Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Father and Daughter Fermentos

  Molly Murray arrives for our meeting on her bike. I was already there, waiting for her on the loading dock of the Hildebrandt Building, the former home of the family run provisions company that supplied generations of hungry Clevelanders with hot dogs and lunch meats. That operation shut down many years ago but these days space in the sprawling complex is rented out to culinary entrepreneurs and artisans. Wake Robin Fermented Foods, the business she started with her dad, Pat, in 2012, is a tenant.

   We head down to a basement kitchen, where the constant cool temperatures are ideal for the big blue plastic barrels of bubbling and carbon dioxide burping cabbage.  Through a process called lacto-fermentation the vegetables are on their way to becoming sauerkraut and spicy kimchi (the Korean version of the German staple). Molly explained how it works. "We provide an environment that  natural good-for-you bacteria, called lactobacilli, really like. So they multiply, eating sugars and producing lactic acid as they metabolize them. The result is something tart and tangy. This is the way yogurt is made."

  A form of pickling also known as culturing, this technique for preserving foods has been practiced around the world since ancient times. Molly, 29, got into it as a hobby. After Pat retired, the former Metro physician wanted a new challenge, and the two teamed up to launch this venture. It's an excellent fit for a doctor. "Live cultured probiotic foods are very healthy," says Molly. This is not news to me. This summer, I read Michael Pollan's fantastic new book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. There are four main sections and one is all about fermentation in its many aspects and variations. In it he writes, "Medical researchers are coming around to the startling conclusion that, in order to be healthy, people need more exposure to microbes, not less: and that one of the problems with the so-called Western diet, besides all the refined carbohydrates and fats and novel chemicals in it, is the absence for it of live culture foods. The theory is that these foods have a crucial role to play in nourishing the vast community of microbes living inside us, which in turn plays a much larger role in our overall health and well-being than we ever realized."

   Thanks to the Murrays, we have a local source for these beneficial microbes. I peeked into coolers filled with jars of their classic kraut, kimchi, zesty jalapeno spiked carrot escabeche, pickle chips, and my personal favorite Ruby Rüben, a combination of beets, apples, turnips, and cabbage. You can find them all in Annemarie's Dairy case at the West Side Market (which has a certain small world kind of symmetry considering that these things are produced in a place that once kept the Hildebrandt stand at the market stocked with meats), Constantino's Market downtown, Nature's Bin in Lakewood, Mustard Seed Market in Solon and starting next week at Heinen's stores around town (Complete list of retailers on the website.) They will even pack and ship special orders for customers that call or email her directly.

   Pat was out of town when I visited. But no doubt his daughter spoke for both of them when she told me, "It has been a lot of hard work, but it's great to be in this together. We're having fun, learning from each other and about each other. We're proud to be the first in Cleveland to do live culturing and excited that word is starting to spread."

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