Fermentation jars

One Saturday, when the chill had not quite worn off the morning and it was still likely that rain might ruin the weekend, my boyfriend Mike and I started planning what to plant in our garden. He’s the one with all of the know-how and experience, so I just put in requests. We knew he would plant Early Girl and cherry tomatoes—the only kind he insists grow well where we live on the Westside of Santa Cruz—because, as he explained it to me when we first started dating, in the Italian immigrant community that he grew up in “growing tomatoes is a badge of honor.”

He learned how to grow them from his father, an Italian immigrant who came to Santa Cruz from Lucca in Tuscany in the 1950s. Mike had grown up watching his father and his friends guard their tomato secrets from each other and competitively mock each other’s methods. Occasionally, they might offer a begrudging compliment.

Mike said it was all in good fun, but the year he planted sun-loving San Marzanos during a chilly Santa Cruz summer was devastating. The tomato-related smack talk he had to endure from his father and his friends—in Italian, no less—was humiliating.

Whatever he’s doing now seems to be working. Last year, in a moment of panic, I googled whether it’s possible to eat too many tomatoes (answer: not really).

I told him I want to grow things that I can ferment. You see, while I’m anticipating all the fresh flavors that only summer can bring, I’m also looking forward to how delicious these garden beauties will be after being stuffed into a jar or a crock for a few weeks.

If you think that sounds crazy, you’re not alone. Home fermentation was once ubiquitous, but in the last 100 years, the process has become mysterious and mistrusted. It’s kind of ironic, because pre-refrigeration, fermentation was one of the only ways to keep perishable food safe to eat for long periods of time. It’s also very not scary once you get to know it, and it’s a handy skill to have in your back pocket when your garden starts to get out of control.

The main reason I’m into it is because I love the amazing flavors that can be coaxed from fruits and vegetables after letting them mingle with their microbes. Fresh vegetables vs. kraut or pickles, to me, is like grape juice vs. wine, or fresh cream vs. cheese—the latter is always better. (Of course, wine and cheese are also fermented!)

So this year, in addition to the tomatoes, we’re going to plant pickling cucumbers and fresh dill for snappy pickles, and jalapeño and serrano peppers to ferment into hot sauce. The lemons from our perpetually fruiting tree will be cut and preserved in salt and lemon juice. We’re also planting four Pinot Noir vines, and even if I never have a chance to make wine, I can ferment the tannin-rich leaves and use them in vegetable ferments or to make dolmas. Everything will hang out with the sauerkraut and kimchi I make using leftover vegetables from our Live Earth Farms CSA.

Thanks to a little planning, I’m looking forward to enjoying the flavors of our garden for a whole year—not just one summer.