of store-bought pickles rely on vinegar for sourness, and most commercial sauerkraut is pasteurized at vast processing plants. Fermented pickles and unpasteurized sauerkrauts are made from raw vegetables that sit in a salty brine at cool room temperature for several weeks. This encourages the growth of beneficial, naturally occurring lactic bacteria, which destroys potentially harmful bacteria and creates lactic acid. Lactic fermentation causes the vegetables to become mildly, pleasantly sour and tender.
"I'm just fascinated by this bacteria. It's like gardening," says Kathryn Lukas, a professional chef who says she was first introduced to "real" sauerkraut more than a decade ago while living in Stuttgart, Germany. But Lukas' new line of Farmhouse Culture sauerkrauts have less to do with oompah bands and beer halls than with healthy eating and local, sustainable produce.
Lesson in sauerkraut
At a hands-on class at San Francisco's La Cocina commercial kitchen in April, Lukas demonstrated how to make a fresh-tasting sauerkraut that tastes almost nothing like the puckery commercial variety. She sliced the cabbage, tossed it with salt and caraway, and set it aside for 20 minutes to let the salt leach out the vegetable's juices. Then she showed how to punch the kraut into a jar so it would be submerged in its own brine.
The sauerkraut needs to stay in a cool place and ferment for about two weeks. After that, it will become increasingly sour until it's refrigerated, which halts fermentation. Late fall or early winter, rather than summer, is its traditional season, but our cool coastal climate and the availability of local cabbage means that Lukas can stay in production year-round.
Berkeley's Cultured goes through 2,000 pounds of farm-direct vegetables a week for its raw sauerkrauts, specialty seasonal pickles and kombuchas made with fresh-pressed juices. The latter two - with flavors like fennel kombucha and fermented purple carrot with red onion, coriander and lemon zest - are available only at its Berkeley pickle shop and at two Berkeley farmers' markets, while the sauerkraut is sold in grocery stores.
Cultured is also one of the few local producers of traditional Japanese pickles such as kasu, which are fermented with sake dregs from Takara brewery down the street. For nuka pickles, co-owner Alex Hozven and staff makes a paste of rice bran, seaweed and salt, which they cultivate for three months, adding vegetable scraps every day to aid fermentation. When the paste is ready, it's so active that it can pickle a carrot within a day or even hours, adding a yeasty umami flavor and slight sourness to the crisp, sweet vegetable.
Some in own juices
At the sleek West Berkeley Cultured kitchen, vegetables ferment in salt and their own juices - no water is added - for two to 10 weeks. They are held in steel fermentation tanks inside a walk-in refrigerator that stays in the low to mid-60s.
The health benefits of raw and fermented vegetables are what makes them one of the mainstays of the prepared foods offered by Three Stone Hearth in Berkeley. A cooperative kitchen that follows the nutritional philosophy of the Weston Price movement, it prepares traditional, "nutrient-dense" foods for weekly ordering and pickup, including a cultured raita and fermented radishes from River Dog farm.
Jessica Prentice, one of Three Stone Hearth's five worker-owners, touts the high levels of vitamin C, beneficial bacteria and active enzymes in fermented vegetables in her cookbook, "Full Moon Feast" (Chelsea Green, 2006).
Fermented foods are also known to aid digestion, which is why they're traditionally paired with rich meats. Salvadorans pile curtido, a type of sauerkraut, on top of cheese-filled pupusas. But modern-day pickle aficionados see fermented foods as their own food group.
Kimchi certainly plays that role for Koreans, who eat at least 75 pounds a year per capita. As part of Critter Salon, a series of events that often explore food and fermentation, artist Philip Ross organized a kimchi contest last month that drew more than 30 entrants to the Mission district event. The winner, Connie Choe, had flown in from Los Angeles.
A professor of sculpture at University of San Francisco and former restaurant cook, Ross' work often involves bringing people in touch with the biotechnology around us.
"It's kind of magical. You have one thing and expose it to another process - maybe it's a salt - and it totally becomes something else," he says. "It's amazing."
There's yet another part of fermentation that appeals to Bay Area cooks - it relies on wild yeasts and bacteria from the air or in the food itself.
"If you make sauerkraut at home or things that require wild fermentation," says Sweet of Urban Peasant SF. "You can't eat any more local than that."
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By Laura Casey, staff writer
January 29, 2007
Eating to save the world
You've heard of green grocers, but pioneering Three Stone Hearth takes green to a new level
IT IS MINUTES before 5 p.m. on a Wednesday evening in Berkeley and already a line is forming in front of a white plastic table at Three Stone Hearth, a community-supported kitchen near the city's waterfront.
The kitchen's five worker-owners and about a dozen volunteers are busy, really busy.
In fact, they are too busy to chat as they prepare to dole out the kitchen's broth-based soups and stews, homemade cheeses and pies to a dedicated group of customers, some of whom travel as far as 50 miles to pick up their weekly supply of the kitchen's nutrient-dense food.
The line grows longer at 5 p.m. when the kitchen opens, but no one seems too concerned. Moms bounce babies on their hips as they chat with one another about the week's menu.
Men and women, most of whom are carrying their own shopping bags, hold multiple lists in their hands. One list is their own weekly order.
The others are orders placed by their neighbors.
Once the orders are filled, these customers will take the food to their hometowns — Walnut Creek, Marin, San Francisco, Alameda — and deliver the goods to the other Three Stone Hearth customers who live near them. Next week, those customers who stayed home will repeat the process for them.
These people are building a community around the food they enjoy and around Three Stone Hearth. This community cares about its neighbors, the environment and nutrition, says Three Stone Hearth worker-owner Larry Wisch.
"I go to the grocery store maybe once a week now," says San Francisco resident Sherry Morse as she picks up her order and the orders of three others who live near her in the city's Richmond district. She says she used to shop for fresh, nutritional foods five days a week, driving to the store each time.
Next week, Morse will stay home and her neighbor will go to Three Stone Hearth for her, further reducing her number of shopping trips. And while Morse reduces her need to go to the store, she is also cutting back on car trips, saving gas and doing her little part to save the environment.
"This is really convenient, that's the secret," she says as Three Stone Hearth workers pile glass jars full of food into a bin for her to take home.
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