“So how long do you ferment this stuff for anyway?” I get this question almost every day. I usually tilt my head and squint and give a quick, curt, “Till it’s done,” and go back to work. Hint: If you come in to our Shop and refer to our work as “this stuff,” you probably aren’t going to get a straight answer. Though, truth be told, if you walked in all reverent, bowing and genuflecting, laying down offerings and singing the praises of our magnificent products…you’re not going to get a straight answer. There are few straight answers at The Shop.
Everything ferments on its own schedule. Everything. A single batch, made on the same day by the same hands, divided in half and put into two separate tanks, placed next to each other in the cave, will ferment differently. It is fascinating. It also makes our production schedule a fucking nightmare. We thought for sure when we tried it two weeks ago that it would be ready this week. Ready? Right there, a problematic, subjective, anthropocentric concept anyway. Is it good? Is it great? Would it be better next week? Last week? Decision is part of craft, and we’ve decided that it’s not coming out of the tank. Yet we have ordered accordingly, and staffed appropriately to empty and fill that tank. So now what?
Does it have to be this way? No. At three weeks, lacto-fermented cabbage tastes like sauerkraut. One could pretty much bang it out like clockwork. But we can’t. There are considerations of quality here. Fermentation is not an event, it is a process. Each bacteria and yeast population that is responsible for lacto-fermentation unlocks textural and flavor components in the ferment and adds some of its own. There are layers of complexity that come with age. There is a mellowing of the acids produced by Lactobacillus plantarum after week four, revealing the deep and essential flavors of the vegetable. There is a thinning in the viscosity of the brine that occurs when the bacteria Leuconostoc mesenteroides dies off at around the second week, and it continues to thin in subsequent weeks. In the first, fourth, and often the sixth week, we get our hands into our ferments, pushing the kraut down into the tank, expelling CO2 that has built up. There is a softening, a rounding out of the salinity, that we are looking for as the kraut matures. A particular balance is struck in the ferment. Sometimes this happens by week six, often by week eight, but sometimes not until week twelve and beyond.
A fetishistic cult has risen up around aging in the food world. I am a happy follower. I will admit that my heart skips a beat if we should find a hidden jar of kabocha kasuzuke from four years ago back in the cave. I really, really want to try that 180-day dry aged wagyu. I imagine the dish “Old Tuna, Old Beef” at Saison in San Francisco to be something quite special. If I post something “old” on twitter, I’m bound to get some oohhs and aahhs, especially if it’s a protein. Sport eating? Perhaps. Sometimes long aging is appropriate and sometimes it’s more appropriate to pay attention and determine that you—as nothing more than a novice guide in the unseen world—think that, at this moment, this is perfect and should be slowed down or eaten now.
Honestly, I wish we could also sell young ferments. There is something so wonderful about a kimchi at week one or two with that fresh crispness of the vegetable, and the bracing heat, and that harsh saltiness unmitigated by time. I love the crunch of a 1/4 sour cucumber with its slight acidity on a hot summer day with a pastrami sandwich and a celery kombucha.
There are, however, practical considerations. The product must sit well in a jar. No one wants to buy the jar on the store shelf that is bloated and leaking brine. This is far more likely to happen if the ferment is packed while still young and still producing an abundance of CO2. I see it all the time as I’m stocking shelves on my delivery route. I’ve even seen labels on some kraut advising the customer to open the jar over a sink, as the product may very well volcano out and flow over your counter top. This product may be quite tasty, lively in the mouth, with an effervescence that dances across your tongue, but it seems to us that it causes some logistical issues. We have a lot of products. We have no marketing budget, and the act of selling holds no allure. It’s nice to know that for the most part our work will age well in a jar and we can sell it slowly while we busy ourselves with making something else, unhurried and delicious.