When life hands you a lemon, you are advised to make lemonade. When handed a cabbage, Sandor Katz turned it into sauerkraut and thereby launched a fermenting frenzy.
“Twenty years ago I moved from New York City to the rural woods of Tennessee and I realized all the cabbages are ready at the same time. Figured I had to make sauerkraut,” said Katz.
His fascination with fermentation, a natural chemical breakdown at work in beer, wine and pickles, has led him around the world.
This week the fermentation revivalist is in Maine spreading the word that this prehistoric method of preserving food is tasty, healthy and easy to do. Katz headlines the Common Ground Country Fair on Friday to talk about fermentation and relocalization, and leads a demonstration on the process Saturday.
Fermentation is on the rise because people want to “reclaim their food and have some connection to it,” said Katz, whose books “The Art of Fermentation” and “Wild Fermentation” have become bibles for home cooks and chefs interested in experimenting with this timeless technique.
“The reality is most of what we eat is not the raw products of agriculture, but what you can turn it into,” the 51-year-old said.
At farm-to-table restaurant 50 Local in Kennebunk, chef David Ross considers fermentation “a great way to preserve the local harvest.”
Ever since he discovered Katz’s books, the chef has embraced this ancient-yet-suddenly-new process.
“He is leading the way. Across the country chefs are watching,” said Ross, who makes seaweed kimchi and ferments garnishes like radishes, carrots and cauliflowers for toppings at his pizzeria, Owen’s Farmhouse.
“As the culinary movement comes into the natural phase, and chefs forage their own mushrooms, chefs are getting away from buying from a distributor and are making it themselves,” said Ross who does all of the above.
That DIY spirit is what Katz embodies.
“I’m encouraging people to not support the big, industrial versions of these and make it themselves and support the small, newly emerged businesses,” said Katz.
That message is catching on in food circles on both coasts. Because sauerkraut requires no more than “a jar, a head of cabbage, a knife and a cutting board,” it’s an easy exploration.
To Ross, fermenting is a “cutting edge technique that chefs now are starting to implement into their menus.”
Though enjoying its moment in the spotlight, fermenting is far from a new trend.
“It’s never ever not been popular. If you think about beer and wine, pickles, olives and fish sauce, in every part of the world, it’s always been popular,” said Katz.
The fermenting craze is bubbling up in Portland where Urban Farm Fermentory and In’Finiti Fermentation & Distillation have taken the idea and run with it. Next month East Bayside’s Urban Farm Fermentory opens a new tasting room featuring innovative styles of hard cider, mead and kombucha, a fermented tea. Since opening in 2010, owner Eli Cayer has quadrupled his capacity to meet demand.
And Katz, who has spent a week in the Pine Tree State giving talks to packed rooms, predicts this is just the beginning.
“Maine is a special place, it’s a very strong movement here.”
Katz speaks at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 19, at Waterfall Arts, 256 High St., Belfast. A $5 donation at the door is suggested.
Katz is the keynote speaker at 11 a.m. Friday, Sept. 20, at the Common Ground Country Fair On Saturday, Sept. 21, he is scheduled to perform a cooking demonstration at 2 p.m. and answers questions at 4 p.m. Tickets are $10. The fair is located at 294 Crosby Brook Road, Unity, Maine.