Counter(top) Culture: The Sun Interviews Fermentation Guru Sandor Katz
Self-proclaimed “fermentation fetishist” Sandor Katz (Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods) talks about his fascination with live foods, their long history, their health benefits, and the process of fermentation itself in this interview with The Sun.
From The Sun:
Crain: What are some examples of fermented foods or drinks?
Katz: The most famous ferments are alcoholic beverages, but we also have dairy ferments like yogurt; vegetable ferments like sauerkraut, pickles, and kimchi; and meat ferments like salami. If you look at the foods that we consider “gourmet,” virtually all of them are the products of fermentation. Imagine you’ve just stepped into a gourmet-food shop, and you see the olives. You can’t eat olives off the tree because they’re toxic and contain bitter alkaloids. They have to be cured first. There are a number of methods people use to cure olives, and many involve fermentation.
Take a couple of more steps into this gourmet shop, and you see a cheese counter. The vast majority of cheeses — and certainly any cheeses with strong flavor — are products of fermentation. Then there’s the bakery with all those delicious breads to put your cheese on. If bread weren’t fermented, it would be a dense brick. And many of those condiments that we love to slather on food are products of fermentation. The mother of all condiments is the fish sauce we find in Southeast Asian cuisine. Classical Rome and Greece also used fish sauce, and the word for Americans’ favorite condiment, ketchup, comes from the Chinese word for fish sauce: ke-tsiap. Vinegar — from the French vin aigre, meaning “sour wine” — is always a product of fermentation, and most of our favorite condiments are based on it. Continue this tour of fermented gourmet foods, and you’ve got chocolate, coffee, vanilla, and cured meats, including pepperoni, pastrami, and corned beef. So fermentation creates extraordinary flavors in addition to preserving foods.
Crain: What are some more-unusual fermented foods you’ve come across during your studies and travels?
Katz: Well, you’ve seen my venison leg curing in the cellar. My inspiration for that was a food that I encountered at Slow Food’s Terra Madre event in Italy in 2008: violino di capra — “violin of goat.” It’s the cured thigh of a goat that’s too old to milk. Most goat flesh is tough, unless it’s from a very young goat. This traditional food uses fermentation to turn the meat of an old goat into something tender and delicious.
You may have heard of the fermented tea called “kombucha.” I’ve also been making jun — a cousin of kombucha that’s prepared with honey rather than sugar. The jun culture is more active at a lower temperature than kombucha. Through the winter it produced a wonderful, refreshing tonic.
I’m continually in awe of the cleverness of people around the world in developing fermented foods. The range of methods used is incredibly varied. There’s no end to it.
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