Cheffing is a second career for Jessica Alonzo. Originally a hospital administrator in Dallas, she liked the stability and the benefits, but wasn’t happy. She longed for the days around the kitchen table with her mom, cooking for large family gatherings — “I have such fond memories of food.” Hospital pay got her through culinary school, and then she joined the acclaimed Dallas restaurant FT33 as a line cook. It was there that she got introduced to fermentation.
“With fermentation, the transformation of ingredients is just insane,” Alonzo says. “Fermentation is not new, it’s something that we’ve been doing for thousands of years. It’s a lost art and now it’s starting to make a resurgence.”
Fermentation and whole food utilization are Alonzo’s specialty. Whole food utilization, the cooking technique of using the entire animal or produce, marries perfectly with fermentation. Instead of discarding food scraps, skilled chefs are using the byproducts in brines, condiments and sauces.
“I preserve with a purpose,” says Alonzo, a Texas native. “I’ve worked with farmers long enough to understand what works with their produce throughout the year and what doesn’t. I’ve harvested with them, I’ve worked on their land. It plays a big role in fermentation to know how to properly preserve what farmers are harvesting.”
Alonzo is the sous chef at Dallas-based Petra and the Beast, a James Beard Award semifinalist known for its seasonal tasting menu. She stepped back to part-time status this year and launched her own business, Native Ferments TX, a larder shop that sells local ferments and offers virtual fermentation classes. Below are highlights from TFA’s interview with Alonzo.
The Fermentation Association: Tell me where the idea for Native Ferments came from.
Jessica Alonzo: Misti (Norris, chef/owner at Petra and the Beast) and my husband really pushed me to do it. They were like “You have the drive, you have the knowledge — why not share that talent with others?” People are always messaging me on Instagram asking me about different fermentation methods, and now I can teach them through classes. I love fermentation, I’m just fascinated with it, and it’s just continuous learning for me. You feel like you never really learn everything with fermentation, there’s so many different types of cuisines and techniques.
TFA: Why is it so important to you to support local farmers through fermentation?
JA: With both Native Ferments and Petra and the Beast, I get to work with farmers and support them, which is really what I love doing. Noma is helping make fermentation popular again, opening people’s eyes to the fact that fermentation has been happening forever. Fermentation is not new, there’s a tradition to respect. It was done back in the day because of necessity, people had to figure out how to save their harvest, and fermentation made it so they’d have the nutrients from their harvest throughout the rest of the year.
During the pandemic, restaurant sales for farmers dropped off drastically. At Petra, we had one of our farmers come to us with like a hundred pounds of mushrooms they couldn’t sell and they were going to go bad. I preserved them and made mushroom conservas and dried and did all these things with it, and then we ended up selling some of the mushroom pickles and conservas. I don’t know if any other restaurant did that in Dallas. It forced us to be really creative with food.
On my website for Native Ferments, I have profiles of the main farmers I use. When I sell at farmers markets, I have a big board with their Instagram handles. It’s their livelihood, I don’t want any of their produce to go to waste or to compost, I want the community to enjoy it. The magic of fermentation is transforming these simple ingredients with the natural microbes around you. I’ve worked with many of these farmers long enough to know what type of technique works well to pickle or ferment. I want to help educate people and get them excited and spread the word about the farmers’ hard work.
TFA: Tell me more about whole food utilization.
JA: At Petra, Misti was more the meat charcuterie person. She knows how to utilize every part of a pig or an animal. My mind goes more to vegetables, which I think is why we make such a good team. It makes sense that whole food utilization and fermentation go hand-in-hand. It’s part of preserving. We may be prepping something for tasting and then we have like carrot scraps or like some sort of vegetable or fruit scraps and we’ll automatically turn that into a vinegar. Or we dehydrate our char and dehydrate skins and turn that into part of a seasoning for another dish. Or I’ve done like roots from spring onions, I’ll brine those or I’ve chopped them up and parts in a condiment. We try to be as low waste of a kitchen as possible.
I do that with my ferments here with Native Ferments, too. In my fennel kimchi, I use the entire part of the fennel in that fennel kimchi, the fronds, the stems, everything, and then if my ratios were a little different so I did have some fronds left over, I dehydrate those and make that into a powder and now i’m utilizing that powder into a cure that I’m using on carrots for vegetable charcuterie. Understanding flavor profiles, too, helps when you’re cross utilizing your larder.
