Credit for the existence of the Cultured Pickle Shop goes to Alex Hozven. For the better part of two decades, she has deftly applied her tremendous talent and tenacity to growing a business that not only supports our family, but has taken an ancient tradition of food preservation to a level of craft that has proven her well ahead of her time. Years before the charismatic and elegantly mustachioed Sandor Katz criss-crossed the country extolling and proselytizing for a fermented revolution—leaving in his wake bubbling and gurgling jars from Williamsburg Brooklyn to the Mission District in San Francisco—Alex was putting in 18 hour days, day after day, month after month, year after year, not asking, “Can I ferment this?” or, “How do I ferment this?” but saying, “I am going to ferment this,” asking only, “How do I ferment this this better?” She is still constantly questioning, always learning, always pushing the craft forward. She can be ascetic and hermetic in her work spending long hours alone in the cave over seeing and guiding nearly two hundred independent ecosystems. To this day she doesn’t approach her work as a job, but as an art, participating and crafting at every level of production. Each jar of sauerkraut, each clove of miso pickled garlic, each bottle of kombucha has come from her hands and her heart. If you’ve ever tasted them you know. I believe that her approach to craft in commercial production is what Artisan truly means. It has been the great honor and pleasure of my life to work alongside her.
At this point sauerkraut represents the bulk of our production. We spend most of our time involved in the shredding, salting and sweating of cabbage. We allow for what we consider to be a full lactic fermentation. This occurs over an average of eight weeks at 68 degrees in a 2% salt brine of the cabbages’ own juices. We ferment in 100 and 200 liter variable capacity wine fermenting tanks made by the Marchisio company in Italy. These tanks have a floating lid with an inflatable bladder that holds the lid in place. We fill the tank with kraut, then press the lid down until the brine rises to the top, then inflate the bladder. This helps to maintain the anaerobic conditions necessary for lacto-fermentation. Sauerkraut is the engine that drives the rest of our business. It is what allows us to experiment and produce and sell the small, micro batch pickles. The exploration of these smaller experiments will be in part, the subject of this site. I don’t plan on talking much about kraut. It’s been talked about to death. At this point you can’t throw a rock in this country without hitting a jar of kraut somewhere. It’s a great product that I love making and making well, but enough already.
On an average day we begin work in the pre-dawn hours. We make tea for that days kombucha. We tend to cave duties together. We inspect the tanks for cleanliness and to make sure the lids are secure. We monitor the ferments to be sure that they are progressing appropriately. Much of my early morning is spent in intimate proximity with the ferments. Those tanks in their first week and in their fourth week are dismantled and I push down the kraut to expel CO2 , monitor the viscosity of the brine, and to taste. We prep the kitchen for that days work. I run home around 7 am and wake the boys up, fix breakfast, pack lunches and get them off to school, then it’s back to The Shop for a day of prepping veg, filling jars, or delivering product. On Saturdays while Alex is at The Berkeley Farmers Markets I work on small scale experiments to better our understanding of certain methods we have been using for years and to see if there may be some new avenues to explore in the coming years. Many of these experiments wind up posted on Twitter but I have yearned for a better format to communicate and document our work and to tell our story. I find myself here.
So this will serve partly as historical document as I attempt to record our work both past and present. Part story of how we got here and what we’ve learned over all these years. And part lab notes. I hope you’ll read and comment. After many years with our heads down, alone in the cave with the bubbling tanks, I have been forging relationships with chefs and other food minded people around the world. These connections have lead to conversations, questions, and exchange of information that have made us even better at what we do. That is all we have ever wanted. We have never been interested in getting the product in to as many hands as possible. We have never really been interested in running a business. We haven’t seen ourselves as part of a movement, or as educators or proselytizers for a better way of living. We have seen ourselves as artisan producers of artisan products, steeped in this strange obsession with process and outcome. So much of what’s being said or written about fermentation these days revolves around health, or personal food security and though these conversations are incredibly important, increasingly so in our modern culture, after 16 years, I find them tiresome. These qualities are inherent in what we do, and far more intelligent people then I have already done a great job of articulating them. So I think here I will reach for nothing more lofty than illuminating and exploring our pathways towards deliciousness. Which for me is quite lofty enough
About the pictures: I’m shooting on a Panasonic DMC FZ40 at the moment. A “bridge” camera- a bridge between my phone and an actual camera. I didn’t realize when I bought it how fast I would bump up against its limitations. Oh well. I’m still not sure what makes a good picture, only that I have yet to shoot one. You will no doubt notice, so I may as well put it out there, that I have a bit of a learning disability that affects my spelling and grammar. I have friends and family to run posts by before publishing, but they are busy people with lives of their own so sometimes I wont. If you are a high taster for exactitude in this regard you will be frustrated. Consider yourself forewarned. In a recent conversation with Chuck of chuckeats.com he let me know of his embarrassment over his early posts. For the record I’ve loved Chucks posts from the beginning, although it is true that both the photography and the writing have improved immensely. Anyway I am embarrassed in advance about mine. The prospect of improving in public is paralyzing. It’s so easy not to do things. Yet If I think about it, our sauerkraut sucked in the beginning. I imagine that most of the posts will be mine, however I hope that as time goes by Alex will contribute. We will sign our names after the posts we write so you know.
Lastly, I should acknowledge the inspirational work and writing of H. Alex Talbot and Aki Kamozawa of Ideas on Food, Linda of Playing with Fire and Water, and the efforts of The Nordic Food Lab, their knowledge, creativity and constant questioning inspires. Jeffery Stoneberger of eatmecookme for his energy, experience, and willingness to share. John Sconzo of Docsconz.com, Chuck of chuckeats.com, and Bonjwing Lee of the ulteriorepicure.com for keeping me informed of the work that forward thinking chefs are doing around the world. I visit their sites nearly everyday to read the most recent posts or peruse the archives. If what I’m doing here at times seems like either a poor imitation or blatant rip off of their work, that’s because it is. In time I’ll find my own way.