The fermentation and preservation of foods is an ancient practice that has made a swift resurgence into the modern food scene. In the heart of Toronto’s Kensington Market, Bryan Lavers and Tye Thomas opened their shop, Thomas Lavers Cannery and Delicatessen, with impeccable timing. It was December 2012 – just when the fermentation buzz was ramping up. “It just seems like around the time we opened, fermenting and preserving became a very on point restaurant and food culture thing, we lucked out,” says Thomas.
Lavers, the hands-on professional chef, and Thomas, the curious home cook, are long-time friends that have over 40 years of combined experience working in food and cooking. They opened the cannery to fill a void in the neighbourhood’s offerings. Despite the incredible variety of options available at Kensington Market, it did not include a brick-and-mortar quite like the Thomas Lavers Cannery and Delicatessen.
The window-nook (above), at the front of the shop, is home to the marble counter where their pasta is created daily. A light fixture, resembling a barn door trolley, hangs overhead – fitting in well with the rustic feel to the cannery. Thomas and Lavers offer delightful in-house creations such as fresh, hand-pulled pasta, kimchi jam, rhubarb-raisin relish, vegan sausages, and many naturally fermented or canned local vegetables. Some of the recipes have been passed down in Lavers’ family for generations.
Another standout Thomas Lavers creation is their ginger beer. The spicy, robust flavour is sure to be a hit with any ginger lover. A popular food writer, Peter Meehan, even called it the “world’s finest ginger beer.” Thirty-five establishments across Toronto offer it, including Canoe and The Black Hoof.
Thomas and Lavers are self-taught, expert food preservers and fermenters, who have done their research and learned through trial and error. Their go-to resource guide is The Art of Fermentation: An In-depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World by Sandor Ellix Katz.
Fermentation utilizes organisms to create an acidic environment that allows only good bacteria to grow. In contrast, canning involves applying high heat to foods and creating a vacuum seal to preserve them in a sterile environment, for a longer period. Pickling, often combined with fermentation or canning, is the process of soaking a food in vinegar. This is faster than waiting for bacteria to create an acidic environment like in fermentation. “The flavour of the acid in a naturally fermented product is much softer on your palette compared to a vinegar pickled product,” says Thomas.
Most young to middle-aged adults have grown up in a world focused on pasteurization and sterilization. Leaving food on the counter for days on end seems counterintuitive and somewhat worrisome. Lavers notes that, “people make [canning and fermenting] scarier than it is. You’re either dumping a bunch of vegetables into salt water and waiting for them to be ready, or you’re pouring hot vinegar over vegetables and they are ready – it’s really that simple and it’s very safe.”
Fermenting produce is something anyone can do without a lot of equipment. All one needs is a straight-sided container, water, salt, spices, a weight, and the food to be fermented. Ensure only pure salt is used, with no iodine or anti-caking agents. “The best thing to do is to go to any spice store and get pure sea salt,” says Lavers.
Wash the fermenting container well, but do not be too concerned with ensuring it is sterile. “Remember, you are creating an environment where bad bacteria can’t grow,” says Thomas. “If it’s crunchy and tasty you know you did it right, and if you did it wrong it will be something you do not want to put near your mouth,” says Lavers.
Crocks, traditionally used for fermenting, come with a stone that fits snuggly inside to keep the food submerged, but most straight-edged containers can work. Make a weight by filling a plastic bag with brining liquid and sealing out any air. As lactobacillus bacteria produce carbon dioxide during the fermentation process, an airtight seal is not desirable. “You will see the liquid start to form around the edge of the bag and then you know you have enough weight to keep everything down, but carbon dioxide can still burp out,” says Thomas.
Thomas and Lavers learned the hard way to use a plastic bag filled with their brining liquid and not just water. If the bag breaks during the fermentation process, the water dilutes the brine and can ruin the batch.
Generally, room temperature is okay for home fermentation, “you’re shooting for 60-70 degrees Fahrenheit,” says Thomas. Tuck your container away somewhere in your kitchen, topped with a towel or apron to let it breathe but prevent things from falling in.
Fermentation does take some patience (hence the note above). Cucumber pickles take about 14-23 days to make, while kimchi ferments for five days on the counter and then about two weeks in the fridge. Fermenting foods at a slightly higher temperature can speed up the process, but a slower ferment results in a crispier, more flavourful product.
For canning, Thomas and Lavers recommend not buying canning equipment or ingredients in the “canning section” of a store, as they will usually be more expensive. However, be sure to get a canning funnel and tongs. These inexpensive tools will make a canners life much easier and prevent possible burns.
The spices used most often by these guys are bay leaves, coriander, mustard seed, and black pepper corn. “Pink peppercorns are nice when canning white vegetables as they tint the vegetables pink,” says Lavers. Adding a grape leaf or using slightly more salt can result in a crispier product, but be careful not to add too much salt as this kills the good bacteria.
Fermentation and preservation allows for the enjoyment of the summer’s bounty all year long. Thomas and Lavers work tirelessly all summer to preserve the wonderful abundance of the season. They appreciate the traditional way of preserving foods. “At least once a week throughout the summer, Tye and I get up really early in the morning and go to the Ontario food terminal. We have a relationship with several farmers now. There is one guy we always buy our beets from and another we buy our blueberries from. It is nice to know who the person is that grew our vegetables – we get to see where our money is going,” says Thomas.
“I think [fermentation and preservation] tucks right in with local, sustainable, ethical, and organic – it’s a cultural swing, we want good food again,” says Lavers.
The fermentation and preservation of food is a simple and wonderful craft. The crunch of a tangy, pickled carrot or the sweetness of wild strawberry jam can keep vibrant memories of summer alive, even in the dead of winter. With a little practice and patience, anyone can learn to preserve food the traditional way.
- 10 lbs small beets, peeled and quartered in large bite size pieces
- 3.5 L basic pickling liquid (recipe below)
- 5 cinnamon sticks
- 1 tbsp allspice, whole
- 1 tsp cloves, whole
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil with a splash of vinegar and a pinch or two of salt and sugar
- Add prepared beets to boiling water and cook for 10 min
- Drain the beets and set aside
- Meanwhile, add the cinnamon, allspice and cloves to pickling liquid
- Bring the pickling liquid to a boil, remove from heat and let steep for 20 min
- Strain the spices from the pickling liquid
- Pack sterile canning jars with beets
- Pour the hot pickling liquid over the beets, leaving a ½ inch of headspace
- Ensuring the jar rims are clean and dry, seal jars with sterile lids, screwing on the rings until just snug
- Place jars in a boiling water bath so they are covered with 1 inch of water
- Boil for 10 min, remove jars with canning tongs and let cool to room temperature
- Test jars for a good seal, the lid should be sucked down and not move when pressed
- Refrigerate any jars that do not seal properly
Basic Pickling Liquid
- 1 L white vinegar
- 250 ml water
- 250 ml sugar
- 25 ml salt
Mix all four ingredients together and heat on the stovetop until salt and sugar dissolve
(Note: I conducted this interview and wrote this story when I lived in Toronto in 2015. Unfortunately, Thomas Lavers has now closed their brick and mortar to focus on making their unbeatable ginger beer. I wish them well and thank them for sharing their story with me.)