Foodie firsts abound in Sonoma County history — its first Michelin star, its first James Beard-award winner, its first all-veggie, organic drive-thru. But this weekend’s Farm to Fermentation Festival may qualify as its first-ever food petting zoo.
“We’re basically putting together a culture petting zoo,” says Hannah Crum, aka the “Kombucha Mama.” “It’s a chance to get up close and personal with water kefir, milk kefir, kombucha and jun cultures.”
As she explains, it almost sounds like another language, like subtitles should be rolling across the screen. What she speaks is the language of fermentation — the simple process of converting sugar to acid or alcohol using yeasts and bacteria. It’s used in foods like yogurt, kimchi (Korean fermented veggies like cabbage, radish and scallions), sauerkraut, pickles and dry sausages. It’s also behind effervescent drinks like kombucha (fermented black tea), kefir (fermented milk) and jun (fermented green tea and honey).
These are the probiotic, enzyme-loving rock stars that will be center stage this weekend at the Farm to Fermentation Festival, an annual yeast-a-palooza of all things fizzy, funky, skunky and scrumpy. Wait, scrumpy?
“ ‘Scrumpy’ is one of my favorite words when it comes to fermented foods,” says festival director Jennifer Harris. “It means ‘cidery,’ and in England they actually call cider ‘scrumpy.’ ”
Taking over the fledgling festival that started in 2009 at Salmon Creek Elementary School in Freestone, she’s grown it into a popular tasting frenzy that has become the model for fermentation festivals in Santa Barbara, San Diego and Boston.
This year, there will be seminars called “Your Digestive Health,” “Making Miso at Home” and “Ferment with the Seasons.” Demos will break down lacto-fermentation and meat curing, giving way to a DIY pickle party and fermented root-beer float bar.
Fermentation geeks will get up close with umeboshi (Japanese salt plums), nukazuke (Japanese pickled veggies) and fermented hot sauce. A guy named Todd Champagne will divulge the secret to crunchy sour pickles. And the Homemaker’s Kraut-Off will crown the new King or Queen of Kraut in Sonoma County.
For many fans, it’s also a quest for the holy grail — the almighty SCOBY (aka Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast). The coveted mother culture is used as a starter to make fermented foods at home. To the eye, “it looks sort of alien, almost like a plastic jellyfish,” says Harris. “I’ll get emails from total strangers asking, ‘Here’s a picture of my SCOBY, my mother culture. Does it look OK?’ It’s like virtual mother diagnosis.”
Living in Los Angeles, Crum still remembers finding her first SCOBY. “A friend picked it up for me on the east side and when she brought it over, she was like, ‘What is this placenta-looking thing? It’s alive!’”
Today, SCOBYs and fermenting vessels cover “every inch of counter space” in her home. The health benefits from fermented foods are often marketed as high in antioxidants and energy enhancement. They’re supposed to bolster the digestive and immune systems and provide bottled “nutrition in a living form.” But the FDA has remained mostly mum on anything beyond yogurt and pickles.
“If you go back to the ’60s or ’70s, yogurt was the first to break through. Back then, people would make it on their countertops, and now it’s everywhere,” says Crum, who runs the Kombucha Kamp website, where the tagline is “Trust Your Gut.” “We’re hoping kombucha will be just like yogurt one day, only it won’t take so long because we have the Internet.”