Exploring tasteful and sustainable principles through fermentation and urban foraging

Hello, Roots Radicals community!

I hope that, despite the lockdown and home office, our food is not just a checkbox in our day, a mindless fuel that keeps our human machine going. Since the beginning of this blog space, together with Roots Radicals, we have had the mission to reconnect us back to good food, by exploring a deeper connection of who we are and how we relate to nature and other humans. In our second blog post, we questioned our contemporary consumption of industrialized canned goods, which is not only a sign of an unhealthy diet but shows the broken link between urban eaters and nature. “Tell me, if you open any processed tomato canned soup, close your eyes and smell it, what do you think about it? I doubt it would be a tomato plant, but rather an industrial factory”, told us our dear Monica during the first Rooted Lives of January.

Then, Rebeca and her project Concordia introduced us to fermentation as a metaphor for creative writing ideation and peaceful resistance. “This resistance could be applied in the hyperproduction of the publishing world as well as the fast-paced consumption of our food systems”, recounted Rebeca. Along with her project, she also explores the different properties of herbs, their mythological and cultural characteristics. This brief glimpse into fermentation and herbalism left us curious about the role of our food to generate culture -social and bacterial. How can we dive into more sustainable and pleasurable processes with our food?

Sourdough in hands. Photo by Edible Alchemy, 2020

To answer this question we invited Alexis Goertz, co-founder of Edible Alchemy, to our Rooted Lives #8. The conversation broadened our ideas of food fermentation as timeless cultural knowledge and a way to prevent food waste. It also introduced the practice of foraging as a way of sourcing wild food, not only in nature but in our urban environments. Moreover, Edible Alchemy also has a conscious and sustainable ethos and wants to empower people to know about food preservation, to move apart from the misbelief that food surpluses or food that is past the expiration date -even dumpster dived food- has to inevitably become waste. To achieve this, either through sourdough workshops or the probiotic drinks from the Bacteria Bar, Alexis explained that “fermentation is this amazing traditional method of energy-efficient food preservation that has been forgotten”. This February the project celebrated 8 years of tasteful and sustainable actions, that started in 2012 back in Canada and moved then to Berlin in 2018. Together with her alchemist partner Jonas, they “started by wanting fermentation to become an educational experience for everyone.”

Originally from Canada, Alexis shared that as most of the people who consume the Standard American Diet, her diet consisted of heavy pasteurized and processed food, meant for an unrealistically long shelf-life. She then began to notice that the longer the expiration date the longer is the list of strange industrialized ingredients. Her path into fermentation culture started after one amazing year in Mozambique when she was 18. She lived immersed in the African rural area, where people hardly had access to fridges, so fermentation was the most common way to preserve food. “I watched the bacteria bubbles as everyday processes, tasted them and felt the difference of fermented food in my body. Even when I was feeling ill -of a stomach ache for example- there was always something fermented that I could take as a medicine. And that got me to think about food as a medicine, which was completely different from my standard American diet that targeted food as fuel.”

Alexis and Snowflake, a probiotic relationship! Photo: Edible Alchemy, 2020

“I was always interested in growing plants and harvesting food, but when I got in contact with these starter cultures like Kombucha, water or milk Kefir -which is my first culture- I realized that these were also like pets. And when you take care of them, just like a plant or a garden, they also give back and grow into a source of health. Like the milk kefir, which thanks to bacteria turned regular milk into this probiotic healthy drink … and probiotic is the opposite of antibiotic, which makes it pro-life. So in Edible Alchemy, we’re working with and for life to grow. In addition to tackling food waste, which is inherently sustainable, we approach health through what is most important for us: taste. We mustn’t forget that eating healthy and taking care of the environment are pleasurable activities. This is what we call Pleasures of Ecology”

Thanks to the culinary turn of the past ten years, the ecological pleasures of fermentation and foraging became the centre of gastronomy research and practice across the globe, from Noma in Copenhagen to Mil Centro in Perú. What these two examples have in common is the tasteful retake on rooted knowledge and experimentation with regional biodiverse products. Either a professional or amateur kitchen, these explorations take the act of cooking as a revolutionary act against the Industrialized Food Systems. Far from a kombucha trend and closer to a wholesome lifestyle and a healthy gut, Edible Alchemy connects food sourcing and transformation to the Epicurean concept of “hedonistic sustainability”.

“Berlin is a multicultural center for not only people but for plants. It has these big green spaces, like Plänterwald or Tiergarten, where you can get enough distance from the streets and discover huge plant biodiversity. Then by learning how to forage things, meaning that you pick up wild plants for yourself, you become aware of human activity in relation to nature. It also redefines what is edible, like a simple dandelion -often called a weed, in german unkraut or not a herb. Which is a silly way to dismiss this delicious and nutritious plant and so many others that grow spontaneity in parks and gardens. There is so much out there that is edible, beyond iceberg lettuce!”

Alexis and Jonas teaching Foraging Course in Berlin. Photo: Edible Alchemy, 2020

Foraging invites us to slow down and take a careful look into our urban gardens and parks for food. It also allows us to understand that the nutrients of a plant or a tree are not only in their fruits or nuts but in the leaves, flowers and even roots. The more diverse the combination of the herbs, the wider the palette of flavours and micronutrients, as well as the greater the Umami level. By retaking on this practice our cities could become the source of our food, with a renovated sense of ecological care on a neighbourhood level. When we pick up a wild herb, we pay attention to our natural environments, learning to care and consume more consciously.

“We are trying to make people aware that cities have a lot to offer, that weed is delicious and that under our feet is growing a lot of nutritious food that is kindly available for us. This infuses respect for nature and triggers creativity. Next time that you see a calendula flower, you probably won’t step on it and crush it, you may even consider how far you are from the road and if dogs pee there. Then you may pick it up and make a tea out of it, or put it in your salad or add it into your ferments -this is what we’re doing in Edible Alchemy. We consider 52 seasons in a year for our food, not only summer, spring, autumn and winter. Every week is a new season, and each of these weeks offers a vast diversity to pick up from nature. Like that we not only learn to consume what is available but also to preserve through fermentation as a way of enjoying different types of food along the year.”

For Edible Alchemy, fermented food is taste, health and ecology. Photo: Edible Alchemy, 2020

After this conversation with Alexis, we felt curious about wild flavours and hungry for probiotic experimentation. These both take time and community exchange to evolve and expand the learning process. If, like us, you want to dive into this knowledge go to Edible Alchemy’s Academy and discover a wide range of workshops, online classes and excursions around the Berlin area. You can also get inspired and motivated through the tasteful preserves of Roots Radicals, we have a wide variety of fermented and circular products and we would be happy to answer any curiosity about the cooking process through our online platform. If you’re not around Germany, don’t worry, send us a message with your questions. Take this as an open invitation to go outside, share the foraging curiosity with friends and neighbours and dust off the grandma’s cooking book -you may be amazed by how much fermentation knowledge is in there. As David Zilber says “fermentation is a commitment to our future”.

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