The joy of fermentation

written by Noortje Giesbers based on her MSc thesis

Fermentation is a practice that has been around for ages, with the earliest archaeological finds dating back to 13.000 BC (Liu et al., 2018). It is a natural process provided by the microorganisms present on the food, they ferment the food through their metabolism (Katz, 2012). In the past, but also in the present does fermentation of food contribute to food security all over the world by enabling people to preserve food (Hesseltine & Wang, 1980; Quave & Pieroni, 2014). Many well-known and daily products incorporate a fermentation process, such as bread and beer. But also coffee, yoghurt, chocolate, wine, cheese and soy sauce, to name a few.

In the recent years, I got interested in fermentation, in the process and making my own foods. I shared this interest with a growing number of people. It got me my thesis topic: Motivations for home-fermentation in the Netherlands. From January till August 2021 and with the help of five experts and ten home-fermenters, I conducted this study. My fermentation knowledge and food technology background, as well as Satters’ hierarchy of food needs and the social practice theory helped me to understand the workings at play in the fermentation trend.

Fermentation might seem old-fashioned, but is more intertwined with modern day life than one would expect: it draws attention to craft food-making, taste, identity, and to traditional ecological knowledge put into practice to sustain microbiological ecologies (Flachs & Orkin, 2019). As Tamang et al. (2020) note: “The nutritional and cultural importance of these ancient foods continue in the present era.”. Lee & Kim (2013) state that fermented food is deeply rooted in the ways of life, the local environment, eating habits and deeply related to the produce, in different regions. So, when studying fermented foods, one is studying the close relationships between people, organisms, and food, since the practice of fermentation involves both biological and cultural phenomena, which simultaneously progress (Steinkraus, 1996). This can be showcased by kimchi, which is a part of culture and identity for Koreans, or fermenting fish is for the islanders of the Faroe Islands (Jang, Chung, Yang, Kim, & Kwon, 2015; Svanberg, 2015; Tamang et al., 2020). Yet, by some Dutch consumers, it has also become a part of their food identity, creating ways to lower their food waste, increasing flavour profiles, increasing their gut health.

Fermentation fits well with a more sustainable way of living, with a hedonistic approach to food and a healthy lifestyle, all often reasons to ferment for Dutch consumers. One of the experts noticed three groups of fermenters: those who ferment for the experimentation and flavour; for the health benefits; or to relieve health problems. A fourth group was mentioned by another expert: those who ferment to be self-sufficient. This motivation can stem from the distrust in the global food system and/or the lower ecological impact of growing your own foods. Each home-fermenter included in this study could be linked to one or more groups, following their personal reasons for home-fermenting.

The main motivations for home-fermentations are established, but how is this practice recreated in society? The social practice theory states that for a social practice to be reproduced, one needs three things (Hargreaves, 2011; Reckwitz, 2002; Shove, Pantzar, & Watson, 2012; Vermeer, 2018):

  1. The actual “Things” that compose social practices;
  2. Meanings, that provide the practice with direction; and
  3. Competence, to carry out the practices.

I propose the idea that by making ferments, sharing them, sharing knowledge (competence), starters (“things”) and ideas (meanings), one socially reproduces the practice of home-fermentation, spreading the home-fermentation practice and inspiring more people to home-ferment. By fermenting home-fermenters have enjoyable foods, but also encounter a lot of joy. Statements included enjoying working with foods and sharing the outcomes, as well as the practice. The feeling of accomplishment and being proud of making something yourself, like with other hobbies, is true for home-fermentation as well, as seen by this and other studies (Click & Ridberg, 2010; Murray & O’Neill, 2015; Sofo, Galluzzi, & Zito, 2021; Yarbrough, 2017). Home-fermenters are proud of their ferments and proudly share them too. Which also brings joy to those that they share it with, as acknowledged by an expert.

This liking of sharing ferments, how it can positively influence relationships was also noticed by one of the experts. It was found that fermentation can (re-)connect people, just like foods and other hobbies can do. By having a hobby to talk about and ferments and starter cultures to share, home-fermenters made new friends, reconnected to old ones, or strengthened their current friendships.

