The buzz on Kelli Walker’s burgeoning business, Forage & Ferment
Kelli Walker felt a business was brewing inside her, and found one that can’t stop bubbling, burbling and babbling about itself.
Words: Nadene Hall Photos: Sally Tagg and Nadene Hall
WHO: Kelli Walker & Simon Allen
WHAT: Forage & Ferment boutique fermentary
WHERE: Clevedon, 35 minutes south-east of Auckland
When the product you make speaks to you, it can be a sign you’ve found your life’s work. For Kelli Walker, her product literally has something to say and she’s listening.
She and husband Simon spend hours foraging around their neighbourhood and sourcing fresh local ingredients, then more hours chopping and creating their fermented products in a local commercial kitchen. When the industriousness of the kitchen finally falls quiet, you can hear their kimchi and sauerkraut have its say.
“You can stand there and hear them bubbling and burping and farting and talking away. We have a water seal at the top of our beautiful ceramic crocks, to create an anaerobic environment and prevent oxygen from entering and let the CO2 escape. The ferment is really powerful and quite aggressive, and that really took me by surprise, just how vocal they were, how powerful those microbes were in such a bulk scale.”
Jars of their delicious ferments, and more recently fermented drinks, sell quickly at their stand at the Clevedon Farmers’ Market. It’s a world away from Kelli’s old life, working in corporate marketing in New Zealand and Asia. When her husband and his family sold their business, they got the opportunity to leave the city and their ‘rat race’ life.
“We made a conscious decision to move out of the city. We wanted to give our three boys – 2, 4 and 7 – more time in nature, and lessons in where food comes from.”
They’re now living in a small house on the family farm where Kelli grew up. They’re waiting for her parents to subdivide off a few acres so they can build a house, and more importantly, a big food forest, inspired by Kelli’s passion for permaculture. She’s just completed a permaculture design certificate and it was the course that helped germinate a seed for the new business. She and Simon christened their boutique fermentary Forage & Ferment.
“I had a feeling deep within me that a business was brewing, it’s kind-of in my nature. Then I heard Pete Evans (Australian celebrity chef, judge on TV’s My Kitchen Rules) say fermenting vegetables can make them up to 150 times more nutritious. I was so intrigued I decided to discover the magical world of microbes and that began our journey into fermentation.” What started as a hobby, feeding her family and friends, quickly turned into an obsession.
“Sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and water kefir, all those beautiful fermented things threatened to swallow every shelf in our kitchen.”
Part of her course required her to do a project, and a friend suggested she sell her ferments at the local market. “I thought I could put the two together, do it for my course and see if I can sell it, because I love doing it, and Forage & Ferment was born.”
Creating hundreds of jars of fermented kimchi and sauerkraut for sale meant moving from their small home kitchen to a commercial kitchen down the road. “I did a heck of a lot of reading about upscaling and there’s an amazing fermentation revivalist called Sandor Ellix Katz who is leading the charge in America – he’s the guru – and I just filled my library with as many fermenting books as I could and just read and read and read. There was a little bit of learning but it’s the oldest form of food preservation there is and it’s not rocket science, it’s just getting the right flavour combinations that works and balances out.”
Sauerkraut (Kelli shortens it to kraut) and kimchi are mostly pickled cabbage. The key to making her product sing was getting the little added taste extras right.
“I was playing around with different flavours, my hubby is a mad keen fisherman, and I started a ferment that would complement fish and seafood (kale, lemongrass, kawakawa and dill kraut).
“Then at the same time with permaculture we were learning about valuing the marginal. We can look at weeds like dandelion as something we pull out of our garden, or something that we value. It’s so nutrient dense and so full of vitamins and minerals. I started looking at things with a permaculture lens on it, so instead of pulling dandelions out of my garden, I left them there and now they play a valuable role (coriander, dandelion and juniper berry kraut).”
Kelli’s current home has a small garden, with just a few raised beds and planter boxes Simon has built, but she still grows her own nasturtium (for her red cabbage, beetroot and nasturtium kraut) and marigolds (for her carrot, ginger, turmeric and marigold kraut). She’s also planted a lot of kawakawa, her favourite native shrub, for its fresh peppery taste.
“It was just trial and error on my own, friends and family telling me what they liked and didn’t like. I had so many different little jars bubbling away! I’d try a beetroot, red cabbage one, then I’d try beetroot, cabbage, nasturtium, then beetroot, cabbage, nasturtium and red clover, then I’d try beetroot, cabbage, nasturtium, red clover and ginger.”
To get a well-flavoured, long-lasting kimchi or sauerkraut, the ingredients go through a lactic acid fermentation. Natural bacteria feed on sugars in the cabbage, dropping the pH level and making it more acidic. This gives it a distinctive sour flavour, but also preserves it. This is a slow process and one Kelli is learning to live with.
“I am a very impatient person. If I make a decision, I want to do something straight way. With permaculture, I have learned things take time, nature takes time, and you just let things take as long as they need to take. Fermenting is teaching me those lessons too, because you really need to leave something (like sauerkraut) down for at least 21 days.
“When I launched the business (in spring 2017) everyone went ‘wow, it’s really new’, but to be fair there’s been a lot of back-end stuff going on for most of the year before.”
Kelli and Simon have worked out a monthly production system to keep the large chiller sitting by the back door as full as possible. There are ferments at various ages, and Kelli’s latest experiment, a beetroot, ginger bubbly kombutcha).
They liaise with their growers, all local. One of their growers, Liz Tregidga, is literally just down the road. They book their local commercial kitchen and do a couple of days of prepping before things are ready to ferment.
“What I used to do in my little home food processor in my kitchen is now done with a big Robot-coupe machine for shredding cabbage so we have introduced some technology to make life easier. We could spend two to three days in the kitchen, either jarring ferments that we’ve put down earlier or putting new ones down, there’s a bit of a rhythm we’re in. When we’re not in the kitchen or jarring, we finish labelling, work ‘on’ the business instead of ‘in’ the business.”
That’s all manageable for the two of them right now, but Kelli says the business is already growing organically and she wants to be ready. “I wanted to start things slowly. We wanted to be across every single process, we wanted to be able to understand it so well that we could upskill someone else in exactly the methods that we want. We’re documenting everything, all the recipes, all the processes for food, health, safety, licences, all those things are a bit of a minefield and very time-consuming.
“If (supermarket) Farro called tomorrow, we want to be ready. The feedback and validation from the farmers’ market and the way in which the local community has embraced us, has been the catalyst to up-scale.
“I had my mother-in-law over the other day and she’s a very successful business lady, and she was listening to me and she said ‘Think big, you’ve had your validation, go for it’. Having people in your life saying things like that is really empowering and I think we might need to heed her advice.”
Read more on Kelli’s inspiring story in the January 2018 issue of NZ Lifestyle Block, on sale December 21 2017
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