PHOTOS BY BETTY LIU
I almost walk past the table of fermented foods at the Wayland Winter Farmers Market, but as an afterthought, decide to stop. The woman behind the counter hands me a small sample. It’s simultaneously spicy and sour with texture and crunch. I buy a jar and savor it over the next several days, eating it with salads, eggs, potatoes, sausage—whatever else is on my lunch, dinner, even breakfast plate. It’s Cauldron Fermented Foods’ version of curtido, a Latin American food, a kind of Salvadoran sauerkraut.
It took awhile, but Brian Lyman of Cauldron Fermented Foods eventually figured out why he once thought he hated sauerkraut: “It’s because I hate caraway seeds,” a common ingredient in sauerkraut. That was before he discovered good caraway-free sauerkraut while living in Vermont. He liked it so much, “I think it was part of every meal for a few months,” he says. So he began fermenting it himself, wandering the woods and experimenting with whatever was growing wild, making mead and other kinds of alcohol, even a spruce beer, which he says wasn’t very good.
Ten years later, while living alone in Montana, Brian discovered the book Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix
Katz and was inspired. Brian made mead, kombucha, beer, sauerkraut and ate sourdough pancakes every
day. “I basically turned my little ranch apartment into a fermentation lab,” he says.
From Montana, Brian moved to the coast of Washington and continued to ferment while living in a yurt. “I had this big fire pit outside and would make mead over a fire in a six-gallon pot,” he says. That’s when he thought of the perfect name for a future business and Cauldron Fermented Foods was born.
Back home in Massachusetts a few years later, Brian was ready to start his own company. He had the name. Now he was looking for a business partner, someone with whom he could collaborate.
Bethany Walker was already making her own beer and wine when she started fermenting other food for health reasons. “It’s a really fun hobby just in terms of experimenting—working with different flavors and seeing what tastes good, refining,” she says. “When you get the basics down, you can really play around with a lot of different recipes. You can add root vegetables, you can add carrots, you can add spices. It’s the same basic process.”
She adds, “At the end of every summer I get a bulk order from the farm share—I’ll do a slaw with whatever root vegetables I happen to get—I’ll do beets and turnips, a mix of whatever I get in the box. It ends up connecting you very seasonally to what you’re doing.”
After spending a week at a fermentation retreat with Sandor Katz, the same author who inspired Brian, Bethany wondered what type of fermentation was happening in Boston. Her Google search brought up Cauldron Fermented Foods, a local fermentation company looking for co-founders.
When Bethany texted the company, she discovered she already had Brian’s phone number, obtained when the two had met at a farmers market the year before. They began working together, experimenting and creating their own recipes. “We both tend to get really excited about new projects,” Bethany says. “It’s been an experience for me with the business to try to focus on the products we have and the recipes and trying to scale it up. At home I have a very ADD style of doing things. … It’s been interesting to try to rein myself in.” Brian adds, “We work really well together.”
The company now sells four products: Black and White Sauerkraut, Firecracker Carrots, Dilly Green Beans and Curtido. The Black and White Sauerkraut’s earthy and complex flavor belies its simple ingredients; the cabbage, salt and pepper are fermented with a couple of bags of oak chips. The Firecracker Carrots are one of the first fermented foods Bethany says she made at home. She and Brian add garlic, jalapeños and mustard seeds to raw carrot sticks, which soften as they ferment. The Dilly Green Beans are garlicky, not spicy, and full of flavor and crunch. “[Fermented] dilly beans have a great texture that are better than normal dilly beans since they don’t have to be cooked.” Brian says.
The addition of chili flakes and oregano are what make Cauldron’s Curtido, a spicy sort of sauerkraut, truly Salvadoran. “We’ve created a version that is authentic,” Brian says, and according to Bethany, they’ve met locals from El Salvador and Nicaragua who have confirmed the authenticity of their recipe. “When people try it, they like it,” she says. Although Bethany doesn’t remember exactly where she got the recipe or when she started making it, the curtido flavors clicked with her. “There are some people that are nuts about it,” she says.
“These foods and these products are inherently good for you so you’ve got to focus on product and taste,” Brian says. “I feel like sometimes quality is overlooked in the world of health food.” Bethany adds, “I think that fermented foods are an intersection of health and interesting flavors,” While people are excited about something new and different, she says, “It also has the appeal of being good for you and healthy.”
Cauldron Fermented Foods is one of Greater Boston’s first fermented vegetable businesses, at least as far as Brian and Bethany know. “It seemed like an untapped market in a place where there are a lot of health-conscious people. There are a lot of people with expendable income, and there’s a rising food scene,” Brian says. “It seemed like the right time.”
The two are planning to expand their product line by adding artisan small-batch vinegars made with locally brewed beer and cider. Brian recently ordered a steam juicer from Germany, and he and Bethany are excited about partnering with local alcohol producers, including Bone Up Brewery in Everett. While they’d been fermenting vegetables at home for a long time, “What’s exciting about this is that it’s significantly more complicated,” according to Brian, and will require recipe testing and R&D.
“What we’re doing is an ancient simple process,” Brian says. “It’s a true wild fermentation.”
Tara Taft loves to explore new places, new food, and farmers markets. You can read about Tara’s travel adventures onsnapshotsandsojourns.com. She is the author of a travel memoir, The Tucker - Tyler Adventure, and can be reached at Tara@edibleboston.com.