FOOD trends have come and gone over the years, usually as the myths surrounding them are blown apart, or some unsavoury aspect of their production is uncovered, (Conflict Avocados, anyone?)
So, it is heartening when a food trend isn’t just here to stay, but proving its own myth with hard scientific fact: I’m talking about fermented foods.
It is a disservice to refer to fermented foods as a food trend when it is one of the most ancient methods of preserving food known to us. It is also richly embedded in many food cultures where, for example, sauerkraut and kimchi are eaten every day with every meal to aid digestion.
The recent re-emergence of fermented food as a ‘trend’ rolled in along with other foods with health claims and benefits attached. Pioneers of the new movement, such as Sandor Katz, wrote about their health-enhancing properties, and beyond that, the science proving such claims were stacking up.
But in 2013, no-one was producing fermented foods in Ireland. Anything available was shipped in from elsewhere. Enter The Cultured Food Company of Skibbereen and its founder, Hayley Milthorpe.
Originally from Yorkshire and living in West Cork since a child, Hayley saw a gap in the market after completing studies in nutrition. Since then, she has gone on to create a brand that has been the market leader in raw, live fermented foods in Ireland since its inception; and through some savvy, organic growth is about to see the business grow further still in Europe and the UK.
Hayley said: “I studied holistic nutritional therapy with the College of Naturopathic Medicine in the Bons Secours Hospital in Cork. After qualifying, I had it in my head that, although supplements had their place, I really wanted to use food as medicine as much as possible.
“I became really interested in traditional diets and the diets of our ancestors, and I came across fermentation as one of the oldest ways to preserve food. Through reading and research, I realised fermented foods were full of beneficial bacteria. When studying nutrition, I learned the importance of having a solid base of gut flora, that it was key to a healthy digestive systemm and how it also went on to affect your mental state and immune system.”
So, what is fermented food?
“When foods are stored in the right conditions, it will start to break down and develop into a natural state of preservation, and as that happens the nutrients become more bio-available. It’s live because it hasn’t been pasteurised so the beneficial bacteria in it is still alive.
“There’s a lot of commercially fermented food which has been pasteurised and the bacteria has been killed, so a live fermented food still has that healthy bacteria alive in it and it works pro-biotically to protect, repair and enhance gut flora.”
After qualifying as a nutritionist in 2011, Hayley found herself at home for long periods of time looking after her four young daughters. Time spent focusing on her family meant there wasn’t time to build up her business as a nutritionist.
“For two years, I dabbled in making all types of fermented foods at home: sauerkrauts, sourdough bread, kombucha, milk and water kefir, yogurt, crème fraiche, and I just really loved it. I have a sensitive digestive system, that was what initially sent me down the road of studying nutrition: wanting to understand my reaction to food, and I found it fascinating.
“I remember picking up The Optimum Nutrition Bible written by Patrick Holford and my eyes being opened for the first time about how what you eat affects your body.”
Two years later, in 2013, Hayley started thinking about setting up a business selling the fermented foods she was making at home.
“I noticed that in America, fermented foods was a developing trend and that was where most of the products available in Ireland were coming from. So, I decided to see if I could sell some of my product here in Ireland, and just saw a gap in the market — that this might be a possible business.
“I started selling at Skibbereen Farmers’ Market for a few months, and then signed up for a Start Your Own Business course with the Local Enterprise Board, but honestly, it put me off going any further and I jacked everything in for six months. I just felt I didn’t have it in me, that there was no way I could do it, I found it really intimidating.
“But the few people that had been introduced to my products through the market started approaching me and asking when I would be making my sauerkrauts again. It was so nice, and I got a bit of encouragement, so I decided to make a couple of jars and put it in the local health food shop. And then I put it in a second health food shop, and then a third…within a month I had it in ten health food shops around West Cork!”
In 2014, Hayley contacted leading distributor Irish Independent Health Foods, and asked if they would be interested in listing The Cultured Food Company products and they said yes. By the end of that year, Hayley was sending her first pallet of products to the UK.
