Fermenting with Katz

Making Time was recently paid a visit (albeit unwittingly!) by celebrity fermenter Sandor Katz. The self-described ‘boy who liked pickles’ was in town to lead a weekend of workshops hosted by the folk at Milkwood Permaculture. More on the workshops directly. Here is Sandor photographed by the Sydney Morning Herald in front of what could be nothing other than the immaculate shelves of Pasta Emilia in Surry Hills, current home of the Making Time cart and where we will soon be holding an autumnal jar-opening get-together for past participants.

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This is an improvisational art – there is no one way

Over the course of three days, Mr Katz delivered a marathon 20 hours of teaching, traversing the sticky territories of such microbial goodness as nato, kefir, kombucha, sourdough, miso, yoghurt, sauerkraut and naturally, pickles. As an enthusiast who has spent the last decade or so collecting and dispensing knowledge around the various cultural practices of fermentation, his pedagogical style is more akin to storytelling or shooting the breeze in a friend’s kitchen than what I imagine usually takes place in the slightly oppressive university lecture hall in which we were sat. Nonetheless the man has a lot to say, and though this didn’t deter the eager hands shooting up routinely in the audience, not only on the (always variable) technicalities of exactly how much salt, which kind of flour, how many hours left in a warm place, just how warm, and so on.

Fermentation is explained as ‘the transformative action of micro-organisms’, and as such offers some curious parallels to the work of Making Time. The micro-organisms operate in elaborate communities that – over time and given the right conditions – have evolved the ability to transform their environments in particular ways. In the case of a humble pickle, bacteria (from which all life is descended) found spontaneously on the vegetable is woken up by its submersion in water (the most basic condition of life), turning a perishable crop into something that will last throughout long winter months, with a distinctive pickley taste, and whose nutrients – digested and broken down by those little organisms from proteins and starches into amino acids – are rendered more bioavailable.

 Fermentation is older than writing.

It turns out that canning, or preserving things in jars, was invented in France only 200 years ago. Refrigeration is younger still, maybe a century or so in use (and even now only enjoyed by privileged populations). Before this, people wishing to extend the lifespan of their produce had two options: drying or heavy salting, or their opposite: fermentation, an alchemical process tracing out what Sandor refers to as the ‘creative space between fresh and rotten’. Long journeys on which the web of colonisation depended were often facilitated by fermented goods, with James Cook being credited for beating scurvy with large barrels of sauerkraut. Fermentation practices certainly predate modern science and the isolation of such constitutive organisms as bacteria and yeast. For indigenous Polynesian communities poi, pounded taro pudding fermented in pits in the ground, is linked mythologically with creation and sacred life force, part of the evolution of a plant that has survived since the Cretaceous period.

One of the first points Katz made was that we need to break out of the infantalising role of ‘consumers’ and become all of us producers. As a kind of effervescent human conduit linking holders of such knowledge, and those who might take it up, the role he performs is somewhere between translator, archive and advocate. There’s no doubt that the crowds of kraut-lovers, home producers, creative restaurateurs and the simply curious that filled the auditorium – though restless in their rather less active part in this drizzly weekend’s proceedings – went home armed with a sense of their own micro-agency and an attunement to the many quiet actions of cultured transformation.

A handful of Sandor’s recipes will be posted here soon. Stay tuned.

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