My own passion for natural fermentations - and how I got to ferment for a living; a self-indulgent bio.
My actual and spiritual awareness of fermentation began with sour dough.....when I realised that making bread with a packet of yeast was not actually 'from scratch'! Who was the 'yeast farmer'? How did they make yeast? Was this another packet mix? I went to the baker and bought moist yeast from them. But where did that come from? A little more research led me to sour dough - I ordered Sandor Katz's book 'Wild Fermentation'. And indeed it was quite like a spiritual awakening.... yeast was in the air, it expanded my dough so mysteriously and magically - and all of a sudden there was so much more to the world than I'd thought. Soon my laundry became a place of sour dough mothers, pickles, and ferment experimentation. But the magic and fervour hit me three times and keeps hitting me still.
Growing up we moved a lot. Dad was in the army - I went to 9 different schools. As a teen we lived in Kuala Lumpur for a couple of years and then I went off to Denmark for a year as an exchange student where the food was very much from scratch and we'd knock on the bakery door at dawn for warm bread and have gorgeous open sandwiches often with pickled fish and other interesting toppings almost every day. And other foods new to me like goose, lots of schnapps, divine remoulade and large bowls full of strawberries. My real mum is Dutch - so I do have some blood connection to sauerkrauts although we were much more into salted liquorice, croquets and fries with mayo than kraut to be honest. Although I did end up with a pretty cool handed down kraut recipe.
In my early 20's I ended up living at the base of Mt. Takao in Japan for 4 years, and like any person who moves - did not have many friends (at least initially). So I happened upon a friendship with the old lady who had a garden down from where my little window looked out. We hung out a bit - and they she showed me not just how to garden, but how to preserve a harvest. I learned, (often only by watching) to make my own miso, tofu, tsukemono, mochi, and all manner of Japanese home cooking. I had by then acquired a healthy addiction to natto. I travelled a few times to Korea (short flight and great place to renew a visa), and ate a lot of kimchi. I didn't make any there, but saw that in action and learnt enough to yearn for it.
Here I met an American guy (a Minnesotan one - mum had given me strict instructions not to marry a Japanese man in fear I'd stay in Japan forever and I did as I was told... ). As our family grew, due to his work we set up homes wherever we had to - often with months of free travel in between posts. From Tokyo to Sydney, back to Tokyo again, Chicago, Seattle, and then Brussels. Being a stay at home mum gave me the luxury to cook a lot and learn the local foods, and I wanted my kids to love all of the foods I did. In Chicago it was dill pickles and gravlax and lots of Jewish foods. It was also the shock of seeing how far most people in my neighbourhood had come from knowing about food and what was real or highly manufactured. In Seattle I went through a cheese and yoghurt making phase - using packet cultures though, and the sour dough bread thing happened. We joined a CSA - the most beautiful memory of land and farming I have still - please check them out and learn from them here ; https://jubileefarm.org/ They held all kinds of get togethers to do with the harvest, including pickling and fermenting things. And we had so much excess at the end of summer we HAD to preserve stuff. I saw Sandor Katz at a festival and when I got his book it was mostly the sourdough I made but I read it like a book - his voice in it is so strong - I loved the whole book. Many of the other foods I'd been interested came under the same category. Fermentation. But it wasn't until a few years later that I really started going for it. Lulu go pretty sick and needed gut healing.
She was only five years old and we were in Belgium. It went on for months and months, beginning with a virus and then it grew into something nobody could diagnose. Her fevers ran high every 12 hours for a couple of months, and there was no sign they would abate. She regressed and lost a scary amount of weight unable to keep food down and missed months of school, hardly spoke and her walk became stiff legged and on her toes. I wanted my own mum...we'd been away a long time. A naturopath had said that it was possibly the many antibiotics that had left her body devoid of essential, good bacteria. She was out of balance. And by now so was I, but in a different way.
Here's the happy thing - I suddenly saw a direct line through all of my hobbies of the past and realised they were all fermenting. Out came the miso soup and natto, yoghurts and pickles for Lu. We moved back to Australia.
