edible Marin and Wine Country Winter 2010 : Page 28
Pu-erh tea packed in a dried bitter orange rind and a special pu-erh knife with the Phoenix Collection logo emblazoned on the handle. LOCAL FERMENTS HEAT UP THE SCENE BY CHRISTINA MUELLER WELTER o understand the power of fermented foods, repeat this mantra ﬁve times: There are good bacteria and there are bad bacteria. Like many things in life, the bad 2% of bacteria, those that cause illness, such as Clostrid-ium botulinum (botulism) and Listeria monocytogenes (listeria), get the greatest attention in our cleanliness-obsessed culture. The ancient practice of fermentation using naturally occur-ring bacteria and yeast to transform fresh foods which would otherwise rot and become unusable in a short period of time into those that last through a long winter or a period of famine, was at one time found in all parts of the globe. In addition to the food preservation beneﬁts of fermentation, the ﬂavors that develop as bacteria and yeast act on the food were also considered delicacies and much sought-after. In the mid-1800s, Louis Pasteur, the French chemist and father of microbiology, began studying the process of fer-mentation and eventually discovered that by the controlled heating of a substance (the process we now know as “pasteuri-zation”) you could destroy the yeast it contained, thereby arresting the natural fermentation process. This was desirable 28 | EDIBLE MARIN & WINE COUNTRY WINTER 2010 T because inherent in the fermentation process is the growth of both good and bad bacteria and other microbes. The same food that will go bad more rapidly if left on its own (without pasteurization) could also eventually make you very sick, even kill you, if too many of the bad bacteria have developed before you ingest it. This discovery, coupled with the later industrialization of most food production systems, led to the loss of many fermented food traditions in the Western world. The contributions to the health and well-being of mankind that were brought by Pasteur’s discovery are undeniable. However, pasteurization does not distinguish between good and bad bacteria and destroys them all. In recent years, the good microorganisms that result from fermentation have begun to be recognized for actually enhancing nutrition and improving human health. Fermentation not only supports the growth and consumption of these good bacteria, it also helps to break down some tough, complex proteins that might other-wise be indigestible and inaccessible by the body, turning them into more easily digested amino acids. For example, when fermented, lactobacilli , a bacteria naturally present in cabbage, Photo: Gibson Thomas
Local Ferments Heat Up the Scene
Christina Mueller Welter
To understand the power of fermented foods, repeat this mantra five times: There are good bacteria and there are bad bacteria. Like many things in life, the bad 2% of bacteria, those that cause illness, such as Clostridium botulinum (botulism) and Listeria monocytogenes (listeria), get the greatest attention in our cleanliness-obsessed culture.<br /> <br /> The ancient practice of fermentation using naturally occurring bacteria and yeast to transform fresh foods which would otherwise rot and become unusable in a short period of time into those that last through a long winter or a period of famine, was at one time found in all parts of the globe. In addition to the food preservation benefits of fermentation, the flavors that develop as bacteria and yeast act on the food were also considered delicacies and much sought-after.<br /> <br /> In the mid-1800s, Louis Pasteur, the French chemist and father of microbiology, began studying the process of fermentation and eventually discovered that by the controlled heating of a substance (the process we now know as "pasteurization") you could destroy the yeast it contained, thereby arresting the natural fermentation process. This was desirable because inherent in the fermentation process is the growth of both good and bad bacteria and other microbes. The same food that will go bad more rapidly if left on its own (without pasteurization) could also eventually make you very sick, even kill you, if too many of the bad bacteria have developed before you ingest it. This discovery, coupled with the later industrialization of most food production systems, led to the loss of many fermented food traditions in the Western world.<br /> <br /> The contributions to the health and well-being of mankind that were brought by Pasteur's discovery are undeniable. However, pasteurization does not distinguish between good and bad bacteria and destroys them all. In recent years, the good microorganisms that result from fermentation have begun to be recognized for actually enhancing nutrition and improving human health. Fermentation not only supports the growth and consumption of these good bacteria, it also helps to break down some tough, complex proteins that might otherwise be indigestible and inaccessible by the body, turning them into more easily digested amino acids. For example, when fermented, lactobacilli, a bacteria naturally present in cabbage, creates omega-3 fatty acids, and nattokinase, an enzyme that results from soybeans being fermented with Bacillus natto, prevents blood clots.<br /> <br /> In Northern California today, there are numerous practitioners of fermentation who are bringing new life and new tastes to ancient foods. From tea and cabbage to soybeans and soda, the art and craft of fermentation is alive and well in our area. These foods are, by their nature, small batch, handcrafted, and artisan.