"In fermentation the laws of biology have primary jurisdiction, and are required [in order] to explain how a ferment generates its own energy from within. It not only seems alive, it is alive." -- Michael Pollan
In 2013 Michael Pollan published Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. In it, he posits that cooking food, whether it be grilling, baking, or fermenting, is an innately human endeavor, and one of the few behaviors that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, allowing us to ultimately advance within it. In the book, he grills, he braises, and he bakes alongside some of the world's foremost masters within those cooking arenas. And in the final chapter, he ferments.
"All cooking is transformation and, rightly viewed, miraculous, but fermentation has always struck people as particularly mysterious," he writes.
Throwing a chunk of meat on a fire seems natural as brushing your teeth, but the act of fermentation? Not so much. In part, it's mysterious because we have the least amount of control over it: Left unchecked, a ferment can turn to rot, and as humans, we're hardwired to literally turn our noses at decay.
While preserving (cheese or meat), pickling (vegetables), fermentation (bread, beer, wine, kraut), or "putting up" are the world's most ancient ways of keeping food for later, the modern world currently has a collective amnesia about these methods, thanks to the industrial revolution and the advent of a little something called the refrigerator. These days, we clearly favor homogenization, sterilization, and refrigeration to the messy business of natural, wild food preservation.
Gyst (the name is old English for yeast) house fermenter Jim Bovino came to this endeavor by way of gardening, and the natural urge to preserve the fruits of his labor throughout the year. He could freeze or can, yes, but these things take up more energy than we think about and fermentation is easily done off the grid. And if you're a health-minded individual, there's lots in store for you by keeping the freezer door closed.
Modern man may be missing out on big nutritional benefits by not busting out the kraut pot instead. Seems our bodies — no, the microflora that make up our bodies — must have living culture bacteria in order to thrive, and medicine is taking note. People need more exposure to bacteria in order to be healthy, not less, and bacteria-free food might be making us sick.
If all this talk has damaged your appetite, here comes the good part.
Fermented foods (and drinks) are some of the most revered in any culture — wine, beer, bread, cheese, cured meats, chocolate, coffee, pickles and krauts, yogurt. And the fervor with which we lust after them suggests a certain evolutionary theory: The microbes depend on human desire for the living bacteria — and the flavors they produce — for their own survival (much like a flower blooms beautiful to attract the hummingbird, which in turn spreads the flower's pollen).
When we visited Gyst, the new Eat Street neighborhood "fermentation bar," scenes from Portlandia ("Ferment it!") seemed imminent. We were nervous that it would feel virtuous or precious and were subsequently relieved to find that virtue wasn't really on the menu, and the only darling thing was the jewel box of a space.
The front room strikes a balance between bright, clean, and crisp, yet homey and welcoming, too, like your nicest aunt's kitchen — the one who also happens to have the best taste.
The bar is front and center, but instead of a drinker's bar (though you can do that, too) it's more of a taster's bar, with a big glowing cheese case that tempts. It's a nibbler's paradise to while away whole afternoons, or, if you prefer, an "in-between" place to stop on your way elsewhere.
When we visited, there was a fermentations class taking place in the back room, but a class where wine swilling seemed as much the order of the day as learning, and where more pretty young things were gathered in one space than we've seen on a winter's eve in quite some time. Must be all that superfood producing the glowing skin and flat bellies. But the point is that Gyst is big on classes and events. You want to shake off the fermentation amnesia? Come inside.
But if you've only come to eat and drink, it's nice to know this is truly a place for that, too. The "boards" are fixed up with the world's best and most luscious artisanal cheeses, both local and from abroad, like the sheepy, ancient, and world-class Abbaye de Beloc from France, but also buttery, familiar Alemar brie from Minnesota. And with these and lots more, you may choose charcuterie from local masters Red Table Meats as well as house pickles and ferments from Bovino.
Bovino's pickled chioggia beets, turnips, and krauts were each wildly different and intensely flavorful; some assertively pungent, and others as easy on the tongue as dirt candy. They kept us coming back to sample, then evaluate, then debate, and then complete the exercise over again.
If you're the sort of person who thinks that pickles and cheeses do not a meal make, there are a few more things to be had, but it will never be a place to take in a big meal. There are no chefs onsite. Nature is the cook here, remember?
That said, a pressed grilled cheese with sauerkraut keeps floating to my memory as one of the top sandwiches of the year, with shatter-crisp bread, a flowing lava river of three cheeses, and bright kraut to cut through it all. A little side of Wisconsin crab apple encourages further noshing, lingering, imbibing.
"The Sandor" is an adult's peanut butter toast, with spicy kimchee sprinkled atop a generous swipe of peanut butter on thick foccacia and then garnished with more crushed peanuts. Strange yet harmonious, like retiree and rockstar neighbors coming together for a nightly vino.
A kale salad was just that, tossed with daikon radish and carrots, and a nice red wine vinaigrette to bind it — definitely the most ascetic part of the meal. We're also delighted to report that the sandwiches are served with potato chips. Regular old Ruffles. Not fermented, but hey, who argues with chips?
Oenophiles and beer geeks will find plenty to love here, from affordable white blends by the glass, $14 bottles of Belgian Geuze, and $3 eight-ounce sippers of local drafts to $125 bottles of hard-to-find Lebanese Cabernet. And lots in between. If you're a teetotaler and you want to get into the fermentation game, they offer locally produced Kombucha from Prohibition, or Wisconsin's NessAlla. Just watch out for the SCOBY (the yeast and bacteria colony that incites fermentation), as the mucilaginous mass floating in your beverage can give quite the start if you're not ready for it.
You may not be ready for the idea of a fermentation bar as a place to get your lunch, and owners Mel and Ky Guse could have easily named this place "Cheese & Wine" and avoided potential pitfalls. But we're glad they didn't.
Pollan notes that "every ferment retains a certain element of unknowable wildness." A chef by his very occupation takes what nature offers, puts a harness on it, and manipulates it according to his whims. At Gyst, we can for a moment throw off those shackles and contemplate our oneness with the wild.
GYST 25 East 26th Street, Minneapolis 612-758-0113 Monday through Friday: 4-10 p.m. Saturday: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday: closed
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