Andy Heck, co-owner of Small Axe Market Gardens, smiles as he holds up mason jars of homemade fermentated veggies, picked from straight off of his farm. And who wouldn't smile if they were able to make something so beautiful and delicious. The art of fermentation is nothing new however. It's been around for ages. In fact, the earliest record of fermentation dates back to...wait for it....6000BC! Even cavemen were fermenting! And since then nearly every culture in the world has made at least one fermented food a part of its heritage: tofu in China, kimchi in Korea, sauerkraut in Germany, and the unanimously popular cheese, yogurt, bread, beer, and wine. Not only did the process of fermentation allow civilizations to preserve their harvests for hard times, but it changed the flavors and appearances of food, bringing color and culture to what might have been a bland world. Apart from these awesome advantages, fermentation is also gaining recognition in the modern scientific community for its health benefits. The process of fermentation, which is activated by molds, yeasts, or bacteria, may sound a little off-putting. Ask anyone if they'd like a little extra bacteria on their food and see how far you get, but the thing is, bacteria, in many scenarios, is actually beneficial. Take for example the often-tossed around buzz word "probiotics," which is just a fancy way of saying bacteria that are good for you (and in particular, good for your gut). These bacteria help support your immune system, fight disease, reduce imflammation, and provide microbial balance in your digestive system. Lucky for us, these probiotic bacteria are also the same ones that are often responsible for making delicious fermented foods.
Yet somewhere in our busy lives, the art of fermentation was lost. We forgot where our food came from, and we forgot how to preserve and prepare it. The idea of growing yeast and bacteria sounded foreign and frightening, and so we left that practice by the wayside. Something for another day. Something for someone else to do for us. And so the tradition of fermentation receded into the background, like forgotten jars in forgotten root cellars.
With that in mind, October's Fermentation Fun class, hosted by Illinois Stewardship Alliance and led by Chef Greg Christian of Beyond Green Sustainable Food Partners, set out to bring fermentation back to the masses. The class was held at Small Axe Market Gardens, an urban farm in the heart of Springfield, and students had the opportunity to not only sample a wide variety of fermented food products, but to ferment their own freshly-harvested fruits and veggies.
The sun set in the background as the students picked their produce and set to work on their recipes.
They sliced, diced, shredded, mashed, and macerated under the moonlight, carefully layering their jars with salt and spices.
The finished products were more than just fermented veggies, they were little jars of inspiration, proudly being shown off amongst the group and carefully cradled in arms on their way home.
Over the course of the next few weeks those jars will sit on kitchen counter tops to finish their fermentation process, and I imagine every time the students walk by or check the jar for the right level of flavor and acidity, they'll feel a little ping of pride, and think to themselves with excitement, "What will I ferment next?'