It is not uncommon, as sharing food with others has been observed not only to be enjoyed, but can also express creativity and care (Clair, Hocking, Bunrayong, Vittayakorn, & Rattakorn, 2005). Similarly, home-fermenters would prepare a certain ferment for guests later that week. Others share their starters, recipes, and tips & tricks; teach others and make it a fun activity. You could say that next to sharing the actual product of their practices, home-fermenters also share some of the “things” and competence.

To conclude, next to adding to health, sustainability and specific personal feelings, fermentation brings joy, above all else. So dear reader, if you would like to know more, find the full thesis via the link below. If you would like a starter or learn, I am happy to share and teach!

Cheers, Noortje

References

Clair, V. W.-S., Hocking, C., Bunrayong, W., Vittayakorn, S., & Rattakorn, P. (2005). Older New Zealand Women Doing the Work of Christmas: A Recipe for Identity Formation. The Sociological Review, 53(2), 332–350. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-954X.2005.00517.x

Click, M. A., & Ridberg, R. (2010). Saving food: Food preservation as alternative food activism. Environmental Communication, 4(3), 301–317. https://doi.org/10.1080/17524032.2010.500461

Flachs, A., & Orkin, J. D. (2019). Fermentation and the ethnobiology of microbial entanglement. Ethnobiology Letters, 10(1), 35–39. https://doi.org/10.14237/ebl.10.1.2019.1481

Hargreaves, T. (2011). Practice-ing behaviour change: Applying social practice theory to pro-environmental behaviour change. Journal of Consumer Culture, 11(1), 79–99. https://doi.org/10.1177/1469540510390500

Hesseltine, C. W., & Wang, H. L. (1980). The Importance of Traditional Fermented Foods. BioScience, 30(6), 402–404. https://doi.org/10.2307/1308003

Jang, D. J., Chung, K. R., Yang, H. J., Kim, K. S., & Kwon, D. Y. (2015). Discussion on the origin of kimchi, representative of Korean unique fermented vegetables. Journal of Ethnic Foods, 2(3), 126–136. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jef.2015.08.005

Katz, S. E. (2012). The Art Of Fermentation (M. Goodman & L. Jorstad, Eds.). White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Lee, J. O., & Kim, J. Y. (2013). Development of cultural context indicator of fermented food. International Journal of Bio-Science and Bio-Technology, 5(4), 45–52.

Liu, L., Wang, J., Rosenberg, D., Zhao, H., Lengyel, G., & Nadel, D. (2018). Fermented beverage and food storage in 13,000 y-old stone mortars at Raqefet Cave, Israel: Investigating Natufian ritual feasting. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 21(May), 783–793. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2018.08.008

Murray, D. W., & O’Neill, M. A. (2015). Home brewing and serious leisure: Exploring the motivation to engage and the resultant satisfaction derived through participation. World Leisure Journal, 57(4), 284–296. https://doi.org/10.1080/16078055.2015.1075899

Quave, C. L., & Pieroni, A. (2014). Fermented foods for food security and food sovereignty in the Balkans: A case study of the gorani people of Northeastern Albania. Journal of Ethnobiology, 34(1), 28–43. https://doi.org/10.2993/0278-0771-34.1.28

Reckwitz, A. (2002). Toward a Theory of Social Practices. European Journal of Social Theory, 5(2), 243–263. https://doi.org/10.1177/13684310222225432

Shove, E., Pantzar, M., & Watson, M. (2012). The dynamics of social practice: Everyday life and how it changes. SAGE Publications Ltd.

Sofo, A., Galluzzi, A., & Zito, F. (2021). A Modest Suggestion: Baking Using Sourdough – a Sustainable, Slow-Paced, Traditional and Beneficial Remedy against Stress during the Covid-19 Lockdown. Human Ecology, 49(1), 99–105. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10745-021-00219-y

Svanberg, I. (2015). Ræstur fiskur: Air-dried fermented fish the Faroese way. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 11(1), 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13002-015-0064-9

Tamang, J. P., Cotter, P. D., Endo, A., Han, N. S., Kort, R., Liu, S. Q., … Hutkins, R. (2020). Fermented foods in a global age: East meets West. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, 19(1), 184–217. https://doi.org/10.1111/1541-4337.12520

Vermeer, A. (2018). Enacting social practices of food: performing food and nutrition security (Wageningen University). Retrieved from https://edepot.wur.nl/450868

Yarbrough, E. (2017). Kombucha Culture: An ethnographic approach to understanding the practice of home-brew kombucha in San Marcos, Texas (Texs State University). Retrieved from https://digital.library.txstate.edu/bitstream/handle/10877/6756/YarbroughElizabeth.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

Start Teaching them Young: Connecting Children to the Local Food Chain (thesis/internship)

This thesis/internship assignment will investigate the opportunities of educational programs for school pupils on the topic of local food and farming. It will draw from a literature review and work on a local case of the Tiny Restaurant, located in the municipality of Laarbeek in the Dutch province of North Brabant.  

