It would seem unlikely that a teenager could develop an interest in fermentation. Though having been brought back to good health from the clutches of a persistent cold by her macro-neurotic friend Pip, wielding a cup of Umeboshi Bancha tea, Holly’s interest in the use of food as medicine had been piqued. ‘It was a strange, and salty concoction. Very peculiar in appearance,’ she recalls adding, ‘It’s an ancient Japanese remedy that helps alkalise the body. She said I would feel better in just a few short hours, and I did. It was remarkable.’
‘When you’re 14 you’re just hungry for information, and I became hooked on this idea that our overall well-being can be affected by what we eat,’ she remarks. Armed with Lima Ohsawa’s culinary tome, The Art of Just Cooking, a teenage Holly began cooking and fermenting with gusto, filling her mother’s linen cupboards with pickle jars, engulfing all usable bench space with drinks, cheeses and even a scoby gifted to her by her equally curious cousin Greg.
In a tale reminiscent of the Little Shop of Horrors, she tells of her early experiences trying to manage the burgeoning plant. Dubbed Son of Jim, the kefir yoghurt plant was an offcut of Greg’s own larger scoby named Jim, ‘which seems entirely appropriate to me now, as kefir is not the result of reproduction, as we know it,’ Holly laughs. Excited by the prospective health benefits offered by this ‘curious beastie’, the plant made its way home to the sufficiently crammed cupboards of her mother’s kitchen. Though with daily feeding and abundant warmth the airing cupboard provided, Jim thrived, doubling at an alarming rate. Missing the vital footnote about only keeping enough of the culture as is needed for consumption, the plant grew bigger and increasingly sourer until Holly’s frustrated mother put her foot down – to Holly’s private relief – and was subsequently evicted from the cupboard.
Holly’s affinity with macrobiotics, and practising chef Ohsawa’s principles of natural, zen-style cooking and living however, were only part of the motivation behind an eventual nine-month stay in Japan during her mid-20s.
‘I’d had an interest in Japanese culture since I was about ten,’ she recalls. ‘My parents had taken me to this Japanese restaurant just off Regent Street, called Tokyo (of course, she laughs). It was pretty much the only Japanese restaurant in London at the time. Very traditional, tatami mats, women in kimono. But I remember feeling this bizarre sense of belonging. I want this, I belong here,’ explains Holly. Furthering her study at the very school at which Ohsawa, the Queen of Macrobiotics, was a teacher in Tokyo, she describes her experience of living in Japan, albeit briefly as ‘heavenly’. The ritual of food preparation, the provenance of ingredients, and whole cycle production not only stoking her passion, but also kindling an interest in teaching.
‘It’s very apparent that you’re in Japan and nowhere else. I had the sorts of sublime experiences that if you recall them at any moment, they will transport you,’ she beams. ‘I went back there last year with Yolande – Gray, designer of both Ferment and Holly’s first book, Nourish – and while trawling through instagram she noticed that Sydney pastry chef Yu-Ching Lee had been raving about this seven-course meal she had enjoyed at a farmhouse north of Kyoto,’ recalls Holly.
‘Luckily I had a Japanese friend who could organise it for us, as they didn’t speak English. So along we went! The elderly woman who ran the farmhouse, simply named Chicken Cuisine on TripAdvisor, prepared all seven courses from a chicken she had herself killed on the day. There’s broth from the stock, something made from the skin, the gizzards, the heart – your meal is basically the whole chicken but in all these different forms. It was just exceptional. I loved it. Yolande wasn’t so keen,’ she laughs.
The introduction to Holly’s first book begins, ‘I was born in time for breakfast, and I haven’t missed a meal since’. As a child, she recalls being taught to appreciate good quality food. Her mother, Norna Joy, had run her own catering company for several years, and her father, Peter, a lawyer who had formerly been a chef, was quite keen on a bit of amateur butchery. It was not uncommon to come home to the sight of a huge side of locally farmed lamb plonked right on the kitchen table.
‘I had a reasonably privileged upbringing,’ she says. ‘We always had fresh, beautiful food around. And since then, my whole life has really been about what I put in my mouth or in yours,’ she laughs. ‘I’m really interested in feeding people, and always have been,’ she adds. ‘One of the most basic, primary relationships you have in your life is what you nourish your body with.’
‘And yes, there are a lot of arrogant, self-righteous types out there always telling people how to eat. Even I was a shocking zealot when I was younger, when I started Iku,’ she admits. ‘I was very arrogant about it, certain that macrobiotics was the way. And I’m still sure it is, but as you grow up, and wise up you recognise there isn’t just one way for anything.’
Undoubtedly back in culinary fashion, fermentation has soared in popularity in recent years, and even has festivals dedicated to its tasty wares. A trend Holly attributes to declining health, and our dislocation from community. As gut health becomes the latest diet buzz, studies are revealing more detail on the benefits of the kinds of good bacteria found in fermented foods. And one can’t discount the appeal of the home-farm – growing and preserving at home to appease that growing sense of disconnection from our food production.
