Food & dining

Boston culinarians, researchers, entrepreneurs helping drive a global fermentation revolution

A variety of pickled foods in jars and on plates at Commonwealth Cambridge.
Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe
A variety of pickled foods in jars and on plates at Commonwealth Cambridge.

On the surface, the Boston Fermentation Festival, which just celebrated six years in existence, is as quirky as you’d expect.

At the booth of Micro Mama’s from Weare, N.H., you can taste a wonderful spiced sauerkraut called Mexi Mama, which is like the Central America street food staple curtido, and then learn about New England’s horseradish industrial complex from owner Stephanie Zydenbos-Heino.

Enter the outpost of Go-En, from Whitefield, Maine, and an impossibly rich and complex bite of tahini miso begins to make sense after a rundown on koji, the mystical fungus at the heart of Japanese cuisine, from co-owner Nicholas Repenning.

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The cycle continues, threatening to blur the bigger picture now illuminated by the festival: Fermentation isn’t just a quaint little movement of hippies and homesteaders anymore. It’s a revolution with transformative potential in gastronomy, agriculture, health, and other sectors.

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Greater Boston is playing its familiar role as a hub of global progress.

Frontier days (of five years ago)

Jeremy Ogusky, owner of Ogusky Ceramics, a Jamaica Plain company that provides pottery and plateware to some of the Boston area’s best restaurants, cofounded the festival in 2013 with humble hopes.

“We just wanted to spread the word about fermentation and bring people together,” he said. “I don’t really think we really saw it as part of some kind of global uprising.”

Regardless, the scrappy gathering launched just as a confluence of factors collided to push forward the fermentation wave.

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By 2014, the 21st-century generation of superstar chefs, led by Rene Redzepi of Copenhagen’s Noma, had taken molecular gastronomy in a new direction, turning focus from tech-driven theatrics toward tech-enabled experimentation with powerful and ancient natural forces, particularly fermentation. Redzepi opened his groundbreaking fermentation lab at Noma that year, and using social media and events as platforms, he and his team and a small global network of explorers, including key players from Boston, revved up one of the most exciting innovation movements in the food world.

“I remember seeing the guys from Noma coat a beef rib with clarified butter and peaso (miso made from peas) to age it, and it blew me up,” said Jeremy Kean, co-owner of Jamaica Plain’s Brassica Kitchen & Café, perhaps Boston’s most fermentation-forward restaurant. “When you get these things right, you’re always kind of asking yourself: Why the [expletive] is that so good?”

Kean was part of a network of local early adopters like Ogusky; the late Geoff Lukas of Sofra Bakery & Café; Nicco Muratore of Commonwealth; Tim Maslow, Brandon Baltzley, and Laura Higgins-Baltzley of the now shuttered Ribelle; private chef Mike Betts; microbiologist Bryan Greenhagen, who founded Mystic Brewery; Jitti Chaithiraphant of Heritage Food Project; and blogger-explorer Rich Shih of OurCookQuest.

“We started engaging with chefs and other really creative people from all over the world in this open source way,” said Shih. “It has been mind-blowing seeing what people share and how we all build on each other’s work.”

Bubbling up

Shih’s characterization brings to mind the innovation language of tech and biotech, and five years ago in Boston, those sectors were where other huge leaps were being made in understanding the microbiome, the mashup of microorganisms surrounding us and inside us, and related metabolic processes like fermentation.

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In 2014, Ginkgo Bioworks, a Seaport-based firm that engineers custom microbes for use across a range of industries, became the first biotech company accepted into the legendary Y Combinator accelerator program (of Airbnb, Dropbox, and Reddit fame). Nearby, the Charlestown-based firm Symbiota (now Indigo Ag) was founded to apply microbial technology to seeds to help farmers and their crops weather drought and other scourges. Cambridge-based Evelo Biosciences was also launched to develop new treatments that work with immune cells in the gut to address broader conditions in the body.

‘Overall, the evidence suggest that regular consumption of fermented foods is a tasty way to improve long-term health.’

Academic research initiatives on fermentation were also gathering steam across Greater Boston at the time. Most notably, the groundbreaking Science and Cooking curriculum at Harvard’s Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, which was becoming an important global meeting place for dialogue among scientists and culinary leaders, added a course called “Flavor Molecules of Food Fermentation: Exploration and Inquiry” in 2015.

“Food is such a powerful vehicle to help people understand and explore science,” says Pia Sorensen, a chemical engineer and lecturer who leads the course. “And fermentation is this wild and unpredictable process that forces you to think differently about . . . food and flavor and the world around us, which opens up huge possibilities.”

Developing layers

Less than five years later, the microbiome mob in Boston is growing and bringing those possibilities more into focus.

Both Ginkgo Bioworks and Indigo Ag have achieved rare status as unicorns, or privately held companies valued at over $1 billion. Last week, Synlogic, another pioneering microbiome company in Cambridge, announced positive results from a clinical trial of a microbial treatment for a rare disease called phenylketonuria, which makes it hard for carriers to digest and break down protein in meat and cheese. According to news reports, the treatment has potential to become the “first synthetic biology-based medical treatment to gain approval by the Food and Drug Administration.” Dozens of other promising microbiome companies have more recently been launched to do everything from mapping the gut biome to treating a range of other ailments.

