BY MARC N. WILLIAMS
Here in Western North Carolina, we are lucky to have a wealth of fermented food makers — from producers of sauerkraut and Ethiopian crepes to kombucha and mead.
But why should we care about fermented foods? Simply put, they offer a multitude of benefits. They act as probiotics, which help aid digestion and ward off disease. Challenging microbes also may be held in check through the presence of beneficial microflora, thereby improving the overall microbiome — the collection of microbial organisms present on and in an individual. Its importance is slowly being uncovered through scientific research.
Nutrients are also made more available through the process of fermentation. Digestive enzymes are created that help the body break down complex proteins. The complex proteins of soybeans, for example, are broken into more simple amino acids. The sometimes hard-to-digest sugar in milk known as lactose is broken into lactic acid through the process of fermentation. Detoxifying compounds are created through the process of fermentation. And potentially deleterious compounds also may be broken down in the process of fermentation: phytic acid, for example, which blocks the absorption of zinc. Fermentation also adds variety, unique textures and flavors to foods. Umami is a term used to define this flavor.
What exactly is fermentation? Simply stated, it is the action of microbes upon various materials that leads to a transformation and breakdown of the substrate, often into sugars such as alcohol, acids such as vinegar and carbon dioxide, among other things. The history of fermentation in human history is a long one.
Fermentation has been used for thousands of years all over the world by every indigenous group that I am aware of. It was one of the first methods used to preserve food. It empowered the age of exploration on long voyages; sauerkraut, for example, was rationed to sailors to prevent illnesses such as scurvy, which is related to a vitamin C deficiency.
Many of the first globally popular ferments of trade were all stimulants such as chocolate, coffee and tea. In a traditional context, these would often be consumed in a bitter form, which was later watered down with milk and sugar in the industrial age. Some folks, such as internationally renowned fermenter Sandor Katz in his book Wild Fermentation, have posited that these products indeed became a type of fuel for the Industrial Revolution. Traditional fermented products are often used sparingly as condiments. This is probably a good practice to follow due to their often salty and acidic nature.
You might not realize how many foods are fermented, but there is quite a diversity of products that undergo this process before reaching consumers. Here are some major categories of fermented products, along with their WNC connections.
Vegetable ferments: Those include sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, tempeh, tamari, soy sauce, miso and gv-no-he-nv, a traditional corn ferment of the Cherokee, for those interested in indigenous traditions of WNC. We are lucky to have several local sauerkraut/kimchi and pickle makers locally, including Green River Picklers, Our Daily Kraut and Serotonin Ferments. Fermenti is another local kraut company that also ferments beets, chutneys, hot sauces and salsas, among other things. Great Eastern Sun, which produces Miso Master, is one of the major producers of that product for the whole country. WNC also benefits from the presence of Smiling Hara Tempeh. The main difference to me between sauerkraut and kimchi is that for the former, European cabbage and one or two flavorings (i.e., caraway or juniper berries) are used versus Asian cabbage and the addition of garlic, ginger, hot peppers and root vegetables for the latter.
Breads/porridges: Njera, dosas, sourdough wheat breads and various porridges fit in this category. After years of requests in the Mountain Xpress annual readers’ poll, we have been blessed to get the Ethiopian restaurant Addissae, where one can try njera, a spongy, sour type of crepe. Dosas are a type of Indian fermented pancake that are typically gluten-free since they are made of lentils and rice. They are a perennial favorite in my fermentation classes.
Beverage/liquid/stimulant ferments: Those include coffee, tea, chocolate, jun, kefir, kombucha, kvass and vinegar. The WNC region has quite a range of producers of the first three. I have tasted kombucha from coast to coast and in several other countries and find Buchi to be the best I have ever had commercially. Buchi will also start manufacturing kefir shortly. Jun is similar to kombucha but is sweetened with honey; Shanti Elixers is one local producer with a tasty product line. And Locally Good Farm lives up to its name as a maker of apple cider vinegar.
Alcohol ferments: Mead, cider, beer, liquor, sake and wine are covered in this category. Asheville, of course, is known as Beer City. We currently have at least 26 breweries in the city proper, at least 34 more in the region, with single digits of producers for most other beverages. However, cider production is increasing, and the region is home to a majority of the meaderies in the state, including Alchemy, Fox Hill Meadery and Bee & Bramble. Ben’s Tune Up is one of the only sake producers in the country. I am one of the authors of a zine that partly describes the local brewing scene in Asheville and can be accessed online at the Culture and Agriculture section of the American Anthropological Association. The real health benefits that may be gained from consuming alcoholic beverages are mostly related to incorporating medicinal ingredients like plants and fungi into the brew. Personally, I have imbibed over 150 species in that pursuit.
Dairy ferments: Those include yogurt, kefir, cheese and buttermilk. The expense of equipment and economies of scale probably prevent anything developing locally other than our artisanal cheese products, such as those offered by Spinning Spider Creamery, Three Graces Dairy and Yellow Branch Cheese. Some cheeses are also crafted without the use of fermentation.
Meat ferments: Prosciutto, salami, bacon, ham, fish, miriss (fat), and doddery (bone) round out this category. The folks at Hickory Nut Gap Farm in Fairview and Foothills Local Meats are starting to produce artisanal meats in this style. Local author Meredith Leigh is a nationally acclaimed author who has written on this subject quite eloquently in 2017’s Pure Charcuterie: The Craft and Poetry of Curing Meats at Home, and with Jean-Martin Fortier in 2015’s The Ethical Meat Handbook: Complete Home Butchery, Charcuterie and Cooking for the Conscious Omnivore.
There remain many business opportunities for the enterprising local food fermenter. Some prime examples include makers of mead, soda, kvass, jun, seed cheese and dosas. Here’s to celebrating this important and diverse technique of food production in hopes that its products continue to proliferate locally for the health and well-being of everyone.
Ethnobiologist Marc N. Williams (email@example.com) has taught hundreds of classes to thousands of students about nature, people and their interface. He is the executive director of Plants and Healers International and has traveled in all 50 states and 28 countries pursuing biological knowledge.