Sunday, April 28, 2013

Fomenting Ferment with Sandor Katz

"... Saturday morning the koji has powdery sporulation. The tempeh from Thursday found its way to supper last night and will be in lunch again today. The mauby needs a stir, then is ready to bottle. The kefir water gets raisins to help it grow...."

The Art of Fermentation
Sandor Katz lives a couple hours across Tennessee from us, so on a delightful April weekend we decided to spend four days attending his Wild Fermentation Intensive. Sandor is quite the celebrity these days — after profiles in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and Michael Pollan’s new book, Cooked, Sandor’s own encyclopedia, The Art of Fermentation, still in hardcover, has galloped through several printings for Chelsea Green. Readers of Resilience will find scores of references to Sandor over the past few years, as sustainability bloggers have come to recognize the importance of fermentation to sustainability.

Sandor remains humble and accessible, despite being whisked around the world to rub elbows with celebrity chefs and food editors, take part in red carpet gastronomic events in Japan, France and California, or opine in various fora like Bioneers, the Mother Earth News Fair and TED. Today he is in Brooklyn and then Los Angeles, then the Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine in County Cork, Ireland, then back to Tennessee, then on to Vermont, Oregon, Florida, Wisconsin, and Seattle in June.

For several years he has been doing very intimate, down home workshops and for this purpose has outfitted a rustic kitchen stadium in the basement of a house across the road from Short Mountain Distillery (makers of quality Tennessee Moonshine since 2012). This kitchen has everything needed for a dozen people to rub elbows while chopping vegetables, stuffing pickle jars, or heating raw milk to 180°F. Sandor keeps the workshops small enough to allow hands-on experiential learning, and cheap enough for anyone to attend, providing camping and self-cooked meals from his refrigerators and freezers stocked with the produce of his farming neighbors.

Arriving on Thursday, we were immediately plunged into two cultures that Sandor wants to get into the incubator right away — tempeh and koji. As Sandor describes his personal journey into fermentation — having too much cabbage and not wanting to let it go to waste — he is boiling a pot of cracked, organic soybeans and millet (the splitting was done by the hand-crank mill at the end of the counter, and the beans came from the same source as The Farm’s organic tofu and soy milk) until the hulls separate and can be skimmed off. After half an hour of participant introductions, the beans and millet come off the stove and are drained. As he pours the hot mix into two large mixing bowls to cool, Sandor is telling us about the Cultured Pickle Shop in Berkeley where he learned about a second ferment of kombucha juice with turnips.

The narrative — a practiced patter of pickling wisdom and microbial factoids — does not let up as he gently turns the beans with his fingers to cool. When the bean-millet mix is ready to inoculate — he inserts a meat thermometer to see if it is under 100° — he pours the starter from a small mixing bowl where the packaged powder (Rhizopus oligosporus) has been reviving in lukewarm water, as would a bread yeast, into the large mixing bowl and resumes fondling.

Now he demonstrates for us the method, first developed by the late Keith Steinkraus at Cornell University, of taking a zip-lock pint sandwich bag, laying it over a grilling screen, and perforating it with a grid of holes at one-inch intervals. We all take turns making perforations, filling each bag with about a pound of inoculated beans, flattening the contents and setting them into the incubator. The incubator is not a laboratory instrument, but befitting this Tennessee basement across from a moonshine still, is an old broken refrigerator with a lightbulb on a thermostat to keep it at 85-95°F.

When he is traveling, he sometimes takes a standard Dollar General plastic tub, a metal oven pan and a tubular aquarium heater. Filling the metal pan with an inch or two of water, he submerses the heater, set to 85-95°F, lays pan of water with heater in the tub, puts a rack on top, and is ready to incubate cultures.

Kefir feeding on raisins
Tempeh started, Sandor moves on to his pot of boiling barley, which will provide the substrate for koji. He tells us that the latest craze sweeping Tokyo is koji and salt, which is not that great tasting and not traditional, but people are snacking on it as if it were cheese doodles. When the barley is cool, he spreads it into cheesecloth-lined wooden trays and inoculates it with miso starter (Aspergillus orizae), in much the same fashion as the tempeh. Into the incubator it goes.