The Tiny Restaurant is a grassroots, non-profit initiative aiming to bring producers and consumers together. It takes a form of a pop-up (mobile) restaurant that provides a meeting place for (in)formal exchange of knowledge. One of the projects of the Tiny Restaurant is educating children about the food chain through an experiential culinary program. The Tiny Restaurant wants to ensure its educational approach fits the schools’ learning goals and contributes to the ultimate purpose of creating a long-term connection between farmers and consumers. The goal of this assignment is to evaluate the current approach and advise on how the educational program can be improved. The following questions form a starting point:  

  • How can educational programs enhance awareness about local food production? 
  • How does the theme of local food chains fit schools’ curricula and learning goals? 
  • What is the optimal balance of head (conveying information), heart (shaping attitudes) and hands (learning by doing) in these educational programs?       

Depending on the student’s preference, the assignment can be more academic (e.g. using a literature review to learn about education for sustainability) or more applied (e.g. working on the Tiny Restaurant educational program, together with local farmers and teachers). The vacancy is part of a broader Science Shop project which, together with local stakeholders, explores possibilities of connecting producers to local inhabitants in Laarbeek. Starting dates are flexible, with results delivered by the end of May the latest. For more information contact Lucie Sovová lucie.sovova@wur.nl

Internship opportunity: How to bring local food closer to consumers? Formulating the vision of the Tiny Restaurant

The Tiny Restaurant in Laarbeek

This internship opportunity is part of a Science Shop project in which Wageningen University works together with MIEP foundation, an NGO based in the Dutch province of Nord Brabant. The goal of MIEP foundation is to bring together rural inhabitants and local farmers. In 2019, MIEP launched the project of Tiny Restaurant: a pop-up restaurant deployed at various places (such as schools, sports clubs, village squares) which prepares food using sustainable, artisanal, seasonal, regional and Fairtrade products and which can be used as a space for meetings, educational or other events.

MIEP foundation approached the WU with a request to evaluate the functioning of the Tiny Restaurant, and its successfulness in creating lasting relations between producers and consumers. A first assessment, carried out within a framework of an ACT project in autumn 2021, indicated that the potential of the Tiny Restaurant is not yet fully used. One of the weaknesses was the lack of clarity in the restaurants’ vision and core message. MIEP foundation is currently working with farmer ambassadors to formulate a vision and concrete goals through which the Tiny Restaurant can support local producers.

We are looking for an intern with high communication and facilitation skills that will assist the MIEP foundation in this process of formulating their vision and goals as well as setting criteria to assess their progress. We welcome and encourage creative methods and outputs, e.g. a popularization flyer, a public event to promote the Tiny Restaurant, etc.

Starting dates are flexible, with results delivered by the end of May the latest. For more information contact Lucie Sovová lucie.sovova@wur.nl

One village, two worlds: How do rural dwellers perceive local farmers? Thesis/internship opportunity

This thesis/research internship opportunity is a part of a broader Science Shop project which, together with local stakeholders, explores possibilities of connecting producers to local inhabitants in the municipality of Laarbeek of the Dutch province Nord Brabant.

Preliminary insights suggest a disconnect between the inhabitants of this rural area and the local farmers. We are thus looking to conduct a survey to explore local opinions. Furthermore, it would be interesting to see how media representations and national-wide debates on issues such as the nitrogen crisis or the protein transition shape local understandings and relations between citizens and farmers.

The research speaks to broader debates on rural development and the role of agriculture in society. The results should indicate possible avenues for bridging the gap between producers and citizen-consumers. 