“We’ve commercialized microbiome-coated seeds and seen more than 10 percent yield increases across hundreds of thousands of acres [where our products are used], and we’re just scratching the surface of what the microbiome can do.” said Geoffrey von Maltzahn, PhD, cofounder and chief innovation officer at Indigo Ag, and a Partner at Flagship Pioneering, a major investor in microbiome companies.

June 9, 2018 - Commonwealth Cambridge - 11 Broad Canal Way Nicco Muratore makes black bean miso - black beans, koji and salt Nicco Muratore - Chef de Cuisine at Commonwealth Cambridge , Rich Shih of OurCookQuest Boston area educational pop-up, and Pia Sšrensen Senior Preceptor in Chemical Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard and directs the Science and Cooking at Harvard, meet to discuss the fermentation process and resurgence in the food industry. Lifestyle, 27fermentation(2) Photo by Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe
Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe
At Commonwealth in Cambridge, Nicco Muratore, the chef de cuisine, made black bean miso earlier this summer.

Academic research initiatives on the health benefits of fermentation have also leapt forward. Pia Sorensen’s fermentation course at Harvard has become one of the program’s most popular classes, and nearly every other university and research institution in the area now hosts a microbiome program that touches on food.

“We have hundreds of studies showing associations between probiotics and positive health outcomes, and a few clinical trials that conclusively demonstrate those beneficial effects,” said Dr. David Ludwig, a professor of Nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, whose cookbook, “Always Delicious,” features information and recipes on fermented foods. “Overall, the evidence suggest that regular consumption of fermented foods is a tasty way to improve long-term health.”

Microbiome to table

The Boston area’s dining scene is a good place to test this premise, if you can summon the exploratory spirit that drives all of Boston’s microbiome innovators. A few restaurants are making fermentation part of the backbone of their approach, including Brassica Kitchen & Café, Bondir, Commonwealth, Tasting Counter, Alden & Harlow, Waypoint, Cape Cod’s the Buffalo Jump, and Worcester’s Deadhorse Hill. Ethnic restaurants, like Allston’s great Korean establishments, are also putting global fermentation culture within reach, as are grocery and specialty food stores, where stocks of fermented products have skyrocketed in recent years. Lest it be forgotten, New England’s thriving brewing and distilling scene is playing a huge role in introducing the public to the wonders of fermentation.

June 9, 2018 - Commonwealth Cambridge - 11 Broad Canal Way Pia Sšrensen, Rich Shih and Nicco Muratore sit and talk about the fermented foods on display Nicco Muratore - Chef de Cuisine at Commonwealth Cambridge , Rich Shih of OurCookQuest Boston area educational pop-up, and Pia Sšrensen Senior Preceptor in Chemical Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard and directs the Science and Cooking at Harvard, meet to discuss the fermentation process and resurgence in the food industry. Lifestyle, 27fermentation(2) Photo by Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe
Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe
Pia Sorensen, Rich Shih, and Nicco Muratore talk about fermented foods.

At a recent, sold-out fermentation workshop and dinner at Brassica, one of a semi-regular series, Ogusky facilitated a sauerkraut making session, while Kean and chef Sarah Trainer served a beautifully simple, impressively deep meal of galette of fermented cauliflower, fermented chickpea panisse, and a green salad with fermented carrots. Kean guesses that he and his team have dozens of fermentation experiments going on at any given time, calling them “totally necessary for us to be successful.”

Across town at Commonwealth, a similar recent series event, facilitated by Muratore and Shih, featured a full spread tasting of their collaborative projects, including misos, pepper pastes, and a knockout version of New Orleans’ legendary muffaletta sandwich with koji-cured tasso and fermented vegetable giardiniera. The duo, along with Betts and others from the group of Boston’s early fermentation adopters, will be taking their show to a new level this Saturday, Sept. 15, when they present “Quest for Koji,” one of the first fermentation-themed dinners at the prestigious James Beard House in New York City.

Chefs at the fermentation-driven restaurants are using the approach and products as more than embellishment, but rather as a power tool for boosting flavors, being more seasonal and local, leaving less waste, and creating a more unique experience overall for diners. Not to mention, it’s easy to sense in conversation how the approach instills a spirit of endless innovation in their kitchens that benefits everyone inside and out. The trend is likely to spread and accelerate here and across the global dining landscape when Redzepi and his compatriots at Noma release their “Noma Guide to Fermentation” next month.

Back at the Boston Fermentation Festival, all the paths converge. The Boston Public Market estimates the festival drew more than 14,000 people in 2017, making it one of the largest free fermentation festivals in the country. Indigo Ag and Ginkgo Bioworks, the microbiome pioneers, are primary sponsors, and researchers, chefs, and artisans are all featured on the festival floor and in the program.

“It amazes me that things have come this far,” said Ogusky. “And I have to laugh, because a lot of our longtime vendors and partners say they miss the days when we were doing the festival in a tiny Egleston Square parking lot and no one knew about it.”

Luckily, things bubbled up and over.

Sam Hiersteiner can be reached at samhiersteiner@gmail.com.