When I told a friend I was going to a fermentation festival, she immediately assumed I was going to drink a ton of beer. “How are you going to drive home?” was her first question. Oh, dear.
I came across as a bit condescending when I explained to her that I wasn’t going to a beer festival. That’s right, folks. Fermentation is not the art of making beer. It is the art of nurturing bacterial cultures to change the properties of a food item.
Fermentation can extend to a wide variety of items, from cheese to kimchi. It also extends to a wide variety of bacterial cultures. These bacteria, under the right conditions, metabolize the sugar in the food. The result is a food item with increased nutritional value and health benefits.
Held at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, the Austin Fermentation Festival was the result of increased interest in the centuries-old practice of fermentation. This was just one of many fermentation festivals sweeping the nation, and over 3,000 people were in attendance to check out a wide variety of local vendors.
My favorite was Dos Lunas cheese. Joaquin Avellán lightly browned his cheese and served it with a splash of honey. Magically, the cheese did not melt! Kombucha, pickled carrots, mead, chocolate (really?) were a few of the fermented foods being sold by vendors at the community culture swap. Our keynote speaker, Sandor Katz, encouraged us to ferment the local food we had available to us, namely prickly pears.
The workshops available at the festival proved to be quite informative. I chose a yogurt making workshop by Deepa Shridhar. It was clear that she was very knowledgeable about the yogurt making process. She explained that when making yogurt, one would have more problems making a yogurt id we did not reach the appropriate temperature than if we went slightly above it. She told the audience how to recover from mistakes (whisk separated curds back into the liquid if the mixture separates) and was able to effectively answer all audience questions.
You could tell she was accustomed to working in a restaurant, as she mentioned using a hotel pan for the cooling process. However, chances are, the average person probably doesn’t own a hotel pan. She had a wealth of information on when to sweeten your yogurt (anytime) and tried to explain to an amateur audience how to nurture a yogurt culture into something that you like, explaining that different cultures are going to yield different tasting yogurts.
The keynote speaker, Sandor Katz, is a leader in the field of fermentation. A self-described fermentation revivalist, his career began with a batch of sauerkraut. He talked about the health benefits of fermentation, which included an increase in B vitamins and immune system strength.
Katz encouraged a wide variety of bacterial cultures and foods, to promote a diverse array of healthy bacteria in the digestive system. He mentioned that at different points in the fermentation process, different bacterial strains will dominate. He debunked the fear of botulism (it’s an issue with canning) and explained that while fermentation may seem like a fad, it has been around forever.
The Austin Fermentation Festival connected participants to the Austin food scene, which is not heavily advertised, but very prominent – namely, a conglomerate of vendors sending local, farm-fresh products. These vendor products appear in Farmers Markets and Wheatsville Food Co-op. Their websites boast exciting, refreshing events like kimchi making parties, and little-known supper clubs.
What was the best part? These people make a living selling their products. The food world doesn’t have to be fast paced service and line cooks with drug problems; it can mean taking care of yourself and the world around you.
There are still some questions to be answered about fermentation. With so many gluten- and dairy-free people these days, how does fermentation (which includes cheese, yogurt, and bread) figure into the health food scene? Will more people start eating dairy as long as it is properly fermented and thus more digestible? That remains to be seen. The fermentation wave could oppose those who claim to have food intolerances, and offer them an easier way to digest the foods they claim are impossible to break down. Look, out paleo fanatics. Fermenters are coming for you.