While the farmer is off doing his thing, today working on a landslide area, I’m working in my kitchen farm, tending all my various shoots, microbes, bacteria, yeasts and fungi. It’s a wonder to be around such basic life forces, to bathe in the abundance of energy necessary for constant generation and growth. Bacteria, yeasts and fungi are the root sources of all life on earth, the parents to us all, and to watch them at work is very comforting. Life goes on regardless of what I think or feel or do. I just participate.
And so here I am surrounded by and happy in my kitchen farm. There are the sprouting mung beans and brown rice grains, smelling a little warm, full of promise and potential. The mungs have cracked their bright green coats and are sending out the first tendril of root, crookedly searching for a place to hold. The rice is just beginning, looking swollen and ready to waken into life.
On the window ledge the sourdough starter is fermenting. A mix of wholewheat flour and water welcoming the yeasts present in the air. It smells good; bubbles are beginning to form, testifying to the yeasts’ presence. What else can it be than magic that calls the yeasts? Every now and again the batter must be stirred to distribute the yeasts throughout the mix to encourage their growth.
Close by the kombucha vats squat. The kombucha is the mother hen of my kitchen farm. We have two vats, one for the market, and another continuous brew for ourselves. The continuous brew is fed daily and her fresh tea cools as we sit down to our breakfast. The market vat is created anew every week, drained and bottled on a Friday night and started afresh Saturday afternoon. The kombucha is not a true fungus, rather a community of bacteria, yeasts and enzymes called a scoby. The scoby feeds off the sugars and nitrogen supplied in the tea. As she feeds she produces an offspring that can be harvested each week, the scoby in our continuous brew is huge, perhaps 2 inches thick and 14 inches in diameter. Soon I will have to peel some layers off or we’ll run out of room for tea!
Below the vats, in a quiet little corner sits the kimchi. The kimchi looks like the sleepiest member of the farm, from the outside nothing much seems to be happening. But inside those big glass jars fermentation is happening at a frenzied rate as the lactobacilli bacteria essentially changes the chemical composition of the cabbage, carrots, cucumbers and homegrown green beans.
The busiest section of my indoor farm happens on the other side of the kitchen, though the process can spread all over the place by midweek. Here is the fungus proper, my dear rhizopus oligosporus. Tempeh. Just now I have two types and a new starter on the go, regular soybean tempeh and a black bean variation. In an attempt to keep my production more sustainable I’m looking for more local sources of legumes, soy doesn’t grow in Costa Rica: the closest place is the southern US. Black beans certainly grow here, though to be really sustainable I would use what we can grow on the farm. I could make tempeh from gandul (pigeon peas), yard long beans or perhaps winged beans, but only enough for home use. Soy has advantages too; it has the highest protein and is arguably the best tasting. But this is off topic for this post. My little rhizopus farm is a cozy place where each perforated Ziploc bag acts as a mini greenhouse for the creeping white mycelium. It takes about 20 hours to grow into harvestable tempeh. For the first maybe 12 hours there seems to be little change to the beans. Then as if by magic they begin to generate heat and thicken, becoming more dense and solid. After about 16 hours the first thin threads of mycelium can be seen, and by the 20th hour the beans can barely be spotted below a thick nap of soft snowy fungus.
The line between good healthy growth and rot is a narrow one. I tried making black bean tempeh from a can of pre-cooked beans. It took a long time for the mycelium to appear despite using extra spores and it never really took hold - other bacteria moved in and began to digest the beans into a smelly slimy mess. I guess I have weeds in my kitchen farm too.