TFA: So tell me what have been some of your favorite fermentation creations you’ve been working on lately.
JA: Vegetable charcuterie is pretty cool, I’ve gotten some local produce in different root vegetables and I’m working on different charcuteries with more whole utilization in the curing. So like using the fennel from powder for part of the cure with carrots. I’m doing some shiro shoyu for another chef here in town and gluten-free shoyu for myself. I just smoked some beets and I’m pickling them in a shio koji that I made with a half sour brine and some spring onions. I’m hoping it takes on a meaty, smoky-like brisket, I was really craving barbecue when I did it.
TFA: Why do you think fermentation has become such a bigger interest among chefs?
JA: I think chefs are understanding the importance of the different complexity that you get when you build with fermented food in your cuisine. When Misti and I create dishes at Petra, we always in every dish that we create have some sort of pickle or ferment. Whether it’s an actual fermented vegetable or it could be an amino sauce that I’ve made or a shoyu or using shio koji or something, you don’t get that same transformation just by sauteing vegetables. You see the transformation by marianating them in shio koji first or using a brine in your pasta sauce rather than using a lemon juice. That’s how you build on these complex flavors. Some chefs are really trying to understand that. Utilizing fermented foods in their cuisine, being more creative with their flavor profiles, that’s what we do.
TFA: What do you think is the future of fermentation?
JA: With the resurgence of fermentation, I think it’s going to be more accepted in every household. I would hope that it would be something that every household would have. My parents grew up in the ‘60s, when everything was in a can. We had our traditional Mexican food, but we also had those times where it was Americanized, like everything in a canned food. Fermentation, this really should be the norm. Consumers need to be more aware of how beneficial it is
Restaurants have been under tremendous economic pressure, suffering from business losses during the Covid-19 pandemic. And there’s now a staffing shortage, as long hours and low pay have driven many away from the industry.
Bloomberg columnist Bobby Ghosh explored how restaurant dining may change in an Instagram live interview with Rene Redzepi, owner and co-owner of Noma, Copenhagen’s two-Michelin star restaurant world-renowned for its experimental fermentation lab. Pandemic restrictions shut down Noma twice, forcing Redzepi to create additional revenue streams outside the traditional dining room.
Below are highlights from Ghosh’s interview with Redzepi.
Ghosh: What did you learn about how people were feeling about returning to restaurants?
Redzepi: Restaurants, you don’t need them to stay alive but you need them to feel alive. That was very, very clear, that people were ready to go out. You know they say it’s the catch-up effect, and that definitely happened here in Copenhagen. People were everywhere, they were in piles to get a bite to sit down, have a glass of wine and meet other people.
Ghosh: When you began to think about reopening the proper dining space and planning your menu for the reopening, did you have any particular thoughts or concerns about whether people’s habits in restaurant dining might have changed in the course of the year that they were all locked up?
Redzepi: Yeah, so we went through the first lockdown, opened up, we were open for about five months and then it all came back and we had to close (again during the second lockdown). On the second lockdown, we were shut for six months and, in that time, we were very worried about everything, I mean we still are, but I guess we’re a little less worried now than before because we’re finally open again. We did think “Would people even sit for hours in a restaurant? What is it that everyone wants?” Besides that, people in Denmark, they started really cooking at home again. Takeaway offerings had become quite common, even from some of the best restaurants, something that would be considered completely impossible five years ago. If you had takeaway as a fine dining establishment, you sort of sold out in a way and that was starting to happen.
But I decided with myself, and that was a personal decision, is that in my life I need this creativity, I need to have guests, I need to work on a menu on a daily basis, so during the lockdown I went to work every day in the kitchen as if we were going to open the following day. We actually made two full menus and one of them will never be served because we ended up being closed throughout it. And then we said “OK, let’s just open up and see what happens, will people still want to come out?” and we opened up our reservations knowing that we would cater only to 100% local crowd and it’s gone really well, really really well.