Setting up The Fermentary in Australia
It wasn't very long after we moved that my Minnesotan was pretty much back in the US full time and I found myself quite alone with three daughters. It wasn't a particularly easy time, I had never worked in a paying job and been a mum. We hadn't lived in Australia for over 12 years. I took a job 3 days a week at the school the girls attended where I met a passionate mum who showed and shared her milk and water kefir grains. Prior to that I'd only bought milk kefir from the store - kefir, and SCOBY ferments were a new magic to me and that was it the third time I felt alive and in awe of the microbial world; invisible but so present.
Kefir seemed to heal Lulu's gut. Really. I became impassioned and couldn't help but tell everyone. I got hold of the GAPS book (Gut and Pyschology Syndrome) and a lot of it resonated with me. New friends would come to my home and see my kitchen full of crocks and bubbling jars and wonder what was going on .... usually leaving with a bottle or jar take home. And I was surprised at how little people knew about krauts and kimchi's and how very often they didn't even like to eat it. Some of them did though and pretty soon they started craving it and a few of them wanted to pay for it. So I made it for them. I felt like I was living my own version of Weeds or Breaking Bad only with lacto-ferments. My kitchen was the lab. A business sprang from this accidentally on purpose. I initially had different mums from the school come on as 'partners' but it didn't last; our own idea's of what we wanted to achieve (and how) didn't align. Fermenting and small scale food production is a lot of work with little monetary return. And growing too quickly meant changing the product - becoming a corporate, cost cutting venture.
Word of these ferments spread within months of first hitting the fridges of our little Woodend health food store - I had been putting it in their fridge for them to sell in return for credits for organic food. But pretty soon food luminaries like Alla Wolf-Tasker of The Lake House Daylesford and Chef Andrew McConnell of Cumulus Inc group, and even a Sydney cafe started ordering. I was still working from my home kitchen. I needed labels!
About a year into The Fermentary, chef and dad from school, Roger Fowler came to help with my processes....I had big orders and was grating cabbage with a wooden grater, and stomping it with a large wooden stomper... and fermenting in Polish ceramic crocks. And then hand jarring at night or long days, listening to podcasts. I'm not sure he caught the fermentation bug immediately, more the challenge of getting my systems in place - and then the passion for this kind of artisan food production lured him and he happily stayed on. Our processes haven't changed much from my home kitchen days - larger batches and shredders and a new way of stomping, but same way of jarring. Roger heads up The Fermentary’s growing production – all still hand made similar to how I first started, and we are helped by Varma Guntri, and various other people who are up for a few days or months of work here and there. (You'll see them on Insta from time to time because we love the way they look in a hair net or elbow deep in kimchi juice).
In 2015 our Milk Kefir was awarded Best New Product at the Delicious. Magazine Awards and I cautiously signed a book deal with Hardie Grant Books, with a release slated for April 2017. (Look out for it "Ferment for Good - Ancient Food for the Modern Gut"). We signed on with Feel Good Foods to help with distribution to retail stores, but have kept many of the restaurants to ourselves, we love that connection and being able to make small batch one off flavours and ferments for them.
I've become a regular speaker at some leading Australian food events, and love to share my passion through workshops and classes and have also discovered what it means to do something you love and be able to share that passion with others. Last year I spent a week at Sandor's house at Short Mountain for a residency program with other serious fermenters. This was a pretty special time for me, I caught up with some old friends as well. And had never visited an Intentional Community like Short Mountain before and it moved me deeply.
This year, together with Yuko I went back to Kyoto to take part in a commercial koji making course. Yuko and I are delving into making natto and koji for sale as well as many otherJapanese inspired fermie dreams. Speedy dreams of gin and absinthe distilling and Roger dreams of mayonaise and mustard and making some actual money (can't pay him in love forever). He also enjoys a chef gig from time to time. We are all dreaming of a space full of good food and other passionate producers and growers around us. So watch this space; or subscribe to hear our news. xx