In the spring of 2013, Jason and Caitlin Elberson moved from just outside of Philadelphia to Vermont, seeking a life more aligned with their values. With some experience growing vegetables and aspirations to raise their own livestock, they completed the UVM Farmer Training program and spent a season working at Stony Pond Farm in Fairfield. A year and a half after their big move, they purchased land in Marshfield and called it Wild Rhythms Farm.
Now, Jason and Caitlin run a business on that farm: Sobremesa, our Featured Vendor for the month of January. Since 2015, they have focused on selling fermented vegetables, with some of the ingredients coming from their own garden. We spoke to them about why they chose fermented foods, some of the challenges inherent in making those products and the philosophy behind what they do.
Why fermented foods?
Jason: Fermentation is an ancient food tradition that is experiencing a booming resurgence in popularity. This process enables us to eat locally year-round by preserving peak produce for consumption during the off season. It can be incredibly simple and accessible, and needs very little energy input for making and storing compared to other preservation methods. It has an extremely deep and rich history in every culture, there are many amazing time-honored traditional ferments around the globe which we love to explore and adapt to our region. There are also significant and well-documented health benefits to eating lacto-fermented vegetables. It replenishes the gut flora with essential beneficial bacteria that are critical for overall bodily functions and health, aids in digestion and nutrient absorption, and can lead to improved brain and mental health. It’s also a way for us to support regenerative agriculture and the local farmers who are largely responsible for the stewardship of the land.
What did you produce first? Why?
Caitlin: We noticed that kimchi seemed to be rising in popularity nationwide, and we wanted to create our own version using exclusively organic, local produce. Enter “Gateway Kimchi.” This product is a vegan ginger kimchi that uses organic ginger grown by our neighbors right here in Marshfield. It goes with everything and is a true crowd-pleaser. It’s perfect for breakfast with eggs and delicious next to farm fresh sausage or topped on a hearty veggie stir-fry.
Beyond what is on your website, how would you describe your line of products?
Caitlin: We make a diverse line of fermented vegetables with unique flavors to complement a wide variety of foods and strive to create flavors that entice more people to eat ferments. All of our products have a lot of flavor, and they make it really easy to eat fun and exciting meals. From traditional spicy kimchi to our seaweed sauerkraut or turmeric curry kraut, there’s something perfect to pair with most foods.
Do you have a favorite product you make?
Caitlin: While we have a special place in our hearts for all our products, I’m going to have to go with our “Fiesta Roja” curtido, which is our take on a recipe that hails from El Salvador. This product was inspired by many of the flavors I grew up eating at home, where my Dominican father did the cooking. It’s red cabbage-based, with onions, carrots, garlic, and jalapeños. There’s a lot of cumin and oregano in it, which my father uses regularly, and it’s pretty much made for tacos. Fiesta Roja makes everything more exciting. Beans and tortillas? Fiesta Roja it. Ground beef and mushrooms? Throw a spoonful on top. Grilled cheese? Yeah, spread it on. Scrambled eggs? You know what to do!
Jason: I’m proud of our traditional Kimchi. This flavor is spicy, invigorating and made with the highest quality ingredients. We use Red Boat Fish Sauce, which we have found to be the highest quality fish sauce on the market. The only ingredients are wild black Vietnamese anchovies harvested from clean waters, and sea salt, with Vermont apples for a bit of sweetness to tame the heat. In my desire to cater to fellow chili-heads, I also wanted to create a seriously spicy kimchi and Jason’s Reserve was born. This second kimchi is packed with loads of super-hot peppers, including the Carolina Reaper, Ghost Chili, and the Trinidad Scorpion.
How many of these ingredients are grown on your own farm?
Caitlin: We grow about 25% of what we eventually sell, from vegetables and fruit (used in our kombucha available at farmers markets) to eggs and sheepskins. We started by growing all of our vegetables but now we mostly grow garlic and herbs and supplemental hot peppers for our products, while purchasing cabbage and root vegetables from our friends. Most of our land is dedicated to rotationally grazing our flock of Icelandic sheep.
How did you connect with the farms you source from? What do those connections mean to you and your company?
