Sebastian Ibarra: Fermenting a friendship
My friends say my house smells like yeast, an odour I’m proud of.
My home smells like a cross between a brewery and a bakery because of my “pets”—not dogs, cats, birds, or fish, but yeasts and bacteria, trained as fermenters and obedient, mostly, to my passion for the products of microorganisms.
Pets are usually considered the domesticated one in their partnership with us humans, but it’s I who has been trained by these microorganisms to provide them with an almost infinite source of food. When my friends come for a visit, I welcome them with a slice of fresh cheese and sourdough, along with a pint of a hoppy beer and kefir sauce to dip the bread in. If they come on a Sunday morning, we’ll sit and chat over a cup of kombucha, all homemade by my microscopic friends.
I’ve reduced the amount of processed foods I buy through years of learning fermented food skills, thereby reducing my carbon footprint. I can eat organic cheese without paying its high price, and can have delicious and expensive beers for 50 cents or less a bottle. I love the uniqueness of local and homemade fermented foods, and spreading this passion among my friends has become my mission.
More than ever, we can produce fermented foods at home from local products without the risk of food poisoning or illness. Our current understanding of microbiological ecology and biochemistry makes homemade food as safe as store-bought, as long we take simple precautions like buying pasteurized milk to make fresh cheese, or harbouring sourdough cultures in clean environments.
We know that healthy cultures of lactic acid bacteria, acetic acid bacteria, and Saccharomyces yeasts will inhibit the growth of pathogenic organisms in the substrate, which is why in Canada and the United State it is legal to sell cheese made from raw milk after it has been aged for 60 or more days. The lactic acid bacteria out-compete any pathogen in the cheese.
I like knowing what’s in the food I eat, as well as knowing the processes that have happened for the food to end up in my plate. Fermenting at home allows me to be in control of the changes that my “pets” do to food.
Fermentation has helped me to save money, allowing me to allocate these savings in other areas. I buy local organic pasteurized milk to make my own cheese, and I still end up saving money when comparing the price to regular cheese. By buying local products, I encourage local business and boost the local economy.
Unlike Don Cayo, a Vancouver Sun columnist, I believe that a balance between local, imported, and homemade consumer behaviour will ensure food security better than trade alone. In an August article, Cayo criticized “those trendy 100-mile diets and eat-local campaigns”, stating that even though these foods can be healthy and tasty, the big issue here is the economy, implying that the only valid parameter for measuring a healthy economy is financial.
Cayo is ignoring externalities critical for measuring a healthy economy, such as health, productivity, competition, and originality. A society that encourages fermentation will inspire and motivate its members into producing original products. These original ferments often bring world fame, along with trade and tourism, to the places where they’re made.
A society that supports local foods and does not rely on international markets to satisfy its basic needs will be more resilient, independent, and original. And it doesn’t hurt that locally based economies consume foods that have received lower doses of pesticides, preservatives, and antibiotics, which are particularly prevalent in foods that must be protected when shipped long distances, and are more competitive by being healthier.
We don’t need to have a war between supporting local food and acknowledging the benefits of international trade. A healthy balance of consumer behaviour between these levels of economic organization will allow individuals to explore the processes of fermentation at home using high quality ingredients.
Consuming a balance of homemade, local, and imported foods will reduce the amount of processed foods we buy, and improve our social life by enriching social gatherings. At home, my girlfriend and I enjoy sitting around the dinner table with friends and sharing homemade bread, beer, and cheese, knowing that the experience with our friends is as unique as every bite and gulp of food and drink we have.
For those of us who like rich and complex flavours in life, there is no better way than becoming friends with the yeasts and bacteria that will perfume our house with the scent of bakery and brewery.