‘My take on why fermentation is having a revival, is that as we have degraded our soils and degraded the opportunity for nutrition in our food by mass production and industrial processing, we have got increasing amounts of ill health that stem from poor digestive health,’ says Holly. ‘I think people want to change those practices, and are choosing to go back to the homesteading model or smaller model of farming, where we would not grow one thing, en masse, but we would grow a diverse range of things.’
‘It’s a means of preserving, but it’s more than just that. Some of the organisms that are increased in the process of fermentation also create nutrients. They’re actually breaking down certain bad bacteria, and they’re unlocking other nutrients. They’re really extraordinary and above anything else, they’re delicious!’ Holly declares.
While there are many processes for fermenting foods, the most commonly used is lacto-fermentation, responsible for known favourites like sauerkraut, dill pickles and kimchi. How this generally simple process works is due to the salty conditions killing off any bacteria that could be harmful to us, while healthy bacteria thrive, consuming any available sugars. These organisms then multiply, producing lactic acids, ethanol and carbon dioxide, which are not only responsible for protecting the ingredients from spoilage, but provide their own unique acidic flavours, interesting textures, and yes, smells. The process not only preserves the food, but produces enzymes and probiotic bacteria that have been shown to benefit our immune system, energy levels, allergy sensitivities, and even sleep.
‘Fermentation is a really important process, and a lot of people don’t know it exists. I think most people don’t know at all,’ Holly points out. ‘Things like tea, coffee, chocolate, and vanilla beans have all had a form of fermentation as part of their processing.’
‘There are plenty of ferments that have been around for a long time, but I think people might not even realise that they are fermented. What fermentation gives you is this incredible complexity of flavour and texture. It can really transform rather ordinary ingredients!’ she laughs.
Holly acknowledges not all people will go in for that acidic fermented taste, and that more of an ease-in approach – a spoonful of sauerkraut here, a piece of sourdough bread there – is often more valuable than trying to guzzle down 750ml of kombucha every day. ‘As humans we tend to think that if something is good for us, then consuming more of that thing is better. And that’s not necessarily the case.’ ‘People are eating ferments like they’re a meal, where really, they are a condiment. They’re really designed to be an accent or an addition to something else, and to help you digest what you’ve just eaten,’ she explains.
Citing life events – the loss of a friend, becoming a mother, and getting older, Holly admits to having a less dogmatic approach to diet and macrobiotics than her industry peers. ‘I know it sounds a bit odd given that I’m a wholefoods chef. But I don’t believe in just eating things only because they’re good for you.’ she declares. ‘You won’t find me with a plate of raw kale, any time soon. I don’t see that that’s of great value. That’s not what anyone in a traditional society would ever have done.’
‘I think we can look to society prior to industrialisation for best practise ideas with regard to the preparation of food. We’ve learned a lot and we’re really clever these days with various things, but fermentation has piqued people’s interest for a reason,’ says Holly. ‘ We don’t know how they knew to do the things they did, but our forebears used it to deal with the ingredients at hand. They seemed to know that the process of fermentation was going to bring more value to their ingredients, longevity.’
Of particular importance is the benefit of ferments for mature women. ‘Since our digestive system is the ‘heart’ of good health, taking good care of its needs is important at any age,’ Holly says. ‘Particularly though, as we age our body systems are taxed more heavily, and can really benefit from the nourishment and assistance of ferments. Fermented foods are easier to digest, but are also vibrant, a great source of nutrition, and assist us in digesting other food groups,’ she adds.
With 60 approaching, Holly warmly reflects on her past, but is keen to plan her next move. ‘I am at a wonderful, though slightly trepidatious stage,’ she says. ‘Planning a future worth living into, and adding a few strings to the bow.’ While plans of her own bespoke range of ferments takes shape behind the scenes, Holly continues to thrive on the reciprocal learning that teaching provides, teaching small classes the art of sourdough baking, fermentation and wholefoods cooking in Perth’s Swan Valley.
‘I am a teacher through and through. I just can’t help myself. If the opportunity arises and I know I can impart something I think will make a difference, I want to pass that on,’ she tells – describing impromptu interactions at bus-stops, and even in front of the margarine display at a local supermarket, where she does her best to steer people towards butter, the real ‘food’ option.
‘Who, where, and what to be next?’ she laughs. ‘Whatever it will be, it will of course be related to wholesome, sustainable foods and eating well. At the end of the day, you do what you do, get what you get and then choose what you will do next – that’s actually what life is all about.’
Ferment is published by Murdoch Books, and is available in Australia online at Booktopia and Wordery, and in store at Angus & Roberston as well as various gourmet and cookery stores. You can follow Holly’s blog and find information about her cooking classes at her website below.