The Fifth Annual Austin Fermentation Fest Is Sunday

An interview about gut health, Barton Springs Mill, and pickles

Maybe it’s the general end of the world vibes, but fermentation is a hot topic these days. Kombucha lines the aisles of gas station convenience stores, half of the fries for sale in Austin seem to be topped with kimchi, and we’ve all pretty much resigned ourselves to the fact that we’re at least 50% gut bugs.

Photo by John Anderson

So what better time to attend the fifth annual Austin fermentation festival, kicking off this Sunday, October 21? We sat down with a chat with Nora Chovanec, the fermentation fan who’s been running the show for the past few years, to talk all things bubbly.

Chovanec, the fest’s Director of Marketing & Agriculture, has been a fermentation fest attendee since day one, when the festival was founded by Carla Jenkins. “Carla got the idea when she was a judge at the Good Food Awards in San Francisco judging pickles,” says Nora. “One of her fellow judges ran the farm to fermentation festival out in Marin, and Carla was inspired by the concept.” Securing organizational assistance from local author and fermenter Kate Payne, plus an appearance from celebrity fermenter Sandor Katz (yep, I said celebrity fermenter, he’s a big deal in the live food world) meant the event was a roaring success. Chovanec was so inspired by her experience that she came on board to help run the event for two more years before she took it over under the auspices of Texas Farmers’ Market.

“People are really interested in fermentation from the health perspective,” says Chovanec. “They understand that eating fermented, live foods is incredibly healthy for their gut, and that gut health has reverberations for the rest of your health. I’m not a doctor, I’m a fermentation enthusiast, but in my own life I’ve seen my health change from eating fermented foods.” And fermentation has a long history beyond gas station kombucha.

“If you look at food history in other countries,” says Chovanec, “Everyone has a deep relationship to fermentation, whether it’s miso in Japan, fermented hot sauces in Mexico, everyone has roots in fermentation. There was this short period of time where humans forgot how important fermented foods are, and now we’re rediscovering that.”

Fermented Vegetables by Kirsten Shockey

One of the biggest barriers to enjoying fermented foods is worrying that things might get a little, well, smelly. But as Chovanec points out, “Many people don’t realize how many of their favorite foods – coffee, chocolate, cheese, cured meats – are fermented, and many people are educating themselves and realizing they already enjoy fermented foods.”

So, you’re sold on fermentation. But where to begin? “A great place to dip your toes into fermentation is starting off with simple vegetable fermentation, like pickles, sauerkraut, or kimchi,” says Chovanec. “You essentially just need vegetables, salt, and a clean jar. Visit the farmer's market, see what’s in abundance there, and then check out a book from the library and see what comes next. Fermented Vegetables by Kirsten Shockey is a great place to start.”

And fortunately for aspiring vegetable fermenters, two of Chovanec’s favorite farmers’ market vendors will be at the festival. “Bernhardt’s Farm make a lot of kimchi and pickled okra, and they grow all the produce that he puts into his product. F-Stop Farm makes delicious kimchi and krauts and he grows everything in his urban farm in East Austin.” Attendees can buy the pickles pre-made, or pick up some fresh vegetables and pickling tips from farmers and try it out at home.

But it doesn’t stop at sauerkraut. Barton Springs Mill, which works with farmers in the state if Texas to grow heritage, sustainable grain, will be on site hosting a class on DIY sourdough bread. The folks from Bee Tree farm and Dairy will be leading a workshop on yogurt cheeses like Icelandic Skyrr, labneh, and quark. And if you like kombucha but are sick of paying those gas station prices, Buddha’s Brew will be teaching a workshop on brewing your own authentic living kombucha. It’s everything a fermentation fan could ask for.

Austin Fermentation Festival is Sunday, October 21 at Austin Central Library. For more info see the website.

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