Yogurt. Beer. Wine. Bread. Soy Sauce. They are all quite familiar food products that many of us eat every day. They all happen to be fermented food products. Sauerkraut and kimchi are not quite so familiar to us, and yet they are part of a growing trend in the consumption of fermented foods. This week on my Food Matters column on CBC Radio’s All Points West, I discovered that trend is feeding the growth of a couple of businesses in this region.
For me sauerkraut has been a special occasion food served to complement sausages or a choucroute garni, the Alsatian dish which includes sauerkraut and smoked and cured meats. Kimchi I eat mostly whenever I eat Korean food, but you won’t likely find a jar of it in my fridge and a jar of sauerkraut could sit in the fridge for months. But…these fermented foods are growing in popularity as people discover they are helpful as a digestive aid and have been associated with easing the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. It hasn’t hit the fever pitch of the yogurt market, you walk down the aisle of a supermarket you’re likely to see 20 more kinds of yogurt as opposed to sauerkraut or kimchi…
For food manufacturers yogurt is cheap and fast to make. Made in a few hours, and some yogurts don’t even have milk in them, just modified milk products. Sauerkraut and kimchi, on the other hand, take weeks or even months to ferment, and there is a lot of chopping and mixing involved with the cabbage and other vegetables used in the mix. That hasn’t stopped people from going into the business, though. Earlier this week I visited Melanie Furman in her commercial kitchen on Salt Spring Island, where she makes her ‘culturalive’ sauerkrauts and kimchis for sale at the Salt Spring markets and about a dozen stores. Like many artisans I’ve met here, they get into a food business not because they thought it was a great business idea, but because of their own experience with the food:
I had a bit of a health crisis, I was working a few jobs and going to school full-time and racing back and forth from Salt Spring to Vancouver Island…and my system kind of crashed. I started doing some research to see what I could do to get my health back up. I went on a few different diets and tried fermenting and I discovered that eating fermented foods helped my body to actually digest the food as well as absorb it.
As Melanie became adept at making her own fermented vegetables, eventually the business seed was planted, curiously enough when she was teaching people about nutrition in Zimbabwe. It turns out they had a lot to teach her as well:
And I learned from the indigenous people of Zimbabwe that they had been creating fermented foods for who knows how long, their ancestors and ancestors before that. As I started to do more research I realized that almost every culture in the world does some sort of fermenting, whether it’s grains, vegetables, or fruit, or meat. So if every culture is doing this there must be some reason, some benefit, and then I looked for sauerkraut companies in Canada and found only one, so, why not start another one?
So now she’s been doing it for the past four years, just created a commercial kitchen in a renovated trailer and does all of her production and bottling in there. A lot of chopping and cutting goes into creating her products. She has an industrial food processor that helps her with the slicing of some of the vegetables, but the cabbage that goes into her kimchis, for example, is all cut by hand. After a first fermentation in a large food-grade plastic pail, the various recipes go into German-made crock pots to age in a temperature controlled closet…and those crock pots are expensive! The large ones cost $400 each, about half that for half the size, but even a small one costs about $150 dollars, but they create the ideal environment with a one way seal that lets gas from the fermented veggies out, but doesn’t allow any air to get in.
Fermented foods are supposed to be so good for you on a number of fronts, according to Melanie. First, the fermentation creates probiotic bacteria, and enzymes, which have started to break down the vegetables in the kraut or kimchi, so your body doesn’t have to take on the whole job of doing the digestion, and byproduct of the fermentation also includes lactic acid, which helps create an environment in your gut where bad bacteria or yeasts or viruses can’t grow. She has also used her knowledge of herbs and spices to use them in her products to add to the benefits already inherent in the ferments, so some of her products have spices like coriander and cumin and fennel seed in them, as well as fresh roots like turmeric, ginger and fennel. Her newest product is called Green Gold sauerkraut, all organic ingredients, including cabbage of course, but also fennel and fennel seed, stinging nettle, kale and orange zest. I also had host Jo-Ann Roberts try the spicy kimchi. I have found myself just eating these two products straight out of the far, they are very fresh tasting and not too salty, and Melanie likes to use as much locally grown vegetables in her products as she can:
Yeah, I’m very grateful to have three local farmers growing vegetables for me this year. Im so happy I can guarantee them sales which is always a challenge for a farmer. So they’re growing carrots, onions, cabbage, garlic, hopefully some sui choi and daikon radish this year. I can get the produce right from the island, the farmers harvest it the day I need it and I can pay them that day, it’s a great cycle.
Melanie isn’t alone in her passion for creating fermented foods. A young chef named Zac Zorisky at Z-Squared Food Company in Ladysmith has been working on a line of kimchis, ever since he was introduced to it when visiting South Korea a few years ago. His most unique product at this point is one he calls Zac-chi, and it is a smoked kimchi. What I’m really looking forward to is his soya sauce. Yes, he’s fermenting an artisan style soy sauce, which can take months if not more than a year to make. But I am very excited by that prospect, and excited in general that we have two artisan sauerkraut and kimchi makers in the South Vancouver Island area.