It’s a brand New Year and our friends at Island Grown Schools (IGS) are back with another round of picks for their Harvest of the Month program. Each month, they highlight another locally available crop to feature in Martha’s Vineyard’s local schools, restaurants and grocery stores. This month they’ve set their eyes on fermented foods–and so have we. There’s been a lot of chatter about their health benefits lately, but what exactly are fermented foods and how do they help us? Allow us to divulge.
Fermented foods are just that–fermented. They’re made through the process of natural fermentation which converts carbohydrates to alcohol or organic acids using microbes—like yeasts or bacteria. Fermentation might sound like a jazzy new buzzword, but it’s a process that’s been around forever. Ideally, the helpful bacteria from local food and our natural surroundings would make its way to our digestive tract and help us live our best lives. Sadly, a lot of the good stuff is killed off through other cultural habits like antibiotics, pasteurization, and sanitization–meaning we can benefit from fermented foods now more than ever.
Fermented foods contain the beneficial byproducts of fermentation and create live microbes that boost your gut diversity and support better mental and physical performance. The health benefits of fermented foods are pretty impressive, they can basically improve the function of almost every system in the body.
Have you ever noticed the label on the side of your yogurt that reads “live and active cultures?” It might sound weird but that refers to the living organisms that convert milk to yogurt during fermentation. And that probiotic bacteria that is created is what makes yogurt so good for you. Not only does it improve the health of your digestive system, but it also allows critical nutrients to be more easily utilized by your body. And yogurt isn’t the only winner. Other fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, and even sourdough bread can share the same love.
Generally speaking the additional health benefits of fermented foods include strengthening your overall immune system, detoxifying your body from dangerous chemicals and reducing inflammation throughout the body (a common issue often created by many of the sodium-rich foods our culture’s diet is so reliant on).
So long story short, eat more fermented foods! On Martha’s Vineyard we’re lucky, yet again, to have access to some truly incredible ones. Make a quick stop at The Larder in Vineyard Haven and you’ll have access to a whole host of locally prepared fermented foods, including sauerkraut, kimchi, and other seasonal specialties prepared by Zephir Plume of Bakehouse Farm. Zephir’s favorite ferment is non-dairy drinking yogurt, which she started bottling herself this year. Look for it under the label Ediblewellness.
Another probiotic-rich local favorite is Kulture Club Kombucha, the brainchild of Nina Gordon. Nina uses ethically sourced, locally farmed, and foraged organic ingredients whenever possible to create a delicious and nutritious line of kombuchas. Asked how she first started selling it she said “I don’t try to sell the kombucha…I like to share it because kombucha brings me joy, and I’d love it if it brought you joy too. They say there is a gut-brain connection, so maybe all those probiotics are firing off all these good neurotransmitters in me so that I’ll replicate them!” We’ll drink to that.
Maybe you’ve tried kombucha and loved it, or maybe you couldn’t get a taste for it. To that we say, try another flavor. Nina adds “people who are sensitive to acid, in general, will have trouble with vinegary kombucha, also if you are sensitive to caffeine or have an alcohol allergy you may have trouble. Despite the fact that caffeine levels in kombucha are about one quarter as much as tea, and that there is more alcohol in an overripe banana than in a bottle of kombucha.” If you’re new to drinking kombucha you may want to ease yourself into it, as it effects can be felt. Nina recommends starting with 2-4oz/day, and increase when you’re more tolerant. She adds “basically listen to your body.”
Need another way to enjoy the benefits of fermented foods? Sink your teeth into a loaf of bread, that’s right–bread. Of course, not all breads are created equal, but the fermented sourdough loaves of local baker extraordinaire Olivia Patterson of Cinnamon Starship will do you a lot of favors (while packing a ton of flavor). For starters, Olivia uses local Island grains, from her friend Dan Sternbach of Lost and Found Grain. We asked her, and she explains “there are many benefits to fresh-milled wheat, especially the flavor, but because it is so much closer to the source (and minimally processed) it also has more wild yeast present in the grain, providing much more nutrition than commercial flour.” Makes sense, right?
Olivia also uses sourdough starter only and no commercial yeast. Again her method is enlightening. “This means the dough is fermenting with a combination of wild yeast and bacteria, such as lactobacillus (which most people are familiar with as the key ingredient in yogurt). These microscopic friends are found in the air, the flour, and on the bakers’ hands. Biodiversity is always beneficial, on farms, in forests, and even in bread. Not only does the sourdough make the bread taste better, more complex, and rich, but it also has more vitamins than standard bread, a benefit of the digestive process of the starter. The longer fermentation process of sourdough bread also makes it easier to digest because more of the gluten is broken down.” Hungry yet? Olivia’s bread is available at Scottish Bakehouse and Ghost Island Farm every Saturday this time of year. You can also find her at the West Tisbury Farmer’s Market in season.
If you’re inspired and want to get started with more fermented foods in your diet right away look in the refrigerated section of your local grocer for pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi and kefir. Check labels for any of the following terms including live, cultured, raw, probiotic, or active. You can also prepare many fermented foods quite easily at home by yourself. IGI recommends checking out Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz as a good DIY reference book for your own creations. Here’s a recipe to get you started.
Creamy Miso Dressing
3.5 tbsp white miso paste
3.5 tbsp fresh lemon juice
3 cloves of garlic
1/2 inch knob of fresh ginger, peeled
A few pinches of black pepper
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup avocado oil or regular olive oil
Place all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth and creamy. Store in an airtight jar in the refrigerator.