We spoke with Jenna Empey, owner/operator/head grower/fermenter, and Alex Curie owner/operator/ graphic + web designer/ kombucha fermenter of Pyramid Farm & Ferments. Pyramid grows and makes handcrafted, local cultured foods in Prince Edward County, Ontario. We found out how to start eating fermented foods, what it really means to go with your gut, and the best shooter to do with grandma.
Did you always want to be farmers?
Jenna: I’ve been farming since I was 19 and have always loved it. My favourite thing about farming is that you can do so many different tasks in a day, but it all goes towards the same end goal. I’m not very good at choosing only one thing to do, so as my love for fermentation grew it made perfect sense to combine it with farming. It is double the work but it is important to me to pursue both passions. I think it is very special and unique to be able to harvest vegetables in the morning and have them fermenting in crocks by the afternoon. Sprout To Kraut!
Alex: Short answer, I never even considered it. I was living in Halifax, working at a restaurant and running a record label when I first met Jenna. As far as wanting to be a farmer is concerned, I can say the thought had never crossed my mind. But if you were to ask me if I always wanted to be an artisanal entrepreneur I could say 100% yes. While working with my music label, I was involved at all levels of production, including: writing, recording, producing, design, packaging, promotion etc… The same can be said for working with Pyramid Farm and Ferments, it’s what I love to do. I really enjoy building something up and being involved in every process, and I become genuinely excited about the progress and changes I can see along the way.
We love your hashtag #GoWithYourGut. Please explain what it means.
Jenna: It’s an extension of “you are what you eat”. Fermented foods are fantastic for improving digestive health by colonizing your gut with beneficial bacteria and micro-flora essential in healthy digestion. Your gut health and your immune system go hand in hand, so by choosing fermented foods you can fortify both.
Alex: This was all Jenna, I just had to add that I’m so happy she thought of this, I think it’s brilliant. (We agree!)
What is your favourite ferment?
Jenna: I change my mind all the time! I have a rotating love of favourite ferments. I have a special adoration for the ferments which we entirely grow and ferment; our #SproutToKraut line. My daily go to’s are the County Kimchi and Dill Garlic Sauerkaut YUM! (Your kimchi’s are our hands down favourite)
Alex: I’m a huge fan of our seedy sauerkraut. The seeds all come together to make such a unique taste that can work with so many dishes. It’s also really nice to bite into a fermented seed every once and a while for a real flavour burst.
Do people think your ferments taste like they smell?
Jenna: Ha ha! Our products definitely have presence when we are sampling them! Some folks turn their nose up at the smell of kimchi or kraut, but for others it draws them in. I find a lot of folks who don’t like the smell have an unpleasant childhood memory of sauerkraut, or have had krauts that were too vinegary. Our fermented foods are naturally soured through the fermentation process and vinegar free, which makes them more rounded and balanced in flavour. It’s fun to try to change their mind on Sauerkraut.
We also get the customers who are the only one in their family who eat the ferments and I hear a lot of funny stories about them having to keep the jar in the garage or eat it when no one else is home because of the smell (thanks to our families for putting up with it!). I admire their dedication!
What’s your work uniform?
Jenna: It’s whatever I want but there are a few variations. It depends whether we are in the fields, in the kitchen or at the Markets. Our vehicle acts as a mobile wardrobe stash filled with work boots, heels, long johns and a variety of dresses in my case.
Alex: I am truly horrible for this. I kind of wear the same thing for all tasks. We do a lot of laundry.
Have you ever gotten sick from something you made?
Jenna: Never. Fermentation is a very safe way to preserve food. But it unnerves some people because it is a product which changes and bubbles. We are trained as a society to fear anything that fizzes and bubbles, but with naturally fermented foods, that’s what you want to see; a cultured, living food!
For someone who hasn’t eaten fermented food before, what’s the best thing to start with?
Jenna: I think starting with the flavour you will find most delicious makes sense. We make such a wide range of flavours, you’ll find one that strikes your fancy. If you are not currently eating many types of fermented foods, try eating a few tablespoons a day and let your gut adjust.
Alex: Our Gut Shots are a perfect way to ease your gut in to the benefits of fermented foods. They are the undiluted brine directly from our crocks and they pack a concentrated punch of beneficial bacteria. Adding a one ounce shot to carrot or tomato juice is a perfect, quick and delicious way to get ferments in to your system. Eventually you will crave the great sour taste in other foods, before you know it, you’re eating ferments on everything, not just for the health properties but for the great unique taste they have.
Do you get tired of driving to Toronto to sell at markets?
Jenna: Yes, especially as the winter weather descends upon us. But I do love directly dealing with such a broad and varied customer base. We get to meet so many different people who seek out our products for all sorts of reasons. Whether it’s for taste, health or nostalgia there are so many fascinating stories to hear. You also get to see people’s initial, uncensored reaction to your product samples. Often they are trying fermented foods for the first time and I really enjoy being a part of that.
Alex: Getting up at 3am every Saturday and not getting home until about 6pm can be quite tiring. The market experience is something I really look forward to every week. It gives me a chance to bounce new ideas off of customers, chat and have some fun. Also it’s a really nice place to practice the barter system with other vendors. Our after-market dinner on Saturday night is one thing I get excited about every week. (We thank you for being there to feed our ferment habit!)
Are you fermenting anything new?
Jenna: I’m really excited about our Gut Shots. It is perfect for kick starting your digestion in the morning or mixing in with juicing or even in a caesar!
Alex: We’re always fermenting something new. Being adventurous and experimental is a great way to flex your creativity and really get excited.
A lot of people are hearing about Kombucha for the first time. What would you compare it to?
Jenna: I liken it to a healthy soda or effervescent lemonade. It’s slightly sweet, sour and naturally carbonated, but also great for your digestion and immune system.
Alex – Kombucha can be all over the map. I tend to try every brand of kombucha I come across, and they really run the gamut. I’ve had kombucha that is so sweet it tastes like kool-aid, and so sour it tastes like vinegar. Some are highly carbonated, some are not carbonated, and some somewhere in between. I can really only describe the kombucha that I make as I tend to walk the middle line. I feel that kombucha should be slightly carbonated, not too sweet, a little sour and refreshing. My favourite flavour so far has been our green tea with coriander, echinacea and lemon basil. It’s a great blend of savoury and sweet without being too much of either.
What’s your favourite season?
Jenna: I love fall for farming, it’s like spring but with less insects and weeds. We grow some of our major crops for winter fermenting in the fall. I find a lot of folks put their garden to bed in September but if you time your planting right, you can have fresh greens, radishes, turnips, beets, etc. well into December.
Alex: You kidding me? Summer of course. Summer is a time when everything seems to be happening so quickly. Every week something different is coming to fruition on the farm, crops are ready, fruit is ripening, flowers are blooming, you get the idea. When making our kombucha, summer is the time to make the most exciting flavours, it just seems like everything tastes delicious. Summertime is great and beautiful, but it is also by far our busiest season. It’s a great time to really experiment and have fun while still working hard.
Why do you keep doing what you do?
Jenna: Working with food is important to me. The lifestyle of agriculture, artisanal food and self-employment that we pursue is challenging yet extremely rewarding in a way nothing else has ever been to me.
Alex and I have always worked together. Before Pyramid Farm and Ferments we used to play in band(s) and run an indie record label. We drive each other in a really complimentary way and don’t mind putting in the long hours and meeting the many challenges together. I couldn’t imagine us not doing this, we’d be so bored.