By Hetty Stuart
The process of fermenting food turned into a personal interest this past winter, when I was dealing with a bout of pneumonia – the second time within two years. The anti-antibiotics program had finished, leaving my gut microbiome out of balance so I began researching how to replenish the good bacteria that had been depleted from my gut. In addition to taking an herbal supplement, I found that fermented food was one way to protect my immune system, aid in digestion and ultimately heal the gut.
Who knew that so much of the foods we consume are actually fermented? Cheese, beer, wine, yogurt, beet kvass, miso, kefir, kombucha and kraut are a few common ones. Kimchi, with its spicy Korean taste, was new to me. I was pleased to find a local source outside Goderich that produces and sells kimchi.
Erika Schilthuis is the energetic producer of both kimchi and kraut in her store, the Maitland Market & Supply on Porter’s Hill Line. She works here alongside her husband Dennis, their four children, and her in-laws, Bill and Stephanie Schilthuis. Maitland Market had purchased the rights and recipes for kimchi making from a company called Truly Local. Erika makes it with a bit of a twist, calling it “the Huron County version”. As any great cook will do, Erika has added her own touch to the recipes.
“Kimchi,” Erika enthuses, “is a fermented Korean dish, made primarily of salted napa cabbage, sauce, spices, radish, onion, garlic and chilli peppers. It is a simple process to make: the vegetables are chopped and mixed with salt, and allowed to ferment for three days before refrigeration. It is chuck full of Vitamin A, B, C, and iron; and most importantly, it improves the balance of the gut microbiome.”
Maitland Market doubles the health benefits when they do a double ferment to kimchi and sauerkraut. “The whey that we strain off the natural yogurt is added to the vegetables when making kimchi,” Erika shared. “We have pared down the heat from this original spicy Korean recipe, and made it to suit our Canadian customers. So not only does the kimchi ferment for the typical three days at room temperature, but the bonus of adding the whey, gives the finished product a lacto-ferment, which doubles the health benefits.”
The taste is pleasantly effervescent, with a welcome crunch. “This crunch happens because kimchi is 100 per cent a living product. It has never been cooked,” explains Erika. “My in-laws had visited Korea once, and every household has a little stone crock on the counter or in the corner, bubbling away with kimchi. They eat it with every meal, even if only a tablespoon or two. They know that kimchi can improve levels of good bacteria in the gut. The intestinal health is improved, as well as the immune system. There are great benefits to eating kimchi or kraut because it is alive.”
Kimchi is an easy crowd-pleaser. It can be added to scrambled eggs, tucked into a tortilla, stirred into stew, spread on sausages or burgers or added to rice or beans. Even the liquid in the bottom of the jar is great to stir into salad dressings or to use as a dip. Erika stated, “Our sales of kimchi peak greatly in the fall when people are beginning to boost their immunity for the upcoming cold and flu season.” Whether we are fighting pneumonia, colds or the flu, having a strong immunity is our best defence.
Dr. Martha Rogers, a retired Health Faculty Professor from York University, heartily agreed that a gut full of friendly bacteria is “a smile on the inside.” Martha has also earned the Master Food Preserver degree from Cornell University and has been a public educator through Agriculture Grey Bruce.
The seminars that had been scheduled for her to teach on food fermenting (cancelled due to Covid-19) had been filled to capacity, with additional classes being added. Martha was pleasantly surprised. “There is a strong interest in healthier, non-mass-produced food and to be self-reliant. Young people want to be self-sufficient and connect to the earth again. They are looking at the health benefits from all sources, fermentation in particular, to boost the immune system.”
“Fermentation is an ancient practice and has been around for thousands of years,” Martha said. The fact that it is becoming a popular trend again is heartening. She uses Wild Fermentation, written by Sandor Katz, as her scientific guide for correct procedures.
Making kefir is one method of fermentation that Martha finds simple and can be made in small batches. “Milk kefir is a cultured dairy product that has a tart, refreshing taste,” she said. “It is a probiotic drink, prepared with kefir grains and fresh milk. Simply place a tablespoon of kefir grains with a litre of milk and allow it to sit on the counter for up to 24 hours. Once strained, you can drink it just as it is or use it in smoothies.”
These grains are live cultures consisting of a mixture of bacteria and yeast existing in a symbiotic relationship. An excellent website to learn about kefir is: http://www.canadiankefir.com/.
Martha said that kefir also aids in digestive problems and improves health. Disease begins in the gut, but health also begins in the gut.
Another drink that is fermented and sparkles with an effervescent flavour is kombucha tea. Susan Gentilcore, an inspiring teacher and writer of her blog allthingspreserved.ca, is an urban entrepreneurial homesteader whose aim is to become a better steward to the earth.
In February, over 30 fermentation enthusiasts joined Susan over the course of a morning for a hands-on workshop on kombucha basics and roundtable discussion in Kitchener. The seminar began with a presentation and DIY starter kits that allowed us to produce this kombucha at home.
With her typical humour, Susan, showcasing a bottle filled with the SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), called the blob floating in its liquid “the old man in a creepy raincoat”. By the end of the class, we were all aware how this “mushroom” can transform ordinary sugary tea into a refreshingly fizzy, slightly sour fermented beverage, filled with probiotics, anti-oxidants for free radicals, glucosamine and vitamin B.
“To brew a batch of kombucha,” said Susan, “there are only four ingredients needed: a SCOBY, starter, tea and sugar. The SCOBY is added to cooled and sweetened brewed tea, along with some starter, into a glass bottle, with a tightly woven cotton cloth secured with an elastic. This bottle remains on the countertop undisturbed for up to 14 days, testing it periodically. When it tastes delicious – not too tangy and not too sweet, the batch is finished.”
There is a second ferment period where different flavours can be added through the addition of summer-fresh fruit or spices. “This step is not necessary but allows it to become your signature drink,” Susan shared.
With each batch being brewed, the original SCOBY will grow and need to be separated. At this point, the new SCOBY can be used in another batch of kombucha-making. Or, as Susan shared, “Compost the SCOBY, feed it to chickens or store it in a “hotel” – a jar with extra SCOBYs and starter tea, covered with cloth, to later share with friends.”
It’s been half a year since my pneumonia and I have been enjoying the benefits of fermented foods for months. In that time frame, the COVID-19 pandemic has become a reality in our country and given us all cause to be aware of keeping healthy both physically and mentally. The smile on my outside has a lot to do with my smiling in the inside as well. ◊