Fermentation is having a moment, and it’s not all scobys and sauerkraut. Claire Adamson on the joys of embarking on a journey of discovery with her microbial mates.
Connal Finlay is not content with waiting until the weekend to share his enthusiasm with me. Excitedly, he tells me about how cheese, pizza and coffee are all the products of fermentation, until all of a sudden my quick phone call to set up an interview has gone for 25 minutes. I’ve barely said anything.
Finlay’s Ferment! Festival took over Shed 10 in downtown Auckland on March 23 and 24, bringing producers around the country to show off their products – as long as they were fermented. Purveyors of cured meats sat side by side with vegan cheesemongers, craft beer brewers and scobys floating ethereally in little plastic bags.
As Finlay tells me on the phone, fermentation isn’t a new way of preparing food – it’s been done around the world for thousands of years. But there is no denying it is extremely having a moment right now. Fermentation is no longer what is lurking in the forgotten jars in the back of your fridge – it’s making food that is gracing the menus of some of the finest restaurants in the world.
My own journey with fermentation started in St Lukes mall, of all places. I was at Whitcoulls to buy my friend’s baby a book, and on my obligatory amble past the cooking section a tangerine-coloured tome caught my eye. The book, Lateral Cooking, had been written by Niki Segnit, whose Flavour Thesaurus is one of the most interesting cookbooks on my bookshelf. I brought it home and began thumbing through it. It began with bread.
Typically, baking bread has not been my strong suit. A couple of years ago, after several rock-hard, burnt, or otherwise inedible loaves, I was ready to face that maybe baking was simply not for me. I am a creative person, I told myself. I cannot be shackled by such things as “exact measurements” and “science”. I was simply too much of a free spirit for baking.
But Segnit’s book was alluring. She was a free spirit too, and I saw myself in her curious but slightly snarky writing. If she could bake good bread, maybe I could too. So I started, somewhat tentatively, but with a determination to measure everything perfectly.
It wasn’t completely smooth sailing, but my loaves worked most of the time. It wasn’t long until I craved more, and started thinking about the bread that every home breadmaker aspires to – sourdough.
I duly prepared a slurry of flour and water and sat it on the top of the fridge to ferment. After a few days of gentle nursing, it was bubbling away furiously. I am proud to say that my first sourdough was not a disaster. It wasn’t perfect, but it looked the part, and tasted amazing. Since that first loaf, I have made some adjustments: reduced my loaf hydration, experimented with different kneading techniques, and nearly burned the house down by making the oven hotter and hotter. My sourdough has gotten better and better, and my kitchen has gotten more and more covered with flecks of rock-hard dough.
I pick up a sourdough hot cross bun from the Fort Greene stand at the Ferment! Festival. It’s dense and moist enough that I eat it without butter, pulling chunks off with my fingers. I also taste mild, sweet black garlic, stoneground chocolate shot through with cocoa nibs from Raglan, and cultured butter with miso. The flavours available to me seem so varied, despite their common production process.
“People don’t really get the extent or the diversity of fermented foods and drinks. I keep saying, ‘Chocolate’s fermented, you eat chocolate all the time’,” says Finlay. He began planning Ferment! Festival after the success of his World of Wine festival in May 2018. Coming from a background in wine, he had always been drawn to fermentation, and in particular to how things that are fermented seem to work really well together.
“There’s that element of two things together coming in harmony – it really just kind of works. And I sort of thought well, let’s just do a massive tasting.”
So he reached out to small, artisan producers to join his festival, making sure to look beyond the usual pickles and kombucha to really show off just how widespread fermentation is in what we eat.
In my morning at Ferment I really explore that diversity, lingering particularly in front of the cheese section and then again in front of the Garage Project stand. Despite Finlay’s insistence that fermentation is about more than just sauerkraut, I do taste at least seven different flavours of the stuff. Every single one is delicious, but I have homemade kraut out the wazoo in my fridge.
After setting off down the right path with my sourdough, I began looking to more fermenty types of fermentation. I was ready to dive into making pickles and sauerkraut and kimchi and maybe even kombucha. I spent a good few summer afternoons reading about lactic acid bacteria and different kinds of yeasts in The Noma Guide to Fermentation.
The Noma book, while very beautiful, was very much an aspirational text. I was not going to be building a temperature-controlled fermentation chamber to inoculate koji mould, as the book suggested. I was going to be achieving what I could with a shared flat kitchen, some jars from Kmart, and a reasonably short attention span. I have since expanded my production to a dedicated shelf in the laundry and a fermentation diary that I have taken much shit for.
I fermented some plums as set out in the book, and using the same formula, made some very yum sauerkraut, even though I knew that Rene Redzepi would be disappointed in my lack of imagination. Happily, Redzepi was not to be my only fermentation hero, as I accidentally stumbled across It’s Alive with Brad Leone on YouTube.
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Brad is the manager at the Bon Appétit test kitchen, and is now also a massive YouTube celebrity – a result of his dorky dad-like passion for fermentation. The show presents projects that feel like they would be easy to pull off in my own kitchen, and, with its one-sided banter between Brad and the never-seen cameraman Vinny, is extremely charming. In fact, last week’s episode, where Brad makes focaccia with Samin Nosrat from Salt Fat Acid Heat, might be one of the most charming videos I’ve ever seen on YouTube.
With my inspiration coming from It’s Alive, and from Noma, I have decided my next big fermentation project will be miso. I anticipate that it will be successful and rewarding, and won’t need to be thrown away after a couple of months of stinking out the laundry (sorry in advance, flatmates).
By this time the next Ferment! Festival rolls around, I’ll have brewed beer, made my own miso and kimchi, and cultured my own yogurt. I might just be going for inspiration.
The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.