Now its time to make supper and Sandor has mixed chick peas, lentils and rice into a reddish paste that has been sitting quietly at room temperature to form sambar, something akin to chili. He steams up a pot of rice and breaks out some fermented daikon radish pickles and mixed vegetable krauts.

Over supper Sandor tells us the four main reasons people learned to ferment were (1) alcohol; (2) preserving food outside season; (3) detoxifying otherwise inedible food; and (4) saving energy. Ferments were the original fast foods.

Day Two begins, after eggs and sourdough pancakes, with sour tonic beverages. Mabí, also known as mauby, comes from a bark of a tree (Colubrina elliptica) found in the Caribbean, which naturally Sandor has a 5-pound sack of (from an importer in Connecticut). He says the name is a contraction of the creole “ma biere” (my beer). He has original mauby starter culture was smuggled home from St. Croix but he says kefir can also work as a starter. The process starts with brewing the bark into tea, then aerating back and forth between cups, and bottling it with some sugar. He suggests bottling it in plastic so you can tell if it is getting pressurized and relieve the pressure before it explodes. By Sunday the bottled mauby is a sweet fizzy soda.

Caleb bottles kombucha
We went on to start water kefir (with a slice of papaya for sugar), drain whey from curds of clabbered raw milk, and start a ginger bug. Sandor’s friend Caleb dropped in to show us how to make a carbonated kombucha tea, and we proceeded to make a variety of sour tonics and bottle them up for later sampling. Caleb likes grape juice, lemon juice, lime juice and various fruit teas. Kombucha is a SCOBY (Symbiotic Community of Bacteria and Yeast) that comes from Tibet, but is sensitive to flavors (although it seems to do well in apple juice) so a second fermentation of the liquid is needed to produce a flavored beverage.

The ginger bug is just a thumb of grated ginger, 3 Tbsp sugar (can be cane syrup, maple syrup, agave, etc.), and water in a mason jar with a cloth cover. In 2 days it’s ready for second fermentation. We age it in plastic bottles with turmeric and grapefruit juice.

Sandor ladles idly

After a tour of the distillery and samplings of Short Mountain Shine and Apple Pie, we are back to make some idly, using fermented black lentils (de-husked) and rice. The fermentation process breaks down the starches to be more readily metabolized. The batter is poured into idly dishes that are stacked into trees and suspended into a pot of boiling water to steam or be baked in the oven. Dosa is a fried preparation of the same batter. Our lunch is idly dressed with sambar, and more pickles and chutney.

Afternoon finds us working with vegetables making kraut and kim chi. We each bottle up a mason jar of carrot and cabbage kraut to take home. The tempeh is already turning white.

Moving miso to ferment for 2 years
Saturday morning the koji has powdery sporulation. The tempeh from Thursday found its way to supper last night and will be in lunch again today. The mauby needs a stir, then is ready to bottle. The kefir water gets raisins to help it grow. Soybeans have been boiled the previous evening, cooled and injected with natto starter. After a cool night they will go into the incubator for the rest of the day.

The kim chi is undisturbed in a large, covered pot but later today we will can it. We are heating raw milk for yogurt, doul and kefir. The buttermilk sat out for 24 hours and is clabbering. We all take a taste. Yum. The viscosity in the kefir is called “kefiring” and is not a cause for concern. Sandor is oft heard to note from a USDA source that in two centuries of records, there has never been a reported case of food poisoning from fermented foods.

Sandor refers us to the late Lynn Margulis’s essay “Sex, Death and Kefir”  as he puts the milk on the stove and stirs. He is denaturing it at 180° so that the bacteria of the yogurt can reweave the strings of protein. He has two strains of yogurt starter, one the Lactobacillus Bulgaricus that forms the basis for all Western yogurt cultures, and the other a rarer Lebanese strain. We mark our mason jars “B” and “L.”

Sandor tells us about skyr, an Icelandic yogurt that has nothing to do with yogurt, greek yogurt, and vily, a rare milk culture that forms a colloidal solid. We make 10 quarts of yogurt, 5 each of “B” and “L.” Sandor then starts a sorghum porridge that will get a 48-hour fermentation into a tasty cake. Our Saturday supper includes the last of the tempeh, bacon-fried in coconut oil with Italian spices, and a Japanese natto dish: egg yolk, uncooked stringy natto, white rice and Dijon mustard, strong on the horseradish. We contribute a six-pack of Oatmeal Stout homebrewed by Jon Hatcher at the Ecovillage Training Center, and Sandor uncorks some bubbly mead.

