July 24, 2009
Kathryn Lukas’ first taste of real, old-world sauerkraut came while she was living in Stuttgart, Germany in the 1990s. She’d eaten the pasteurized, vinegar-based kind out of a jar and she’d even bought the homemade stuff at a German night market from a vendor who sold it out of barrels. But it wasn’t until she went out to a farm in the German countryside that she became truly inspired by this traditional food.
“[The farmer] made kraut in his cellar. It was more than just white cabbage and salt; he had juniper berries and all kinds of other things in there! It really sparked my imagination,” Kathryn remembers.
It wasn’t just her seven years in Europe, three of which were spent co-owning a restaurant and learning to cook classic German cuisine, that made Kathryn want to ferment. After returning to California she attended the Natural Chef program at Bauman College and wrote a thesis about traditional foods for a degree at the New College of California. Sooner or later, all signs pointed to kraut.
Kathryn wanted to be “part of the revival of fermentation as a food art” and to make kraut with local and organic ingredients. She found the nutrition angle fascinating (and would be happy to fill you in on the details of lacto-fermentation and its probiotic qualities), but her interest is first and foremost a culinary one.
By the time last year’s Slow Food Nation (SFN) rolled around, Kathryn had honed the recipe for Holy Smokes, a kraut she flavors with smoked jalapeños that is loosely based on Salvadorian curtido. That weekend, Kathryn says she handed out eight thousand samples and sold almost a thousand pounds of Holy Smokes. “We were the talk of the market," she says, "partly because you could smell our kraut from across the marketplace.” But the popularity of her kraut also spoke to a growing curiosity about fermented foods. And so Farmhouse Culture was born.
Last February, with the help of her son Shane, Kathryn opened a facility in Santa Cruz. They make kraut in 300-pound batches and sell it at six (soon to be nine) farmers’ markets and a handful of New Leaf and Whole Foods stores. Starting a business hasn’t been easy in this economy; Kathryn had no collateral and couldn’t get a small business loan. But she says Woody Tasch’s book Slow Money -- which argues for aggregating small investments from people aiming to jumpstart local food economies -- gave her the confidence to seek investments from family and friends. “I was raised in a culture where you never ask for money,” she says. “But I know that if it falls flat, I can always work to pay them back. If it doesn’t, then we’re onto something.” Eight small investors helped get the business off the ground and it started turning a profit in June.
Katherine is also pushing the envelope when it comes sustainable packaging. Benoît de Korsak of St. Benoit Yogurt has played an instrumental role in advising her about non-plastic options and she plans to begin selling kraut in resuable, refundable ceramic crocks similar to St. Benoit’s (de Korsak gets 90% of his ceramic containers back from farmers’ market shoppers and 70% back from grocery store shoppers) later this year.
In many ways Kathryn sees herself as a pioneer. On a recent Thursday she was mulling over the idea of a lemon verbena-flavored kraut because it’s so prevalent in backyards around Santa Cruz. And her latest recipe is built around local summer vegetables and herbs like summer squash, mint, and cilantro. She even swapped out Celtic sea salt for Sonoma Coast salt because ingredients flown half way around the world didn't seem to fit with such a place-based food custom. Above all else, Kathryn is excited to help create what she calls a “strong California kraut tradition.” From what we can tell, she’s well on her way to doing just that.