Behind an unspectacular door in a grungy section of Kreuzberg is Berlin’s most radical restaurant. Ring a brass bell and enter Nobelhart & Schmutzig, where chef Micha Schäfer turns brutally local products into pure deliciousness. He’ll only use food grown within a short drive of Berlin. That means no pepper, no lemons, no olive oil. And no vegetables flown in from warmer climes.
This time of year, Schäfer’s crew is busy preparing for the long, cold German winter, when fields are bare and few fresh products are available. To fill the larder for the long cold season, kitchen staff are pickling, salting, and fermenting. Schäfer spends most of his time experimenting. Lately, he’s been taking apple slices and letting them sit in a warm place for the fermenting process to set in. After a few days, the apple slices turn fizzy from natural carbonation. “An awesome effect,” Schäfer says. But to get the fizz and taste exactly right for his Michelin-starred restaurant, he says, will take another two years or so of trying.
Chefs like Schäfer have lifted once-humble fermented foods to the top of the culinary pyramid. He ferments butter, beets, elderberry flowers and lilac blossoms.
From Schäfer’s fizzy apples to pickles and sauerkraut, fermentation is a big new buzz word among foodies and restaurateurs. An almost forgotten tradition has made a comeback. The principle is easy: Let food stand around for a while, and it changes. As microbes, fungi, bacteria and yeasts go to work, some foods go bad, but others get better (think wine, sourdough or cultured butter). It’s an archaic way of preserving food that the ancient Chinese, Greeks and Romans knew well. They changed milk to yoghurt, grape juice to wine, cabbage to kimchi, and fermented fish into a spicy sauce named garum. Boring soy turns interesting through fermentation; think of miso, natto, and stinky tofu (admittedly, an acquired taste). Even salami gets its sweet, rich flavors through yeasts that grow in the meat.
The trend has been around for a while. There is an annual Fermentation Festival in Boston attended by thousands of foodies. Kombucha emerged out of nowhere to turn into a staple for the organic-eating crowd, and kimchee now comes in countless variations. But chefs like Schäfer have lifted once-humble fermented foods to the top of the culinary pyramid. He ferments butter, beets, elderberry flowers and lilac blossoms. A typical dessert at his restaurant would be a yoghurt sorbet sweetened with a syrup he’s made from fermented lilac. Fresh calendula flowers and pea blossoms round off the dish. “It tastes really kitschy,” Schäfer says.
How has this homespun tradition turned so chic? It’s part of an enduring global trend of rediscovering local foods and traditions, instead of the standard international, French-inspired cuisine. For chefs like Schäfer, ingredients grown fresh for him and delivered by local farmers are tastier than that limpid winter tomato trucked in from Spain – but that means preserving enough local food to get you through the winter. What’s more, fermentation is all the rage in the nutrition world. Those little bugs that grow in the food are good for you.
Cathrin Brandes is another evangelist for fermentation. She calls herself the Kraut Braut and has made it her mission to teach the lost art of fermentation to Germans. Foreigners might think of Germany as the land of sauerkraut (never mind that the dish is much bigger in Eastern Europe), but few Germans remember how to make the real stuff at home, as countless generations did before them. What they buy in the supermarket has to be pasteurized by law, so it’s a dead industrial product. “It’s sad but true,” Brandes says. “It’s a forgotten tradition. My grandma grew up on a farm. Back then, everybody made barrels of it. At harvest time, they preserved everything – peas, cucumbers, all the vegetables for the winter.”
And so Brandes – a Berlin-based food blogger, cookbook writer and nutrition activist – travels around the country to hold kraut-making workshops. The technique is mindlessly simple. “You only need salt, cabbage, and a little time and patience,” she says. Almost immediately, the microbes start doing their work. After a day or two, the mixture begins to bubble as the critters eat the natural sugar in the cabbage, producing the lactic acid that gives the kraut its kick.
When she travels, she discovers local traditions. In southern Germany, they make a special kind of kraut from ox heart cabbage. In the Spreewald forest southeast of Berlin, the specialty is cucumbers. Just over the border in Poland, they salt and pickle mushrooms. Pickled beetroot is big everywhere. Brandes also ferments milk into kefir and makes her own cheese.
Schäfer, as well, works with milk from a local farm, churning the cream into butter for his restaurant. After four months of fermenting, the butter develops richer, smoother, more complex tastes than the supermarket stuff. Different aromas come out, depending on when the cows were milked and what they ate. “Morning butter is delicate,” says Schäfer. “With evening butter you get the more intense animal flavors because the cows have been eating all day.” Unlike dead, pasteurized industrial butter, the naturally cultured stuff can stay fresh much longer.
Modern fans of ancient foodmaking have nutrition science on their side. Cutting-edge scientists are increasingly focusing on how our “microbiome” – the organisms that live inside our gut to help us digest our food – affects a dazzling array of conditions, from diabetes and obesity to mood and mental health. It’s a whole new sector of medicine that’s currently exploding worldwide. This is where the food comes in: Each forkful of raw, home-fermented sauerkraut has trillions of tasty squirming microbes just waiting to fight disease.
The possibilities are boundless. In Copenhagen, the Nordic Food Lab ferments kale leaves, mackerel heads and grasshoppers. No need to hold your nose; when she tried the Lab’s famed grasshopper sauce – made from little more than grasshoppers and salt, then left to bubble away – Brandes says it tasted floral and spicy, not at all as she expected. “I was scared at the beginning but it tasted and smelled amazing, like a bouquet of flowers.” Fermentation works in mysterious ways.
This article is from the Fall 2016 issue of Handelsblatt Global Edition Magazine. Stefan Theil is the magazine’s managing editor. Allison Williams is deputy editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org