Sandor Katz
After three days, Sunday is a bit of a blur and we’ve stopped taking notes but we seem to recall something about alcoholic beverages and putting up crocks of miso. Persons braver than might be expected dive into a deep, ancient kraut barrel in Sandor’s root cellar and rebottle years-old ferments until his jar library is emptied. We tour Sandor’s home on Short Mountain, an 1820s log cabin being remodeled, and the adjacent ecovillage. We gather wild ramps, nettles, poke salat, and reishi. We ate, we hugged, we exchanged addresses and we parted.

We will next see Sandor July 27, when he comes to The Farm for our workshop on Fermaculture,  mixing the basics of food preservation with an introduction to permaculture design.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Multiplexing Capitalism

"There is a lot of fine detail needed to separate the work of ecological repair from Ponzi-the-Clown traditional business models common to shark-tank TV shows, weekend webinars and MBA-mills. The line between monopolistic robber barons and “green business” triple-bottom-line eco-entrepreneurs has been muddied by the human profit motive and capitalism’s ROI imperative."

Since putting forward our comprehensive plan to reverse civilizational drift towards extinction and regain the breathing space of a habitable Holocene for a while longer — in The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change (New Society 2010) — we've been sent a lot of interesting items, too many to be able to thoughtfully respond to, or even keep up with, but recently our friend Hans-Peter Schmidt gathered some of the better climate saving strategies together for publication in Ithaka, his journal of ecology, winegrowing and climate farming.  He also thoughtfully translated it into English for those like ourselves who are not so fluent in German.
Some years ago here at the Ecovillage Training Center we put together a seminar series we called “Financial Permaculture.” Two of our fantastic organizers for that series, Gaia University students Ethan Roland and Greg Landua, have now gone on to write an ambitious book on the subject that reformulates the whole notion of capitalism in the hopes of supplanting version 1.x with something robust enough to stand up to the challenges of contraction and collapse. Regenerative Enterprise: Optimizing for Multi-Capital Abundance proposes we upgrade traditional laissez faire capitalism to get to the next plateau, which is more compassionate, steady-state and earth-restorative. There is a lot of fine detail needed to separate the work of ecological repair from Ponzi-the-Clown traditional business models common to shark-tank TV shows, weekend webinars and MBA-mills. The line between the monopolistic robber baron model pioneered by Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and Westinghouse and the alternative promoted by “green business” triple-bottom-line eco-entrepreneurs has been muddied by the human profit motive and capitalism’s ROI imperative. Roland and Landua have significantly advanced the discussion by creating a bright line formula for marking the distinction: Stop buying, selling, and trading in degenerative goods and services.

Printing For More Trees

Another book underway by an author who helped us teach that seminar series, Eric Toensmeier, is called, Carbon Farming: A Global Toolkit for Stabilizing the Climate with Tree Crops and Regenerative Agriculture Practices. Eric launched a kickstarter campaign on April 3rd and received 104% of his target in just 8 days, so we look forward to an early manuscript.

Back to Hans-Peter Schmidt, who is a wine producer in Valais, Switzerland. Hans-Peter has been doing field trials with biochar for several years and has concluded that “biochar is much too valuable (and expensive to produce) for it to be just worked into the soil without having it used at least once for other [financially beneficial] purposes – whether as storage for volatile nutrients, as an adsorber in functional clothing, as insulation in the building industry, as energy storage in batteries, as a filter in a sewage plant, as a silage agent or as a feed supplement. Such uses can be followed by use in a farmer’s slurry pit or in a sewage plant, before being composted.” Only then should biochar be worked into the soil at the end of this “cascade” to create Terra Preta soils. He compiled 50 such uses and published them in Ithaka.

