Sour taste leaves good gut feeling

Healthy obsession: Sandor Katz has written two books on fermentation.
Healthy obsession: Sandor Katz has written two books on fermentation. Photo: Jessica Dale

'Fermentation revivalist'' Sandor Katz isn't a traditional celebrity cookbook chef, but at universities in California, he can't cross the lawn without being stopped and asked for photos and autographs. Why? Because, he's also the charismatic leader of fermentos, a growing movement of people around the world who are rediscovering food-culturing techniques, and the scene is going gangbusters.

He grew up in New York City and discovered fermented foods as a young boy.

''I just had a love of sour pickles. I've always been drawn to the lactic-acid flavour of fermentation,'' he says.

Field of focus: Fermentation foods such as kimchi have attracted plenty of interest.
Field of focus: Fermentation foods such as kimchi have attracted plenty of interest. Photo: Marina Oliphant

Fermented foods are nothing new. We have been eating them since before recorded history. Cheese, olives, sourdough bread and beer are all fermented.

In the past several decades, we've worked hard to sterilise our food, adding preservatives to extend its shelf life. But what if these changes have affected our gut flora? What if we've got it wrong? Medical research is indicating that we need to nourish and replenish our ''gut biodome'' to keep healthy. All those probiotic capsules we've been popping? Basically they're sauerkraut in a pill.

Calling it a revival is not entirely fair - Soviet grandmothers never stopped making kombucha, the Germans never gave up sauerkraut and Koreans still love kimchi. But lately, hipster houses on the east and west coasts of the United States have started to fill with fermenting crocks that bubble and burp.

People are craving to recontextualise their food.

In restaurant group Momofuku's fermenting laboratory, chefs are applying age-old miso techniques to pistachios and pinenuts.

In Australia, copies of Katz's, The Art of Fermentation, sold out long before Christmas, while small businesses making sauerkraut can't get enough organic cabbages to keep up with the demand.

It was too many cabbages that provided the key turning point for Katz 21 years ago, who had set up a garden in rural Tennessee after moving from New York.

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''I was such a naive city kid and it hadn't occurred to me that when you have a garden, all the cabbages are ready at the same time.'' He remembered how much he loved sauerkraut, and hit the cookbooks to learn how to make it.

''Then I started making yoghurt. I started playing around with sourdough baking and started making what I call country wines - elderberry, blackberry, fruit wines - and then I became obsessed with fermentation and read everything I could, experimenting widely, looking in different cuisines. I started making miso and tempeh.''

This obsession with fermentation earned him the nickname ''Sandorkraut'' and the cult cookbook, Wild Fermentation, was published in 2003.

With another decade of knowledge under his belt, he released The Art of Fermentation, the weighty bible of the new ''fermentos''.

Katz sees the motivation behind the movement as ''part of a much larger desire to be more connected to our food''.

In Australia, he is keen to find out what new flavours our bush herbs bring to fermentation, and is thinking about making a fermented fruit drink from fresh lychees.

''We had a couple of generations of people being thrilled to get further and further from where their food comes from, because it means they don't have to be digging in the soil or cooking in their kitchen,'' Katz says.

''In the past decade or so, people have realised that something has been lost with that. Our food has become decontextualised and people are craving to recontextualise their food, to become more deeply connected to the sources of their food. Fermentation is such an important part of that.''

Sydney: Sandor Katz will speak at "An evening with Sandor Katz", Teachers Federation Conference Centre, February 14, 6pm-8:30pm, $59. Workshops: February 15-16, $220.

Melbourne: Sandor Katz will speak at "An evening with Sandor Katz", State Library of Victoria Theatrette, February 21, 6pm-8.30pm, $59. Workshops: February 22-23, $220.

See www.wildfermentation.com and milkwoodpermaculture.com.au