Culture club: Whitehorse group extols benefits of fermented food
Joel Krahn/Yukon News
It can be bubbly, foamy, gooey, or syrupy.
It probably sat on a counter for a while.
And it’s alive.
Welcome to the world of fermented food.
Since last summer, fans of the bacteria-producing stuff have been meeting once a month in town to share their latest creations, tips and discoveries.
It all started with Katherine Belisle, a nutritionist in town who specializes in digestive health. As she puts it, she wanted to spread the “joy” of fermenting as a culinary hobby, but also for health reasons.
“I’m looking for ways for people to make them feel better in a way that’s natural, affordable and fun,” Belisle said.
The fermented foodies, as they call themselves, meet every last Friday of the month at Farmer Robert’s. At first only Belisle brought her delicacies, from sourdough bread to kombucha, a fermented tea, water kefir, a fermented soda, and pickled veggies, including good old sauerkraut.
Between the first meeting in August and the one held in October, the group of fermenting foodies grew from five to 30 people, Belisle said.
Concerned foodies might wonder whether that bacterial culture club will really want to hurt them. Is it safe to eat? How can you tell the good bacteria from the bad bacteria?
“It’s controlled,” said Belisle.
“There are certain things you have to be careful of, but generally if it’s done properly you end up having good bacteria outnumber the bad bacteria.”
Joel Krahn/Yukon News
When making sauerkraut, for example, using salt and making sure the vegetables stay immersed is particularly important.
Fermented foods have all sorts of different smells — but that doesn’t mean they’re bad.
“If you think of all the kinds of cheese, some of them can smell damn funky,” said Belisle, who went on to call the smell of blue cheese “disgusting” (a statement many French people might find in poor taste).
And in case of doubt, newcomers to the fermented food scene can ask Belisle to take a whiff of their food to double check.
Fermentation has historically been practised in every culture on the planet. From brewing to cheese-making or baking bread, it has served many purposes, preserving and transforming food.
The wide adoption of canning and refrigeration in the 1950s meant fermented food took a step back. Now it’s making a comeback.
For the past four years Belisle had a stand at the Fireweed Market showcasing fermented products.
“For the first couple of years people would run away — they thought it was gross and disgusting,” she said.
Only last year did it start picking up, partly because fermented food is now being promoted for its health benefits.
“A lot of people are suffering from gut issues,” she said. “And culinarily speaking there is a lot of interest.”
While Belisle does extol the health virtues of fermentation — which she said eases digestion by partially breaking down nutrients and adds some zesty vitamins regular food doesn’t have — it’s not a cure-all.
“It’s not a magic bullet but it is very helpful,” she said.
It’s also not a one-time deal, she points out: only regularly consuming fermented food will allow you to enrich your gut flora.
For the adventurous type, know there is a wide variety of food that can be fermented: grains, dairy, eggs, beans, seeds, nuts – even honey.
And you don’t always have to use a mason jar, either.
In his book, The Art of Fermentation, Sandor Katz details traditional fermentation practices in Scandinavia, Russia, Greenland and Alaska where fish and meat were buried in the ground for a period of time to ferment, before being recovered and eaten.
In Alaska, he writes, the Inupiat people bury king salmon heads in the ground and let them ferment.
After that it’s just a matter of making sure it doesn’t get too strong, or “green and slimy,” as one Inupiat elder describes it in Katz’s book.
So if you’re foaming at the mouth just thinking about all the fermented foods out there, take note: the next meeting of the culture club will be held on Dec. 30 at Farmer Robert’s.
For more info visit the Fermented Foodies group on Facebook. To try out some of Belisle’s recipes, go to katherinebelisle.com