<br /> <br /> Minami Satoh, who started Japan Traditional Foods (www. meguminatto.com) in Sebastopol in 2006, uses modern equipment to replicate the traditionally home-based fermentation process. To produce natto, which, like miso, its culinary cousin, was an historically significant food that provided sustenance to feudal Japan, organic soybeans are soaked in water overnight, and then placed in portionsized, porous containers. These containers keep moisture in but allow the beans to still "breathe." Next, the beans are steamed in a controlled "sauna" together with a bacterium found in hay straw, Bacillus natto. According to Satoh, in ancient Japan natto was traditionally made in winter (but eaten year round) and the beans would be buried with straw under the snow. Properly fermented, Satoh says natto is "edible forever."<br /> <br /> Freshly made natto has a mild, earthy flavor. The longer it ferments, the stronger the flavor and the more nattokinase present. Nattokinase look like sticky strings attached to the shiny, fermented beans. These strings pack a powerful enzymatic punch but their stretchy character creates a culinary challenge–the diner must wrap the strings around their chopsticks or fork while keeping the beans aloft. Food that is good for you is also dinner table entertainment.<br /> <br /> Sauerkraut, a heritage food from central Europe, is best known in the United States for its German roots. Kathryn Lukas, owner of Farmhouse Culture (www.farmhouseculture.com) in Santa Cruz, came to fermented foods after years of being a chef in Germany. It was there that she tasted her first "real" sauerkraut. "Every region of Germany has its own sauerkraut flavor," she said. Lukas ferments five varieties of sauerkraut and sources her organic green cabbage from Jeff Larkey of Route One Farm in Santa Cruz.<br /> <br /> Lactic acid is naturally present on cabbage when it comes in from the field, forming bacteria that look like a dusting of powder. When the cabbage is bathed in brine, the first step in lactic acid fermentation, the "bad bacteria" such as Clostridium botulinum cannot survive, but the "good" bacteria thrive. Lukas ferments her krauts for three weeks at 64° F. before offering them for sale. "It is not until the third week that the fun bacteria develop," she said. Those "fun" bacteria, Lactobacillus plantarum, give the ferment its sour flavor. The longer the ferment, the more sour the flavor and the higher the enzyme levels. When properly preserved, fermented sauerkraut is edible for a year or more.<br /> <br /> At Wild West Ferments (www.wildwestferments.com) in Point Reyes Station, Maggie Levinger and Luke Regalbuto (pictured below) ferment the way their company's name implies–wildly. Wild-fermented foods pick up the yeasts that naturally float all around us. "Once the cabbage is shredded and salt is added, we hand massage the kraut to help pull out the juices," said Levinger. "We pack the cabbage into a crock, weight it down so the solids are below the brine level to prevent any nasty mold from developing, but allow the ferment to breathe by covering it with a natural fabric cloth," Regalbuto instructs. The cloth allows the airborne yeast to land on the brine, interacting with the lactic-acid forming bacteria to begin the fermentation process.<br /> <br /> Wild fermentation takes time but it is worth the wait. "Most sauerkraut you see in the store is made with distilled vinegar, a by-product of industrial food," Levinger said. "It is simpler to make and more predictable but less healthful."<br /> <br /> Regardless of the season, some foods just ferment more quickly than others. "Plums ferment quickly while huckleberries go more slowly," Levinger said, and it can depend on the yeast of the day, the season, the level of humidity in the air. Wild West's Smreka, a fermented juniper berry beverage native to Bosnia and Herzegovina, "just hangs out for 30 days. We watch it closely because it changes constantly–every ferment is different," said Levinger. Juniper berries, like cabbage and many other fruits and vegetables, are also coated in a "blush" of fine white powder. The blush acts as a natural barrier for the fruit, protecting it from birds and insects. When the berries are submerged in water, wild yeasts start the ferment, and the sugar in the berries feeds the ferment.<br /> <br /> Using airborne yeasts, not strains that have been perfected in a lab, means that a ferment has its own terroir, a term more commonly used to describe the flavor of wine resulting from the natural environment in which the grapes for the wine were grown. Wild-fermented curtido, kimchi or pickles made by Wild West Ferments in Point Reyes Station will simply taste different than kimchi made anywhere else. It is this inherent variation in character that makes these locallymade products unique and worth seeking out.<br /> <br /> Kombucha, a fermented beverage derived from green or black tea, goes through a similar fermentation to that of vegetable and fruit ferments but varies in a few significant ways. First, a "mother culture" must be made or purchased. According to Michaela Biaggi, a former brewer at LonjeviTea, the "mother" is the original blob of bacteria and yeast–called a SCOBY: Symbiotic Community of Bacteria and Yeast–that is added to the brew. Second, granulated or raw cane sugar is always used in brewing kombucha. It is the mother's job to convert the sugar in the tea brew into the vitamins, minerals and enzymes that are present in the final product. Third, like wine, kombucha will turn to vinegar if fermented too long. Acetic acid is one of the major organic acids found in kombucha, thanks to the Acetobacter bacteria. This bacteria is responsible for that sour taste which we love in kraut and vinegar, but not so much in wine or kombucha. Fourth, as the SCOBY converts the sugar it also lets off CO2 and makes alcohol.