Got the homebrewing thing down? Think you know a lot about fermenting? Think again. Beyond beer, cider, mead and wine, there’s a whole wide world of fermented foods and beverages. Lots of people dabble in sourdough and some make vinegar or yogurt. The production of each requires a similar set of skills. But there is something more. Fermentation is a wonderful natural transformation that has driven Sandor Katz to look at it almost ethereally in his new book, Wild Fermentations.
Sandor Katz lives an interesting existence, to say the least. He leads a communal lifestyle in rural Tennessee and hangs out with folks named Echo, Orchid and Nettles. His is a life of experimentation, simplicity and fulfillment. His obsession is fermentation.
Katz’s interest in this unusual endeavor began innocuously enough, as he was exposed to the usual fermented treats that most of us have experienced—sauerkraut, yogurt and pickles. The tart, lively flavors hooked him. When he rediscovered their allure later on, he decided to make them himself. Enthralled with the results, he dove into the production of almost anything that is made via fermentation.
Fermented food has been consumed as long as organisms have been nourishing themselves. The understanding of these processes, however, is relatively new. Katz’s marvel at fermenting foods is one of wonder, practicality, sustenance and taste, but he has another, more basic explanation for his interest—health. He makes an eloquent case for why we should eat things fermented. Microbiology is life itself, digestion is impossible without it, and by consuming “partially digested” foods, we make our own biological systems stronger. Fermented foods are more complex and nutritious in many cases, and often easier for the body to assimilate. Katz cites many examples of this phenomenon, the benefits of which are documented both scientifically and anecdotally.
The book is far from being just a treatise on the benefits of microbiologically altered foods, however. About three-fourths of the book is a nut-and-bolts instruction manual for making virtually any kind of fermented food and beverage. The average homebrewer might not find much new material about brewing, but he or she might look at the beer a little differently. Mead, cider and wine making are covered, but of real interest to brewers is the section on indigenous beers like T’ej, chicha, bouza and chang.
For brewers, vinegar production is a logical and simple extension of your hobby. If you catch the “bug,” there is a staggering collection of basic recipes and variations for things such as yogurt, sauerkraut, miso, cheese, tempeh, kimchi, and pickled items—how to make them and how to use them.
Katz’s composition may be the most extensive display of practical fermentation information available. He embraces the subject as if his life depends on it. In his mind, it does. He is a long term HIV/AIDS survivor who firmly believes that his approach to nutrition has not just prolonged his life but has unequivocally enriched it.
Our relationship with microbiology has never been presented in a more vital, interesting and fun way than in Katz’s opus. The rewards are familiar, exotic and diverse. Wild Fermentation could just as easily be entitled “Zen and the Art of Fermenting.”