The precise delineation of the research and the methods used are open to student’s creative suggestions. Considering the research population, a working knowledge of the Dutch language is an asset. Starting dates are flexible, with results delivered by the end of May the latest. For more information contact Lucie Sovová lucie.sovova@wur.nl

75th Anniversary: 48) Research at Rural Sociology: Urban gardens as alternative economic spaces  

Lucie Sovová

My doctoral research explored the role of urban gardens in people’s food provisioning practices, framing them as spaces of diverse food economies operating largely outside the market. In order to understand how gardens work as food sources, I observed the food provisioning practices of 27 households involved in gardening in Brno, Czechia, throughout a period of one year.

The research contributes to the broader discussion about more sustainable ways of food production and consumption, alternative food networks and urban agriculture. Research on sustainable food systems is often biased towards initiatives embedded in market relationships (Rosol 2020). Literature on urban gardening in global North mostly focuses on a specific kind of this practice (community gardens), and it discusses the multiple non-productive functions of these spaces, such as community building (Veen et al. 2016), place-making (Koopmans et al. 2017) or the improvement of urban environment (Timpe et al. 2016). Another stream of literature presents urban gardens as activist spaces questioning the status quo of neoliberal urbanism (Tornaghi 2017, McClintock 2013). This literature recognizes the potential of urban gardens to contribute to localized and sustainable food provisioning (Kosnik 2018). Nonetheless, actual data on food self-provisioning (FSP) in urban areas of the global North remains insufficient (Taylor and Lovell 2013).

Furthermore, some geographical areas seem to be excluded from the debate. FSP is wide spread in the post-socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE): 50% inhabitants of the region grow some of their food, compared to 10% in Western European countries (Alber and Kohler 2008). Despite this potential, lessons from CEE are only recently appearing in the literature on urban gardening or alternative food networks. This discrepancy can be explained by an unequal geography of knowledge production, in which CEE rarely figures as a source of original knowledge (Jehlička 2021). In light of the failed experiment of state-socialism, CEE countries are often regarded as underdeveloped and in need of catching up with the West (Kuus 2004, Müller 2019). This transition discourse results in the framing of local informal economies (such as FSP or informal food sharing) as remnants of the past which will be eventually substituted by market economy (Alber and Kohler 2008, Acheson 2008). My research adds to more emancipatory works showing the relevance of these traditional practices for sustainable food provisioning (Jehlička et al 2020, Goszczyński et al., 2019, Mincyte 2012).

My theoretical approach is further inspired by the diverse economies framework (Gibson-Graham 2008) which points out that economic practices are not limited to capitalist markets and monetized transactions, and which calls for attention to alternative, nonmarket and informal economies. This approach is increasingly adapted in the study of more sustainable food provisioning, which recognizes the importance of economic arrangements fostering social justice and environmental wellbeing (Rosol 2020, Tornaghi 2017, Morrow 2019). It is also particularly pertinent for the post-socialist context, seemingly caught between the gloomy heritage of state socialism and the sweeping neoliberalization of the last three decades.

Recent representative surveys show that the share of Czechs involved in FSP remains steady at around 40% of the population, spread equally across income groups and educational levels (Smith and Jehlička 2013, Jehlička and Daněk 2017, Sovová et al 2021). Unpacking these statistics, my research assessed the role of FSP in terms of quantity of food produced as well as its position within broader food provisioning practices and the diverse economic arrangements they constitute. Inspired by the perspective of social metabolism (González de Molina and Toledo 2014, Burger Chakraborty et al. 2016), I used food logs to monitor the flows of fruits and vegetables entering and leaving respondent households. These flows were categorized based on the type of economic arrangements as non-market, alternative-market or market economies. Using conceptual borrowings from social practice theory (Reckwitz 2002, Shove et al. 2012), I further investigated the meanings and competences these material flows entailed.

The field work consisted of four rounds of data collection of one month, spread over the course of one year. During each round, respondents recorded fruits, and vegetables which they produced at their gardens or obtained from other sources. Next to the amount, type and source of food, they also kept track of the use of these foods, i.e. own consumption, preserving, sharing or other forms of distribution. The purpose of the multi-staged research design was to observe seasonal variations and to gradually build theory with the respondents’ participation, accompanying the quantitative accounts with a qualitative understanding of their food provisioning practices.

