Sandor Katz is passionate about bacteria. More specifically, he’s a fan of what it can do to food, how it can preserve, flavour, change and ultimately help us unlock nutrients and heal our bodies.
“I consider the most profound nutritional benefit of fermentation to be the live bacterial cultures,” explains Katz. “At the moment we’re learning so much about the importance of bacteria in our bodies. After a couple of generations of indoctrination with the idea that bacteria are bad and dangerous and must be avoided and eradicated, I think we’re really developing a more nuanced view and understanding that bacteria enable us to digest food effectively, to assimilate nutrients and play a huge role in our immune function that we’re only just beginning to understand,” says the fermentation advocate and specialist.
Katz, a New York native and now resident of Tennessee, is in Australia for a series of talks in conjunction with Milkwood Permaculture. Just five minutes of listening to him will change the way you feel about bacteria and our food. He’s quick to point out that while not everyone is familiar with the idea of fermentation, almost all our foods have some level for fermentation in them.
“If you look around a gourmet-food store – everything that we elevate on this pedestal and categorise as a gourmet food is a product of fermentation. I love cheese, certain styles of bread, miso, tempeh, I couldn’t imagine a salad without a vinegar-based salad dressing, I love beer and wine. It’s very hard for me to think of what my favourite ferment is.”
But he is particularly passionate about wild fermentation. The kind that can be done simply and without added starters and equipment.
“What really distinguishes wild fermentation is that it’s based on the micro-organisms that are already present on the food that you’re fermenting. If you think about it conceptually, all the fermentations we know had to begin as wild fermentations. Certain of them can only be made now with a specific starter if you’re not in the original environment, for instance if you want to make camembert in Australia or in the US, but for many ferments the organisms that are required to make them are always present in the food. Grapes have yeast in them, so the most straightforward way of producing wine is to press the grapes and let the juice come into contact with the skins and that introduces the yeast that’s necessary. It’s similar for sauerkraut or any other form of fermented vegetable, the lactic-acid bacteria are always present on the cabbages, so in the case of fermented vegetables there’s really never any reason to use a starter.”
First drawn to fermentation due to a health dilemma and a change of lifestyle, Katz is now a firm believer in adding and encouraging beneficial bacteria in our diets, bringing us closer to our environments and diversifying the micro-organisms in our bodies. He is attempting to demystify the fermenting process, encouraging people to try it at home or to learn a little more about it.
“The work that I do is spreading information about fermentation. There’s a huge interest in the process, people recognise that there’s an importance to these foods, but because we’ve lost the strands of continuity of how to make them and we’ve all become afraid of bacteria, we’ve begun to project a lot of fear onto them. What I'm looking to do is to spread information and demystify these foods a little bit.”
Katz recommends beginning with simple wild ferments, including vegetable-based favourites such as sauerkraut.
“You don’t need any special starter cultures or special equipment, you can see results pretty quickly, it’s incredibly delicious and supportive of good health, and it’s totally safe.” He says, “It’s not that nothing can ever go wrong, but that the things that can will be abundantly visible and easy to spot.”
Given that we’ve become more distanced from our foods in recent generations, it’s essential to gather basic know-how for home fermenting practices, and that’s what Katz is all about, rebuilding and sharing that lost knowledge.
So far there aren’t any fermented foods that Katz doesn’t like, but he admits that there’s still a lot for him to try.
“I haven’t had a chance to try some of the most notorious ones, such Icelandic fermented shark. But I have had a chance to try the Swedish surströmming and I rather liked that ... I’ve also come to love really stinky cheese and now if I can smell it across the room that makes it more alluring to me. I look forward to challenging myself with new ones.”
Sandor Katz is holding a range of intensive workshops, courses and talks, including ‘An evening with Sandor Katz’, ‘Fermenting Vegetables’, ‘Fermenting Beverages’, ‘Fermenting Milk’, ‘Fermenting Grains’, ‘Legumes & Starchy Tubers’, from February 14–16 at various venues in Surry Hills and Camperdown.