Vodka, sour cream, kimchi, cheese, pickles, sauerkraut and Shaw Island resident Shannon Klohr have something in common: fermentation. The foods and drink are examples of fermented food; Shannon loves the process, and in October had a hands-on class in fermenting sauerkraut. Shannon and Mike Mahn arrived on Shaw in April 2012 to be caretakers of the Swanson property. “But what excited us were the farming opportunities,” Shannon said.

Shannon worked in the Bay Area for almost 20 years, where she learned to appreciate healthy food. “I had been interested in meditation, and I was working with the National Park Service doing ecological restoration and growing native plants. But I was looking for something different. I decided to do a six-month farm apprenticeship at the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center (north of San Francisco) in 2002. I liked the idea of communal living and farming and meditation. Mike ended up there the same year. Being at Green Gulch continued this idea of putting the effort and time into good food.”

A bad experience led to sauerkraut
After Green Gulch, Shannon and Mike spent time at a sister retreat center “deep in the wilderness. There was an outbreak of giardia (intestinal infection caused by a microscopic parasite) and everyone in the community got it that winter. We were far from medical care because it was a secluded retreat. A doctor on retreat with us ordered in Flagyl, an intense antibiotic. During that time, someone else recommended probiotics (microorganisms similar to the “good” bacteria in our guts) to counter the negative side-effects of the antibiotics. So we started making sauerkraut, which we could do in a remote place.”

Traditionally, fermented foods were a large part of the diet. Many vegetables, meats, grains and more could be fermented and kept for winter use. Eat fresh vegetables during the season, fermented food during the winter. Fermenting food meant that billions of beneficial bacteria were introduced into your gut. Shannon and Mike brought that knowledge when they came to Shaw. On the lookout for new ways of preserving what they grew and new ways to excite their taste buds, they remembered the experience of fermenting sauerkraut.

What to do with ‘too much’ bok choi?
“In some ways it makes food more delicious. I like fermenting more than canning, and fermenting preserves a lot of the nutrients while saving the healthy bacteria in the food that our gut is really happy to eat. The first time that we did it in earnest was last year. We had a bounty of bok choi (a member of the cabbage family) and we needed to figure out what to do with it because it doesn’t keep long. So we made kimchi because it keeps much longer. We made gallons of kimchi with anything in the garden and everybody loved it! I started from there. We had a really large cabbage crop last year so we made a ton of sauerkraut. Everybody loved it. People asked us how to make it. That was the seed of the fermenting class.”

Fermentation is used in many food and drinks, including beer, rice wine, cider, bread, cheese, pickles, sour cream, soy sauce, yogurt and white sugar sponge cake. For the class, Shannon focused on turning cabbages into sauerkraut, a process that she likes. “It’s fun, having all these bubbling containers on the counter. I just keep expanding it. This year we tried pickles, broccoli and cauliflower. I love fermented vegetables because they retain their crunchiness, unlike canned vegetables or blanched and frozen vegetables.”

An experiment for the taste buds
“I’m like a mad scientist when I reach into the crock and skim off the growth on top. You can’t be too grossed out as you’re skimming off the yeast that’s beginning to grow. You just reach down there and taste it every few days until it tastes right for you. It’s a tactile, experimental process. And different bacteria are battling and winning over the days. It’s an acidic environment that favors beneficial bacteria. But if you let it go too long it can get ruined and I’ve had that happen. There’s a certain window to create what works for your taste buds.”

“Mike has started fermenting ginger ale and dry cured meats. I’m more into vegetables. Working with an experimental attitude is fun. My recipe changes depending on what’s available in the garden. I don’t have a hard and fast set of recipes. It’s important to me to empower people to not be afraid of fermenting. It’s an ongoing experiment.”

— Written by Sharon Wootton