MEET THE FERMENTOR: Kathe Kaczmarzyk

Founder of Saltat Ferments and co-owner of Amiralsgatans Speceributik

Visiting a unique boutique Amiralsgatans Speceributik in Sweden, I had a chance to talk with the founder – Kathe Kaczmarzyk. Read full interview and learn about her humble approach and great book recommendations.

Q: Can you tell us a little about your origins and how your fermentation journey started?
A: I come from the United States, but my parents are Polish. My whole family lives in Poland so I’ve been going there once or twice a year my whole life. My mom was a housewife, so she cooked Polish food my entire life. Ferments have always been a part of it. We bought sourdough bread and kefir at the store. Sometimes we made it ourselves. It has always been around.

I went to art school in Baltimore. There was a big urban farming scene. Farming is strongly related to fermentation. Thinking about my Polish roots I also started doing that. I was helping my friends at the farm and with ferments. Then I heard about Sandor Katz and his book, The Art of Fermentation. To be honest, I was getting into this world without realizing that fermentation is a thing because I grew up Polish and it was so normal thing to eat it all the time.

I applied to Sandor’s residency program (Camp Sandor) and I got in in 2016. That was really cool. Sandor is the guru of fermentation. I was wondering how he is, since he’s so popular. It turned out he’s very humble, working with his local community and the way he acts… he’s just a normal person. It had a big impact on my perspective. After that people started asking me if I could teach them how to make simple ferments. Through the combination of the farming period and the fermentation experience, after meeting Sandor I decided to start doing workshops. I did that for a few years.

Q: How long did you work in hospitality industry?
A: I was always sort of self-employed. But I’ve been working within the sector since my early twenties. Eight or nine years now

Q: How did you end up in Malmo, Sweden?
A: A few years later I decided to move to Europe. Since the government in Poland is quite bad, my parents suggested that I choose some other country. I got an internship in Berlin working at the hydroponic farm. I kept fermenting and baking sourdough bread there. Thanks to meeting Sandor, I kept the humble approach and after living in a bunch of places I ended up here. There was nothing like Saltat Ferments, apart from one lady who stopped doing it. Because the urban farming scene is so big, and I got to know these farmers I thought we could make so much with these produces. It felt like this was my chance to settle down.

 Q: Why did you decide to focus on these specific lacto-ferments?
A: I feel that there is so much to show with simple ferments. In our part of the world pickles and sauerkrauts are closer to people’s hearts. Especially in the restaurants’ scene, things like koji and miso, are perceived as the “cool” ferments.  I want to continue showing people who don’t cook so much at home and who want to learn more about food and fermentation, that kimchi and krauts are as attractive and exciting in their own ways. In that sense it is more important to showcase the farmer and meet normal people and have the conversation that matter for the communities. Attracting the crowd and teach non-restaurant people about these products is very important for me.

Q: How do you approach sustainability at your shop (Amiralsgatans Speceributik)?
A: We don’t have waste in the shop. Firstly, we just donate it to the local food bank. It’s just kind of normal, I know how people used to live in seasons. I also love combining everything, even the leftover produce. If I can make a flavour out of it, I’ll still fermenting it these days.

Q: Do you with restaurants and provide them with your fermented products?
A: I like the gastronomy scene, but I have mixed feelings. When I lived in London for one year, I made some ferments for a visiting friend-chef’s pop-up. I made a white kimchi and I put some fresh oysters into it and just fermented that together. And it’s super simple, but they really appreciated it and later put it on the menu. Later I met some chefs who wanted me to do some consultations and then they put me down because I was a girl, and said <<Oh, so you’re just gonna put ribbons on your sauerkraut jars and do these cute little things?>>. Being judged by how I look without knowing anything about my knowledge was not cool at all. I saw no fun in doing that. I like what we do right now, and I think it’s so much nicer.

Q: And what about your workshops? Running a business seems like a big-time commitment.
A: I still do them. With the workshops I’m always doing three to five different kind of flavours and showing people that changing the spice combinations, time of fermentation, making small adjustments and getting comfortable with the process is enough to make great products.

I’m always trying to find local farmers, asking for seasonal produce, showing people that you don’t have to be a foodie and there’s no wrong way to doing it. I was able to express seasonality and fermentation by creating various kimchis and sauerkrauts. I guess constant working locally and seasonally allowed us to combine these things and open the shop.

I just got invited to do workshop in the Faroe Island at the end of October. These islanders have a vegetable culture, but they don’t have a fermentation culture. It’s quite needed, that people learn just how to use salt and ferment things. People don’t know what to do with the vegetables. I’m going to go and do public workshops by travelling around, and then I will meet with some farmers and show them how to ferment. That way they could make some products and just have a little extra money. I will also go to a few restaurants and talk with them. It’s my realm and I really like it.