Ghosh: The thrill of being in a nice restaurant and being able to talk to people and enjoy a meal is incomparable um and I do appreciate the value of fun after the year and a half that we’ve all had. Can you give us an example of a dish that you have in your menu now that reflects this attitude of fun, the surprise.
Redzepi: Swedish saffron believe it or not, it’s really, really strong and tastes amazing. We make this fudge with it and we found out that you can actually use the sort of the cutting of walnut as a wig for candles because the oil content in the walnut makes it flammable. And so we basically shaped or molded this little toffee into a candle. It sounds complicated but it’s quite easy to do when it’s hot and then we put this walnut light into it and it comes to the table when they’re drinking coffee and people think it’s you know for coziness and then as it burns out people are then instructed to eat it that’s a that’s a moment where that’s fun you know it’s creativity, it’s delicious it surprises people and it just really makes it makes a difference to people you can feel that they’ve been needing something like that.
Ghosh: What have you learned that you didn’t already know about restaurant economics over the past year that now factors in your thinking about what Noma is and what Noma needs to be in the future.
Redzepi: Oh man, you’re hitting something that we’ve been talking about for the past two years because, particularly in the last year-and-a-half, restaurant economics, they’re terrible. We’ve had 18 years of operation and we’ve had an average profit of 3%. It’s just enough to keep us running and keep painting the house, so during this pandemic we did think to ourselves “Are we going to continue like this for another 18 years, where we don’t have any money to change anything, even if we want it?” You know we’re going to have to find different ways of operating so that we can have a different economics in it. We have to figure out a way if we want to be here for another 18 years because you know it won’t continue like this. So we have definitely thought of many many things and recently we launched this thing that we call Noma Projects. Noma Projects is a sort of a platform to launch a myriad of things, it’s a for-profit company, but we only want to attack projects that also connect to some sort of a worldly issue, and the first project one is is a vegan and a vegetarian garum sauce that you use as a flavoring to add umami to your vegetarian and vegan cooking. It’s a way to help people eat more vegetarian so that’s project one, that’s something that we worked on almost almost since the first lockdown that happened to us we were like we need to step into this.
Ghosh: About six months ago, I did a piece about restaurant economics and the pandemic. I talked to your friend David Chang of Momofuku. We’re saying that we have to figure out more ways to find revenues outside of the dining room. You know, can we get 50% of the revenue from outside of the dining room where the margins are larger to sustain, to underwrite the amazing creativity that goes on in your kitchens? Is that possible? Have consumer tastes or consumer behaviors now changed in a way that will allow that kind of thing?
Redzepi: I think what happened during the pandemic is that it’s been considered more OK for restaurants of say Momofuku caliber or Noma to actually think of ways to put better economics into the system. That has opened a new door and for us, we’re grabbing that opportunity, we need to, definitely. Our industry needs to, in general. It’s an industry that’s under copious amounts of pressure, we deal with poor profit margins, low incomes, people are overworked, they’re underpaid, there’s bad management and a lot of it is a result of there’s simply no money in the industry, people can’t afford to do maneuver any new way they want, and we don’t have any business training either. It’s very interesting what’s going on. I think a lot of creativity is going to come out of restaurants in the next couple of years.
Ghosh: Now in addition to being a chef, you’re a thinker in your line of work. Through MAD Academy, which used to be anyway your annual gathering of of great chefs from around the world, you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about your industry and the future of your industry. I imagine that during the course of the past year, year-and-a-half you’ve had many conversations with the kinds of people who would previously have come to that conference. What are some of the common themes, the common challenges for fine dining establishments?
Redzepi: I think in food in general, the most common problem, and I think it’s going to continue for a while, is that there’s a gigantic staff shortage right now. I think in the pandemic, a lot of people have had an opportunity to rethink their life and say “OK, am I in this industry for the next 20 years or is this a moment for me now to start studying or become a farmer or something else.” That is really the biggest issue that we have right now, there’s no question in my mind. This is something that at MAD we’ve been discussing for almost a decade. If we’re not able to help transform (and this includes myself by the way I’ve spoken about this many times) this gigantic lack of leadership that we face as an industry where we have a poor ability to actually just manage ourselves, manage our restaurants and be supportive of people, that will be the first step that needs to happen which is slowly happening. But then providing better pay and better work hours, that are related to economics. I see our industry being far from that, unless we figure out a way to either charge more that there’s more value towards foods and people that work in the industry or we find other revenue streams. Those are the big, big questions that we are dealing with at MAD. At Noma, I deal with this as a employer myself, how to actually be an inspiration, but how to also provide for staff that are having children, and how can we have everyone stay here for 40 years in this industry? That’s really hard questions.
