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Cultured pickles, fermented soda & vegetables that breathe

For Alex Hozven food is either living or dead. At her Cultured Pickle Shop in Berkeley, California, she tends 20,000 pounds of vegetables that “breathe” carbon dioxide.

She’s simply pickling vegetables, but to most of us used to “dead food”, it’s a foreign concept.

“People don’t really tend to think about their food as being alive. In sort of a modern industrial food sense when you say food is alive that tends to freak people out. But you know eating really denatured dead food obviously causes a whole host of problems.”

Pasteurization vs fermentation

For four milenia, fermented foods were part of every culture’s diet- e.g. sourdough bread, sauerkraut, kimchi, pickled herring, giardiniera, miso, kombucha, kefir-, but today with our modern industrial food system, even our “pickles” aren’t usually pickled, but are simply cucumbers soaked in vinegar and heat-treated to kill any pathogens. Even our sauerkraut is pasteurized.

Instead of using the modern shortcut (vinegar and pasteurization), Hozven pickles her vegetables (cabbages, carrots, radish, beets, etc) relying on the slower method of fermentation.

“If you think of the first breads that were made were definitely naturally leavened breads. It really ventures throughout our diet… everyone’s diet throughout history. It’s served both to preserve foods and also sort of change their flavor profile and bring out certain nutrients to make them more easily digestible and assimilated.”

Fermented foods for a healthy gut

Pickled vegetables may pack more vitamins than the plant pre-fermentation (Korean research points to high doses of vitamin B). The probiotics in fermented foods have been credited with being antioxidants, immunity-boosters and anti-inflammatories.

While Hozven warns against treating these foods as medicine, she says there’s no doubt they’re good for your gut.

“Your whole digestive system in an ideal world is an ecosystem and so you need to have this whole sort of colony community system of beneficial bacteria that is both going to help digest your food and assimilate the nutrients from them but also sort of make sure that any pathogenic bacteria which are going to enter your system, which is inevitable are kept in sort of check, in balance.”

An ancient soft drink

Perhaps the most fun part of fermentation are cultured soft drinks. The earliest sodas used fermented vegetables for the fizz. Even as recently as a century or two, it wasn’t so uncommon to drink a “root beer” or a “ginger ale” truly cultured from roots.

Today, with the push for a healthier alternative to our modern sodas, even Red Bull has a fermented option with a drink that uses a Kombucha culture. Those at Red Bull say “Kombuchas’s secret lie in the Chin dynasty, 221 b.c.”.

Hozven also makes a Kombucha drink. She describes the culture (a colony of bacteria and yeast) as a jellyfish-type blob that eats tea and sugar. “No one knows totally where it came from. Some people think it originated in China. It could have been just like the scum that formed on someone’s teapot at some point and it made it sort of sour and bubbly and ‘hey, don’t we all love sour and bubbly beverages’.”

Life of a modern pickler

Cultured Pickle’s products aren’t cheap, but that’s the price of living food. All of this fermenting takes time. Some of the pickles take up to a year to mature.

Hozven spends an hour and a half every morning just monitoring her pickling vats. She works six days a week culturing only local vegetables and only when they’re in season. She has trouble taking a vacation.

In this video, we visit Hozven at her Berkeley store where she and her associate were busy making a few of the 10 different varieties of sauerkraut.

She shows us how they pickle: first the vegetables are salted and given a deep tissue massage to create a brine and then they enter “the cave” (a climate-controlled room) where they ferment for 2 weeks to a year.

If you’re still unclear on the definition, try Hozven’s favorite one: Tsukemono, which is Japanese for pickle and translates as “to alter without the use of heat.”