The results reveal complex interactions between gardens, other food sources, respondents’ eating habits and dietary preferences. FSP plays a central role in gardeners’ food provisioning practices. The gardens provide a significant amount of food, covering on average one third of fruits and vegetables consumed in gardeners’ households – results consistent with a national survey using self-reporting (Sovová et al 2021). In addition, respondents’ experience as producers shapes their food provisioning practices beyond FSP. Home-grown food is seen as the best in terms of taste, freshness and transparent origin. This creates a hierarchy of food sources, in which FSP and other nonmarket and semi-formal food provisioning practices (e.g. receiving home-grown foods from family and friends, foraging or buying directly from producers) are preferred over shopping for food in conventional venues. Alternative food networks typically associated with conscious consumerism (community supported agriculture, farmers’ markets, organic food shops) were marginal in respondents’ shopping practices. Instead, they provisioned food from a number of diverse channels spanning market and nonmarket relations, in which social relations merged with environmental considerations and subjective notions of food quality. The centrality of FSP in these practices also resulted in strong seasonal patterns in both food sources and diets.  

None of the respondents aimed to be fully self-sufficient, nor did they grow their own food in order to save money. Instead, they saw gardening first and foremost as a hobby. The link of this way of food provisioning to leisure, fulfilment, and, broadly speaking, gardeners’ identities, strengthened the position of FSP in gardeners’ food provisioning practices. Similarly, other informal and semi-formal food practices were often grounded in social relations, such as visiting family and acquaintances in the countryside. Gardeners’ food practices also contributed to fostering social relations, for instance when they shared home-grown food with others, a practice which was common for most respondent households. Indeed, FSP is a generous practice in which the joy of sharing and appreciation of home-grown food prevails over expectations of reciprocity or economic considerations, as also documented by Daněk and Jehlička (2017) or Pottinger (2018).

While practiced as a hobby, FSP is mobilized as a food provisioning practice through a number of specific competences. Using the conceptualizations of social practice theory, I interpret FSP as intersection of two sets of practices, those relating to the garden (‘gardening’), and those relating to the kitchen (‘food provisioning’). Based on both quantitative and qualitative data, I identified four different types of relations between gardening and food provisioning. Put simply, some respondents were keen gardeners but did not necessarily integrate their harvest into their diets. Others strived to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables but were not always successful in their gardening efforts. Gardens are multifunctional spaces which hold different meanings for different users. Using the gardens as food sources requires not only gardening and cooking skills, but also coordination and integration of both on a daily as well as seasonal basis.

My research shows that when thinking about sustainable food provisioning, scholars and practitioners need to look beyond market venues and beyond people’s roles as consumers. The search for future-proof urban food systems cannot be restricted to environmentally-minded affluent Westerners, but it needs to consider everyday practices already existing in diverse contexts. I have shown that there is a plethora of under-researched informal food practices whose potential for sustainable provisioning, diverse economic arrangements and mutually beneficial human–nature relations merits further investigation.

Sovová, L. (2020). Grow, share or buy? Understanding the diverse economies of urban gardeners. Wageningen University. https://doi.org/10.18174/519934

Thesis/research internship: Connecting producers and consumers through local grassroots initiatives: the case of the Tiny Restaurant

The Tiny Restaurant in Laarbeek

This thesis/research internship opportunity is a part of a broader Science Shop project evaluating the Tiny Restaurant initiative. The Tiny Restaurant is a pop-up restaurant deployed at various places (such as schools, sports clubs, village squares) with the goal to bring diverse groups of people together around locally produced, sustainable, artisanal and seasonal food. This initiative was started by Stichting MIEP, a non-governmental organization based in Laarbeek, Nord Brabant. After two years of working together with diverse groups of inhabitants (e.g. social welfare clients, school kids), Stichting MIEP is looking to evaluate how successful the Tiny Restaurant is in forging lasting producer-consumer relations.

This thesis will follow up on an ACT project during which a first assessment of the Tiny Restaurant is performed, and it will also look for similar examples (in the Netherlands or internationally) of grassroots initiatives working to connect producers and consumers. The broad questions the research should tackle are:

  • How can rural grass-roots initiatives contribute to connecting local producers and citizens?
  • What strategies have been used (successfully or not) to make local food and its producers more visible?
  • How does the Tiny Restaurant contribute to lasting bonds between local producers and citizens?

Project duration: September 2021 – May 2022

For more information contact Lucie Sovová lucie.sovova@wur.nl