The Yin and Yang of Fermenting

Beauty is the opposite of perfection ...
— Unknown

I’ve had reason to ponder the messiness of life at the moment and am learning to see it from a new vantage point. This happens periodically as a new perspective is presented to me. Over the years I have taken a journey that has shown me how opposites can be complementary. That the harmony and balance in my life changes with time as my perspective shifts and I now appreciate how interdependent these opposites are. I must have the chaos to feel the calm!

But it’s just a journey to get to that way of thinking. It’s a journey that bounces from perfectionism to mess, from scarcity, fear and ill health…. to abundance and appreciating a sense of beauty in the process. A process of fermenting to better health, well-being and vitality

This journey started with our vegetable garden in 2003, when a friend suggested that straight lines of plantings may not be the best idea. He proposed that I should mix the herbs, flowers and vegetables together which would create a scent and pattern that would be less inviting to the predators and result in a better harvest. I was not ready to have a messy garden so proceeded to plant in straight lines that were very attractive to my eye.

Mmmmm, well things have changed slightly since then. Firstly, I studied Permaculture which opened my eyes to a new way (or rather a more traditional way) of doing things. It gave me a design framework and a new lens to appreciate beauty, and what I saw as a mess I now see as beautiful abundance. Needless to say my current vegetable patch looks beautiful but doesn’t have a straight line anywhere. Everything in the garden is active and in a state of growth. I would have thought it messy years ago but now it just looks like creative abundance and a work in progress. It’s a lovely place to just sit and be present.

Secondly, I started fermenting that soil fertility, meaning I started lacto-fermenting vegetables as well as drinks using SCOBYs such as kefir and kombucha. Well, that has raised the bar on mess to a whole new level and multiple levels at once.

Fermenting in this context means striving for health and well-being through the introduction of beneficial microbes to my gut. I was intrigued from the first time I heard about fermentation but a sudden set back meant it took time to get started. When I did get started I was confronted with the messy looking SCOBY from the kombucha growing on my kitchen bench. It looked odd, a funny colour and produced a vinegar-like drink after I fermented my first batch for 21 days! My teacher reassured me the new SCOBY was fine and that I may prefer to ferment for a shorter time next batch. This was true.

Now when I look at my SCOBYs I think they are beautiful, not odd at all. I treat them with care and love as they have helped me feel well, more energetic and somehow better balanced. I have a greater appreciation of what beauty is and that life is somehow sweeter when they are a part of my routine. The drink is not vinegar-like anymore, but it’s been a process to get to this point as I’ve changed from the inside out along the way.

Even when fermenting vegetables there is mess, usually all over the work space but it also easily drops to the floor and clogs up the sink as utensils and hands are rinsed. This is however a productive mess as the cabbage or vegetables are chopped, mixed and pressed into the jars. There is no one right way to chop the cabbage which, for a reformed perfectionist, has meant that I’ve grown to appreciate the different ways of chopping and the impact they have on the length of time needed to extract the brine. The finer the chopping such as done by the gentleman in my class last week, the greater the surface area and the less time needed for the brine to be extracted, but his son in the class just liked it coarser. When I teach, different people in the group chop different ways, so everyone can experience this. None of which is really important, it’s just chopping, after all - the sauerkraut is the important part and it always looks beautiful, whether it’s a simple green cabbage, a purple cabbage or a combination of the two with other vegetables included. The perfection is in the transformative action of the microbes in creating tasty, healthy accompaniments to any meal from a simple cabbage, which if left on my bench top would have just putrefied to a pile of mould and slime!

It's interesting to me that by the time by full fervor for fermenting kicked in my perception of mess had changed and the new reality was living with chaos. Clear benchtops are a thing of the past, as is a fridge with enough shelf space. But the smile on my face is hard to remove, life feels abundant and I feel a simple joy in empowering others to try fermenting at home.

It’s so easy to plan to make a new ferment or even have a fermenting day - but the reality is that each new ferment is like a new pet or family member that needs my time and attention. New skills are required to manage the rhythm that fermenting brings with it. Some drinks like kefir have a very short ferment so they require input every day or two while the many batches of kombucha are each left to ferment for 8 to 11 days but then need decanting, starting anew and second fermenting for a few more days. Then there are the vegetables as either krauts or brines that ferment on the bench for less than a week or up to several weeks. It’s a joyous profusion of abundant chaos bubbling away until they have to move to the fridge to finish them off slowly. I love it and I think they love me back!

I do try to manage the quantities of the ferments to our family’s consumption and my class usage but generally speaking abundance is the issue not scarcity. It’s a nice tension or problem to have. I definitely try to teach my students to produce what they will consume, to build up the amount they consume but that the goal is not in the volume of any one ferment consumed but in the diversity of what they consume. I think it’s in the diversity of the ferments consumed that we can achieve resilience for our health, creativity in the production and adventure along the way which in a funny way brings a sense of calm that all will be fine in the end.