Everywhere you go in Maine, someone is brewing beer in the garage, culturing sauerkraut in the cellar or fermenting kombucha in the kitchen. Fermentation is quite literally in the air. So it’s no surprise the international guru of this fermentation revival is in Maine this week doing a series of talks and workshops, all leading up to his keynote address at this weekend’s Common Ground Country Fair.
Sandor Ellix Katz, author of “The Art of Fermentation,” “Wild Fermentation” and “The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved,” speaks at 11 a.m. Friday at the annual organic food festival in Unity. His talk is titled “Fermentation and Food Relocalization.”
“There is definitely a resurgence in interest in fermentation and an explosion of small fermentation entrepreneurs,” Katz said recently by phone before leaving for Denmark, where he spoke at the annual MAD Symposium, a forum for farmers and chefs. “But I like to put that in the context that people have always loved fermented foods.”
Think chocolate, wine and cheese and you see what he means.
In addition to encouraging people to ferment foods at home, Katz, who lives in Tennessee, will talk about the current embracing of local foods.
“The very idea of a revival of local food self-sufficiency depends on the actions of a lot of small actors,” said Katz. “In our country we’ve had a decades-long experiment with the centralization of food production. But in the last few decades people are beginning to see the downside to that system.”
In response to the problems spawned by industrial food, many people are taking action, Katz said.
“It’s people starting gardens, starting small farms, patronizing farmers markets, turning the products of ag into the delicious things people love to eat,” Katz said. “All of these things are the ways to rebuild local food systems. Policies can have huge impacts but the actors have to be individual people.”
Along with this renewed interest in eating local has come a return to traditional foodways, such as fermentation. Researchers are even beginning to discover what our ancestors knew intuitively: Fermented foods with live cultures are good for our health.
“It’s amazing what science is learning right now,” Katz said. “We finally have the tools to understand the microbial world in ways we never had before. We’re finding that the way these microflora function in our body is huge.”
But at the same time, we do our best to wipe out this essential part of our makeup with the water we drink, medicines we take and the soap we use on our hands. He likens our environment of chlorinated water, antibiotic drugs and gimmicky antibacterial soaps to chemical warfare.
“Anyone who is alive and grew up in the United States grew up in what I call the war on bacteria,” Katz said.
Yet we can defend ourselves — and our gut bacteria — by eating fermented foods. Katz will demonstrate how to make some of them at 2 p.m. on Saturday and host a question-and-answer session Saturday at 4 p.m.
The two other keynote addresses at this year’s fair will be delivered by herbalist Deb Soule on Saturday and Organic Valley CEO George Siemon on Sunday. Both take place at 11 a.m. In addition to these headliners, the 37th annual Common Ground Country Fair features more than 700 talks, workshops, demonstrations and performances by a diverse range of experts.
“There is this sort of wealth of knowledge and sharing of craft,” said fair director Jim Ahearne. “There are so many quality opportunities to connect with individuals or small groups everywhere you turn. You can wander into any place and discover something new.”
From cooking demonstrations to farming how-tos, the fair offers an abundance of food-related events. A few of the highlights include:
• Husband and wife Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch, well-known food writers and year-round Maine gardening pioneers, join together to provide related demonstrations. On Friday and Saturday at 1 p.m., Coleman delivers a demonstration called “Building the Modular Moveable Hoophouse.” On Friday, Damrosch follows at 3:30 p.m. with a cooking demonstration focused on vegetables and eggs. On Saturday at 3 p.m., she’ll follow Coleman’s talk with a cooking demonstration centered on seasonal salads.
• The Seafood Throwdown chef competition takes place at noon on Sunday. During this event, two chefs get a secret Maine seafood ingredient and funds to shop at the fair’s farmers market. Then they each have one hour to prepare a dish for the judges.
• Heirloom fruit tree expert John Bunker offers his popular apple tasting of unusual varieties Friday and Saturday at 3 p.m. He’ll also give a talk each day about the Heritage Orchard at the Common Ground Education Center with a focus on saving Maine’s traditional apples and pears. Those talks take place at 4 p.m. Friday and Sunday and 11 a.m. Saturday.
• Author and Origins Fruit owner David Buchanan talks Sunday at 10 a.m. about his book “Taste, Memory: Forgotten Foods, Lost Flavors, and Why They Matter.”
• A series of events highlighting backyard chicken raising takes place at noon and 1 p.m. on Saturday and 11 a.m. on Sunday. One of the featured speakers is pressherald.com blogger Sharon Kitchens.
Of course, the fair serves up a seemingly endless buffet of delectables for food enthusiasts.
This year, 41 vendors will staff 53 booths in two food courts, serving everything from Thai food and tacos to sausage sandwiches and french fries. Whether you want seafood or lamb or you hanker for vegan, vegetarian or gluten-free eats, you’ll have no trouble finding a tasty lunch.
The event, which is the largest fundraiser for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, requires food vendors to serve all-organic food and allows them to purchase ingredients from out of state only if said ingredients are not available in Maine.
Fairgoers also have the chance to shop at the state’s only all-organic farmers market, with 34 vendors spread across market locations at both fair entrances. Other food makers — selling everything from freshly baked bread to Maine maple syrup — offer their wares in the general marketplace.
Each year, the three-day event attracts roughly 60,000 people interested in the rural, homespun lifestyle the fair promotes. This isn’t a fair with a midway or fried Twinkies or tractor pulls. Instead, you’ll find a children’s vegetable parade, organic pie cones and draft horse demonstrations.
When New York Times writer Anne Raver visited the fair last year, she said it “felt like what has gone missing from America.”
And it’s true.
With its emphasis on artisans, scratch-made food and small-scale farming, the Common Ground Country Fair is all about learning how to live a more natural, authentic life.
For some of us, such authenticity can be found in a crock full of homemade sauerkraut.
Avery Yale Kamila is a freelancer who lives in Portland, where she writes about health food and longs for the wholesome goodness of the Common Ground Country Fair all year. She can be reached at :