Noma is coming into the home kitchen.
The fermentation-focused restaurant, lauded as one of the top restaurants in the world, is selling its first line of packaged products. Two garums — vegan Smoked Mushroom and vegetarian Sweet Rice and Egg — will soon be available to ship internationally through the brand’s website, Noma Projects.
“It’s a space for us to channel our knowledge, our craft and experimentation into a new endeavor,” says René Redzepi, chef and co-owner of the Copenhagen-based restaurant.
Redzepi shared details of the launch in a video on the site. Noma Projects will include pantry products and community-based initiatives, “a way for us to address issues we care about through the lens of food.”
Noma’s Pantry Staples
The garums are Noma’s “take on a 1,000-year-old recipe that we’ve been developing over the past two decades.” Redzepi says the “potent, umami-based sauces” have been the “key to our success at Noma in our vegetarian and vegan menus.
He hopes the garums will help more people cook plant-based meals, announcing in the video: “We want to help you bring more vegetables into your everyday cooking.” The garums provide the flavor of meat and fish without the animal. The website description notes: “Shifting towards a more plant-based diet is the easiest way for an individual to help the environment. We hope these garums will do the same for you that they’ve done for us, help inspire and create more delicious plant-based meals when you cook at home.”
These products were developed in Noma’s Fermentation Lab, where dozens of pantry staples were tested before landing on the garums. A garum is the “concentrated essence of its main ingredient” with a strong umami flavor, and Redzepi describes it to the WSJ. Magazine (the luxury magazine published by Wall Street Journal): “It has the potency of a soy sauce, except it tastes of what it is.” Both are brewed with koji rice, what Redzepi calls the “mother fungus.”
The garums are currently fermenting and will be ready for shipping in the fall or winter. The expected price point is $20-$35 for a bottle.
And more garums are in the works. Noma Fermentation Lab director, Jason Ignacio White, says a roasted chicken wing garum is next.
“It tastes like super chicken stock with umami,” White tells WSJ. Magazine, ”so it’s a familiar flavor, but there’s something about it that you can’t really put your finger on, that makes your tongue dance.”
Despite Noma’s expensive tabs — the 20-course tasting menu costs 2,800 Danish kroner (or around $447), and the wine pairing is another 1,800 Danish kroner (or around $287) — in the 18 years since it opened, the restaurant has hovered at only a 3% profit margin. Redzepi hopes Noma Projects will make more money. While it is “a family-run garage project,” its goal is to reach a million customers.
Like many restaurants around the world, Noma shut down during the pandemic. They reopened as a burger and wine bar in June 2020, and the walk-up, outdoor dining experience was such a success that it became a permanent restaurant, POPL.
Noma resumed regular operations on June 1, 2021. The pandemic closure allowed Redzepi and his team to finally tackle the retail brand, something he said they had debated for years.
René Redzepi graced the pages of The New York Times again, but this time in the Arts section. The chef and owner at the world-famous restaurant Noma shared impressions on different musical pieces and other musings with writer Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim. One of his favorites: Mort Garson’s “Plantasia” (an electronic album meant for plants) that he plays in Noma’s greenhouse.
Redzepi also touched on fermentation. “It’s an antidote to the world where everything is so fast; on-demand; lightning speed. To actually have things that you have to wait for and then something magic happens, I love that. The happiest people I know are people who are in nature all the time: foragers, bakers, fermentation experts. Sometimes I envy that focus. My job is to be at the center of everything that is going on.”
Read more (The New York Times)
Vegan chefs are creating animal-free fish sauce, using ingredients like seaweed, mushrooms, pineapple, soybeans, black beans and tofu for “the obvious oomph of umami.” A recent piece on Vice.com reported that many of these chefs were reluctant to use anything other than traditional fish-based ingredients. But they’ve found that these new fish sauces are especially popular with younger customers, many of whom are vegan or reducing the amount of meat-based products in their diets.
