I visited Cristina Megias – Head of Development at local vinegar brewery Nordhavn Eddikebryggeri. Read the full interview with this fascinating person and get inspired to look at food from a different angle!
Q: Good morning! Can you introduce yourself?
A: My name is Cristina Megias and I come from Basque country. I work at Nordhavn Eddikebryggeri (NEB) as Head of Development. I studied at Barque Culinary Center before coming to Denmark. Here I did an internship at Noma Ferments among others before my current job.
Q: Was cooking school your way to becoming a chef?
A: I always loved cooking and I love everything related to food. I was also very interested in biology. I almost went to study biology or medicine but I ended up going to a culinary school. In the first year, I felt like I needed more knowledge so I enrolled in an environmental science program online that I studied simultaneously. Since the beginning, I knew I wouldn’t take the path of becoming a chef. The program that got my attention was “Food Industry’. Something that I always wanted to do was to change the food system. I really believe that food producers can have a huge impact and that is not well-recognized. They are the ones who can make the change. Of course, without the support of chefs it is impossible. Now producers can step up and make a difference thanks to chefs’ movements.
Q: How did your journey with fermentation start?
A: I had a lot of interest in cheese and bread making and in general other basic ferments before but the biggest impact on my career was an internship at Noma. It was a really cool experience. I tried applying to Nordic Food Lab but since they closed down, I was lucky to secure a spot at Noma’s fermentation lab. This experience was really open-minding. They showed me so many values and ways of seeing flavors.
Q: What are you responsible for as a Head of Development at Nordhavn Eddikebryggeri?
A: We are trying to figure out this matter. There was a period during the lockdowns when I was almost by myself in the company. That’s when I had to learn everything from sales to administration to management and brewing. It gave me a lot to think about and to figure out what I enjoy doing the most. Right now we are restarting and trying to create a new structure of the company. I am in charge of developing new projects and creating new products. With so little people and so much work to do it is difficult to say who is in charge of what. We are helping each other doing everything as well.
Q: You are very passionate about things you do. Would you have thought about ending up in a vinegar factory 5 years ago?
A: Oh, no! When I told my mom almost two years ago that I was going to work at a vinegar factory she said: What are you going to do?!
Q: How do people in Denmark perceive vinegar in their own cooking?
A: People don’t necessarily know how to use vinegar in their own cooking. We get a lot of these questions at the food markets. Vinegar making should be perceived as a technique that can be applied anywhere. When NE started, almost 20 years ago, vinegar was one of the imported products with the least amount of producers nationally. NE has been the only small scale producer in the country. We have been the same company for 10 years and no-one knew about us. We have been selling mainly to high-end restaurants (i.e. Noma, Relœ) but no-one outside knew it. Since Covid-19 it has been a breakthrough and we started talking about the new direction and how to attract more people.
Q: Are you holding regular events here as well?
A: Once a week we have a tour with a different restaurant but we would like to invite normal people for the tours as well. We are going to have a couple of workshops starting this summer. Hopefully, this winter we will start setting up workshops here. I really enjoy doing workshops. Recently I ran an event at the farm and local people went crazy about it and showed a lot of interest.
Q: What is the value of fermentation on a daily basis in your opinion?
A: I think there is a huge value. This is something I brought with me here. Fermentation as a preservation technique has been present for many years and it is a tool to turn things that would be thrown away into delicious products. Fermentation makes food more nutritious so it can play a very important role in people’s diet.
Q: Can you describe what is the relation between fermentation and sustainability?
A: In the food industry, fermentation could be a tool to be more sustainable. I’m not saying that it is the only one, but it would be a great tool for restaurants or even at home to generate less waste. Vinegar is a great example of how we can upcycle some of these foods. Dropping lemons in vinegar can turn them into entirely edible products. Even though it’s not a direct fermentation it uses the power of the process to create a great ingredient. I think fermentation is a tool that can also help us to live based on local seasonal products and be more sustainable, healthy and eat more nutritious and delicious food. You can even introduce people to learning how to cook and rethinking foods.
I am not a vegetarian, I don’t know what is the most sustainable solution but my approach is that I would rather eat local products and process them myself or at least eat the least processed food. Sometimes it feels like I’d rather eat meat from a local producer than the vegetables from the supermarket.
Q: How can fermentation impact existing food systems?
A: I think that the way we have been developing the food industry in the past ten years has been by making more sterile, processed, bacteria-free products. This system is generating more allergies and health problems. For example, new meat alternatives are made with isolated soy- and pea products that can generate specific protein allergies which is a huge problem. If you eat one kind of protein, your body can generate the reaction. There is a growing number of people allergic to pea-protein. It is the system that forces us to create these isolated products. We need to step back and look for a more natural solution. Many things we eat contain ingredients that kill bacterias, like antibiotics, and make it even more dangerous for humans in the long term. We should eat more raw products and less supermarket-based ones if we can. I am a part of a new startup where the focus is to develop upcycled products through fermentation in a way that we can turn processed foods into healthy ones that can also help to improve gut health on a bigger scale. I do believe that the food system can be changed this way.
Q: Are you trying to create a supply chain with direct trade?
A: Our vinegars are made from juices from a farmer from Lilleø. We are building relationships with producers of different things to generate upcycled products, working directly with them. We don’t believe that a single restaurant or a company can make a difference but working on creating a system with many more actors we should be able to have an impact. Our facility has limited capacity and we cannot take all the waste products there are but if other models can be based on upcycled products, the outcomes can be great.
Q: In Copenhagen, there are more and more collaborations between the restaurants and food producers focusing on circular economy and upcycling. What do you think about this movement?
A: I am very happy that it is taking place. It is only going to make us grow. I believe that something I also brought into this company – generating a collaborative and positive environment – can only bring good outcomes. I really believe that if you work with companies around, you can only get positive things out of it.
Q: Looking into the future. How do you see yourself in a few years?
A: I came here last year thinking I would leave after 3 months and I am still happily working at this company. For now, it feels like I will stay with NEB for the long term. I’m sure I will continue working with food, trying to make the system more sustainable. I have plenty of ideas and I know which ones I would choose but whatever it would be, I’m sure I will work with sustainability and fermentation. We want to change the way our supply system works . In the end, we’re dependent on very few actors making decisions for what everybody consumes. Even if we say no, it is always the easiest solution that we are choosing. A farm 30 minutes away from home will always lose to a supermarket 5 minutes away. We need to support local production that is easily accessible. That’s why I think that supply chains are something I would be interested in in the future.
Q: Thank you for your time.
A: Thank you.