My own passion for natural fermentations & how The Ferm. was born.
My actual and spiritual awareness of fermentation began with sour dough.....when I realised that making bread with a packet of yeast was not actually 'from scratch'! Who was the 'yeast farmer'? How did they make yeast? Was this another packet mix? I went to the baker and bought moist 'cake yeast' from them and was very satisfied for a few weeks, felt very professional for a while even.
But where did that come from? A little more research led me to sour dough - I ordered Sandor Katz's book 'Wild Fermentation'. And that is when my bacterial spiritual awakening occured.. my bacterial epiphany..... yeast was in the air, on me, on fruit, in the flour? It expanded my dough so mysteriously and magically - and all of a sudden there was so much more to the world than I'd thought. Soon my laundry became a place of sour dough mothers, pickles, and experi-fermentations. The magic and fervour hit me three times, and I expect it to continue.
Growing up we moved a lot. Dad was in the army - I went to 9 different schools. My mum is Dutch - so happily I do have some blood connection to sauerkrauts although we were much more into salted liquorice, croquets and fries with mayo than kraut to be honest. I did end up with a pretty cool handed down kraut recipe though.
As a teen we lived in Kuala Lumpur for a couple of years and then I went off to Denmark for a year as an exchange student where the food was very much from scratch and we'd knock on the bakery door at dawn for warm bread (drunk) and have gorgeous open sandwiches often with pickled fish and other interesting toppings almost every day for lunch. Plenty of other foods were new to me too - like goose, (lots of schnapps and Jagermeister), divine remoulade and large bowls full of strawberries served with milk. Cold buttermilk soups with almond crackers, gorgeous dark rye bread, potatoes with many different sauces, good cheese and butter, neighbourhood honey, and again - making the perfect array of open sandwiches.
In my early 20's I ended up living at the base of Mt. Takao in Japan for 4 years, and like any person who moves - did not have many friends (at least initially). So I happened upon a friendship with the old lady who had a garden down from where my little window looked out. We hung out a bit - and they she showed me not just how to garden, but how to preserve a harvest. I learned, (often only by watching) to make my own miso, tofu, tsukemono, mochi, and all manner of Japanese home cooking. I had by then acquired a healthy addiction to natto. I travelled a few times to Korea (short flight and great place to renew a visa), and ate a lot of kimchi. I didn't make any there, but saw that in action and learnt enough to yearn for it.
Here I met an American guy (a Minnesotan one - mum had given me strict instructions not to marry a Japanese man in fear I'd stay in Japan forever and I did as I was told... ). We started our family there in Tokyo, it grew and due to his work we set up homes wherever we had to - often with months of free travel in between posts. From Tokyo to Sydney, back to Tokyo again, Chicago, Seattle, and then Brussels. Being a stay at home mum gave me the luxury to cook a lot and learn the local foods, and I wanted my kids to love all of the foods I did. In Chicago it was dill pickles and gravlax and lots of Jewish foods because we lived in a Jewish neighbourhood. After Japan the US food culture was a huge shock! It's changing and there are some amazing inspiring leaders making these changes but back then - most people in my neighbourhood were so far from knowing about food and what was real or highly manufactured. I was introduced by friends as a 'scratch cooker' because I asked once what kind of pumpkin I could buy to actually cook. I wanted to make a pumpkin pie but not use the canned pumpkin. From then on I was no longer 'my friend Sharon from Australia - being a scratch cooker was more interesting or exotic. Chicago had some lovely organic markets and CSA's as well. But in general my neighbourhood was full of the most beautiful kitchens and no-one cooking.
In Seattle I went through a cheese and yoghurt making phase - using packet cultures though, and is where the sour dough bread thing happened. We joined a CSA - the most beautiful memory of land and farming I have still - (please check them out and learn from them here ; https://jubileefarm.org/ . They held all kinds of get togethers to do with the harvest, including pickling and fermenting things. And we had so much excess at the end of summer we HAD to preserve stuff. I saw Sandor Katz at a festival and when I got his book it was mostly the sourdough I made but I read it like a book - his voice in it is so strong - I loved the whole book. Many of the other foods I'd been interested came under the same category. Fermentation. But it wasn't until a few years later that I really started going for it. Lulu go pretty sick and needed gut healing.
