The inaugural Fermentation Festival LA explores a culinary trend thousands of years in the making

By Shanee Edwards

Visitors can taste-test a variety of fermented beverages and foods during the festival, modeled after a similar event to the north (pictured)

Visitors can taste-test a variety of fermented beverages and foods during the festival, modeled after a similar event to the north (pictured)

L.A.’s Westside gets its fair share of unique events, and come Sunday we can add a celebration of fermented foods to that list.

The inaugural Los Angeles Fermentation Festival, a combination farmers market and educational self-guided tour of the surprisingly diverse world of fermented foods, arrives in Venice as a spinoff of similar festivals in the Santa Barbara area.

It’s an idea whose time has come to the right place, says co-founder Katie Hershfelt, who’s organized fermentation festivals to the north for the past four years.

“Los Angeles, particularly Venice Beach and Santa Monica, is a hotbed of fermentation,” she says. “There are so many local businesses that are focusing on fermentation. A lot of our exhibitors, sponsors and speakers come from that area, so it made sense to pick Venice.”

Local exhibitors include Whole Foods Venice, regenerative agriculture and community garden activists Kiss the Ground (co-founded by a co-owner of Café Gratitude), and Gjelina owner Fran Camaj’s bakery-restaurant spinoff Gjusta.

Gjusta beverage director Scotty Evans, in fact, will be giving a talk about how the two restaurants grow shrubs to use as raw or cooked ingredients for seasonal cocktails.

Fermented foods may be trending, but the history of fermentation runs deep.

“Fermented foods are something our ancestors made for thousands of years. It’s not a new fad diet or hot trend; this is a traditional food. Every culture on the planet has its own traditionally fermented food,” says Hershfelt, citing kimchi in Korea, cured meats and  cheeses in Europe, lassi and chutney in India and even fermented whale blubber in Alaska.

The menu for Sunday’s festival includes sprouted almond pâté wild-yeast sourdough bread, raw chocolate, kombucha, cultured condiments, probiotic mousse, medicinal wild sauerkraut, in-season root vegetables, homemade ginger ale, kefir carrot cake, artisan fermented sausage, raw fermented coconut cream and probiotic hibiscus power shots.

“With the rise of the industrial revolution, people started canning things and processing food, but back in the day they used fermentation to keep that food preserved because they didn’t have refrigerators. They would do this process and store food for seasons to come,” Hershfelt says.

While technology has eliminated our need for fermentation, Hershfelt believes people are only now starting to realize the benefits of fermentation we’ve lost.

“Fermentation was super-important and beneficial to our health, because fermented foods have a lot of live, active beneficial bacteria within them. Those bacteria are the same bacteria we find in our immune system and in our gut to help us digest our food and assimilate vitamins and nutrients,” she says.

The festival advocates for local, organic agriculture that keeps helpful bacteria in the soil.

“If you’re spraying your soil with antibiotics, hormones or pesticides, you’re killing beneficial bacteria,” says Hershfelt. “It’s essential that people understand the traditions we’ve lost touch with — organic farming, fermenting, putting our health first and realizing how our environment really affects that.”

Another of the festival’s goals is to create community and make sure visitors have a good time, which is where its Farm to Bar Theater comes in. A limited supply of fermented alcoholic beverages provided by local vendors will allow 250 patrons the chance to taste an array of unique drinks. For an extra $20, attendees get a Ferment LA signature glass that allows a taste from each vendor. Some of the sips include feral beer, traditional mead, cherry Cyser and farm to bar cocktails featuring kombucha, krout and kimchi mixers.

Kids get in for free and may want to check out the festival’s “petting zoo.”

But don’t expect any docile sheep or cute puppies. Instead, children will get the chance to touch a SCOBY — a bacterial culture used for starting many fermented foods and beverages.

If you saw a SCOBY and no one told you it was what it was, you’d think it was bad. But this slimy thing is actually a group of good bacteria getting together, and you can use that to make beneficial fermented drinks,” says event spokesman Wil Fernandez. “A lot of kids come into that area thinking they’re coming into a traditional petting zoo, but actually they’re touching all these little bacteria. It’s an interesting, eye-opening experience.”

Well, at least you won’t have to worry about little fingers getting bitten.

Fermentation Festival LA takes place from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday at Venice Arts Plaza (outside SPARC and Beyond Baroque), 681 N. Venice Blvd., Venice. Tickets are $45, plus $20 for the Farm to Bar tasting event. Children under 16 get in free. Visit fermentla.org for tickets and information.

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