Fermented food revival hits the Vineyard

Food fermentation demonstration — Courtesy Oak Bluffs Library

When it comes to trends in general, Vineyarders are known to shy away, but when it comes to healthy eating and food production, locals tend to be among the first to adopt the latest best practices.

Such is the case with the fermented food movement. Whole Foods recently named fermentation one of the top food trends of 2016; more and more people are educating themselves on the process and benefits. Fermented products provide good bacteria that help promote gut health and therefore overall health.

Although fermentation as a means of preservation and alcohol production has been practiced for millennia, only recently has the general public become aware of the immune-system-strengthening properties of naturally probiotic-enriched foods.

Given the Island’s food awareness, it’s not surprising that fermentation talks and demonstrations have started popping up at local libraries and other venues. What you might be surprised to hear is that there is actually a Vineyard Fermenters Club. The informal group of about 35 Facebook members has been hosting a series of hands-on workshops at the Oak Bluffs library since March.

Nate Luce, program coordinator for the Oak Bluffs library, started the group. “A number of people that I have been talking to dabble in one or another form of fermentation and want to learn more,” he said. “There was a need of a kind of common avenue of discussion.”

Mr. Luce’s interest in fermentation began while he was working at the Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn — New York City’s oldest whiskey distillery. “The first step in whiskey production is very similar to beer making,” Mr. Luce said. After he began brewing his own beer, the jump to fermented foods was natural. “I discovered this book by Sandor Katz, the guru of the fermentation renaissance,” he said. “He’s trying to preach the gospel of the ease of fermentation. You don’t have to be a scientist. He made me realize that all of these ancient fermentations were originally just done with wild yeast.

“In this age of highly processed food, fermentation is as simple as it gets,” Mr. Luce said. “You can just add salt. It’s so simple and so effective, and can change the food so substantially, it excites me.”

To prove how simple home fermenting can be, the Vineyard Fermenters have hosted three participatory events so far. The first club meeting was a kombucha workshop, where participants left with a “mother” to start their own fermented tea. In May, Offshore Ale assistant brewer Jay Bergantim taught the basics of homebrewing, and led the group in creating the library’s own brand of ale. The most recent meeting, a sourdough bread workshop, was led by Olivia Pattison of Cinnamon Starship CSA, and included a take-home bread starter.

For the next meeting on June 23, Mr. Luce is bringing in chiropractor Karon Hill to speak on the benefits of fermented food. “Everyone is realizing over the past few years how overprescribed antibiotics are,” Mr. Luce said. “People are starting to see that you can significantly shift your gut health, and they are recognizing connections between gut health, heart and circulatory systems, and mental health.”

According to Mr. Luce, Ms. Hill, who will give a similar talk at the Chilmark library on June 8, will provide specifics on how you can counteract various maladies with fermented food.

This will be the first Vineyard Fermenters meeting to focus on education rather than practices. Mr. Luce says that he anticipates hosting other experts on fermentation over the summer. In the fall, when local food crops become abundant, he hopes to host more preparation workshops.

“Fermentation allows you to eat locally year-round by preserving foods,” Mr. Luce said. “You wouldn’t necessarily be able to do that otherwise.”

Drawing on his distillery experience, Mr. Luce will also give a talk at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum on June 22. He will discuss the historical roots of distillation, its emergence in America, the folly of Prohibition, and the contemporary resurgence of DIY beverage making.

“Fermented Foods that Heal: From Gut to Brain” with Dr. Karon Hill at the Oak Bluffs library, June 23 from 5 to 6:30 pm.

Nate Luce presents “Distilling: Murky Roots, Prohibition, and Resurgence” on June 22 at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum from 5:30 to 7 pm. Members $8, nonmembers $12.

To join the Vineyard Fermenters group, search for “Vineyard Fermenters” on Facebook.