Jennifer Harris always seems to show up with a bottle or jar with something curious inside. Sometimes fizzing, maybe a little slimy or with an earthy funk, but delicious.
A self-described fermentation addict, Harris is pied piper of one of the most ancient forms of preservation known to mankind. Smart as a whip, the bubbly blonde can break down the science behind lacto-fermentation and explain the difference between various probiotic bacteria quicker than you can say pickle.
She's also the organizer of the first Farm to Fermentation Festival, held Sunday at Tara Firma Farms in Petaluma.
So why all the hubub about SCOBYs (symbiotic colonies of bacteria and yeast) and kefirs? Harris and others advocate the health benefits of probiotics found in many fermented foods.
Science and food manufacturers seem to be catching up, offering more and more probiotic choices on grocery shelves.
But at-home fermentation is one of the oldest, most traditional ways of preserving food; it's just that many of us have forgotten how.
Between brinings, she answered a few questions about how she got started in the fermentation game.
Q. What are fermented foods?
A. Everything from pickles, cheese, sourdough starter, kimchee and chocolate to kombucha, water kefir, Japanese natto and even salami.
Q. How did you start fermenting?
A. During my freshman year of college, I met someone who was brewing kombucha in her dorm room. Her roommates began to complain about the smell, and I didn't live in the dorms and so she asked if she could keep it at my house. I agreed, and she told me that she would stop by once a week to "tend" to it.
Over the next few months, it became clear that she didn't really have any idea what this thing was, or what to do with it. I began doing research on the stuff, and learned how to bottle it in order to achieve a carbonated product. In the next few years, it became popular on the store shelves. I got to the point where I was bottling 120 bottles every week to barter or give away, and I realized that I should start looking into other fermentations.
Q: What's the weirdest thing you've ever fermented?
A: Along the kombucha learning path, I discovered "Wild Fermentation," by Sandor Elix Katz. This book is filled with recipes for many cultural ferments, things I had never heard of.
It encouraged me to try things that weren't in the book. I was inspired by Katz' renegade attitude towards bacteria and, as someone who always enjoys a moment of rebelling, I was excited to start playing with my food in ways that I hadn't been formally taught.
One of my favorite things to do is to inoculate new mediums with the kombucha SCOBY or vinegar starter or "mother." By introducing new bacteria (other than green tea leaves and their native bacteria) to a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, you see the true life of the fermentation as it changes its ecosystem.
I am most excited to start experimenting with the nukazuke pickle process next. This is a traditional Japanese process of fermentation involving inoculated rice bran as the medium for fermentation. I am waiting to start my Nuka pot until the week that the festival is over!