Animal Farming:

1. Silage agent
2. Feed additive / supplement
3. Litter additive
4. Slurry treatment
5. Manure composting
6. Water treatment in fish farming

Soil Conditioner:

7. Carbon fertilizer
8. Compost
9. Substitute for peat in potting soil
10. Plant protection
11. Compensatory fertilizer for trace elements


12. Insulation
13. Air decontamination
14. Decontamination of earth foundations
15. Humidity regulation
16. Protection against electromagnetic radiation (“electrosmog”)


17. Soil additive for soil remediation (for use in particular on former mine-works, military bases and landfill sites.)
18. Soil substrates (highly adsorbing plantable soil substrates for use in cleaning waste water; in particular urban waste water contaminated by heavy metals)
19. A barrier preventing pesticides getting into surface water (Sides of field and ponds can be equipped with 30-50 cm deep barriers made of biochar for filtering out pesticides.)
20. Treating pond and lake water (Biochar is good for adsorbing pesticides and fertilizers
as well as for improving water aeration.)

Energy Production:

21. Biomass additive
22. Biogas slurry treatment

Wastewater Treatment:

23. Active carbon filter
24. Pre-rinsing additive
25. Soil substrate for organic plant beds
26. Composting toilets

Drinking Water Treatment:

27. Micro-filters
28. Macro-filters in developing countries

Industrial Applications:

29. Exhaust filters for controlling emissions
30. Room air filters
31. Carbon fibers
32. Biodegradable plastics
33. Semiconductors
34. Batteries
35. Metal reduction


36. Soaps
37. Skin-cream
38. Therapeutic bath additives

Paints and coloring:

39. Food colorants
40. Industrial paints (including flame-retardant geotextiles)

Energy production:

41. Hydrogen storage cells
42. Substitute for lignite coal


43. Detoxification
44. Carrier for active pharmaceutical ingredients


45. Fabric additive for functional underwear
46. Thermal insulation for functional clothing
47. Deodorant for shoe soles


48. Filling for mattresses
49. Filling for pillows
50. Shield against electromagnetic radiation


Amazonian Dark Plasters

One area that is of special interest to those of us in the natural building and permaculture communities is biochar’s unique qualities as a plaster or render. In combination with clay, lime or cement, biochar can be added to sand at a ratio of up to 50%. According to Schmidt, “This creates indoor plasters with excellent insulation and breathing properties, able to maintain humidity levels in a room at 45 – 70% in both summer and winter. This in turn prevents not just dry air, which can lead to respiratory disorders and allergies, but also dampness through air condensing on the outside walls, which can lead to mold developing.” (see [in German]: Biochar as building material for an optimal indoor climate).

Schmidt tried these dark plasters in his wine cellar and discovered that they absorb smells and airborne spores. They kept his cellar sterile of molds. From a baubiologie standpoint, the potential for schools, hospitals, factories and offices is enormous. This could be one way of remediating “sick building” syndrome. Schmidt’s “cascading” idea is precisely the kind of new industrial paradigm that Roland and Landua are proposing and also the kind of integrated carbon sequestration that Toensmeier advocates.

You have to love it when a plan comes together.

Says Schmidt, “Biochar can also be applied to the outside walls of a building by jet-spray technique mixing it with lime. Applied at thicknesses of up to 20 cm, it is a substitute for styrofoam. Houses insulated this way become carbon sinks, while at the same time having a more healthy indoor climate. Should such a house be demolished at a later date, the biochar-mud plaster can be recycled as a valuable compost additive.”

We will be teaching a climate farming short course here in Tennessee in June of this year and again in Norway in early July.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Droning On

Home drones you can legally own
Several thousand years ago, men discovered the sling, boomerang and javelin and took a step back from the actual point of hand-to-hand confrontation with rival groups. Then came the bow and arrow, the catapault and trebuchet, each of which increased the range and the damage inflicted, while protecting the user by dint of distance. 

Then came gunpowder, cannons and guns, and warriors took another step back. Then came aircraft, submarines and ICBM's, more refinements in defensive confrontation.

And then came drones.

Any comparison of President Obama’s war-fighting with that of his predecessors would quickly establish his preference for unseen death from the sky rather than boots on the ground. Given the technical bankruptcy of the United States (16-30 trillion in debt on 2 trillion in annual tax revenues), drones are also a whole lot cheaper way to run a war.

The only hitch is, they are illegal.

Not that being illegal should stop a president. US presidents always keep whole stables of lawyers busy telling them, essentially, that if a president does it, it is legal. The Attorney General, whom the US Constitution empowers to serve as a check on the President, has been emasculated. Eric Holder is just an updated version of Alberto Gonzales, the President’s yes-sir, no-sir, whatever-you-say, sir guy.

