Tuesday is "Make Day" in Farmhouse Culture's sunlit kitchen,
where every week more than 7,500 pounds of fresh-picked vegetables are shredded into fragrant heaps, the first step in creating the company’s organic, artisan sauerkraut.
The savory aroma of cabbage, garlic and leek wafts through the air, as company founder and chef Kathryn Lukas shuts her eyes and pauses for a deep breath.
Tuesdays do smell pretty good at Farmhouse’s kitchen, located a quick walk from downtown Santa Cruz. Two shifts of employees trim, shred, blend and salt their way through tons of fresh produce. These mounds of salad will, in three to four weeks time, be transformed by friendly bacteria into tangy kraut that’s safer to eat, and potentially even more nutritious, than the fresh vegetables.
Lukas’ creations bear little resemblance to the cooked, pale, shelf-stable sauerkraut found in the supermarket condiment aisle. Farmhouse Culture krauts are sold raw and unpasteurized, and come in zingy combinations including horseradish-leek, smoked jalapeno and ginger beet. The colors range from pale green to vivid yellow and scarlet. And a growing base of customers can’t get enough.
“We use traditional methods, but we don’t make traditional kraut,” Lukas said. “We make a new American kraut, with a blend of German and Korean influences. That’s really the nugget of what we do.”
While Lukas’ lively fermented blends are new to Americans, they draw from a lineage as old as the first kitchenware.
“Sauerkraut and pickled vegetables are one of the oldest technologies known to man,” said Fred Breidt, a research microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “We started fermenting vegetables about the same time we starting making pottery, ten or twelve thousand years ago. You store vegetables in a pot with maybe a little saltwater, and after a few days, lo and behold, you’ve got a pickle.”
As our forebears discovered by trial and error, adding salt to vegetables encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria that feed on plant sugars. These good microbes emit acids as they digest the sugars, and the increasing acidity kills off disease-causing organisms. This natural preservative is extremely safe and effective, and lends a characteristic tangy flavor. Fermentation also boosts B vitamins, preserves vitamins A and C, and contributes helpful probiotic microbes to the human digestive system.
True to tradition, Farmhouse Culture krauts contain only fresh vegetables, salt and spices. The cabbages are supplied by Lakeside Organic Gardens in Watsonville, one of the few spots where cabbages can be grown commercially year-round.
Lukas and her staff constantly experiment with new vegetables and spices, to varied effect. Some experiments result in culinary treasures like a California-style wakame kimchi. Others, like the Brussels Sprout Kraut, do not. “Oh that was bad,” said production manager Toby Wingo. “The sulfur content really came through, and filled the kitchen with some intense odors.”
The company has also experimented with packaging, starting with beautiful but impractical ceramic crocks, before switching to glass jars, and now adopting BPA-free plastic pouches with tiny one-way valves that allow the still-fermenting kraut to breathe – without the leakage that plagued earlier packaging.
Lukas’ 5-year-old company is now running at full production of about 6,000 packages of kraut each week, straining the limits of her kitchen and her hardworking crew. The company managed to double its production when its distributor expanded from the West Coast to sell the kraut farther afield, including in the Rocky Mountains and Texas.
Further growth will mean a big investment in new equipment. In the company’s early days, Lukas mixed her kraut by leaning over the barrels and sinking her arms into the heaps of shredded veggies. Her crews still push one or two cabbages at a time through the hand-fed shredder, and salt is sprinkled manually as the blends are layered into the fermenting barrels. But plans are in the works to install larger stainless-steel fermenting tanks, a bigger shredder, and other automated machinery.
A better ventilation system is also part of the plan.
“It smells really fresh on Tuesdays, but on packing day it gets a lot more ‘krauty’ around here,” Lukas laughed. “It can be kind of strong. But I never get tired of it. It all smells good to me.”
From the San Francisco Chronicle, Friday, April 19
“In Santa Cruz, sauerkraut’s natural side”
By Maria Gaura
Maria Gaura is a freelance writer in Santa Cruz. E-mail: email@example.com