Fermentation: a kick in the gut that's good for you

Stephanie Wood
Passionate: Sandor Katz's fermentation evangelism has played a major role in the word's entry into five-star restaurant ...
Passionate: Sandor Katz's fermentation evangelism has played a major role in the word's entry into five-star restaurant menus and fashionable food magazines. Photo: Wolter Peeters

Sandor Ellix Katz likes to tell the story of the Russian-Australian woman who put sauerkraut in her husband's ear.

''Her grandmother came to her in a dream and reminded her that when she was a young girl in Russia they would use sauerkraut poultices any time someone had any weird skin irregularity,'' says Katz, a man who has the nickname, ''Sandor Kraut'' and a 55-gallon oak barrel in his Tennessee cellar filled with radish kraut.

When the woman woke up, she told her husband of her dream. The man was scheduled for surgery to remove a skin cancer in his ear. He agreed to let his wife try her home remedy. The skin cancer disappeared.

''A fascinating story about an application of fermentation,'' says Katz, the author of books including his most recent, The Art of Fermentation, and The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America's Underground Food Movements.

Katz, 51, who describes himself as a ''fermentation revivalist'', is visiting Australia to talk about the art of fermentation in a series of talks and workshops.

''I have always been drawn to the flavours of fermentation. Even as a kid I loved sour pickles,'' he says. ''But what really got me fermenting was when I moved to Tennessee 21 years ago and started keeping a garden. It turns out, in a garden, all of the cabbage is ready at the same time and all of the radishes are ready at the same time.''

Katz's international fermentation evangelism has played a major role in the word's entry into five-star restaurant menus and fashionable food magazines.

Last year, the Huffington Post told its readers ''Six Things You Should Know About the Fermentation Trend''. In December, the American news website Salon put fermented foods in its top spot in its ''Five biggest food trends of 2013''.

''Fermentation has always been the most practical of undertakings,'' Katz says. ''People who have to be frugal and thrifty about food are the people who've always needed to use fermentation.''

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Nevertheless, he says, anybody with a great interest in food knows that ''the most extraordinary flavours'' are produced by fermentation which, in simple terms, is the process in which micro-organisms such as bacteria or yeasts have a transformative action on foods.

Think cheese, wine, cured meats, sourdough bread. Or think adzuki bean spritzer, miso-fermented egg yolk and peanut butter and kimchi sandwiches - all suggestions on Katz's ''Wild Fermentation'' blog.

Beyond flavour, fermented foods are considered to offer major health benefits, especially for people with chronic digestive problems.

''Bacteria actually are critically important for good health and wellbeing,'' says Katz.