Matti Sprague and I appear to be talking about fermentation. We are standing in Jon Wipfli’s well-lighted kitchen, and we are using all the words that you use when you talk about fermentation. We are talking about salting down vegetables, creating anaerobic environments, and encouraging the right kinds of microbial life while discouraging the wrong kinds. We are talking about transformation, and about a kind of effervescent brightness on the tongue that results when vegetable carbohydrates are converted into lactic acid and carbon dioxide.
But we are not really talking about fermentation.
Matti’s position as chef de cuisine at Cafe Alma places him among the Twin Cities’ food royalty. It entitles him to a certain amount of hauteur, which he seems conspicuously and entirely to lack. He speaks carefully and quietly, wrapped in a black apron, glancing down now and then at his cutting board, where a knob of peeled ginger is reduced, seemingly without any energy expenditure, to thin sheets, and then into a little pile of rectangular needles, and then into minuscule brunoise specks. His knife rocks and tidies and rocks again with an assurance that implies it knows this routine well, and for a moment I can imagine that, under a whimsical magic spell, it is the knife guiding Matti’s hand, and not the other way around.
There is, in fact, a magic in the room, amid the burble of conversation, and the busy communal work of skewering Jon Wipfli’s boned chicken wings for the grill. But the magic is happening inside a row of canning jars lined up on the counter between Matti and me.
He sweeps the ginger specks into a wooden bowl full of cucumber and carrot slices that have been salted and dressed with lime juice, fish sauce, chopped peanuts, basil, and mint. This salad will serve, in its crisp, herby, citrus-perfumed rawness, as a kind of antipode to the other vegetables we’ll be eating today.
At the other pole are those four or five glass jars, whose variegated contents are colored dull crimson and olive drab and a brownish kind of eggplant purple. They are in various stages along the path that runs from fresh chopped garden vegetables to a state that has begun to resemble, but is several specific bacteria short of actually being, decay.
“That’s why you use salt,” says Matti. “That’s why you don’t let any air in the container. Because in those exact conditions—an acidic, oxygen-free, salty brine—the good microorganisms are encouraged, and the bad ones are inhibited.”
He talks this way. Precisely and elegantly, but unafraid to call up a scientific term now and then, and put it to work.
Our conversation has covered some of the benefits of fermentation. How it preserves food without refrigeration and has for millennia. How it may nourish our intestinal microbiome in a way that, if some new research proves sound, may even improve our mental health. How it can coax an appealing tartness from bland foods like turnips and cabbage, and how at the same time it can mellow sharp foods like, for instance, the jar of fermenting chili peppers standing pungently uncapped between us, and destined eventually to join with some distilled vinegar to make up a new batch of Matti’s homemade hot sauce.
Matti grabs a spoon, dips it into the red pepper mash, which is one week into its four-week microbiological odyssey, and hands me a little clump of limp peppers and seeds on the tip of the spoon.
Imagine slicing a ripe, freshly picked jalapeno pepper in late summer. Think about how, when the knife bites in, the pepper flesh is so taut that it almost bursts apart and emits a tiny spray of jalapeno essence. That little spritz of juice, as you know if you’ve ever licked it from your fingers or mistakenly gotten it anywhere near your eyes, contains a kind of high-note vegetal sear. It presents all of the brightness and spark that we look for in fresh summer chilis, and what I notice most clearly in my mouthful of Matti’s fermented peppers is the lack of that one note of raw green sting. A week of fermentation has already begun to round smooth those sharp edges. The heat is still there, but it’s deeper and slower on the attack. It’s a slightly viscous vinaigrette, instead of a thin spiky vinegar. It sings baritone, instead of tenor.
In fact it’s exactly the difference between a crisp riesling and a buttery chardonnay, for exactly the same reason. The chardonnay (at least the chardonnays we’re all thinking of when we think of the word “creamy” or “buttery”) has gone through a nearly identical process called malolactic fermentation, which turns tart malic acid into mellower lactic acid, and produces the same effect I’ve just noticed on my spoon. The microscopic animal life in Matti’s jar has been eating the sugars in the chili peppers and, to be explicit, excreting lactic acid into the salty, anaerobic stew it calls home.
In theory, all of this is what we have been talking about, Matti and I.
But really, we have been talking about something else. We’ve been talking about a small corner of the good life that can be accessed only by doing things yourself. Matti’s personal hot sauce may or may not be objectively superior to Tabasco, or Frank’s RedHot, or Cholula, although most probably it is. The point is that no bottle of Frank’s ever started as a bush full of peppers in Matti’s backyard, or caused his nose to run as he chopped hot chilis on a late summer afternoon, or burped reassuringly in the cool dark of a basement shelf, while little microbes mellowed and deepened the taste of his homemade hot pepper mash.
What we’ve been talking about is the satisfaction of possessing some old knowledge, in a time when newer and newer things are proposed as solutions to problems that once were solved with skills. In this corner of the good life, there are unlabeled bottles, and beehives next to gardens, and sharp knives, and worn tools, and orchards, and a stocked larder. There is a lingering capacity to wonder at simple things, and see magic in the transformation of apples into cider, and cabbage into kimchi, and grapes into wine, and wine into vinegar.
We’ve been talking about old world cellars, where in a little room through a narrow doorway, shelves are full of canning jars and reused wine bottles. Where it’s cool and dim and smells a little musty. Where you could imagine a joint of meat or two hanging from hooks. Where cherry preserves and plum jam sit in rows on shelves, next to tins of wild boar pâté, and a vinegar cask. Where a jug of homemade limoncello sits steeping on the floor, next to a bottle of pear brandy from 2002, and where several vintages of homemade liqueurs gather dust next to the rack of very old bottles of very good wine, stored against some late evening after a long meal and loud laughter, when the proprietor will disappear for several minutes, and return to the table from his personal homemade apothecary with a special bottle that has been waiting for several years for just this moment.
Jon Wipfli has been busy at the grill, and the table is soon set. We serve ourselves perfectly grill-crisped, double-skewered yakitori chicken wings looking like awkward catamarans, and we spoon Matti’s hot sauce over some of them, and his maple syrup tebasaki sauce over the others. We eat from both ends of the vegetable spectrum—a scoop of lively, fresh, lime- and ginger-infused carrots and cucumbers, and a scoop of dank, deep, dark, soul-cleansing kimchi.
At the end of the meal, Matti and I are the only two left at the table. The subject of last meals comes up, and I suggest that freshly caught brook trout would be on my last-meal menu, if I got to choose. And soon—and I find myself unsurprised to discover we have this in common—soon we are talking streams, Wisconsin and Minnesota, northeast rain-fed and southeast spring-fed, and the incomparable taste difference between insect-eating wild trout, and pellet-eating farm trout. We are mentally both in waders, in the broken light of some hardwood forest, with a cold steady current washing past our knees, eyeing that one little eddy behind the boulder against the far bank.
The topic of trout leads to thoughts of spring, and quite naturally from there to wild ramps—whole woodland meadows full of them, smelling like garlicky scallions underfoot. And soon morels have joined the ramps and maybe some fiddleheads and wild greens, and before we know it, a particular kind of May weekend has begun to take shape, involving fishing rods and tents and not much gear and all of nature’s larder at our disposal. And for quite a while, sipping post-lunch coffee on a chilly March afternoon, Matti Sprague and I appear to be talking about trout fishing.
Recipes for Yakitori-Style Wings, Chile-Maple “Tebasaki,” Matti’s Homemade Hot Sauce, and Cucumber and Green Herb Salad