Lacto-fermentation has a branding problem. Every person I talked to about this story heard the term, and with visions of rotting milk in their heads, said “hmm… sounds disgusting.”
But if it takes you a little time to get past that initial discomfort, that’s ok with Stephanie Zydenbos-Heino, owner of what’s possibly the only lacto-fermentation business in the state, Micro Mama’s. Her recipes sometimes take six months to finish their work – so she’s used to waiting.
She explains first that the "lacto" in lacto-fermentation has nothing to do with milk. Instead, she says, it "stands for lactic… when the starches and the sugars break down in the vegetables, carbon dioxide’s released, and lactic acids are formed."
The fermentation process transforms the food; it becomes easier to digest and allows probiotic, or healthy, microbes to grow. Zydenbos-Heino says she learned about fermentation from a friend at a farm.
"I had been purchasing probiotic supplements and paying a premium for them," she says. "When I learned I could make probiotic foods it changed everything for me. A year ago I realized I was making enough of it that I could have a viable business, and the rest is history.”
All of Micro Mama’s products start in a basement workshop in Henniker, including the Silly Dilly, a recipe Zydenbos-Heino devised as a way to encourage young people to get more veggies into their diets. The main ingredient is carrots, but she says it tastes like a dill pickle - hence the name Silly Dilly.
Zydenbos-Heino starts up her industrial-size food processor, which makes quick work of ten pounds of peeled carrots. Shredding the vegetables breaks down their cell walls so the fermenting process can work inside.
She adds a little dill, some garlic and her one non-local ingredient – Colombian rose salt - before mixing the elements together by hand. "The veggies love this," Zydenbos-Heino says, though she looks to be having a good time too. Soon the salt is drawing the water out of the carrots, which helps the fermenting process along.
Once the Silly Dilly blend is sufficiently mixed, Zydenbos-Heino pours it all into a glass crock, adds an airtight seal and puts it on a shelf, where it will stay for weeks. At this point, Zydenbos-Heino's only job is to occasionally "burp" the crock, briefly opening the seal every so often to let gas out.
"And then when they’re done," she says, "I take out my fancy pH meter, check the pH, make sure it’s in that low acidic range where all the healthy microbes exist and no harmful ones can.”
And that’s lacto-fermentation – nothing spoiled, nothing disgusting – an old process getting some new life from foodies and probiotic lovers. And as for that one last lingering question: yes, the Silly Dilly does live up to its claim and tastes like a dill pickle.