As I was poking around on Facebook last week and I found the first ever Florida Ferment Fest, it was be held at a nearby farm to table restaurant I have been wanting to visit so I decided to buy a ticket. I am going to come right out at the opening of this and say I have not fermented much. I have kept a few bread starters alive, dry aged meat, and enjoyed a ton of sauerkraut but have not done any in home veggie fermenting, so this was a lot to take in at once. Many of the people that attended are fermenting things from sauerkraut to kombucha with a skill level I don’t have.
Fermented vs. Pickled
Let’s start at the beginning, what is fermented vs. pickled, fermenting is preserving using live microorganisms opposed to pickling that uses vinegar or other acid to kill off the microorganisms. Once something is fermented and has reached its peak of flavor development (think like aging wine) it can then be refrigerated to stop the process and preserve the flavor. Ferments are not shelf-stable like a canned item that’s been sterilized to kill off the naturally occurring bacteria. At room temperature the fermentation process will continue to change the flavor and color of the food even if you don’t open the jar. Common fermented foods are kimchi, sauerkraut and miso. The dill pickles you get at the grocery store are pickled and canned.
Ok so now that we are all on the same page, why do humans ferment food? Preservation, flavor improvement, and helping digestion are the big three that I took away from Kristine and Christopher Shockey keynote address. From cheese to kimchi preservation of a local foodstuff when it’s plentiful and in season was an important part of survival in many cultures. The idea of ferment what is growing locally and seasonally was a reoccurring theme of all the speakers at Florida Ferment Fest. Adding flavor to otherwise bland dishes economically has helped to make many ferments national obsessions, and anyone that enjoys sauerkraut on a hotdog can testify to that. Lastly, fermenting can help people digest anything from milk to bread more easily and in an extreme example change something like cassava from deadly to a staple of the African diet.
The Florida Ferment Fest was hosted at Ground Floor Farm, the restaurant and farm is located on the edge of downtown Stuart, a quaint little town with a growing food scene. The building has a large multi- use space that serves as a restaurant, a huge kitchen with room for workshops and a garden plot with everything from chickens to vertical growing systems. Florida Ferment Fest was a whole day with three workshop periods, an outdoor beer garden, a keynote address, and a closing dinner. I attended three of the workshops, tasted some very good beer, made some fermented yellow squash pickles and thoroughly enjoyed the day.
The first workshop I attended was on bread. Baking bread is not one of my strongest skills but I have kept a few “mothers” alive in the past so I felt like this workshop would be a good way to easy into the spirt of all things fermented. Brett Wiewiora from Gulf Coast Sourdough was an entertaining presenter with tons of passion and knowledge on bread, fermentation and creating and keeping alive your own starter. If you have never made sourdough bread before instead of yeast you use live starter or mother to leaven the bread. It’s a mix of flour and water that has been allowed to ferment and that living organism is what causes the dough to rise and gives sourdough its characteristic tang. Brett not only walked us through the creation and care of a mother but passed around small tubs of newly mixed starter that let us see how day by day the looks and smells would change. This is controlled spoilage, day three and four are pretty funky! He also gave an awesome tip for making any bread that I think will improve my bread making skills: the knead-in-bowl (https://youtube.be/rotDB_FXokU) method of mixing the ingredients for the first rise. Instead of mixing and kneading on a board where most people tend to add to much flour do it in a bowl! I think this tip alone was worth attending the event, I know I am adding a ton of flour that is messing up my bread at this crucial point. The basic recipe that Brett shared for sourdough is below:
1 part starter (50% flour/50% water)
2 parts water
3 parts flour
1%-2% total weight in salt
The rest of the process for making the bread is pretty much the same to what you see in any bread recipe except the sourdough will need 4-12 hours to rise as it will rise much slower than conventional yeast bread. Brett brought along his bakery’s mother, it’s named Bilbo, (yep, like the hobbit) that he has had alive for 8 years. He gave bags of Bilbo away to anyone who wanted some to take home. There are plenty of resources online if you want to investigate growing your own mother and starting to bake with sourdough at home. A few tips I picked up, start with a whole wheat flour starter not white as its more resilient, don’t keep your starter in a glass jar with a lid it could explode, and the sour flavor in the bread will increase over time after baking so give your bread a day then re-crisp in the oven for more tang.
A Trip to Myanmar
This may have been a fermentation festival, but Kristen & Christopher Shockey’s talk on Fermented Tea Leaf Salad was a travel log, and I love an interesting travel story. The husband and wife spent a month in Myanmar (formerly Burma) this year along with their two adult children tasting different versions of tea leaf salad. Myanmar is one of the only places tea leaf is fermented and eaten, Kristen shared samples of the leaves she brought home as she explained how the leaves are collected and processed.
The leaf kind of reminded me of defrosted very dark frozen spinach with a lot of earth flavors. It was different but not off putting. The salad that Kristen and Christopher made was kind of a mashup of the traditional Myanmar salad and what we westerners would think of as a salad with leafy greens. The salad had crispy fried garlic, nuts, tomatoes and more, the dressing was a light garlicy vinaigrette with citrus, yummy! But the highlights were some of the stories that the couple shared about the trip. Online I found resources to order both the tea leaf and the crunchy nut mix that accompanies the salad, I might have to push my family’s culinary envelope and order some.
Crazy Lactic Cheese
This was fun! I am never making cheese but who cares; my last workshop of the day was awesome. Lead by Jackie Vitale of Ground Floor Farm the hands on cheese making workshop was great. Jackie a European trained cheese maker is funny, quirky, a great teacher and makes some really nice cheese in less than ideal circumstances. Nothing about the east coast of Florida says cheese making region, this is not the Italian Alps, it’s hot and humid and there is a startling lack of caves in which to age cheese. So for this reason traditional cheese making is not going to succeeded so Jackie makes Lactic cheese: a soft cheese that is mild and highly acidic. Cheese like Chevre is an example. A starter bacteria is used to convert lactose into lactic acid and then to coagulate the cheese. The curd is weak but the cheese can be aged to give more flavors. The process is pretty long and complicated and requires things I will never buy online like rennet and cheese forms, but that did not stop me from loving to learn how the process works.
Jackie is infectious, she loves cheese and teaching people how to make it, I am guessing she knows most of us were not going home to make cheese but that did not interfere with her passion or the audience’s enjoyment. Jackie is part of Ground Floor Farm full time, if they put on another workshop and feature her I am going, I don’t care what the topic is. At the end Jackie gave us a number of cheeses to try including an aged one she calls Bernie Sanders. It was good, really good and I am totally impressed she can make something so complicated under such difficult circumstances. I on the other hand will just sit back with a glass of wine and savor the fruits of Jackie’s labor.
Fun and Ferment
This was a cool food nerd event. As a food nerd I loved it. Ground Floor Farm is an interesting venue and their mission to feed people local food so they can taste the difference is one I can fully support. The day flew by and sitting under a tree in Ground Floor’s Farm sipping a beer from Mash Monkeys Brewery out of a cute little canning jar with Florida Ferment Fest’s logo on it in between workshops was a nice way to spend a Saturday. My jar of do it yourself fermenting yellow squash has taken up residence in my wine fridge, with the temperature adjusted up to 65 degrees, so we will see how that goes. I am also making some fermented cranberries to add to the thanksgiving menu this year. I hope this and other events will ensure the continued success of Ground Floor and now I just need to drag my husband over there for lunch or dinner!