Hawthorne Valley’s “Sauerkraut House”
In a valley in Columbia County, NY sits a small, red building. And inside that building is a centuries old ritual made new again by New York’s voracious appetite for one unlikely thing: sauerkraut.
Hawthorne Valley Farm, is a 400-acre biodynamic farm in Ghent, New York with a creamery, bakery and lots and lots of vegetables. They started making sauerkraut in 1999 when a bumper crop of cabbage threw them for a loop. Now, the sauerkraut is jarred and sold as far as Nantucket and they can’t grow enough cabbage to meet the demand with their own crop alone.
Fermentation is a natural and energy-efficient way to preserve food. The sauerkraut is odorless as it sits in large 55-gallon barrels, quietly fermenting in the cellar. This process is called lacto-fermentation, because of the lactobacillus bacteria that activates when salt is introduced to the cabbage in a airtight environment. The bacteria breaks down the sugar in the vegetables and converts it into acid, leading to the tangy taste of the finished product.
Ideal temperature for this process is in the low 70s and the basement level space holds that temperature without intervention most of the year.
“The kraut cellar is just for the temperature right for kraut,” said Hawthorne Market Manager Jimmer Pyanoe. “A cave just keeps at a certain temperature better. You have to heat it and cool it less than an above ground temperature. That’s why they have cheese cellars and wine cellars.”
The finished product can keep for months in the refrigerator, even after opening, but the farm chooses not to go through the traditional canning process, which would extend shelf life considerably, so not to kill off the beneficial bacteria and enzymes with heat.
Temperature control in a more closed-off space like a walk-in refrigerator even set to a low setting would restrict airflow to the kraut and change the result.
“There are forces in the air that you want in the kraut. We use bags of water [instead of full lids] to weigh it down so the CO2 can escape,” and that way the air can get in as well. Pyanoe says that when home ferments explode, that’s because their vessels were too air tight.
So if you avoid explosions, kraut is a perfect food year-round. “It stays well, it travels well. In winter time, we’ll ship the kraut almost anywhere because it’s cold enough that it can sit out and it won’t keep fermenting,” continued Pyanoe.
Pyanoe says the old mason jar on the window sill still works for making kraut, “That’s fine – it’ll work! why not right? It’s not rocket science, it’s just fermented vegetables.”
The farm does a lot more than kraut. They have a creamery, a bakery, run a community-supported agriculture operation and a summer camp along with vocational programs in biodynamic agriculture. The bakery even makes a seasonal cake with the kraut baked inside.
Regarding the issue of expanding the distribution of the farm’s best-selling product, Pyanoe says there is interest, but the farm has to decide how much outside sourcing it is comfortable with. Hawthorne works with other area organic farms to source cabbage to make their four flavors of kraut as well as Kim Chee. Said Pyanoe, “We could never grow enough cabbage to do all the kraut we do. At a certain point you have to ask yourself where do you stop growing?”