Q: How do you perceive people’s attitude towards fermentation?
A: People often can’t cook, scared of buying raw produce, often reaching for industrial, processed food. If we were to just get comfortable with fermentation, everything just comes naturally. My parents fermented naturally. There were no products like the ones sold now, with all the labelling and hype. It was just massive jugs with fermented pickles, mushrooms and sour pickles that they made every single year. That’s become so lost. People don’t do that anymore. But fermentation is becoming a popular thing and people like the flavours and the health element, but these things are what our parents and our ancestors used to do. Every culture had some sort of fermentation culture, that’s sort of died. And it’s kind of coming back. People still want to just buy it. Here at the shop people ask about sauerkraut all the time. You can hear a lot that it’s good for you . While buying, they still don’t know how to use it. I always tell them that some of the products I love to eat for breakfast and others I could like eat on top of rice. I feel like education part of it is so unlike and teaching kids is also very important.

I’ve learned that products lead to the conversation. When the shop got busier, I had to scale down with the production. I thought about selling the company to someone who could keep it going and keep selling to Copenhagen and Stockholm but it’s actually really difficult to find people who care as much as I would. I won’t stop making it, but I had to scale it down.

Q: Which fermented product is your favourite one?
A:My favourite ferment is called Sea Kraut. I’ve been eating it for years. It has white cabbage, golden beets, seaweed and ginger. I like to toast the sourdough, put some crunchy peanut butter and the kraut on top. It doesn’t sound very good, but I promise you’ll be surprised. Some people come back saying: <> It doesn’t need to be fancy or extravagant or anything and being really realistic about it. So I just talk to people about it that way, but there’s constant questions. So many people don’t know how to eat it. I think if they’re buying it and spending the money then they really want to know how you eat it

Q: You publish a lot of book titles on your Instagram. What’s your approach towards self-development? Are you getting your inspirations from reading the books?
A:Definitely. I think it’s a mix of reading books and having conversations that matter with other people. So I think it’s finding about the right balance. There have been points where I was reading all the bacteria books and getting very narrowed into this thing. I learned a lot back then. But I also realised that you kind of section yourself out from the general public this way. I love learning through books, and there are amazing books out there. I love to share them because that would be a big part of what I do at my workshops. I always bring a bunch of books at the end and just show people what I’ve read and what really inspired me or made me think in some sort of way.

I have to take breaks from writing and read fiction books. Right now I’m writing an article about fish industry and it’s very depressing. So then sometimes I have to switch and read a really nice fiction book and get my mind out of it. So it’s helped me to sort of have a mix and not just be too much into one thing.

Also, when an author’s talking about a book or an article that they read or quoting something I always underlining it and read later. You need to constantly be informed by things.

Q: Was there any book that inspired you a lot to do what you do? Which book would you recommend to people?
A: Michael Pollan‘s books. I think all of his books are very good. I remember the first year I was urban farming I read “Cooked” with “Omnivore’s Dilemma”.  These are the ones I keep returning to  the most. They have a bit of everything – it’s fermentation, food, culture, community. When I read Dan Barber’s “The Third Plate” that also changed me. Also “Salt: A World History” by Mark Kurlansky. It’s the coolest! The history of salt is amazing. And it’s a very well written book. Obviously, Sandor Katz’s “The Art of Fermentation” is a massive inspiration.

There’s also this other book called “An Everlasting Meal” by Tamara Adler. That’s such an important book for anyone because it shows how to turn leftover into a meal, and it teaches how to start cooking by a simple act of putting pot of water on the stove.

Q: Have you considered writing your own book?
A: Yeah, I’ve thought about it. Maybe one day I could do sort of a fermentation cookbook with a bunch of recipes or maybe a small zine. But I’m so much more interested in spreading what other people are doing. And then I would add a recipe or two. I think the mix is always so much more inspiring. I’ve submitted recipes to friends’ collaboratives before. Like with my friend’s “First wash your hands”.

Q: What is the future of Saltat Ferments?
A: I’m happy to keep the ferments going as they are. I feel like it’s so hard to sell fermented products and it’s actually nicer now with smaller scale. I was going to start selling to retail in other places in Europe but then when the possibility became impossible, we naturally adjusted to that. And people are happy with that. It gives access to a lot of things.

I’m going to do workshops here from time to time, but I’ve also been consumed by creating direct supply chains with the producers. We want to visit the producers, but also just talk to the people. We want to have conversations about food, small dinners and gatherings. We want to talk a lot about how the industrial food is cheap because of the subsidies given to big companies while buying proper food from proper sources and trying to make sure that smaller producers make that money is more important. I think that’s going to be a never-ending conversation. I want this space to be for this. It feels like it’s we’re making a difference and doing something right, so I just want to keep talking about that.

Q: Thank you for your time and good luck with the projects!
A: Thank you.

Kathe’s boutique is a highly recommended place to visit. It is situated just next to Triangeln station in Malmo, Sweden. Read more about the specific approach her and her partner took in choosing the right producers. 

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