When I was a young girl, my grandfather used to take me shopping in the Bronx, or sometimes as far away as Brooklyn, as a special treat. First stop: the bakery where the baker and my grandpa shmoozed in Yiddish for what seemed like an eternity.
To keep me busy while they spoke, the baker would slice a chewy, crusty end off a giant, sour rye bread and hand it to me to munch on.
Grandpa also always bought me a black and white cookie, another “must.”
Then we went to the appetizing store, where the clerk gave me what I requested in exchange for allowing him to pinch my cheek with his fragrant loxy fingers: one or sometimes two, olives. These were a type of cured black olive, like a plump kalamata, that I don’t see around anymore.
Finally, we went to the pickle man. This is what I’d been craving all along. A sour pickle, dripping with brine. Grandpa always asked me if I preferred a pickled green tomato or half-sour pickle or even a smidge of sauerkraut, but I was too smart for him (so I thought). I’d always take the sour pickle and ask him to buy the others to take home with us so I could have some later.
My instincts at five were pretty spot on (except for the black and white cookie.)
The rye bread was real way back when, a true, sour dough, jammy with caraway seeds. It was at least 50 per cent rye flour, the rest a coarse, perhaps graham-style wheat flour. A regular loaf weighed a two or three pounds, at least.
The olives were cured in salt, and their oil floated to the top of the container.
And the pickles were old-school, lacto-fermented bliss floating in a barrel. They were made with kirbies, salt, garlic, peppercorns and coriander seeds, a touch of dill, time (as in days and hours)—and nothing else. Stuffed into a tiny wax-paper bag, they leaked over everything—that was okay with me, though. Not even Guerlain could rival eau de pickle, as far as I was concerned.
Fortunately, oldies but goodies have many incarnations. In the past ten years fermented foods have become popular once more, both for their taste and their health benefits. But in many traditional Jewish communities, the trend towards authentic fermentation is slow in coming.
Enter Uri Laio.
Uri grew up in California, a place to nurture a love of things natural. I wish more people were doing what he’s doing: making and selling quality kosher food that is not merely not unhealthy, but actively and potently nutritious.
Some of you have learned fermenting with me here in Brooklyn last year and the year before. But take note, those of you in Los Angeles, Uri not only teaches fermenting classes but also has his own fermented food company, Brassica and Brine.
I got the chance to interview Uri for HealthyJewishCooking.com.
How did you get into cultured aka fermented aka pickled foods?
I first learned about cultured foods while participating in Adamah: The Jewish Environmental Fellowship at the Isabella Freedman retreat center in Falls Village, CT during the summer of 2008. I immediately fell in love with the flavors. The alchemical process captured my imagination.
I learned as much as I could there and then bought the book Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz, which is considered the “bible” of home fermentation. [A classic.] That book expanded my repertoire and increased my passion.
I started a little fermentation club while in yeshiva in Jerusalem in the autumn of 2008. I saw that other people were becoming fascinated as well. At a certain point I did a brief stage with Alex Hozven at Cultured Pickle Shop in Berkeley, CA and decided that is what I want to do with my life. Alex approaches fermentation as an art form.
Pickles in yeshiva! Amazing.
It’s sad that today, most people in the U.S. have never tasted an unadulterated or properly prepared fermented food. This is due to today’s bacteria-killing processing methods which include pasteurization, canning, others.
Traditional fermented foods such as sourdough or wild-yeast starter breads, (real) yogurt and soured cream, cultured butter and buttermilk, saurkraut, kvass (called borsch without the “t” in Hungarian), kim chee, cultured lemons and other fruits and vegetables, old-fashioned Jewish pickles, and miso are not only delicious, but healthy.
Tell us about some of the health benefits.
Fermented foods are one of the most important foods to include in your diet. They boost the native populations of symbiotic bacteria in your body. Just for some context, a healthy human has about ten symbiotic bacterial cells for every human cell in her body. That means, by the numbers, we’re more bacteria than we are human. Lacto-fermented foods boost those beneficial bacterial populations.
They aid in digestion, immune system function, and nutrient absorption. They regulate the acid/alkaline balance of the gut. There is evidence that they help prevent cancer, high blood pressure, certain heart diseases, obesity, and act as an aphrodisiac. Not too shabby.
Definitely not shabby.
A term everyone’s familiar with to describe these friendly, health-promoting bacteria is “probiotics”, which fermented foods are packed with. (See: Grow Your Own Probiotics and Market Culture.) And, interestingly, these bacteria are even vital to mental well being.*
Are there some Torah texts which mention or support fermentation?
I would direct people to my blog Old Growth Yiddishkeit for some good reading on this subject. In particular: Fermentation and Jewish Culture.
Have you considered doing online classes?
No, I haven’t considered doing online classes.
I enjoy teaching and it is important to me, but right now almost all my energy is taken up in just the day-to-day tasks of running a business: creating product, opening new accounts, selling and marketing, bookkeeping, maintaining the website, deliveries, etc. I do hope to do more classes and possibly even write a book eventually, once I’m able to delegate most of the responsibilities that I currently shoulder.
P.S. Perhaps to balance out all that yummy sour food, Uri also does something really sweet: He’s a beekeeper and honey producer.
NOTE: I do not receive payment for posting about services or products. I write about them if I like them. If you are interested in sending me samples, please contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.