My own fermentation fervour 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 'caked yeast' from them and was very satisfied for a few weeks, even felt professional for a while.
'Friends would come to my kitchen—crocks groaning with different pickles and jars bubbling with alien-looking things inside—and always leave with a jar of something new.'
But then I began to ask where that came from? A little more research led me to sour dough - I ordered Sandor Katz's book 'Wild Fermentation'. And then my bacterial spiritual awakening occurred... my bacterial epiphany... yeast was in the air, on me, on fruit, in the flour? 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 experi-fermentations.
My mum is Dutch - so happily 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. I did end up with a pretty cool handed down kraut recipe though.
In my early 20's, after a season at a ski resort in Gunma, Japan, and a year as a nanny in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, I moved to the base of Mt. Takao for a job. And like any person who moves - (any other army-brats out there?) I found myself in a town - in fact a country where I knew almost no one. Luckily, before long and after some stalking, I grew sort of friendship with the old ladies who had their garden down from where I lived. We hung out for snippets of time here and there - and they she showed me not just how to garden, but how to preserve a harvest. I learned to make my own tsukemono, pickles in a miso bed, made mochi at the temple in the winter, and joined a food club and where I learnt to make miso, nattō, and all manner of Japanese home cooking.
I married and had my first child while living in Toyko. As my family grew, due to my husband’s work, we moved and had to set up homes wherever that took us - Tokyo, Sydney, Chicago, Seattle and Brussels. Being a stay at home mum was a luxury - but at times that is lonely too and so I leant on my passion - to cook - a lot. And so learn about local foods and their traditions. In Chicago my girls were given dill pickles straight from the barrel while sitting in a trolley. In Seattle, I went through a cheese and yoghurt making phase – using packet cultures – until my sour dough bread epiphany happened. We joined a CSA - Jubliee Farms - the most beautiful memory of land and farming I have still - (please check them out and learn from them here.) They held all kinds of get togethers around harvest, including pickling and fermenting. And we had so much excess at the end of summer we HAD to preserve stuff. But it wasn't until a few years later that knowledge came to mean something more than a passion and a thing to do with my time.
When we were living in Brussels, my youngest was five, she suddenly got pretty sick. 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, 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. Someone suggested that all the antibiotics had left my daughter devoid of essential, good gut bacteria. I saw a clear and direct line through all of my hobbies and realised they were all fermenting - and the foods that could help her were on that list.
Out came the miso soup and natto, yoghurts and pickles.
We moved back to Australia and not long after (for all kinds of reasons of course) I found myself 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 girl’s school and met a mum who showed and shared her milk and water kefir grains with me. Prior to that I'd only bought milk kefir from the store - kefir, and SCOBY ferments were a new magic to me and I was once again in awe of the microbial world; invisible but always present.
Milk and water kefir seemed to really help Lulu's gut. She had gone from craving simple carbohydrates to waking up wanting sour foods - her special drink. Her appetite and energy, her spirit in fact, all came back. I became impassioned, evangelical - and had to tell everyone. New friends would come to my home and see my kitchen full of crocks and bubbling jars.... usually leaving with a bottle or jar. Some of them 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!
The Fermentary sprang from this accidentally on purpose… I knew nothing about business and was scared to commit to any debt - nor could I obtain any funding as a single mum. But word of these ferments spread within months of 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. 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. Meanwhile, I was still working from my home kitchen…
I thought of bakeries, butchers, green grocers.. fish and cheese mongers... where were the Fermentaries? I wanted to be that.
About a year into The Fermentary, big orders started to come in from stores all over. I was renting a spot on a winery, grating cabbage with a wooden grater, stomping it with a large wooden stomper, and fermenting in Polish ceramic crocks. And then hand jarring over long nights and days, listening to podcasts! I had to move and after several moves here we are in an old abattoir - growing life in a place that was doing quite the opposite. Still jarring by hand however.
In 2015 our Milk Kefir was awarded Best New Product at the Delicious. Magazine Awards, and I went to Tennessee to stay with Sandor Katz for a 'Residential'. In 2016 we got a gold medal - and I went back to Japan - to Kyoto for a week residential on growing Koji. In 2017 we were awarded another Gold for our water kefir and also Outstanding Artisan. In May 2017 my first book "Ferment for Good - Ancient Food for the Modern Gut" was released and reprinted after only 4 months! It's now in it's 3rd print and available in Italian too. My 2nd book is now in and due out mid- 2021. I love hearing from readers and customers - this is such an unexpected part of this. We are growing and changing and working out how to sustain this passion and share these wonderful, life giving foods with as many people as makes sense while still staying local and keeping it real. x