Keeping Culture Alive

Probiotics are available on their own as supplements, but these don’t have the potency to fend off something like salmonella or ulcers. For that, you need fermented food. | Photos by Gene Smirnov

A dedicated community in Philadelphia
revives the lost art of fermentation

Seven thousand years ago, a thirsty Neolithic Iranian watched Eurasian grapes ferment into two and a half gallons of wine. He may not have known at the time that it was wine, or that he was Iranian, or that one day, his jar would be on display at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. He likely attributed the process he witnessed to something that made sense to him, like magic, or perhaps the intervention of a decent god.

Whatever it was, it didn’t scare him off, nor the next few millennia of fermenters. But with  the relatively recent advent of processed foods, the number of fermenters dwindled. Now, a renaissance of the practice is afoot, led by both food activists wishing to control food production and the health conscious who read studies about the positive effects that “good” bacteria found in fermented food can carry. Today, it exists in the form of what Carly and David Dougherty hand me—a bottle of apple and hibiscus kombucha—across the table of a coffee shop.

With an excited squeak, the container is uncorked. Inside is a sparkling, harmonious draught of sweet tea cultured with yeast and bacteria, bursting with life after several months sealed tightly on a shelf. Fermentation eats up nothing more than it does time; kombucha can take anywhere from a week to a month, with a lengthier brew leading to more sugars being consumed.

 “We’re pretty patient people,” Carly says, adding that perhaps the waiting is the hardest part. “If you can follow a basic recipe, then you can make a ferment.”

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