Inside The Boutique Clevedon Fermentary Enhancing The Power Of Microbes

Kelli-Jo Walker's wild garden is a serene display of untamed flora that finds its way, quite naturally, into her kraut and kefir

The Wild Fermentary creator Kelli-Jo Walker. Photo / Ginny Fisher

In a bucolic corner of Clevedon, the bees are feasting on white manuka flowers; nearby nasturtium vines are entangled with marigold flowers and dandelions grow free. Ensconced in this utopian scene, Kelli-Jo Walker kneels in her wild garden, harvesting leaves and petals, even stinging nettle — all are fair game ingredients for the adventurous fermented recipes she brews up in her industrial country kitchen.

Kelli’s boutique foodie business, The Wild Fermentary, hand produces a range of unusual and flavoursome locally inspired sauerkrauts and kefir beverages, many of which are gold award-winners, like her delicately delicious berry and beet kefir.

It’s an industry that feeds her soul as much as it does her healthy lifestyle. “I see our products as an eloquent protest against food that doesn’t serve us,” she says.

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And that doesn’t just mean food that’s bad for us but also a system that takes more from the land than it gives back.

In contrast, Kelli’s business is guided by permaculture principles, such as earth care, people care and fair share, and is a story of all the goodness coming full circle.

Locals will often drop off surplus home-grown cabbages, lemons and vegetables for use in her kraut recipes and any waste will be delivered to local pig farmers. And by growing plants like marigolds and nasturtiums, she’s providing nectar for pollinating bees, which hover in abundance in her garden.

Her workforce is mostly part-timers — mums and dads from the local village who might not be able to work standard hours. And she strives to feed her gang most days with a healthy lunch under the trees, where they often sample local produce from other food businesses like cheese-makers Clevedon Buffalo, and Clevedon Herbs and Produce.

“We get to test our products at our local Clevedon market and what we’ve found is that Kiwis tend to prefer a fresher, more crunchy version of your typical sauerkraut.” Photo / Ginny Fisher

Kelli was struck by the fermentation bug after attending a workshop in Texas with the American fermentation activist Sandor Katz, also an award-winning author, who has roamed the world building up his knowledge of fermenting — even to Alaska where he was shown how to make tepas, or stinkheads, a dish made from decomposed king salmon. An acquired taste indeed.

Kelli is more of a champion for the complex tastes you can achieve with fermentation of plants, fruit and vegetables.

“You just need to look at Noma in Copenhagen — one of the most famous restaurants in the world — that relies on fermentation for achieving more unusual flavours.”

Apart from the interesting ingredients she and business manager Jen Worsfold experiment with when developing new recipes, Kelli is conscious of widening the number of plant varieties in her products — like stinging nettles, marigolds and nasturtiums — ingredients often overlooked as food sources.

“There’s a real lack of diversity in most modern-day diets. By adding more unusual plants and vegetables to your diet, you’re doing your gut a real service.”

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Kelli keeps an eye on current research into the brain-gut connection — an area that up until now has been thin. And she says The Wild Fermentary team also works closely with the microbiology department at Massey University, to learn more about the power of microbes found in fermented foods.

“Scientists are now realising just how powerful the gut is at sending messages to your brain and for your overall health,” she explains.

While we all know stress, sadness, anxiety and anger can trigger gut-related symptoms, a lesser-known fact is a troubled intestine can also send signals to the brain that can lead to anxiety, stress, or depression.

Healing a troubled stomach could be one way to reduce depression and anxiety, and Kelli believes eating more fermented foods is a fine start.

Kelli-Jo hosts lunch under the trees in her Clevedon garden. Photo / Ginny Fisher

“All those unseen microbes found in fermented foods are a powerful source of probiotic bacteria that improve the health of your gut, help you absorb nutrients and enhance the immune system. There’s a reason a third of the world’s foods are fermented,” she says, referring to a raft of food and drinks one might not necessarily associate with fermentation — like chocolate, bread, yoghurt, vinegar, olives, bread, milk and cheese.

Fermentation not only increases shelf life, but the process creates complex taste profiles, aromas and textures, and allows us to consume otherwise inedible foods.

Here in New Zealand Kelli is aiming to produce a localised riff on fermented flavours. “We get to test our products at our local Clevedon market and what we’ve found is that Kiwis tend to prefer a fresher, more crunchy version of your typical sauerkraut.”

In response, The Wild Fermentary is focused on making unique krauts with a New Zealand bent, for example its recent Food Producer Award winner, Smoky Kapeti (Maori for cabbage), with wild foraged puha, with hints of smoke.

Another recent award winner is its Beet and Berry Kefir with beetroot kvass — (a traditional fermented Russian drink) — a pretty, neon-tinted bubbly drink that’s delicate, not too sweet and of course packed with gut-loving microbes.

“Kefir has a much more delicate taste than a kombucha, because it’s made from lactic acid as opposed to acetic acid.” She says it’s one of the more tricky products they produce, due to its fast fermentation process — in just two days kefir ferments and turns to ethanol (alcohol). Timing is challenging, as the kefir must be under 0.5 per cent alcohol in order to sell it legally.

The beverage is made from a solution of organic cane sugar and water, then the scoby (culture) is added, followed by the flavouring ingredients — in this case a beetroot kvass, along with berry water and kraut juice. The kefir sits in a stainless-steel vat in a temperature-controlled room for two days before it’s tested for alcohol content.

Stinging nettles, marigolds and nasturtiums feature in The Wild Fermentary's products. Photo / Ginny Fisher

The complexity of brewing kefir means it doesn’t lend itself to large batches, which is why there aren’t a large number of producers, or many people making it at home like kombucha, says Kelli.

The conundrum of the mysterious scoby has not escaped her. “I found it crazy that you had to buy your scoby — or search for one online. You can’t make one from scratch — they have been passed down through families, even survived war-torn countries. No one is sure how they were originally made — some think they might have originally formed in a cactus.”

In Kelli’s case, a Clevedon local gifted her a kefir scoby. This sense of community is partly what led her back to Clevedon where she grew up on the family farm.

“The land and our connection to it, gives us purpose and belonging. We wanted to teach our kids how to be eco-warriors but that was quite tricky in a big city.”

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So, after working in London and then Hong Kong in marketing roles, she took the leap and relocated back to New Zealand with her young family. She says her background in marketing has been helpful for growing a new business, as has a certificate in permaculture.

“Permaculture teaches you to work in harmony with nature; you learn about composting, self-sufficiency and valuing the marginal — I watched my garden being overcome with dandelion weeds, so I thought I’d start fermenting them, along with all my excess vege garden produce. My kitchen got a bit crazy — I was making sourdough and kraut and kefir and I’d give it away to friends and then eventually people wanted to buy it.”

With a business that’s bubbling along nicely, Kelli often reminds herself of why she ventured out on this journey. “It’s certainly not for a big bank balance,” she jokes.

“You’ve got to know your why, and you’ve got to be passionate about what you’re doing. To me, food means sitting down together and connecting. And fermenting has taught me patience — something I never had before. It’s where art and science combine; there’s a spiritual feeling about creating something from the land and using those unseen microbes — they’re such
a powerful life source.”

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