It feels important to continue to push my boundaries to ensure I keep growing as a human being. Attending one of Sandor Katz’s legendary fermentation residential courses at his off-grid home at Walnut Ridge, Tennessee pushed my boundaries. In all sorts of directions.
You will not be surprised to learn that Sandor’s courses are oversubscribed. When I received confirmation that I had got a place on one of his April courses this year, I shouted YES repeatedly and waved my arms around a bit. And I danced round my kitchen. Yes, I did.
I have thought about how to share the trip with you and unusually for me, I have concluded that this is best done in pictures. But before the pictures, I will set down the nub of what I got out of 5 days with Sandor and my fellow fermenting possee.
Sandor is a magical soul. He is resourceful and kind. He is comfortable in his own skin and able to gently and empathically hold his boundaries. This enables him to welcome a group of 14 enquiring “students” into his home, whilst still retaining his equanimity. He knows a great deal about fermentation. Information he has learnt over the years by DOING it. This information, he passes on in the traditional manner - side by side, cheek by jowl - in his kitchen, in his sitting room, around his dining table.
In this world of virtual everything, we are starting to forget the multifaceted and intrinsic value of learning from one another in real time, in the same space. Then, it is not just in the designated learning time in which knowledge is passed on, but in the discussions over meals, in idle quiet moments when insights are gleaned. In the rubbing along together, navigating meals and sleeping arrangements, foraging in the woods and, also, when Joel unpacked an impromptu cocktail bar from the boot of his car.
Sandor transfuses information in the most selfless and unassuming of ways. There is a very real sense of his desire to pass on what he has learnt. But there is nothing in him that is attention-seeking or prima donna ish. He is about as down-to-earth as you can get.
Knowledge to me equals choice. It represents freedom. Ok, with it comes responsibility too, but that is a very empowering position to be in. It is crystal clear that the passing on of what he has learnt is important to Sandor. And so it should be. This is a revival. This is not new knowledge. Fermentation has been a part of humans’ interaction with food, drink, yeast and bacteria for millennia. Knowledge we have forgotten. Knowledge which Sandor has helped us to remember. Knowledge we urgently need to remember, given the developments in science on the gut microbiome front in the last few years.
Walnut Ridge, in all its stunning simplicity, was part of the boundary-shoving for me too. It made me realise that on-grid, having the practicalities of our lives so conveniently and effectively pinned down and micromanaged through the availability of water, electricity and flushing toilets, deprives us of certain pleasures, skills and abilities that we hardly even notice we have lost. Imperceptible, progressive and insidious disconnection from our natural environment. Going off-grid rapidly reverses that.
And the people. Oh, the PEOPLE. Here in Wells, I am seen as a little “ahead of the curve” (which actually means weird). But at Sandor’s with my 13 fellow fermentation obsessives, I fitted RIGHT in. We all brought along our own angle, our own reason for being there, our own baggage (emotional and actual). But the kindness, generosity, open mindedness, the sheer potential to learn from other humans with the same interests but from different walks of life, different starting points, different perspectives was, quite literally, thrilling. Plus there was no lock on the composting toilet so that broke down barriers pretty swiftly.
the bottom line
The bottom line? Getting out of our comfort zone is important. And mixing with humans who have lived their lives differently to us is also really important. Usually one begets the other. Humans need community in order to thrive. And diversity is an essential element of community, of health. We need diversity at a microbial level, at a plant level, at an insect level, at animal level, at human level, at a nutritional level. Diversity is where it is at. And fermented foods are one way we can all rebel against the insidious erosion of diversity in terms of nutrition, gut microbes and food practices. Your own personal revolution could start with fermented foods and drinks because when we feel better, we will wake up.
As you can see, this sojourn was about much, much more than simply learning about different fermented foods. But we did also learn a great deal about those. And I am having great fun experimenting back at home, always with a little spark of joy in my heart as I do so. There is so much to learn about our own health from a growing understanding of the bigger microbial picture, of which we are just a tiny little part.
And now, the pictures. They show just a snapshot of some of what we did and learnt, but hopefully enough to give you an appetite for fermentation.