<br /> <br /> The fizzier the kombucha, the more CO2 present, but this is also an indicator that, similar to beer, more alcohol is likely to be in the brew. In June 2010, Whole Foods stores asked kombucha producers to voluntarily pull their product off store shelves if they could not guarantee that the alcohol levels would stay below .5%–the FDA requirement to be considered a nonalcoholic beverage and therefore not subject to regulations. Since kombucha is not pasteurized and is literally alive with bacteria, it continues to ferment after bottling. Kathy Taylor of Vibranz (www.vibranzbev.com), a kombucha maker located in Healdsburg, said their brewers have now added a step to their kombucha ferment to guarantee that the alcohol level does not rise over the .5% level when stored according to their instructions, for the 60-day shelf life requested by Whole Foods." What happens if you leave kombucha in your car on a hot summer day is another matter altogether.<br /> Pu-erh (pronounced "poo-air") tea can be considered kombucha's great aunt–forget all that jazzy stuff about SCOBY and alcohol; pu-erh's heritage is low tech. David Lee Hoffman of the Phoenix Collection (www.thephoenixcollection.com), widely acknowledged as the first American to work directly with ancient tea farms in China, has 40 years of experience importing and selling tea. Among other things, Hoffman imports organic raw jungle green tea and ferments pu-erh teas himself in Lagunitas.<br /> <br /> Pu-erh teas are derived from the varietal of green tea, Camellia assamica–a variant of Camellia sinensis–native to Yunnan Province in China–and come in two basic styles: "raw" and "cooked." After the tea leaves have been picked, the leaves are "heaped" to begin fermentation. "It's kind of yeast in the tea leaves use the sun's energy to create heat and oxidation and chemically change the leaf."<br /> <br /> How the tea is heaped and dried will affect the enzymatic activity in the leaf. "Raw" pu-erh is first sun-dried, then roasted over a fire to slow down the enzymatic action. It is then packed without further processing. Raw pu-erh tastes very "green." The color in the cup is vibrant and energetic, a sign of the heady, bright flavor to come. "Cooked" or "ripe" pu-erh goes through something akin to a wet compost or sauna: the tea is put into a high humidity, high temperature environment which activates the natural bacteria in the leaf. Long-fermented, cooked pu-erh has higher residual levels of beneficial bacteria and a fuller, more mature taste. This extended ferment also further oxidizes the tea leaves and produces a darker cup of tea.<br /> <br /> Like certain wines (think Bordeaux or high-end California cabernet), pu-erhs of all kinds are built to age. You can enjoy a raw or a cooked pu-erh that was produced 15 years ago and, if it was stored properly, the flavor will be as heady as when it was first packed. Pu-erh teas have sky-rocketed in popularity, and price, in recent years. "The price is related to marketing," said Hoffman. "The price reflects the taste, not the age." OK, so perhaps this is where tea differs from wine. . . <br /> <br /> Golden Star Tea (www.goldenstartea.com), which brews its tea in Belmont and bottles it in Sonoma, uses Epernay (i.e., Champagne) yeast and organic and fair trade jasmine silver needle tea from China to create its signature White Jasmine Sparkling Tea. Unlike kombucha, Golden Star pasteurizes its tea after the first fermentation to guarantee that no "bad" bacteria make it "over the wall." After the fresh tea steeps with sugar, brew master Nora Vitaliani heats the tea to 165° then pumps the tea through a heat exchanger which helps reduce the temperature of the brew to a comfortable 80°. At this point, the yeast and "mother" (here, the term refers to a mixture of previously fermented, over-acidified tea, water and sugar) is added.<br /> <br /> The goal of this secondary fermentation is great flavor and the brew master works to balance acidity and residual sugar, or brix. "You want the flavor of the Epernay yeast to come through," Vitaliani said. "It has a beautiful stone fruit flavor and, like Champagne, a flavor and aroma like fresh-baked bread."<br /> <br /> Similar to kombucha, the interaction of the yeast, sugar and tea results in a ferment with a soft fizziness. "The mother culture needs to be acidic enough to slow down the yeast," said Vitaliani. Too much fizz means too much alcohol is present. Once the tea is bottled and sealed, the tea is pasteurized a second time to ensure the yeast has died and is no longer producing alcohol. This guarantees a nonalcoholic, shelf-stable product. The result is a light, refreshing and softly fizzy tea that shimmers a beautiful gold in the glass.<br /> <br /> Every fermenter I spoke with insists on organic raw materials and pure, non-chlorinated water. Healthy soil not subjected to chemicals produces healthier foods with more "blush" and higher levels of natural bacteria and chlorine, a disinfectant, kills even the good bacteria. Like the most elite chefs, these craftsmen know how to make great products but cannot guarantee that the end product will be the same every single time. Uniformity is not the goal; rather the final product is a result of the unique character of the raw materials on hand that day, the temperature of the air and the mood of the chef. This single-batch character is something to be reveled in and savored, not taken for granted. Fermented foods, renowned for their bacterial diversity, offer the ultimate local taste experience to match their non-conformist origins.<br /> <br /> Wherever in the world your heritage originates, there are traditional fermented foods and/or beverages to experience, keeping in mind that the distinction between the perfectly fermented food and one that is over-fermented is highly subjective–one person's favorite blue cheese or fermented herring is another man's stinky socks. Look for locally fermented foods at your farmers' market or wherever heritage foods are valued.<br /> <br /> Christina Mueller Welter is a global food and wine writer and consultant. A confident cook, she is known to dig deep to find unique, incredible edibles. You can find her anytime at www.christinamueller.com.