Caitlin: We often talk about our food at the dinner table in terms of the farmers’ names – Jon and Karin’s potatoes, Dave and Rachel’s napa, Mara and Spencer’s hot peppers, Kyle’s mushrooms, G’s ginger. This is a big part of why we moved to Vermont, to get closer to our food. We have connected with our farmers by vending alongside each other at the Burlington farmers market, and by meeting our neighbors. We simply could not do what we do without these people. Our products rely on the quality we receive from our farmers and their ability to produce such quality in this unpredictable climate is incredible. We are proud to use only organic Vermont vegetables in all of our ferments. Big love to: Full Moon Farm, Bear Roots Farm, Pete’s Greens, Friends and Neighbors Organic Farm, Half Pint Farm, Maple Wind Farm, Intervale Community Farm, and Last Resort Farm. Thanks to all of them!
Jason: When entering the farmers market and the community, the following tenets were important to us: become an additional customer to the farmers already in existence, sell something that does not directly compete with other vendors, and bring in new shoppers with a fresh, exciting and healthy product.
What are the biggest challenges to crafting these types of fermented foods? How do you overcome those challenges?
Jason: There are so many variables that affect the outcome of fermentation. These include the variety of cabbage, how long it’s been in storage, its moisture content (which changes), other ingredients used and their sugar/starch content, how much salt is used, the temperature during fermentation, and even the size of the vessel. We do most of our processing in the fall and winter and rely on minimal heating and cooling to achieve the proper fermenting and storage temperatures. The biggest challenge is understanding the effects of the different combinations of all these variables.
Caitlin: Another big challenge is creating consistent products while working with the combinations of those variables. Every single batch is actually “alive,” teeming with good bacteria, so we like to acknowledge that we are co-conspirators in this work. We’re very methodical in terms of our process and quality control. Everything is weighed and recorded, and we’re always analyzing flavor, texture, smell, appearance, length of fermentation, and any detail we can think of. We strive to overcome challenges by being very in tune with our process. Sometimes our farmers have crop failures, and while that is a really difficult situation, we focus on what has been a successful crop that year and strive to make more products from that. We have great relationships with our primary farmers and we keep in touch with another network of local farmers beyond that so we have friends to go to when we are short on a certain crop.
How do you accomplish your mission of nourishing the body, mind and soul throughout the seasons?
Caitlin: I think most people crave some sort of fresh-tasting food throughout the year. When we first really committed to a local diet, it was a lot of storage root crops and soups the first year. We had amazing potato and winter squash harvests that we enjoyed throughout the winter along with some canned tomatoes and other preserves, but pulling a jar of ferments out of the cellar is truly a delight in the cold months. It’s crisp, colorful, delightfully tangy, and alive. It brings me right back to spring, to summer, to the months where the earth sings with life. We hope that by making our ferments available to others in the community, they too can feel enlivened by this nutritious, flavorful food. I love to put our Sol Kraut (turmeric, curry and apple mixed with green cabbage) over a dollop of yogurt on a steaming bowl of red or brown lentils in the winter. It’s truly sunshine in a bowl. Sharing food is love for me. Sharing food that I know is really good for us? The world needs more of that, and it’s an honor to provide it.
Jason: Fermented foods physically nourish the body and mind, and when people feel better physically they tend to feel better mentally. By providing a product made with love and intention we are nourishing the soul. “Sobremesa” is a Spanish word that refers to the time spent lingering around the table after a meal, sharing food-induced conversations. Our name encourages mindfulness, togetherness, and slowing down, which are soul nourishing.
What was the impetus or philosophy behind your mission statement?
Jason and Caitlin: It can be easier to eat local during the summer, but we hope to inspire people to enjoy local and nourishing food year-round. We make local food shine no matter what the season, from the summer months full of verdant pastures, to the stark grey skies of Vermont’s lengthy majestic winters. We’ve been inspired by Waldorf education, which teaches to the “head, heart, and hands,” and has moved us to create something to nourish the mind, soul and body. Sobremesa is our offering.
Currently available at the Co-op are: Sobremesa Kimchi (a spicy and invigorating traditional kimchi made with local and organic napa cabbage, carrots, daikon radish, garlic, ginger, hot peppers, homemade gochujang, apples, and Red Boat Fish Sauce) and Atlantic Brine Seaweed Sauerkraut (a green cabbage kraut chock full of four kinds of mineral-rich seaweed from Maine). Sobremesa products are on sale for the month of January, and Caitlin and Jason will be here giving out samples during Member Appreciation Weekend, on Friday, January 11 from 10:30am-1:30pm.