If you were invited to a workshop on home fermentation and pickling, you might expect to be preached at for two hours by a lot pickle-eating hippies. I know that’s what I expected. The prospect didn’t scare me too badly, as I was raised half-hippie, and my college education taught be to speak fairly fluent Hiplish.
But I was surprised a few weeks ago, when I attended a workshop presented by the Cache Valley Chapter of Slow Food on fermentation and pickling, that I wasn’t completely surrounded by preachy hippies. Some in the group tended toward the hippie persuasion, granted, but not everyone. What they did have in common was niceness and food. It felt more like a casual party than a hippie preach-fest.
Take Dawn Holzer, for example. When I arrived at her home she was exhibiting a beautiful peach pie, bubbling and steaming in a solar oven in her backyard, to a mixed group of foodies. She adjusted the temperature a bit, looking confident and relaxed in her flowered shirt and a comfortable shorts. We were invited inside and handed a refreshing cup of virgin cherry lavender shrub, a bubbly mix of fruit juice, vinegar, sugar and carbonated water. We sat on chairs scattered around a family room. Crocks and bottles stuffed with vegetables and bubbling brine were tucked in corners and lining shelves. The whole place had a bit of a mad-scientist feel.
When I say pickles, don’t automatically think of cucumbers. Two hours at Holzer’s house has opened my eyes to the possibilities that pickling offers. We were treated to a smorgasbord of pickled fruits and vegetables. It was a flavor gala.
I did start with the basics. Dill sours are cucumbers left to ferment in a salty brine. Friendly Lactobacilli bacteria turn the natural sugars in the vegetables to vinegar, preserving the nutritional value and lending a complex and lip-puckering flavor. The brine prevents bad bacterias from causing spoilage. Added garlic, peppercorns and little firework bursts of home-grown dill seed combined to notch up the flavor. Home-fermented pickles are more subtle than the grocery store variety. These dill sours were salty, sour and crunchy, but didn’t have the overwhelming acidity or sticky sweetness you get in the store variety. They also had an earthy mature flavor I attributed to the fermentation process.
I returned to the sample table. This time I went more exotic. I tried Holzer’s super-sweet pickled cherries. They were, in a word, amazing. It was the most intense cherriness I have ever experienced. Imagine stuffing into your mouth a garden shovel piled with ripe, fragrant cherries, slightly tart and begging to be eaten. Times that by four and a half, and you’ve got the flavor of the super-sweet pickled cherries. The vinegar and the sour fruit combined to create a very, very cherry experience. It was hard to stop eating them, but I thought I’d better save some for the people waiting with plates behind me.
I moved on to the pickled turnips. They had an intriguing earthy acidic flavor that would complement nicely a peppery, meaty pastrami sandwich. The fermented okra pickles had a nutty, woody taste, a crisp texture, and none of the characteristic slime I’ve come to associate with okra. So I had seconds. The zucchini pickles with basil and onions had a warm, buttery flavor and smell that wafted intensely into my sinuses.
Next I hit the kimchi and sauerkraut. Holzer demonstrated how to make several varieties. A pleasant eggy-sulfuric smell came from a medium-sized crock used for popcorn in another lifetime. It was now full of kimchi. In one giant Mason jar, a skiff of red, Southern Utah sediment lay below the brine, the picturesque remains of the natural salt she used. The kimchi was made from chopped Napa cabbage, ginger, garlic and hot Thai peppers.
Then I returned to the sample table and fell in love. It was the tantalizing, seductive, peppery hot-and-sour taste of the North Indian lime pickle. These are meant to me eaten as a condiment, a spoonful is all you need to accompany a meal. Take limes and chop them, Holzer explained. Add lime juice, lots of salt, a little big of sugar, a hefty amount of cayenne powder, turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, and lots of other exotic-smelling spices. Let the jar ferment in the sun until the rinds begin to get soft, chewable, tangy, and intense with the spices. Rinse off the extra spice before eating unless you want to blow your taste-buds to Jaipur. Eat in tiny amounts because it carries a powerful, hot, mouth-watering flavor that you will never never forget.
So, I discovered that when you attend this kind of event, the food is more intense than the people, just the way I like it. I didn’t need preaching to convince me that pickling can add a lot of spice and variety to my pantry shelf.
Holzer is Chair of the Cache Valley Chapter of Slow Food. The Slow Food movement is promoted as being an alternative to fast food and agribusiness. Slow food enthusiasts are both practical and philosophical, striving to preserve traditional and regional cuisine, heirloom seeds, gardening skills, local food culture and trying to make access to fresh, nutritious food a fair prospect across the country and for the rest of the world.
This movement is gaining momentum. We are lucky to have an active chapter here in Cache Valley. The group plans one event per month in a series of intriguing food experiences; sausage making, local foraging, at-home cheeses and chicken harvesting, to name the next few. This month is a great time to join the chapter as they are having a membership drive on September 22. Email Holzer for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org.