“Across the animal-free spectrum, home cooks and chefs have gotten creative as they deconstruct and recreate the magic of fermented fish,” continues the article.
Raj Abat, chef at New York’s plant-based Filipino restaurant Saramsan, was initially skeptical that a vegan fish sauce could work, but he found that fermentation was the transformative element. He said: “My first thought was: It has to look dark and black, and it has to smell really, really bad. Fermentation does that. It makes everything smell really funky, but when you taste it, it’s so delicious.”
Read more (Vice)
Does sake go well with Western dishes? Josh Dorcak, chef of Japanese restaurant Mäs, tells Forbes why he thinks sake is an excellent pairing with all food types, maybe even more so than wine.
“Sake pairs with everything,” Dorcak says. “With wine often it seems like there are these rules that one must follow while sake often fits the bill for creative pairings.”
Read more (Forbes)
From pickling foraged plants to experimenting with koji to vacuum-sealing tempeh, more chefs are experimenting with fermentation. Insights “for menu developers seeking unique concepts and ingredients” were shared during a session at the Research Chefs Association’s RCA+ virtual conference.
Sandor Katz, noted author and educator, discussed how research kitchens can increase their fermentation activities, from creating interesting flavors to expanding food preservation.
“[Fermentation] can elevate the plainest of foods into flavor sensations,” Katz said. “Its uses in culinary traditions around the world are incredibly diverse, and yet visionary chefs are experimenting with exciting new applications of fermentation.”
Read more (Food Business News)
Sales are soaring. Although kimchi only makes up 7% of the pickles and fermented vegetables category, its sales are increasing at an explosive 90% rate, according to SPINS.
We asked three kimchi experts their thoughts on the uptick in sales: Minnie Luong, founder and CHI-EO of Chi Kitchen, JinJoo Lee, chef and Korean Food Blogger at KimchiMari and Kheedim Oh, founder and Chief Minister of Kimchi for Mama O’s (and member of TFA’s Advisory Board).
We asked them: Why do you think kimchi sales are increasing so rapidly?
Minnie Luong: Originating in Korea around 4,000 years ago, kimchi is an iconic food symbolic of hope, trust, and survival that is the perfect food for our current times. One of the world’s most special foods, it elicits delight, storytelling and sharing. In fact, UNESCO has designated kimjang — the traditional way of making and sharing kimchi — a designated intangible cultural heritage of humanity.
Low in calories, high in fiber and big on flavor that’s great for your digestion and gut health, kimchi is uniquely poised to cross over from being a specialty food to a must-have pantry staple for health and wellness enthusiasts, home cooks and those seeking out a satisfying flavor adventure. Its spicy, tangy, umami flavor is convenient and easy to use across a wide range of dishes along with a long shelf life when refrigerated. Just open a jar and it’s ready to go! While kimchi is often seen as a condiment, it should really be considered a vegetable, but one that packs a delicious, probiotic punch. Let’s face it, we could all use more veggies and flavor in our lives!
JinJoo Lee: I think the sales of kimchi are increasing because more and more people are aware of the health benefits of kimchi (loaded with probiotics like many fermented foods) and also are being introduced to the wonderful flavors of it now through many restaurant foods and magazine recipes.
More restaurants have started to use kimchi in their menu because I think chefs have realized kimchi works great in non-Korean dishes such as on hamburgers, pasta, cheese quesadillas and even with Brussels sprouts!
Kimchi has a very deep and complex flavor with an amazing zing that fermented foods have but it also is a perfect balance of sour, spicy, salty, umami and slightly sweet that works well with so many different foods, especially meats and seafood.
Most Americans may know only the spicy napa cabbage kimchi (Baechu Kimchi) but did you know there are over 100 different kimchis? kimchi can be made using all sorts of different vegetables such as cucumber, eggplant, radish, mustard greens, green onions, chives and more.
If made and stored properly, kimchi can last for weeks, months and years and it can be enjoyed throughout all the different stages of fermentation – from the very beginning as fresh tasting to fully ripe to overly ripe and sour then even when it’s aged for years! So kimchi is the perfect fermented food that’s tasty, healthy, versatile and even long-lasting.
