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Fermentation Makes Its Mark on the Brandywine Valley’s Food Scene


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It’s amazing how much of our daily food and drink owes its beginnings to fermentation, whether we’re creating it or preserving it. That holds true whether fermentation takes place at home or in restaurants, wineries, breweries, bakeries or pizza parlors. Some of Alphonse Lee’s most detailed and arduous culinary work involves converting heads of Napa cabbage into tangy kimchi via fermentation. “It’s a lot of work,” says the owner of Kalbi Asian Bistro in Wilmington. “To layer it with salt and water—salt brine—you have to do it leaf by leaf. My mother and I just finished making a 170-pound batch of kimchi yesterday.”

Scott Weymiller uses standard commercial yeasts for his rolls, baguettes and pain au chocolat. “When commercial yeast gets started, you’re on the bullet train,” says the baker, who works at La Baguette Magique in West Chester. “Sourdough bread is another matter.”

But even making sourdough is less of a risk than fermenting grapes or other fruits to make wine. “Whether you’re using carboys in the basement or open-top fermenters in a winery, the smaller the batches, the cleaner your equipment and fermenters have to be,” says Anthony Vietri, owner of Va La Vineyards in Avondale.

Fermentation is defined as the chemical breakdown of a substance by bacteria, yeasts or other microorganisms, typically involving effervescence (bubbles) and giving off heat. We most associate fermentation with the production of alcoholic drinks, generally beginning with starches or sugar. We add baking to the list when yeast is involved.

One of fermentation’s foremost popularizers is writer Sandor Katz. Historically, he notes, fermentation was employed to safely preserve food that would otherwise decay. “Fermentation extends the lifespans of many foods, among them cabbage and other vegetables (sauerkraut and pickles), milk (cheese and yogurt), meat (salami) and grapes (wine),” he writes in his wonderful 2021 food travelogue, Sandor Katz’s Fermentation Journeys: Recipes, Techniques, and Traditions From Around the World.

When it comes to fermentation, everything that can be done in a bakery, restaurant, winery or brewery can be done at home—even if the domestic failure rate may be a little higher and the production considerably smaller. Newark’s How Do You Brew supplies many of Delaware’s home brewers with their basic equipment, sanitary supplies, all-in-one kits and many forms of yeasts to perform basement alchemy. How Do You Brew co-owner Jason Scott got started the same way many of his customers did. “I had some prior experience,” Scott quips. “I’d made my own hard cider, but when it exploded in the refrigerator, my wife told me, ‘Never again.’”

Still, Scott notes that cider is the easiest to make. “That’s a good starting place for beginners,” he says, adding that mead is made from honey and is the trickiest and most expensive to produce. “Many people who make wine in their basements have some experience, coming from families whose relatives came here from winemaking countries.”

Before he opened his winery almost 25 years ago, Vietri got his start in the family basement with his uncle. Winemakers, Vietri points out, can use a variety of yeasts for various purposes. Yeasts will ferment at different speeds. Some give certain flavors to the wine. Others can survive alcohol levels above 15% and the high temperatures produced by fermentation.

While many winemakers don’t use commercial yeasts, some yeasts may linger from vintage to vintage, growing in the winery if they were utilized in prior harvests. Crushed grapes will ferment on their own with no intervention, set off by ambient yeasts coming from the grapes themselves or other sources. “The positives of making wine with indigenous yeasts are, first, to say that you can do it,” Vietri says, “Done successfully, you can get complex aromas and flavors. The negative is that every fermentation using natural yeasts is different. You can also get unwanted microbes that give you ‘off ’ flavors, particularly if it’s too warm before fermentation. And wild yeasts die off quicker during fermentation.”

The tangy fruits of fermentation: kimchi, radish salad and white and red sauerkraut.

The tangy fruits of fermentation: kimchi, radish salad and white and red sauerkraut. Adobe Stock.

Which leads us back to the kitchen and that sourdough bread. “Sourdough uses wild, ambient yeast and bacteria in the air that’s a symbiotic relationship between the two,” says Weymiller.

A sourdough starter is made by combining flour and water over a period of a week or so while it picks up bacteria and yeast from the air and begins activity. “It also incorporates any yeast or bacteria on the flour as it’s fed and regenerated, growing and developing,” Weymiller says. “Some people want to romanticize the starter—how old it is, where it comes from. All that is lost when you add it to the flour.”

For those making yeast bread at home, “the flavors can get more complex if you let it ferment in the refrigerator overnight and finish it the following day,” says Weymiller.

It’s also worth addressing all the buzz surrounding fermentation and probiotics—those live microorganisms intended to have health benefits when we take them into our bodies. To that end, the National Institutes of Health cites a 2016 research article published in Frontiers of Microbiology: “The health benefits of some global fermented foods are synthesis of nutrients, prevention of cardiovascular disease, prevention of cancer, gastrointestinal disorders, allergic reactions and diabetes, among others.”

Katz traveled the world learning about dozens of fermented foods, from porridge (England) to palm wine (Niger and Burma) to pulque (Mexico). “Specific fermentation traditions vary from place to place, but the foundations are the same everywhere: People ferment what is abundant, and they generally rely upon organisms that are naturally present on those foods or nearby,” he says in his book.

Finally, if all of this bubbling might seem to be a lot to digest, just remember that digestion is a natural fermentation process in itself.

Related: A Day in the Life of a Chester County Wine Maker