Preserving food using microorganisms has been around since we started cooking. In Iceland, people famously eat fermented shark. In Sardinia, they’re huge fans of a cheese that’s teeming with maggots. Most modern fermented foods are a little less intense than those, and definitely more consistently delicious. But since the Industrial Revolution, people have been eating less and less of these economical but time-consuming treats. We have everything from canning to the freezer section to turn to for preservation. But fermentation can create deep, resonant flavors that don’t come from anything else. And now, as people begin to gain a better understanding of the human microbiome, people are doing everything from drinking apple cider vinegar to taking probiotic pills to making homemade hot sauce to get their daily dose of healthy bacteria. Fermentation has suddenly gone from a relic of yesteryear to a massive food trend. And it’s definitely coming for nuts. And it’s coming from Italy, of course. Jens-Axel Breuer talked to Gert-Jan de Groot in charge of new business at Eurocompany about the company’s project called Fermentino.
The Clipper: What is Fermentino and how does fermenting nuts work?
Gert-Jan de Groot: Fermentino is a term that Daniela Cicioni created for fermentation of nuts, water and salt. There are no aromas or preservatives. The only thing that can be added are fresh spices and herbs. We soak nuts in water. Then we ferment the nuts in two steps. In between the two fermentation stages the nuts get grinded. The total process lasts 15 hours. It’s a very delicate process under tight control. If the ph falls below 4.4 we stop the fermentation process and put the cream into molds in the shape that we want. It took us two years to develop the proper process. We worked with the University of Bologna. Our factory between Bologna and Ravenna has a surface of about 50,000 square meters. So in a corner we reserved about 1,000 square meters to develop the production of Fermentino products.
The Clipper: Eurocompany is part of the ‘conventional’ nuts and dried fruit business. What motivated the shift toward alternative products?
Gert-Jan de Groot: Eurocompany is a family business. The CEO is Mario Zani. He changed his way of life when his wife became sick. She recovered from her illness but it changed Mario’s attitude towards food and food production. He started reading a lot about the impact of nutrition on our health. He changed his personal life, became a vegetarian and very conscious about how we produce food, how many ingredients are used, how much processing is involved. The first consequence for the company was that the range of products was changed dramatically. We reduced slat by 80%. We eliminated added sugar, we stopped using palm oil and took out preservatives. I will give you an example: Pineapple are preserved with sugar. As we changed our range of products we opened a factory in Costa Rica which can produce dried pineapple with added sugar or preservatives.
The second step was developing new ideas for the product range. We came in contact with a vegetarian chef called Daniella Ciccione. She produced cheese made from nuts on a kitchen scale. We found that very interesting and we started talking about how we can make this product available for a larger group of consumers.
The Clipper: Do you hope to establish a new brand with Fermentino and what do you expect for the future?
Gert-Jan de Groot: Our mission is not the development of a brand but a new category. Anybody can apply and use Fermentino. It is open source. Our goal is to keep it open for everybody. The word can be used if it follows our definition. We believe that new foods need new names. We have started from scratch and it gets recognized. Our first market is Italy, the second is the UK, where we invested in PR. We do a lot of sampling and explanation. We are targeting the organic supply chain at the moment. If you look at meat alternatives and other alternative sources of protein they are usually produced with several different ingredients – and many times there are preservatives, thickeners, starches. And production involves a lot of processing. Fermentino is a very ‘pure’ product.