Fermentation Sweeps the Nation

House-made kombucha, kimchi, kraut, and other fermented delights are popping up on more and more East Bay menus.


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Fermenting is something more people are trying at home.

Photos by Lori Eanes

Is it fairy tales, with their abracadabra transformations of ordinary substances into sparkly, smelly, stretchy and/or slippery ones, that now spur so many of us to seek out—and craft—fermented foods and drinks? Is it the probiotic promise of bacterially balanced bowels? Is it the bounty of diversity?

Our neolithic ancestors fermented barley and maguey, but this epochs-old tradition is now a trend. House-made kombucha, kefir, kimchi, kraut, miso, natto, tempeh, pickles, and yogurt are popping up on more East Bay menus. Fermentation is the main event at local businesses such as San Leandro-based House Kombucha and Berkeley-based Cultured Pickle Shop.

“You can enhance a dish so much with these ‘wild’ flavors,” asserts Bob Cina, executive chef at District Oakland, whose house-fermented crowd-pleasers include salumi, vinegar, pickled farmers-market produce, and the ramp-and-cabbage kraut that accompanies steak tartare.

At Salsipuedes in Oakland, executive chef Marcus Krauss adorns ice cream with house-pickled strawberries. At Gather in Berkeley, executive chef Tu David Phu—who grew up in Oakland watching his parents make kimchi, shrimp paste, fish sauce, and pickles—pairs his house-made pickled-cucumber yogurt with pork belly. Berkeley’s Three Stone Hearth community kitchen produces such futuristic fermentasia as cream-soda kefir and sea-salt/beet kvass.

Oakland’s Homestead and Pleasanton’s Sabio on Main serve house-fermented meats such as lomo and chorizo. Now invading everything from tacos at Belly in Oakland to hot dogs at Alameda’s Doggy Style, kimchi might be the flavor of the century.

“Fermentation is definitely a part of a burgeoning food movement relating to our connection to food,” namely to its provenances, properties, and practices, says Elizabeth Vecchiarelli, whose Piedmont Avenue shop Preserved offers DIY fermenting classes and supplies.

While working at a Philadelphia wine, cheese, and beer bar, “I learned a lot about the history and evolution of each of those fermented favorites,” Vecchiarelli remembers. Touring organic farms and reading the runaway-classic manual Wild Fermentation—whose HIV-positive author, Sandor Katz, credits fermented foods with boosting his health—“led me on my own journey to study holistic nutrition and inspired me to start creating my own alchemy of ferments at home,” Vecchiarelli avows. “I was so impassioned by this connection to food and the revival of these ancient traditions—I knew that I wanted to start a business that helped preserve that connection and share this knowledge.”

Gather’s Phu explains, “Fermented ingredients bring a depth of flavor and thoughtful, healthy elements to our dishes. It is exciting to see how flavors change completely after the fermentation process; sour can turn into sweet and vice versa. The most difficult part of the process is patiently waiting for the fermentation to complete.”

“A lot of people don’t realize how many everyday items are actually the products of fermentation,” says Homestead co-owner/co-chef Liz Sassen. “Coffee, chocolate, wine—they all went through the fermentation process in order to take the forms in which we enjoy them.”

Homestead’s vinegars—made with wine dregs—and butter are exactly such products. Culturing Straus Family Creamery crème frâiche “adds an extra step” to butter-making “and creates an amazingly different flavor,” she said. “It’s almost cheeselike. It’s dangerous.”

Sassen has been feeding the same sourdough starter for eight years; each loaf baked at Homestead is the product of a four-day fermentation. The restaurant’s popular chili sauce, produced by pickling 200 pounds of fresh peppers each summer, is even longer in the making.

The molecular magic of fermentation still mystifies most of us, maybe because it’s little-known: Sugar molecules split silently, away from direct sunlight. And it’s slow: Fermenting kimchi for four days is standard; doubling that span “adds complexity and lets its flavors mellow,” says Sabio’s executive chef Francis Hogan, who buys ingredients for various kimchis, including a unique kohlrabi version, at Telegraph Avenue’s Korean stores and the Grand Lake farmers market near his home.

Hogan also cures and preserves meat as Italians and Iberians have done for millennia.During a recent stint in Spain, “I tasted chorizo in every corner of that country. But in every corner, the animals feed on different foods—acorns in the south, tree bark in the north. Terroir affects meats just as it affects wines. Fermentation intensifies and concentrates those flavors in meats, and that sense of place.”

Our ancient ancestors fermented food to preserve it, souring it to save it. “Making sure that the good bacteria is keeping out the bad,” says Sassen.

“I love the fact that fermentation is more of an art than a science,” she said. “That means there’s no singular ‘right’ way to do it.”

The possibilities are endless, Cina said, when it comes to “obtaining the flavor of all those tasty bacteria floating around.

“Not many people realize that our lives are surrounded by millions of different bacterias clashing into each other, creating something new every second,” he said. “They’re alive.”

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