Please Pass the Pickled Pepper

On the forefront of fermentation in Philadelphia


By Sasha Rogelberg

At Martha, a bar and restaurant in Fishtown, Philadelphia, a pickle is more than just a cucumber wading in a salty brine.

The winner of Philadelphia Magazine’s Best Pickle last year, Martha has lots of fermented fare, including olives marinated in pickled peppers and preserved lemons, local cheese plates and charcuteries, and pickle boats with whatever vegetables are in season, from beans to broccoli to radishes. They even have a sandwich made up of almost entirely fermented foods called the “Vegan Jawn,” which is filled with a carrot terrine, consisting of fermented, pureed, and cooked carrots set with agar that gives it the consistency of a deli meat, fermented radish, and dried, miso-cured eggplant.

Though unique in their ingenuity for the uses of fermentation and pickling, Martha is not the only Philadelphia establishment with a fiending for fermentation.  Local breweries like Fermentary Form, bakeries like Mighty Bread Company, and small distilleries across the city, are all fermenting foods and drinks for the public.

In fact, the process of fermentation — or the growth of healthy bacteria on foods to preserve and give them their funky, sour notes — has grown in popularity all over the country, mostly thanks for the slow food or “locavore” movement putting an emphasis on eating local foods, instead of buying from huge industrial companies.

Mike Landers, who does much of Martha’s fermentation, explained that people ferment and eat fermented foods for reasons ranging from the food being healthier, easier to store, and just as a way of using up food that would have gone to waste.

“Cooking makes things more digestible, but fermenting make food digestible and keeps more nutrients,” he said.

Landers, however, said that food becoming healthier through the pickling process was just a “happy accident.”  He enjoys fermented foods because the process of developing bacteria on the outsides of vegetables and cheeses extracts deep and complex flavors that can’t be created with other cooking techniques.

Despite now being popular and more common in restaurants and small-batch breweries, fermentation is nothing new.  Rather, it’s an activity that’s very old, but one that big corporations have lost interest in, as it takes time and resources that may only be available seasonally.

Ethan Tripp, the founder of Fermentary Form, started his business trying to resurrect an art he believes is now scarce.

The crowd at Fermentary Form

Tripp explained that back in the 1700s before people understood that there were multiple microbes, or the bacteria that is responsible for foods fermenting, or a “microbial world,” people would replicate the food preparation practices that worked for them.

This was how beer and wine were created, and after people realized one could consume spoiled beer and wine in the form of vinegar, this is how vinegar was created and popularized as well.

Fermenting food and drink were a way for people to stabilize their food to store it longer, as well as just a way for things to taste better, according to Tripp.  However, as fermentation became the norm, larger breweries made more money, and the smaller ones went out of business.  Around the time of the Industrial Revolution, breweries had simplified and sped up the fermentation process.  Old practices were forgotten in favor of meeting the needs of the market.

Tripp said that many of the cheese and pickles found in the supermarket today have no organisms living on them; they have been killed off by pasteurization.  By returning to the traditions of fermented food and drink, he is not only preserving history, but also the organisms on the food that make them deeper in flavor and easier for people to digest.

“I was fascinated by these lost beers,” Tripp said.  “I sort of got interested in making them myself, and that became the basis of [Fermentary Form].”

Fermentary Form has over 10 types of beers that resemble the traditional style of brewing from the Franco-Belgian border, and the Belgian mixed-fermentation style.  Tripp is still barreling and blending the beers as they were hundreds of years ago.

The popularity of fermentation extends far beyond restaurants and breweries, and fermentation projects are now common in people’s homes, and even in dorm rooms.

This past Friday, Shira Steinberg, a Bryn Mawr senior and member of the BMC Gardening Club, hosted a fermentation workshop on campus.  Steinberg led a group of eight students in making a recipe for kimchi that he found in Sandor Ellix Katz’s book “Wild Fermentation.”

Steinberg explained that “Wild Fermentation,” published in 2003, was the starting point for many individuals trying to ferment at home.  He said that after Katz was diagnosed with HIV, it destroyed his immune system.  In order to try to improve his health and combat the side effects of HIV medication, Katz began eating the array of food he fermented, and he saw his health improve and stabilize.

The fermentation workshop was an opportunity to teach people about what Steinberg called “mystical” foods that have interested him since his freshman year of college.

The interest in fermentation has done anything but fizzle out over the past fifteen years since Katz’s book’s publication.  This year, Noma, a two-Michelin-star restaurant in Copenhagen, released “The Noma Guide to Fermentation,” a now New York Times bestseller, about how to ferment in both a home and restaurant setting.

The growing interest in fermentation is less about new technology and new science, and really more about who can make and buy foods that are fermented.  This process doesn’t have to be a fine dining experience or a home science experiment.

“A lot of people who were fermenting on their own started making businesses out of it and selling at farmer’s markets and other small venues, which has led to them selling at places like Mom’s [Organic Market] or Whole Foods,” Steinberg said.  “So it’s become something that’s easily accessible to people who have money but don’t want to do it on their own.”

From buying a brew made with local grains to keeping jars of kimchi in your closet at home, there’s no longer an excuse to not try these foods with funk.