Kheedim Oh: With everyone in the world simultaneously experiencing sensations of uncertainty mixed with mortal fears of peer contact, people are drawn to the near mythic powers of kimchi. One of the top 5 healthiest foods in the world (according to Health Magazine). A true superfood. People are attracted to the promises of probiotics. The comfort of supporting their immune systems with each bite. The flavor of fermentation. The addictive nature of how eating good kimchi makes you feel.
The word kimchi has reached a tipping point where it’s no longer just the stinky rotting cabbage from Korea (or wherever) to the acidic/tart vegetable dish that “I had as part of a dish at the insert [trendy fusion restaurant] that I went to and I heard it’s really good for you.” It’s losing its Korean-ness and quickly being subsumed into White American food culture the way that kombucha has already completely become. There are a lot of “kimchis” that are only kimchi through very loose interpretations or are just not real kimchi by any definition, only by name. The culprits being many of the before-mentioned fusion restaurants.
On the other hand, there is the whole DIY home fermentation movement that has been growing year over year. Educating themselves on how to achieve food sovereignty, they tend to be a more culturally sensitive crowd. Regardless of the hype surrounding the word, we hope that kimchi can maintain its popularity in America while maintaining its unique UNESCO World Heritage recognized cultural identity as a Korean food.
Chefs and home cooks are using miso in innovative ways, experimenting with contemporary dishes inspired by traditional Japanese techniques.
“It’s becoming pretty ubiquitous in people’s kitchens now. It’s been a great creative outlet for people trying different misos,” says chef Kyle Connaughton. He joined chef-author Hiroko Shimbo and chef-educator Kirsten Shockey in a TFA webinar organized and moderated by chef (and TFA advisory board member) Robert Danhi Miso: Traditional Flavors with Modern Application.
Connaughton uses Saikyo miso as a salt and seasoning in the kitchen at SingleThread, enhancing the natural flavor of the vegetables and meat used in the 11-course tasting menu. SingleThread is a three-Michelin-starred restaurant, inn and 24-acre farm Connaugthon opened with his wife, Katina, in Healdsburg, California.
“I think chefs and food companies will continue to innovate in new ways and new directions because there are benefits that come way beyond creating a trendy dish,” Connaughton says. Using miso instead of dairy creates a less fatty, more nutritious dish, and miso can be used as a more sustainable substitution for less environmentally-friendly ingredients.
SingleThread’s culinary style is inspired by Japan (where Connaughton lived and trained for years) mixed with the local terroir of California’s wine country. Miso is used frequently , and he shared pictures of “how we go beyond miso soup and miso ramen.” Dishes included a roasted pumpkin puree with miso as a cream base instead of milk, duck liver parfait cured in miso, porridge made with wagyu beef and caramelized miso and a chocolate ganache made by blending in miso for extra umami flavor.
Shimbo, a world-renowned authority on Japanese cooking and author of “Hiroko’s American Kitchen,” showed off miso-based dishes from her home kitchen. These included different miso soups, a pastry where miso is mixed in with the flour and a pizza topped with a miso-based tomato sauce.
“Miso culture in Japan is diverse and wonderful,” Shimbo says. There are 16 miso techniques in Japan, each flavor originating from a different region in the country. “This extended geography with associated climate variations contributes to creating regionally unique food culture.”
Miso can vary in sweetness, aroma, saltiness, uses and production processes. Shimbo detailed the flavor, culinary tradition and modern applications of three types of miso: Sendai, Saikyo and Mugi.
“Not all the miso sold at the food stores are made equally or worth purchasing,” she adds. Miso made at the factory level can be cheap, with alcohol added to stop the fermentation. “We can’t expect food flavor or nutritional value in this type of miso.”
Kirsten Shockey, author of “Miso, Tempeh, Natto & Other Tasty Ferments” (and TFA advisory board member) agreed with Shimbo. When purchasing miso, study the source. Unpasteurized miso will provide the most benefits. Shockey studies the traditional uses of any ferment, and says miso should never be cooked beyond 140 degrees because it will kill the nutrients. In Japanese kitchens, miso soup is never brought to a boil.