One might hope that international law might deter a president, but seeing how the Nuremberg obligation of a soldier to disobey any and all illegal orders to participate in war crimes has been stripped from the defense of Bradley Manning, that hope must also be seen as forlorn.

Just for the record, drone warfare is illegal. In every technical sense, it is “terrorism.” That it is used by an almighty sovereign government through a military chain of command does not make it less terroristic legally, or as a weapon. Eventually, it will likely fall under a specific treaty banning its use. That does not make it any less illegal now.

Imagine, for a moment, how a typical Miami resident might feel if one of their neighbors was, say, Luis Posada Carriles. Posada Carriles is an international fugitive who blew up a commercial airliner, Cubana Flight 455 from Barbados to Jamaica, killing all 73 passengers and 5 crew, including 11 Guyanese medical students and 5 North Korean government officials, in 1976. He was the Director of Counterintelligence at Venezuela's FBI equivalent, the DISIP, from 1967 to 1974, but at the time of the bombing he was in the employ of the CIA. Although sought for extradition to Barbados, Venezuela and Cuba, he is currently living in Miami as a free man, under the protection of the US Justice Department. The Cuban-5, undercover intelligence officers for the Cuban government now serving life sentences, often in solitary confinement, in US prisons for spying on Posada’s Miami terror ring (they were rounded up by the FBI when Cuba shared intelligence on the Miami terror ring with the Bush administration as a gesture of mutual interest after 9-11) were viewed as a threat to Posada’s security by Gonzales.

But, imagine if North Korea decided to stop wasting time in court, or wanted to avoid the risk of sending secret assassins, and just sent a drone.

Under the Obama Doctrine of Drone Warfare, North Korea is entirely within its rights to identify Posada Carriles as a potential and imminent threat. Anyone associating with Posada or in close proximity would be, by the Doctrine’s definition, a “militant.” Any unfortunate children nearby who might be caught in the missile strike would be “collateral damage,” the same as the more than 175 Pakistani children now known to have been killed by CIA drones between 2004 and 2012.

Imagine, then, the outrage felt on the Miami street outside that café where Posada was caught having a double expresso. Imagine the horror at all the carnage. Maybe North Korea gets Posada, maybe it doesn’t. Surely there would be calls for revenge strikes on North Korea, and one can only speculate where that might lead, now that Korea has the ability to hit California with nuclear-tipped warheads.

Christof Heyns, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings and Summary or Arbitrary Executions, told a conference in Geneva last year that President Obama's drone attacks constitute war crimes, as China and Russia had alleged in their formal filing with the UN Human Rights Commission. 

Specifically, Heyns said, many targeted killings take place far from areas in armed conflict and the Obama Doctrine includes secondary strikes on rescuers who are helping the injured after an initial drone attack. Both of those kinds of attacks are by legal definition war crimes.

Notably, it is the second type mentioned by the UN Rapporteur for which Bradley Manning stands accused of treason for refusing to cover up the crimes he witnessed as a military intelligence analyst.

This thing that is being debated in UN hallways and Geneva press conferences cannot be talked about in US courtrooms. The US Supreme Court has now ruled it outside the scope of judicial review. Whether the CIA is involved in targeted assassinations is still classified, even though it is widely reported that 98% of drone victims, about 4000 civilians by ACLU estimates, are non-targeted individuals as can be seen in this vivid graphic. 

Ian Seiderman, director of the International Commission of Jurists, told an ACLU conference that "immense damage was being done to the fabric of international law." But the best rule of law that the President might be want to think about to is probably not the UN Convention on Human Rights or the Geneva Convention, but the Golden Rule.

Firing missiles from unmanned robots from an altitude of 20,000 feet, controlled electronically from 7,000 miles away is an act of cowardice. Obama kills helpless victims seemingly without incurring any personal risk at all. It is exactly like torture, and it serves little purpose other than to terrorize a population. More significantly for all USAnians, it degrades and dehumanizes the perpetrator more than it does the victim. And in the end, what is destroyed is the fabric of law, something built over centuries, and without which, we are all at greater risk. 




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