At first, making food with the assistance of bacteria doesn’t sound like the wisest plan, but then Narelle Lucas of Wild Earth Mother explains that over 50% of our body is bacteria; trillions of microbes are living in and on our body, helping us digest food, absorb nutrients and protect us from infection.
The bacteria in fermented food healed Narelle, and you can benefit from these hardworking single-celled marvels too.
Now based in the lush Tarra Valley, South Gippsland, Narelle had been operating her own food businesses for the past 20 years: restaurants, markets, creating preserves and baked goods, and a long-running organic pie business. It’s a delicious-sounding background.
"My body healed within eight weeks once I started having these foods. It’s incredible the speed that good bacteria will heal you..."—
After travelling overseas, Narelle says she “contracted a weird tropical virus” and became very ill.
“There wasn’t much to be done medically speaking so, out of desperation, I began looking into fermented foods. This was about eight years ago, and upon realising that I knew how to make many of the foods, Wild Earth Mother was born.
“My body healed within eight weeks once I started having these foods. It’s incredible the speed that good bacteria will heal you. The difference fermented foods will make to not only your body but [also] your mind is amazing…the clarity it gives, and how alive your body feels…
“You don’t even need to drink litres of kombucha. An increased variety of ferments is far more important than the amount. Each type of ferment, even each batch or flavour, has its own strains of good bacteria.
“Most of the foods we eat are dead; they don’t have any live bacteria. There are plenty of live or fermented foods to choose from: aged cheeses and smallgoods, sourdough bread, yoghurt, miso, sauerkrauts, pickles and, of course, kombucha!”
On this wellness journey fuelled by fermented food, Narelle sought to find a starter SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast), the ‘Mother’ that’s typically required to launch a traditional batch of kombucha.
“It was hard to find a SCOBY at the time, but I managed to track one off an old lady that lived down the mountain from me. [Then] I became a bit of a 'mad scientist’ with brews bubbling in every corner of my kitchen.
“Most people think a SCOBY is unique to kombucha-making but there are actually many forms. A sourdough or yoghurt starter, a ginger bug and a wort are all known as a ‘Mother’ and are SCOBYs too. It’s basically a liquid, a sponge or a gelatinous plug that’s alive with millions of bacteria. It’s a living organism that can be kept infinitely to repeatedly create that particular ferment.”
“I love my SCOBYs. My life is a constant flurry of feeding and caring for my Mothers.”
Narelle ‘wild ferments’ her kombucha – no SCOBY required – as she harnesses the wild yeasts in the air to bring the drinks to life. A wide variety of flavours can be achieved by utilising what’s grown in your garden too, creating blends from fruits, herbs and spices.
“My favourite flavour would be chai. I love a good chai tea and last summer I figured it would make a great fizzy drink too – now it’s my ‘go-to’ flavour. Anything with berries is pretty good too.”
The leap from mad kitchen scientist to a promising business was easy for Narelle, “Once I was confident in my fermenting skills, I began to sell them at market stalls and at my home farmgate…It took off quickly. Within a short few months, I was only producing fermented foods.
“I joined a local food cooperative and began selling online, then Covid struck and business boomed. My customer base increased by over 1000% within a week (yes 1000%!), and I’ve never looked back, expanding from a couple of flavours of kombucha to around 15 products including sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, hummus, Worcestershire sauce, ginger beer, mustards and relishes. I can pretty much work out how to ferment anything these days.
“I started doing workshops because I could see how disconnected people had become in regard to food, cooking and their bodies. [We forget] food is life.”
While leading these workshops, Narelle realised the volume of foraging and fermenting knowledge she could pass on, and being a writer since childhood, a book is being penned and should be out early next year.
That’s not to mention Narelle’s new video projects in the works, inspired after featuring on Khanh Ong’s Wild Food on SBS. But, if anyone’s going to have the energy and clarity to develop all these ideas, it’s Narelle, fuelled by the fabulous force of fermentation.