“The timing was just right: nobody else was doing what I was doing in Ireland, it was a new innovative product and whoever I asked to take me on said yes. Business ticked over nicely for the next couple of years, growing at a rate that was comfortable to me — I had no prior experience in business and was doing all of this on my own. Fermented foods is still a developing trend in Ireland with a whole new concept around food and health — eating foods which can support your gut flora. But there is also a deep tradition of fermented foods here in Ireland too, and The Cultured Food Company is still the only company producing entirely organic, live fermented sauerkraut at this level.
“I would like to think it will keep advancing, because the science behind fermented foods makes sense. It is solid science that people can understand, and people do feel the benefit when they introduce these foods into their diet.”
Hayley now has a team of three staff working with her to produce the full range of krauts and most recently a new tonic made from barrel-aged beetroot and ginger called Kvass, originating from Russia.
“Kvass would have been one of the things I was making at home back in the early days, and I love beetroot, I think its an amazing vegetable. It’s an infusion, not a juice, and there’s a simplicity of process to making Kvass that I love, and I really enjoy the flavour of it. I knew beetroot juice sold well in Ireland, so I thought fermented beetroot juice would be of interest too. To make Kvass, we chop organic beetroot and let it sit in barrels of brine with ginger and age it for up to three months. We strain the liquid and bottle it for Kvass, and then jar up the beetroot and ginger pieces, so out of one process, we get two delicious products!”
Kvass is a drink from a different geographical and cultural context; an infusion, not a juice, so how is it best taken?
“Most people take Kvass as a shot. I always have a bottle on my desk at work and I just drink it straight out of the bottle throughout the day. It’s a restorative, pro-biotic tonic packed with gut-healthy bacteria and nutrients from the beetroot.
“Sip on the Kvass during the day as a pick-me-up and use the beetroot pieces in your lunchtime salad!”
Kvass is versatile enough to be used as a long drink, topped up with sparkling water, or used with olive oil to make a vinaigrette for a salad dressing. And, in the spirit of perfect harmony, Kvass is delicious in a cocktail mixed with gin, blackcurrant juice, soda water and a squeeze of lime and, for the morning after, it is well known in Russia and Poland as an amazing hangover cure.
And for those involved in sports looking for a healthy alternative to the sugary recovery drinks, Kvass has been shown to be excellent in helping athletes to recover and rehydrate quickly.
“Kvass is full of Nitric Oxide, rich in Vitamin C, carotenoids, flavonoids and nitrates,” says Hayley. “Nitrate is a chemically occurring component in certain foods, specifically beetroot. It gets converted into nitric oxide which increases oxygen in the blood, helping athletes to recover quicker.”
So, Kvass will restore your pep during work, get things going for a great night out, cure your hangover, and aid speedy recovery after a heavy gym session. That’s one amazing beetroot! So where can you find Kvass?
“Our Krauts, Kimchi and Kvass are stocked in 120 Supervalu stores nationwide and health food shops stocked by Irish Independent Health Foods. Dunnes Stores that have Nourish concessions carry the sauerkraut only.
“Our big news this year is that our we started selling The Cultured Food Company products on Amazon UK. It took off quickly and has sold really well, so now I’m looking at listing for Amazon Germany too. We’ve noticed the trend towards online shopping and it’s a whole new market for us. I was always trying to get into mainland Europe selling in shops, but we’ve ended up achieving this goal by selling online instead, which is great!”
The full range of products available from The Cultured Food Company include:
Natural - made with White Cabbage
Ruby Red – made with Red Cabbage
Carrot and Fennel
Chilli and Dill
Beet and Ginger Kvass
Fermented Beetroot Pieces with Ginger.
A brand new website is about to launched, www.culturedfoodco.ie or follow on Facebook and Instagram.
Next Monday in The Echo and on EchoLive.ie we feature West Cork Garlic as part of Kate Ryan's 'Food Curios' series.