Fermentation Workshop -Sandor Katz

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We quite enjoy attending seminars and educating ourselves more about anything food related. Especially when their subject is a powerful food obsession, like fermentation and the person leading it is the fermentation revivalist. The following blogpost will make you feel as if you were sitting next to me during this workshop.

The last days of May, I attended a Fermentation Workshop hosted by Sandor Katz at Vezene Athens. The latter is a contemporary Greek bistrot, the brainchild Ari Vezené. He is a much acclaimed self- taught chef, butcher and owner of two equally celebrated restaurants in Greece; apart from his bistro bar in Athens, he also owns Trattoria Vezené on the Ionian island of Meganissi.

We have been following the events Ari is hosting for a while now, especially since he developed EMBRACE; “a new series of gastronomic events which aims at introducing some of the most important chefs worldwide to a greater local audience while promoting Greece to these chefs, as well as helping to initiate said audience to a “new chapter of Greek cuisine” through the melding of these various visiting cultural influences”.

Back to Sandor now, who has devoted about 2 decades of his life to this project, even if he is not a trained biologist or microbiologist. You might have heard his first book Wild Fermentation or the second one, The Art of Fermentation. He mentions feeling like a mad scientist at times – I definitely consider him as a fermentation demystifier. He travels the world spreading the word about fermentation and the microscopic worlds of microbes. He is a food lover, who chose to return to the land and live in rural Tennessee and not only uses fermentation to fight food waste but for its “glorious healing power”, as well. Let’s find out more about the world of cold boiling, shall we?

He started off his presentation acknowledging that fermentation is not a new concept to Greece. He mentioning trahanas –fermented pasta that Oliveology cooks loved during our Cooking Workshop- yoghurt and wine. If only he knew about our olives -you might recall our previous blogpost on fermentation, explaining why our Kalamata olives are so special. Too bad we didn’t bring some for him to try!

Fermentation might be happening with or without us; however, he focused on the intentional, the planned attempts. The protagonists of this procedure are diverse communities of micro-organisms. The simplest procedure includes getting the vegetables submerged in their own juices and letting lactic acid bacteria work their magic.

In order for his audience to realise the importance of fermentation he stated practical examples like:

  • Alcohol, which is the most widespread byproduct –think wine and beer,
  • Flavour, examples like chocolate, vanilla and cured meats –impossible to lead a delicious life without them,
  • Preservation –an excellent and very Greek example would be homemade preserves –γλυκά του κουταλιού- among others,
  • Perceived health benefits –through this process extra nutrients are generated. Furthermore, in some cases, foods that used to be dangerous are made edible.He elaborated for a while regarding our relationship with bacteria, nowadays. Even if we’ve got about 1 trillion bacteria in our bodies and there’s no form of life without them, we’re still terrified. Bacteria in our contemporary minds equal with danger, disease and death. Did you know that serotonin –vital for your mood, dreams, appetite and even the flow of thoughts- is regulated by indigenous bacteria from the gut? I had no idea!

Practical concepts of fermentation:

  • Wild fermentation is relying on indigenous bacteria. They are part of the food you’re already fermenting. For example wine, where the yeast is already there.
  • Starter culture is relying on a package of yeast. Bacteria never exist in isolation as a matter of fact. In this case, we choose to save some of the previous batch, in order to use it for the new one. A great example is the sourdough starter.
  • Symbiotic communities interact in order to produce the desired product. Examples include kombucha and kefir.

During his first demo he displayed his way to prepare sauerkraut. He chose to use cabbage, carrot and kohlrabi. Adding salt comes first, then the vegetables and finally, the spices. Root vegetables are very watery, something that should be taken in mind during this procedure. He said that the ideal vessel when fermenting at home is a glass jar, whereas when fermenting in a restaurant, a vacuum sealed bag. In that case we still have to keep an eye, as the CO2 generated could result the bag exploding. Before putting in the vessel, make sure that the content is juicy and salty enough and always leave room for expansion.For those wondering how long you can ferment for, he replied that usually people eat the product at different stages of fermentation and experience the flavour getting stronger. In case we want to slow down the procedure, we can always refrigerate it. The vessel should always be kept out of direct sunlight and its optimal temperature should be around 20°C and never more than 45°C.

During his second Demo he displayed his way to prepare a fruit soda –carbonated soft drink with fruits. He chose to use apricots and strawberries –which were in season- as main ingredients and a sugar and water solution. You could always choose to use fermented vegetables for your drink, of course. Sandor stressed the importance of using chlorine free water in beverages like this one. A great tip he shared: put some of your soft drink in a soda tin and use it as an indicator for the rest of your fermentation vessels. When you see it expanding, it’s time. He also mentioned Bar Tartine’s orange blossom soft drink we seemed delicious –can’t wait to prepare it!

Overall, I really appreciated the workshop; I feel more confident identifying and initiating fermentation, especially after the two different demos. I loved that he advised us not to be a slave to recipes and not to think about it too much. He underlined the importance of working with ingredients that are abundant around you and not look for other, expensive ones.

Of course, I quite enjoyed the atmosphere and the hospitality of the venue, as well. The young and ever curious crowd, most of them cooks, chefs and bartenders looking for the best ways to incorporate fermentation products like kimchi and kombucha to their menus. However, I wish there was a chance for us to try the different stages of fermentation so we can really tell how the flavour develops.

What’s your preferred fermantation method? How do you prepare your sauerkraut? Do you have any questions about fermentation? We would love to know. As always, stay tuned for more!

by Lida

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