There’s a sense of destiny to Sharon Flynn’s relationship with fermenting. Considered Australia’s foremost expert in the field, with several product awards and a best-selling book, Ferment for Good, increasingly mentioned in the same breath as fermentation books by Sandor Katz and Rene Redzepi, Flynn is more likely to describe her path to fermentation as “accidental”. But the accidents started early and kept happening.
As a teenager, she went on exchange to Denmark and stayed with a family on an old pig farm. The refrigeration was mostly down to a marble-lined cold store where she still remembers the remarkable flavour of ‘fizzy’ strawberries. Then, in her early twenties, she moved to Japan and befriended a group of elderly women who tended a veggie patch at the foot of her apartment building on Mount Takeo. They taught her how to “preserve a harvest”, and the art of making miso, natto and tsukemono.
After marrying an American, moving to Chicago and having some kids, she found herself “a stay-at-home mum with no friends” and so channelled her energy into making pickles, then cheese, and then bread. She crossed paths with American fermentation guru Sandor Katz along the way and became fascinated with wild ferments and “food with life”. The family then moved to Belgium where the fermenting fervour faded a little until her youngest child became sick with an illness doctors were unable to diagnose. After someone mentioned gut health, all the knowledge she’d begun to accrue about fermentation's potential health benefits began to make sense.
Flynn moved to back to Australia (“home to my mum”). In Woodend with her kids, she fully embraced fermentation “both for its links to gut health and because it’s delicious”. Her daughter’s health improved, friends started to take notice and passed on the word, and before too long she was running a home fermentation lab and selling sauerkraut from the boot of her car “like a cross between Weeds and Breaking Bad but with lacto-ferments”.
It caught fire, especially when people like Alla Wolf-Tasker from Lake House and Melbourne chef Andrew McConnell took notice of what she was doing. But the way Flynn wanted to make her products, with live bacteria rather than starter cultures, put her at odds with food regulations and mass production. So she decided to go another way – selling small amounts of fermented product while also teaching others how to do it themselves, through workshops and selling the sometimes hard-to-get starter products to help them do it. Her business, The Fermentary, sells as many kits to make your own milk kefir or miso as it does ready to eat products in jars.
“Sharon makes the most delicious products but even more than that she is the most generous person I’ve ever known in terms of sharing knowledge and information,” says wine writer and MFWF Legends panellist Jane Faulkner. “I did a six-week fermentation course with her and was immediately struck by her generosity because there were people there wanting to start their own fermenting businesses. To Sharon, it’s all about bringing people together, spreading the word. She holds nothing back.”
Brigitte Hafner, chef and co-owner of Tedesca Osteria, is also a fan, acknowledging “the trouble Flynn goes to by using all the right, natural ingredients and the right techniques.”
“It’s all in service of making this very beautiful product. There’s a purity to what she does that gets people excited.”
“I’m happy to be vulnerable and an oversharer,” says Sharon Flynn. “People love being told the truth and they connect with that and the educator in me loves connecting people to the food they’re eating. There’s an ancestral connection with fermenting. It links me to all the women food makers from the past, going back thousands of years.”
Photography and video: Kate Shanasy.
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