Local fermentation experts recall lessons learned while researching war-torn countries

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Several years ago, while staying with a family in Bosnia, Luke Regalbuto and Maggie Levinger from Petaluma were taken by a group of local children on a walk through the woods, which led to an ancient site of village with burnt buildings. Levinger still remembers the beautiful old wooden drying rooms with lots of wooden slatted grills and side chimneys that had been used to dry herbs.

“They told us it was their old village that was completely destroyed in the war,” Levinger said, referring to Bosnia’s devastating three-year war in the early 1990s. away from those old, simple, beautiful drying sheds, they had moved away from that lifestyle.”

Levinger further recounted that in Bosnia, the grief of the war was still palpable.

“I feel like there’s definitely a wealth that’s lost,” Levinger said, “and some level of connection and relationship with the land and the past that was severed when they had to flee their traditional village because of the war”.

Regalbuto and Levinger, who are married, now own and operate Wild West Ferments in Petaluma. The two share a love of old world culinary traditions and have traveled the world trying different types of traditional foods and drinks. In their business, they use many of their fermented discoveries from their travels as well as the bounty of local farms to inspire their own unique recipes.

After selling their fermented foods seasonally for a few years at farmers markets, they decided to expand their business. In 2015, they took over the space where French restaurant De Schmire used to be on Bodega Avenue. They now sell to local retailers and also directly to consumers from their website wildwestferments.com.

Wild West Ferments is certified organic and partners with local farms like Live Oak Farm in Petaluma, and Little Wing Farm and Table Top Farm in Point Reyes.

So what exactly does a fermenter do?

In this case, Regalbuto and Levinger take cabbages — and other fresh, locally harvested ingredients — and use salt to ferment them in traditional ceramic pots they imported from Germany. In order to live up to their commitment to organic and locally harvested ingredients, they are constantly experimenting with recipes, like their kimchi-inspired offerings that incorporate local turnips and radishes with a bit of Napa cabbage.

Levinger has loved cooking since growing up in Marin County. In Humboldt, she and a friend ran a raw food cafe where she experimented with making fermented foods.

“I’ve always had a romantic nostalgia for traditional old-world ways of doing things,” Levinger said. She shares this love with Regalbuto. They met when Regalbuto moved from San Diego to Humboldt and started working at Levinger’s cafe.

The pair share a mutual appreciation of the probiotic, gut, and nutritional benefits of fermented foods. They also love that there is so much to discover with various fermented foods and drinks from around the world. Today, they are inspired by it for their recipes and their lives.

In Mexico, they were particularly fond of some of the local fermented drinks they enjoyed there, and now make similar drinks to sell at farmers’ markets.

“There are so many cool regional drinks there,” Regalbuto said. They particularly liked the agave drink Pulque, a pineapple drink called Tepache and Winxatsy, made with agave, cocoa, corn, achiote and sugar.

In 2009 Regalbuto and Levinger bought a VW van in Amsterdam and traveled around Europe.

“When we were in Bosnia, we came across a juniper berry ferment, called smreka,” recalls Levinger. “We didn’t understand at first because it looked like it had to be more than it was, but in fact it was just juniper berries.”

She was eager to create her own.

As they traveled through Eastern Europe, they saw people fermenting whole cabbages, called Kiseli Kupus.

“They cut the core off the cabbage, packed it with salt, and then layered these whole cabbage, whole peppers, and whatever else they had in the pot,” Levinger said. They then used the fermented whole leaves to wrap food — and now Levinger is doing the same.

Levinger was also impressed with how children were incorporated into people’s daily routines. While working on hay farms in Romania, she said children as young as five knew the names of dozens and dozens of wild grasses, wild herbs and wildflowers grown in her garden. hay.

“They know how to sharpen the scythe, make a hay pitchfork, dry hay and stack hay,” she said.

Levinger and Regalbuto are also parents and have taken a similar approach to parenting. Their son Lanzo enjoys helping out at farmers’ markets and plays an active role in their garden at home. He can pick the type of corn they will grow each year, plant the seeds, care for them, and enjoy the harvest.

“He has a relationship with corn that’s so beautiful,” Levinger said. “He cheers as he grows and then we go through the process together to turn him into something we can eat, like tortillas or popcorn. It’s a real pleasure to do this kind of thing with him.

While in Europe, Levinger and Regalbuto traveled through part of Ukraine and noted the same closeness to the land they saw in Bosnia, and now mourn what is lost there as well.

“You really feel like it’s not just the skill, but it’s the land, the garden and everything that’s been passed down for so many generations, the benefit of building on the past,” Regalbuto said. . “Just building soil for a garden takes so much time and investment and it’s its own type of infrastructure. It’s just heartbreaking – all these generational farms and gardens and all the care and love that people surround them with, having to run away from this. Everything is unimaginable. »

At every little house the two saw while visiting there, there was a garden.

“Gardens are peaceful places,” Levinger said, “and to cultivate the land and grow a garden, peace is needed. When there is a constant threat of violence, horror, and occupation, it is truly difficult to find the resources, the time, the hope, and the means per se to plant a seed in the ground.

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