Read: Irish Examiner | Fermenting a local food network
“I try to hook people with the fact that these foods are delicious!” The ebullient Terri Ann Fox, founder and teacher at River Run Ferments & Bakehouse is a fermentation enthusiast. Passionate about developing and making the most of local food networks – during our interview she starts musing over the possibility of having an Irish-grown pulses co-op – she teaches people how to make their own sourdough and sauerkraut and kombucha in Co Wicklow. With an ever-growing interest in fermented foods driven by a focus on gut health, people are drawn to Fox’s fermentation classes with the idea of making these products at home for themselves.
Just seven years ago, in 2016, Iowa-born Fox and her husband Niall Mac an tSionnaigh, from Booterstown, Co Dublin, were living and renting in San Francisco. With their eldest daughter about to start school, the couple wanted to buy a house. Getting frustrated with the properties that were available locally, “we decided on a whim to check daft.ie and see what we could get in Ireland for the price of a house in San Francisco,” laughs Fox. With a rural upbringing – Fox’s grandparents were “homesteaders, but they just called it living. They had a house cow for milk and if you wanted fried chicken, it had been butchered that morning” – she longed to get back to the country.
She certainly managed that when she and Mac an tSionnaigh found their six-acre farm on the side of a mountain in Glencree, Co Wicklow. “We wanted to instil some sense of self-sufficiency in our kids but it was a big leap. We had to acclimatise to a new environment and a new way of living.” While their children – they have three girls – were born in San Francisco, Fox wanted to show them a different way of life. “I wanted to find a deeper meaning. There had to be more than is offered in the modern world of coffee shops and [retail chain] Target and traffic jams. I just wanted to live my life. I had grown up eating wild meat, hunting and fishing – my family are all outdoorsmen – and I had a deep appreciation for that kind of experience,” she says. Her upbringing made her acutely sensitive to the food world around her: “I was always into local food systems. When I was about 19, I realised that the food system in the US is corrupt beyond belief and I wanted to live more consciously.”
Fox had been actively involved in local food networks in San Francisco – “shopping through co-ops and farmers’ markets,” raising chickens in her backyard and baking sourdough for her family. She wanted to grow more of her own food and with the purchase of River Run Farm she had the land for it. Gardening and growing led directly to preservation and many adventures in fermentation, which she credits as her learning curve. “I developed all these skills right here,” she says. “I started from scratch and build a recipe. You just have to fail a lot to figure it out ”
“I started talking about the things I was doing and my crazy adventures and some local ladies asked me to teach them,” Fox remembers. The first classes took place during 2017 in her kitchen as she developed her curriculum. Now Fox holds her popular classes in a purpose-built space which incorporates a wood-fired oven, teaching students practical ways of making the most of their own food systems, by preserving and fermenting and baking with local ingredients. “We do an Introduction to Sourdough Bread workshop, which teaches you how to make a sourdough loaf, incorporating some whole grains, and all about local food systems and community food systems.”
For more advanced bakers, Fox’s workshop on Working with Irish Wholemeal Flour focuses on loaves with a higher nutritional value using Irish-grown flours which she sources – after much searching – from a variety of Irish growers and millers, including Oak Forest Mills in Kilkenny, Monaghan’s Irish Organic Mill, Ballymore Organics in Co Kildare and Louth’s Dunany Flour. Having been involved with the local wheat movement in San Francisco, Fox did a deep dive into the Irish flour industry when she moved to Ireland and was initially mystified that there wasn’t more locally grown flour on the market.
It’s taken some time but now she can access rye from Andrew in Louth, spelt from Emma in Kilkenny, Mark and Micheál’s whole grain flour from Monaghan and “the most delicious oats” from James in Kildare. “I want to know where everything comes from,” says Fox. “That connection with people gives you a real taste of place, it makes everything taste sweeter.”
She also teaches an Introduction to Fermentation workshop, which focuses on sauerkraut – “I’m always amazed that people want to learn about partially rotten cabbage!” – and kombucha. For the more advanced fermentationist, Fox’s Koji-Miso-Amazake and Tempe Workshops have proved popular, focusing on making the most of local and regional beans, seeds, grains and nuts. “The workshops are about meeting and getting to know new people with similar interests. We have really lovely groups and often people take one workshop together and come back and meet again on other workshops as friendships and communities develop,” says Fox. Working with local food systems by maximising the use of local Irish-grown grains, vegetables and other foods opens a whole new world for many of the participants. “People walk away very excited with the possibilities,” says Fox. “All those little things that you do, they all add up.”
Find more information on River Run Ferments & Bakehouse workshops at riverrunferments.com