She was only five years old and we were in Belgium. It went on for months and months, beginning with a virus and then it grew into something nobody could diagnose. Her fevers ran high every 12 hours for a couple of months, and there was no sign they would abate. She regressed and lost a scary amount of weight unable to keep food down and missed months of school, hardly spoke and her walk became stiff legged and on her toes. I wanted my own mum...we'd been away a long time. A naturopath had said that it was possibly the many antibiotics that had left her body devoid of essential, good bacteria. She was out of balance. And by now so was I, but in a different way.
Here's the happy thing - I suddenly saw a direct line through all of my hobbies of the past and realised they were all fermenting. Out came the miso soup and natto, yoghurts and pickles for Lu. We moved back to Australia.
Setting up The Fermentary in Australia
It wasn't very long after we moved that my Minnesotan was pretty much back in the US full time and I found myself quite alone with three daughters. It wasn't a particularly easy time, I had never worked in a paying job and been a mum. We hadn't lived in Australia for over 12 years. I took a job 3 days a week at the school the girls attended where I met a passionate mum who showed and shared her milk and water kefir grains. Prior to that I'd only bought milk kefir from the store - kefir, and SCOBY ferments were a new magic to me and that was it the third time I felt alive and in awe of the microbial world; invisible but so present.
Kefir seemed to heal Lulu's gut. Really. I became impassioned and couldn't help but tell everyone. I got hold of the GAPS book (Gut and Pyschology Syndrome) and a lot of it resonated with me. New friends would come to my home and see my kitchen full of crocks and bubbling jars and wonder what was going on .... usually leaving with a bottle or jar take home. And I was surprised at how little people knew about krauts and kimchi's and how very often they didn't even like to eat it. Some of them did though and pretty soon they started craving it and a few of them wanted to pay for it. So I made it for them. I felt like I was living my own version of Weeds or Breaking Bad only with lacto-ferments. My kitchen was the lab.
A business sprang from this accidentally on purpose. I initially had different mums from the school come on as 'partners' but it didn't last; our own idea's of what we wanted to achieve (and how) didn't align. Fermenting and small scale food production is a lot of work with little monetary return. And growing too quickly meant changing the product - becoming a corporate, cost cutting venture. I knew nothing about business and was scared to commit to any debt - not could I obtain any funding as a single mum now.
But word of these ferments spread within months of first hitting the fridges of our little Woodend health food store - I had been putting it in their fridge for them to sell in return for credits for organic food. But pretty soon food luminaries like Alla Wolf-Tasker of The Lake House Daylesford and Chef Andrew McConnell of Cumulus Inc group, and even a Sydney cafe started ordering. I was still working from my home kitchen. I needed labels!
About a year into The Fermentary, chef and a dad from school, Roger Fowler came to help with my processes....I had big orders and was grating cabbage with a wooden grater, and stomping it with a large wooden stomper... and fermenting in Polish ceramic crocks. And then hand jarring at night or long days, listening to podcasts. I was renting a spot on a winery which made up for the shitty work. I'm not sure he caught the fermentation bug immediately, more the challenge of getting my systems in place - and then the passion for this kind of artisan food production lured him and he happily stayed on.
Our processes haven't changed much from my home kitchen days - larger batches and shredders and a new way of stomping, but same way of jarring. Roger heads up The Fermentary’s growing production – all still hand made similar to how I first started. That has been a huge challenge by the way - as FSANZ would prefer we bleach the life out of the cabbages and then add starter cultures. There are a few other people who'd like that too - such as the starter culture distributors who highlight to FSANZ why on earth we'd need to do this and FSANZ believes them). That topic is a completely other blog post though.
We love what we do still, are looking for a perfect spot to settle The Ferm in. You will see what we get up to on Insta from time to time - because we love the way they we all look in a hair net or elbow deep in kimchi juice and love the connection we now have with fermenters all over the world.
In 2015 our Milk Kefir was awarded Best New Product at the Delicious. Magazine Awards, and I went to Tennessee to stay with Sandor Katz for a 'Residential'. In 2016 we got a gold and I went to Kyoto for a weeks residential on growing Koji, and in 2017 we were awarded a Gold for our water kefir and OUTSTANDING ARTISAN. In May 2017 my first book "Ferment for Good - Ancient Food for the Modern Gut" was released and in reprint after only 4 months! I love hearing from readers - such an expected part of this.
I've become a regular speaker at some leading Australian food events, and love to share my passion through workshops and classes. I now know first hand what it means to do something you love and be able to share that passion with others. We are dreaming of a space full of good food and other passionate producers and growers around us. So watch this space; or subscribe to hear our news. xx