Chronicling the adventures of ecovillagers, apprentices, permaculturalists, natural builders, herbalists, inventors, mechanics, cooks, artists, educators and facilitators at the Ecovillage Training Center.
Amongst the apprentices' busy schedule of planting a winter garden and learning to build with cordwood, they took an afternoon to hang out in the kitchen with me, Merry, the innkeeper of the EcoHostel. As a former apprentice at the ETC, I know what a central role food plays during their time here. So, I make sure that current apprentices have plenty of opportunities to explore different cooking skills that they can use both at the ETC, and in their lives afterwards.
Yesterday was Fermenting 101: Basic Sauerkraut. We took a page from fellow Tennessean Sandor Katz's book Wild Fermentation and made a simple kraut of just cabbage and salt. It was so easy. We just chopped the cabbage, salted it, pressed and worked it until it started to release liquid, then packed into the ceramic butter churn I picked up at an antique shop recently. We weighed it down with a glass jar full of water on top of a saucer, then tied some cheese cloth over the top so we didn't get any volunteer insect protein. The cheese cloth also allows the kraut to "breathe," which is very important to the fermentation process.
Sandor says to press the cabbage down every so often on the cabbage for the first twenty four hours. The salt will break down the cell walls and should draw about enough liquid to cover the shredded vegetable. And, that is exactly what happened! Jason, our newest apprentice, and I took a peek at our kraut this afternoon and sure enough, the brine (salty liquid) was submerging both the cabbage and the plate resting on it.
So, what's going on inside the butter churn, and why would we even want to make sauerkraut when we could buy it at the store? The answer to both questions: bacteria.
The process used to make our kraut is called lacto-fermentation. The cabbage is submerged in the anaerobic (without oxygen) environment of a salty brine. Within that environment, several stages of wild bacterial growth rise and fall, the last being Lactobacillus. While our modern culture cringe at the thought of bacteria eating away at our food, our not-so-ancient predecessors knew the value that these microscopic munchers added to their veggies.
Fresh sauerkraut is full of yummy goodness. The probiotic Lactobacillus is an important member of our internal flora, helping us to efficiently digest our food. Fermented cabbage is also a good source of vitamin C. So good in fact, that before the advent of refrigeration German sailors ate it on long voyages to prevent scurvy. We're making our own here to take advantage of that goodness. Most of the sauerkraut you buy in the store has been canned in either cans or glass jars, and therefor cooked. The cooking process kills the beneficial bacteria and damages the vitamin C.
If you are interested in learning more about fermenting, especially with the wild yeast all around us, then I suggest you get your hands on a copy of Sandor's book. I had the chance to visit his kitchen last year for an afternoon of fermentation madness, and had a great time. The guy sure knows his stuff, and has a great time teaching other people the magic of wild fermentation.