Anna Cameron arrives at an interview at Hidden Villa in Los Altos Hills anything but empty handed.
She brings a cardboard box full of farmers-market-fresh vegetables -- zucchini, apples, onions, garlic, ginger, jalapenos -- as well as red bell peppers from her own garden. Another box is stocked with different sized mason jars, each full of fermented items she's made, such as sauerkraut, kimchi, preserved lemons, pickled peppers. She sets the jars down next to several books: "Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats," "Wild Fermentation" and "The Art of Fermentation."
Cameron, who is teaching a class on home fermentation called "Pick a Peck! Lacto-fermented Veggies" at Hidden Villa on Saturday, Sept. 28, is a self-created queen of fermentation. Her class will teach others how to make their own sauerkraut and pickled veggies at home from start to finish, beginning by choosing herbs and vegetables from the Hidden Villa garden and ending with jars full of good-for-you, delicious snacks.
Cameron, a spirited mother of two who lives in Santa Cruz, has been fermenting for about 10 years. She first got into it in 2002 when her 1-year-old son was sick and a homeopathic doctor suggested she read "Nourishing Traditions" by Sally Fallon, which details how to use whey -- the liquid remaining after milk has been curdled and strained -- to make fermented food and the health benefits of eating such food. She started out making pickles, using just salt and water, no vinegar, to make "classic, sour New-York-style deli pickles," she said.
Since then, she's taught herself how to can (not an easy feat), launched her own jam business (called Ladysmith Jams, the namesake of her mother's birth town in Wisconsin) and began teaching canning and fermentation classes to share the knowledge she's picked up along the way.
Though Cameron's mother grew up on a dairy farm in northern Wisconsin where the family canned everything, only going to the store for sugar and coffee, her childhood in San Francisco and San Rafael didn't include any canning or farm work.
"She was a full-time single mom," Cameron explained, talking about her mother. "We didn't can anything. I didn't know how to do that at all."
But Cameron's grandmother, her mother's mother, still canned regularly, making her own jams and jellies.
"So my grandma Alice was still in there making jelly, and I feel like I kind of channeled her a little bit. This is in my lineage; this is something I can do. It just got lost for a generation, but we can bring it back. And that's what so many people are doing. They're going back into questioning our modern technology and kind of getting back into a slower rhythm, with food especially."
Eating and making fermented foods is all about this return to roots and healthier eating, Cameron said.
What most people might refer to as pickling is formally called lactic acid bacteria fermentation, lacto-fermentation for short. Depending on what one is making, the process will involve some form of vegetables, filtered water and salt. In Cameron's class, she will show two ways to ferment: a dry-salt method to make sauerkraut and a brine method to make a mixed-vegetable "crock."
The sauerkraut begins with finely chopped cabbage -- Cameron uses both red and green -- layering salt to draw the water out.
"You want it to be a sea salt or a celtic salt or a pink salt," she said. "One that doesn't have anti-caking agents or iodine or preservatives in it. Because that's going to work against what you want to have happen in here, which is the positive bacteria you want to grow."
The salt interacts with lactic acid on the skin of the vegetables, spurning the creation of positive bacteria called lactobaccilus. Lactobaccilus is what people are after when they look for healthy probiotics, such as in yogurt. The bacteria helps convert sugars to lactic acid and is lauded for its anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, probiotic and immune-boosting powers.
With fermented veggies, salt is also key in decreasing the presence of molds and yeasts that you don't want, Cameron said. Some people might be wary of leaving a water, salt and vegetable mixture open to the air and out of the refrigerator for days at time, but that's what allows the positive bacteria to grow.
The flavor of sauerkraut is made with herbs and other additions; Cameron made one with apple and fennel seed the night before the interview.
The second method uses a separate brine to ferment vegetables instead of adding the salt directly. Cameron brought an example of one she made months ago with baby eggplant, jalapeno, garlic cloves, small peppers, grape leaves and dill. The veggies were all packed into a mason jar before Cameron poured a filtered water (no chlorine allowed) and salt mixture on top. The amount of salt that's added -- she recommends one-and-a-half to 3 tablespoons for every quart of water -- depends on one's personal taste (or health) preferences.
Cameron does also teach a no-salt method for those who are sodium-averse or have heath issues. This uses other spices that perform the same anabolic function as salt such as dill seed, celery seed, coriander or dried seaweed.
She made the point that although fermented items are high-sodium, they're not meant to be eaten in huge quantities. They're best served as condiments, salad toppings or sides.
"So you eat a little bit, but eat it all the time, because you're then constantly replenishing that flora in your system," she said.
She also thinks that today's culture is a little bit too antiseptic, and we could all do with a little more bacteria in our systems.
"We are totally germ-phobes. We are against bacteria. Anti-bacterial everything! Conditioners and soaps and hand soap. So that kills everything. Even the bacteria that you want. Because we have been evolving with bacteria. We need bacteria to live."
She said what exactly they make in class depends on what she gets from the farmers market that week and what's growing in the Hidden Villa garden. After choosing some veggies and herbs from the garden -- or maybe some nasturtium, whose seeds can be fermented into "fakey capers" and added to pickled mixtures -- the class will head up to the Duveneck House kitchen to get started.
Information: Pick a Peck! Lacto-fermented veggies on Saturday, Sept. 28, 1 to 4:30 p.m. Hidden Villa, 26870 Moody Road, Los Altos Hills. $35. www.hiddenvilla.org or 650-949-8650.