If you were in Freestone, CA on May 15th, you were probably there to get down and funky. And we don't mean George-Clinton-Parliament-Atomic-Dog kinda funky, we mean Lactobacillus funky. Freestone hosted the Fermentation Festival, a celebration of things fermented, from cheese and bread to kombucha and beer, sauerkraut and kimchi, and even a cedar enzyme bath!
Fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, and pickles have recently gained new popularity for their many health benefits, but fermentation is the most ancient of cooking practices. Why are they so good for you? Fermented foods contain live cultures, or micro-flora, which keep your digestive track in balance. Many natural health practitioners believe fermented foods can help shield the immune system from pathogens and aid the body's ability to absorb vitamins from food. “The living bacterial cultures in these foods aid digestion, increase vitamin levels, produce a variety of beneficial enzymes, and promote the growth of healthy flora throughout the digestive tract,” says Harvard-educated integrative medicine expert Dr. Andrew Weil.
Kombucha is a fermented drink that is all the rage, being sold in many health food stores, and with some pretty lofty health claims from curing arthritis to baldness. Clinical studies have yet to be done, but many people get a sense of wellbeing and re-hydration from imbibing this fizzy mushroom tea. Dr. Weil notes that people with compromised immune systems should avoid home-brewed kombucha because of the potential for contamination.
The festival featured expert fermenters. To hear the Bauman College teacher at the Fermentation Festival giving instructions on how to make kombucha, you'd never guess she was describing brewing tea: "Place the mother mushroom in a warm corner, surround with warm black tea and cover with a cloth. When the daughter culture forms pry them apart and give to your friends so they can make kombucha as well." So much for mother-daughter bonding! Jill Nusinow, aka the Veggie Queen, gave some very simple instructions for making your own superb pickles. Pickles are also a live food, when freshly cured. Making pickles with hot vinegar or fermenting in a barrel before high-heat canning kills the live cultures. Pickling cucumbers in simple brine for five days and then chilling them will give you a crunchy live pickle experience.
The trend back to fermented foods isn't just about health claims, but also about taste and variety. Fermented foods are unique -- winter pickles taste different from summer pickles. And different varieties of cabbage yield very different sauerkrauts. Fermented foods are part of the DIY revolution. As Kathryn Lukas of Farmhouse Culture said in her sauerkraut demo: "Fermenting is a radical thing to do. By working with nature, instead of trying to sterilize her you're able to make super nutritious food. You just have to get used to the idea that food rotting on your counter is actually a good thing."
- Heidi Lewis