“The knowledge of the people who were using these foods forever is also important,” Shockey says. “Think about how they’ve been used to keep people very nourished through centuries.”
Shockey shared different types of colorful miso pastes from her home kitchen. She also let viewers peek inside her 5-gallon cedar vat, where she makes long-aged batches of miso.
“Miso is this beautiful collaboration of microbes, enzymes, time, and all of this acting upon grains and legumes. And it creates something super delicious and, in a lot of ways, more than the sum of its parts,” Shockey said. “Miso is magical…I think of it as a top-level ferment because everybody’s involved, all the microbes.”
Modern society needs fermentation now more than ever, as the food system becomes industrialized and unsustainable, says Meredith Leigh, farmer, activist and author. Consumers are far removed from farmers and the land, and food produced in factories hurts the environment.
“People are eating more fermented foods. The experience of food is not a quantity thing anymore, it’s more of a quality/complexity thing.” Leigh shared her insights into meat fermentation and creating a food system connected to the land and animals during a TFA webinar, From Soil to Salami: Fermentation, Life and Health.
“The punch and umami and funk is really becoming more understandable to people. That’s really promising, specifically when it comes to protein. Smaller portions, more complex flavor over big chunks of flesh that are ultimately not in service of thrift or sustainability,” Leigh continues. “My hope is that the funkier the better because we really need people to be able to stretch their palate understanding in order to get specifically meat products in a better, more sustainable, ethical situation within the food system.”
Leigh started in the food industry as a farmer, raising vegetables and animals. Concerned with how much money she was losing to the meat processing sector, she streamlined her business by opening a whole-animal butcher shop and restaurant. Leigh served only regional meats and meat products to a local audience, but found the farm-to-table business model too complicated for the general public — folks were not ready to walk into a butcher shop and buy a whole animal.
So Leigh pivoted to educating, consulting with farmers, restaurant chefs and home cooks. She also authored two books, “The Ethical Meat Handbook” and “Pure Charcuterie.” [ADD LINK?]
Charcuterie often gets overlooked in fermentation conversations because meat preservation is a “vast umbrella” of fermented and cooked meat.
“Uncooked, salt preserved meat items are very much a beautiful culmination of a lot of different culinary fermentative processes that humans harness. It very much belongs on the docket of fermented superfoods,” Leigh says.
The fermentation of meat, though, can be shocking to chefs accustomed to cooking in relatively sterile environments. When making a salami, for example, the meat becomes swollen, smelly and drippy, fermenting in a humid room.
“It’s not exactly a beautiful process. If you zip down to the microscopic level, there’s a lot of death happening, there’s a lot of engorging. It’s a sugar battle,” Leigh says. “It’s a sugar feeding frenzy and some of them are actually eating so many sugars that they’re exploding and the enzymatic soup of these explosions is part and parcel of the flavor we associate with fermented foods.”
“I tell people, ‘Close the door, it’s none of your business because you’re fermenting.’ That advice is disarming because it’s amusing. But also it’s really true. You’re in there tinkering and you sort of have control over this process, but you sort of don’t. And that’s a good thing that you’re not totally in control. You’re surrendering to nature.”
Adds Kirsten Shockey, author and educator (and TFA advisory board member who moderated the webinar): “You’re much more of a microbe shepherd. You’re trying to herd everybody, but you have no control. Each of those microbes [is] out for themselves.”
Modern consumers and even commercial fermented food producers are often far removed from farming. Leigh says that, to reclaim our food systems, we need to look at the indigenous practices that founded the sustainable agriculture movement. Commercialized food erases the land ethic and the traditional farming and fermentative processes of indigenous people, especially indigenous women.
“If we as producers, curators and knowledge bearers of fermentation, if we’re not telling that part of the story to the people really into fermented foods, we’re not doing anybody any favors. We’re just making money and putting good food out there. Really connecting people back through fermented foods is one of the more hopeful ways we have of telling that story to people who will never touch soil or slaughter a pig or any of those things,” Leigh says, adding that the best place to start sharing that story is through social media. “The popular media conversation about fermentation is not doing that. Our production of these foods or curation of these foods is not only a way to elevate health, human health or flavor, but it’s also a way of commenting on and changing culture.”